Wednesday April 22, 2009
I’ve just finished Douglas Hofstadter’s strange and very possibly loopy book I am a Strange Loop, which has got me thinking about selfhood. Hofstadter writes in his book that the “I” or the “self” is, in a very real sense, a hallucination. It is not just a hallucination, indeed, but is “a hallucination hallucinated by a hallucination.”
In the book Hofstadter develops an astonishing – but, I think, rather convincing – view of the self (or even of the “soul”): not as some kind of non-material or spiritual entity beamed down from God (remember Him?) knows where; but instead as something that arises out of the world, something that is fluctuating and changing yet nevertheless semi-stable, and something that is impossible to locate in a single place within the cranium, but that is smeared out across the world; in our own heads, certainly, but also in the heads of those who we know, of those whom we have encountered. My self, that is to say, is not so much a thing, as it is a mass of self-reflexive, loopy patternings. I can’t really do justice to Hofstadter’s deep and subtle arguments here, but the book is well worth reading and it has got me thinking about the seriousness with which we take our own existence.
Let us say, just for the sake of argument, that Hofstadter is right, that our precious selves or souls are hallucinations hallucinated by hallucinations, bootstrapping their way merrily into existence. What might this mean for all of our loves and passions and hopes and fears, these things that seem so important to us? Does it render these things unimportant? Does it mean that we should somehow do our best to do away with this hallucination? Well, not exactly. And for two reasons. Firstly, because this seems to be one hallucination that we are stuck with. And secondly, because it is a hallucination that may make ethics – you know: niceness, friendliness, those things that make this hallucinatory life of ours worth living – possible. There’s a nice line in the Mallika Sutta which reads, “Though in thought we range throughout the world, we’ll nowhere find a thing more dear than self,” and which goes on to say, in a piece of analogical thinking of which Hofstadter would no doubt approve, that “since others hold the self so dear, he who loves himself should injure none.”
Perhaps, then, we might conclude that the trick is not to try to jettison the idea of the self, but instead to not take ourselves so seriously. And yet this, too, doesn’t seem to ring true. Part of the strange loopiness of the hallucination of the self is that we cannot find a place to stand outside the self from which we can not take ourselves seriously. In Being and Time Heidegger talks about how we are beings for whom our own being is always an issue: taking ourselves seriously is simply a part of the deal. Can you imagine anybody taking themselves more seriously than the celebrity interviewee who claims that they “don’t like to take themselves too seriously”? And, besides, taking ourselves seriously – and, by extension, taking the selves of others seriously – may be another of those things that makes life worth living.
But if this ol’ self of mine is a hallucination hallucinated by a hallucination, then I’d like to go at least some way to acknowledging the fact. So let’s add a further loop, and say that perhaps it’s not a matter of doing away with the hallucination, nor is it a matter of not taking the hallucination seriously (both of which, I suspect, are neither desirable, nor perhaps possible), but it instead a matter of not taking quite so seriously the inevitable seriousness with which we go about our existence. Call it a kind of second-order irony, if you like.
How might this work? Let us say that you are waiting for the train, and the train is an hour late. You find that you are becoming restless and grumpy, to the extent that you are snarling at the other passengers. Then you think, “Hey, I’m a hallucination hallucinating a hallucination! Why so grumpy?” And with this bracing thought, you prepare to jettison the hallucination altogether. Here, however, you come up against a brick wall. Hallucination or not, you are still there pacing up and down, and the train is still ten minutes late. There’s nowhere, outside of the hallucination to go. You’re stuck with it.
So, instead, you try first-order irony. “Ach,” you say, “I take my life so seriously, but it’s only a hallucination. Why the seriousness? Why the glum face? Why don’t I just laugh a soft laugh (tinged, perhaps, with a poetic hint of melancholy), and stop worrying?” But this doesn’t seem to work either, because you find that you are either getting deeply serious about the fact that the train is late, or you are getting deeply serious about something else – perhaps about whether your soft, ironic laugh is tinged with precisely the right amount of melancholy, or about how great you are because you are not taking things seriously at all (are you?), whilst the other passengers are huffing and puffing. You are stuck not only with the whole hallucinatory shebang, but also with the fact that you are deadly serious about it, and can’t for the life of you find a way to undo this seriousness.
Along comes second-order irony and says “Ach and double ach: here I am, confused wee mammal that I am, getting steamed up about trains and lateness and my precious self. How quaintly earnest I am, that all of this should matter so much to me! How curious and wonderful it is to be tangled up in an existence so loopy and so strange.” And in this second-order irony, I think – if we give up all aspirations to break out of the endless looping circles of the hallucination, if we recognise that our lives matter to us and cannot but matter (and that the lives of others matter in the same way, and cannot but matter) – there might be a little relief from the frustration at the lateness of the train, a way of soothing our tendency to snarl at our fellow passengers, and a little more room for creativity, for pleasure and even for joy, here within the heart of a hallucination that has never mattered more.
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