Monday, June 11, 2007

The psychology of self - who are we, really? (Books: Dickens Bleak House)

Jonah Lehrer over at The Frontal Cortex tells us that Proust was a Neuroscientist, or he will when his book comes out in November, so how about Dickens, was he a neuroscientist too? I would say no, however he might qualify as a psychologist. Bleak House plumbs the notion of identity in a way I'm finding most satisfying. Secrets of identity - who a character actually is, their parentage, and disguising identity - are nothing new to 18th or 19th century literature, and the central character of Bleak House, Esther Summerson, wrestles first with her origins - where she actually comes from - and then with a change in her appearance, which while it doesn't have to define character, does influence it.

I'm struck by the way we create character through narrative, not just in books but in our lives. We are characters in our own stories as well as the stories of others. The Science Times had a piece on narrative and self a few weeks ago. The notion that we construct and envision ourselves through narrative (which is a useful concept), and that the brain has an affinity for narrative (which they do not sufficiently explain the scientific support for, if any exists). The article was not entirely satisfying on the science but introduced the concept well. We narrate ourselves to ourselves and to others as well. I think of people I know whose stories repeatedly stress how much harder their lives are than everyone else's, (creating the character of the poor victim), stories of how busy they are (creating the martyr). The more they tell these stories, the more true they become. There is a literal narrative created by what we say about ourselves. We reinforce that narrative each time we tell it, we can change that narrative, recasting ourselves, changing perspective like a cinematographer might changes the angle of a shot or the photographer the lens. Some psycho therapeutic are about just such processes of recreating narratives, as the Times article discusses. We learn who we are and about the central experiences of life through narrative. We learn what love is - hearing the story of the loved child, being cast as a character in that story. Later we struggle to create our own sense of character and are sometimes told stories of ourselves we don't recognize. Narratives can also be less literal. One action doesn't form identity or character, but a string of actions when linked are narrative. And the actors process of creating characters is not unlike our own process, although it's often more mindful. As an acting teacher I always felt character is not what you say, nor what you think of your character, which is an endless focus of discussions in class and rehearsal - but rather what you do. You can say what you want about a character and my suggestion would then be to write a book about it, but the audience at a performance experiences only what you do. Not just those things you think you should do, but rather all the things you do, whether at that moment you think of yourself as 'character' or as 'artist.'

The Times article quotes Joan Didion on her experience of the dichotomy of who she thought she was and who others saw, in her ruthless look at herself The Year of Magical Thinking. Esther in Bleak House must face a similar duality when she, in a single chapter (no spoiler here, I'll hold back the plot details), both finds out where she has come from (which we know earlier) and finds her appearance greatly changed from what it had been. It's an amazing juxtaposition of two key elements of identity - who you think you are and what others see, and yet it is still not completely defining. One's identity is something more, there is a core that supersedes those elements. Esther demonstrates her confident knowledge of that core and, as such, that thing we call 'character.' I'd often thought of that word as dated, but here I see it as meaning 'a certainty of who you are,' and this story's theme of identity make it feel quite contemporary.


nonizamboni said...

A fascinating view of narrative and self. [I've printed this out to take with me at coffee tomorrow to give more time to your words.] I especially related to how what we say about ourselves results in one identity that builds on itself, not necessarily complete. The core/character is rich with possibilities and you've given me inspiration to read Bleak House this summer as it calls to me on the shelf, nearly daily. Just wasn't sure I could do it.
Anyway, thanks!

Ted said...

Thanks for reading and for your comments on connections of self and narrative - an obsession of mine - I'm glad it piqued your interest and that you're tempted to pick up the book. I enjoyed reading your post on RFK and congratulate Erica too on her accomplishments - how very exciting!