The Book of I: An Illustrious Collection of Self Reflections
Editor Joan Konner
Many years ago, a good friend of mine at NBC News was fired from a job that he loved and had done well for more than ten years. He was a good writer and an attractive and intelligent presence on the air, assigned to reviewing theater in New York. He became a voice in the theater world, which didn't go to his head but did go to his heart. He and the job were becoming to each other, "becoming" in the sense of enhancing. He elevated drama through the lens of his language and perception. The beat of Broadway, and the concentric circles that surround it, enlivened his work in television and his life.
I expected him to express his pain at becoming yet another casualty of an inequitable and irrational business. (In the media world, even if you get an A, you do not go to the head of the class.) I had long observed that many people working in television were drawn to the lights, and if the lights went out, especially the red light of the live camera, many would cease to exist, at least in their own eyes. My friend still had a writing job, though not his handcrafted identity. Rather than being in the limelight, he had rejoined the writer's assembly line.
At our next lunch, I asked, "How do you feel?"
He said he was fine, and, with certainty, added: "I know who I am."
In my lifetime, I have rarely heard others make such an absolute declaration of self and self-knowledge, although there are many who behave as if they could. I, however, have no such clarity. I do not know, in fact, what those words mean: "I know who I am!"
As long as I have been aware, "who I am" has been a quest. The answer is elusive. Or should I say, answers? They change over time, sometimes years, sometimes day-to-day. I am female, a clear and certain aspect of my identity. Are men and women different, I wonder? In addition, I was once a daughter and a sister, now no longer. I am still a woman, an older woman. Older is different from old. I have been a wife—twice; a mother—of two and then, tragically, one. My younger daughter was forty-nine when she died of cancer. There is no word like "widow" for the mother whose maternal tree is struck by lightning and whose life is reshaped by the loss of a limb. I am a grandmother. I am also, or have been, a friend, writer, reporter, columnist, producer, radio and television executive, colleague, and dean and tenured professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Tenure in academia is a facet of identity.
I am at one with myself when I sleep and, sometimes, when I write. I have had roles and jobs in which I felt that I was an actor in the play of life; most times a walk on; years as a minor character; sometimes the lead; now, on occasion, a cameo appearance with a recognizable but obsolete image. Some roles felt more natural than others. Sometimes I couldn't wait to get on stage, and sometimes I couldn't wait to get off. When I am asked to introduce myself at those meetings where you pin your name in plastic on your chest, I must decide who I should appear to be. Of course, I fit the picture to the frame, but I never feel it is even a close likeness. My self, if anything, is like an inner bead of mercury, unstable, rolling around without boundaries.
I once wrote a Popeian poem:
There are an infinite number
I had it embroidered on a pillow for a friend, but once it was set in needlepoint, I was troubled by it. Should it be: "There is an infinite number of possible yous"? Should "yous" have an apostrophe? Are you "the one you choose" or are you "the one that chooses you?"
Of possible you;
And the one you are
Is the one you choose.
I am self-doubt. That's who I am. Not all of the time. Besides, who is this "I?" Is there a True Me, a True Magnetic North, called Me? How can I know it, in the way my friend who was fired knew it and so many others who behave as if they do? I would suffer a life-changing wound if violently severed from a role so connected with my sense of self, like a painter who goes blind. Like a mother whose child dies.
The subject of the self should need no introduction. You are who you are, someone you've known all your life, someone you can't hide from, your adhesive inescapable you. But not so fast! If you stop to read everything, and still have time to think about what you've read, you will find that most of what is written deals with the self and its other names: identity, ego/id, role, persona. Writing is self-expression. Everything manifest is produced through the lens of self, even if we are uncertain as to what the self is. The manifestation is often taken for the self, though there are infinite identities within, still unrealized. One thing we do know: The self is a question. Indeed, the self may be the central question with a perennial bloom of answers—in history, literature, art, religion, even in science: The observer changes the observed.
Who am I? Who has not asked him- or herself that question? Am I one or many? Am I solitary or social? Am I kind or cruel? Civilized or feral? Physical or psychological? Visible or invisible?
Is the self mind or matter? Existent or nonexistent? Blind or seeing? Knowing or dumb?
Am I an animal wrapped in a thin skin of transparent consciousness? Or am I consciousness shrink-wrapped in a body wrapped in experience? Am I a part of all I have met? Do we exist as part of those who have met us?
We see our self only in mirrors. Is an image a fact or fiction? Are words reality or signs that are symbols of reality? Writing is a shot in the dark that hits or misses something inside, something we call a thought or feeling. Does the mirror, the writing, mimic us, or do we imitate the mirror? Don't we try to turn the expressed perception into the reality of a lived life? In other words: Is a self fact or fiction? An idea? An Ideal? Does the self have a locus in the inner map of the individual?
The self is far from self-evident. Though turgid treatises and luminous masterpieces have been written about the self, we can no more know our self than we can see our own face. What the libraries teach us is that the human being seems to be heliotropic, in which the hello is the self. Throughout history, sages have groped along the walls of the inner cave for a ray of consciousness pointing us to true self-knowledge.
From earliest times, we are directed:
"Know Thyself" from the Oracle at Delphi.
Socrates said: "The unexamined life is not worth living."
Descartes said: "I think, therefore I am."
Buddha and David Hume proposed that there is no essential core self.
The Book of I stops short at the gate of the academic and philosophical search. It halts before imagined planes of a soul or a divine self within. It is not a taxonomy of the Idea of self. It is not an analysis of theories of self. It is not an autopsy of the history of the concept of self. The collection speaks of and to the practical self. It is a selective exhibit of shards excavated from the written history of human thought, a bouquet of pithy, illuminating, funny, profound, and often elegant writing. One definition of self is the "mundane level of embodied individuals in ordinary life," as the scholar, Richard Sorabji, described it in his book called Self. This collection is a guide to the common sense self, the one whom others recognize when they greet you.
In this book I am reporting a story, the story of an essential Idea, the idea of the self, through time. Sound bites from history, the written word on perennial themes, in documentary form, invite insightful and illuminating, musing and amusing contributors to this collage—philosophers and poets, scientists and mystics, artists, authors, and others—to engage, to reinforce, to do battle on an other's perception, making connections they could not have effected in their own lifetimes.
To create this four-dimensional collective portrait of self, I use the conventional, familiar construct of a news story: Who? What? When? Where? Why?, plus other questions not usually included in the journalistic catechism. The search for identity, occurring in the context of a contemporary ethos of rugged individualism, collectively carried to extreme, even unto selfishness, is an obsession in our time. The Book of I is designed to report the story and history of the self and to provide recognition, reassurance and, I hope, a smile.
In this curated collection of self-reflections, writers, and thinkers—including Jean-Paul Sartre, William Shakespeare, Carl Jung, Rumi, Rainer Maria Rilke, Emily Dickinson, Fernando Pessoa, Anaüs Nin, Søren Kierkegaard, Samuel Beckett, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, along with popular icons like Barack Obama, Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Cary Grant, and more—light the way to greater self-knowledge. Reading their words is like inhabiting a gallery of self-portraits, or as Samuel Coleridge wrote: "seeing beautiful Constellations…worlds within worlds."
The Book of I can help point the way to the True You, whoever you may be. In its many expressions, you may find some image, quality, or thought quite like your own.
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