I used to imagine Montaigne sitting in his study and saying
“I’d like it if I could sit down one day and have
an I-to-I with me and me and me.”
–Jay V. R.
Having an I-to-I
‘He’ is for persons in English, he used to say. All things are referred to singularly by the subject pronoun ‘it,’ or in the objective case, ‘it,’ he would add. Herein please find the text in transcription of a talk he had with some friends one evening over a few bottles of Vacqueyras at Jule’s on Saint Mark’s Place sometime at the close of the previous millennium. The talk was recorded as one friend had with him an old fashioned tape recorder that are making their way back among us as a nostalgia item–I saw one in Urban Outfitters in Cambridge just last month.
The bottle comes. The glasses are poured . . .
“Who is for persons, what is for things, we know,” he said. “This is true except in languages that have masculine and feminine gender for the things they name,” he said. “In these languages we know that tables are she, for example: la tavola in Italian, lei; and that surrealism is he, for example le surrealisme in French, il. The same analogies can be drawn for any of the other Romance languages as it can be drawn for Slavic languages, too, where speakers of Polish or Russian or Ukrainian know that things can be he or she,” he said. “There is no problem created in Italian by referring to a table as she. My wife sometimes uses ‘everybody’ for ‘everything.’ These languages know the nature of gender in a way different from how we do in English. Nonetheless, all things in English are it. He and she are used only in reference to male and female beings, human or otherwise,” he said. “So then, how does this help me to understand the nature of what humanity is, my humanity, your humanity, his or her humanity? Questions, again, as a friend of mine has said time and again, yes, questions beget questions. Does it help to delineate this way? Does it hinder? To understand the nature of he, she and it in this unique, yet fundamental way would mean what to a person trying to grapple with the significance of how we should refer to our humanity, to what that humanity should be, words are never the things in themselves they are meant to sign for . . . if humanity is an it, then what is it?” He asked. He sipped his wine.
“If the appropriate reference for humanity would be who and not what, then who is this humanity? is the question. To be human or not to be human is everyone’s most important question. Do not forget, I have ben taught, that human is a choice. We are not completely this unless we choose to be human. Doesn’t this inquiry point to, I am sure you know, the question, who are we? And this question can be asked simply enough, Who am I?” he asked emphatically.
He paused. He sipped his wine in a larger gulp. Sometimes he likes a fuller mouthful.
“Yes,” he continued, after another yet smaller sip, “the question is who and not what, yet most of us are more concerned for what we are than who we are–who getting buried by so many layers of what, what and more whats we couldn’t find ourselves if we spent time digging and digging until the tolling of the bell at our last doom,” he said, as he had the habit of doing, using, as he used to say, hyperbole for the right effect, believing that overstatement and understatement were equally valuable in expressing what one wanted to say alongside correctly weighed words suited to action as the action was suited to the word. “Who am I? is the question; the answer is I am me, of course. I am who I am when I am wherever I am with whomever I am. I could pose this as a question, but I will not, not herein at present.”
He paused. He sipped his wine. He poured more around, filling only halfway each of the three glasses on the table. Only barbarians fill a glass to the top with wine. Beer should be virtually to the top, I remember him having said.
“What could that mean for me now, to say as I have said, that I am who I am or that I am that I am, echoing God. We do echo God, don’t we? His voice in our skulls, as it were, or as we could say.”
He ordered another bottle of Vacqueyras. he loved southern Rhone reds.
“But here, at this moment, I do not know what it means to say I am that I am unless it is to mimic God, our imaginations handle what we think is God-like very well. We have all manner of constructions to build a new God in the image of ourselves, myself is the prototype for God, no?” He asked.
The bottle came. He was shown the bottle. He nodded. It was opened. It was poured. The waitress was French, he thought, so she should not have to be told that the glasses are only filled halfway. He still raised his hand in a moderate gesture to signal that the glasses should not be filled to the brim.
“All the world’s a stage, for sure,” he said, sipping his wine, after, of course, the waitress had allowed him to taste the wine, which he did, which he always did. “I am with Will about the world–all of us, each one of us playing many parts, not just the parts that go on through the stages (no pun intended) of a life . . . and then, that means . . .” he fades. He pauses. He continues after a sip of his wine from the latest bottle of Vacqueyras. “Who is the same person with his wife that he is with his best friend or his mother, the same with his mother today he was with his mother when he was a boy, the same when he was a boy that he was when he became a teenager, the same with his mother he is with a stranger, the same with that stranger at that moment where that he is with another in another place at another time, or with yet other strangers he is with his son tagging along or with his best friends or with his colleagues from work, or the same with any of these persons in any of these contexts he is in a strange city alone, or in another country apart from those he travelled with, the same as he is in his mind or in the mirror–how many are you in the mirror–I am I, I know; I am he, for sure; but I am also often you–no?” He asked.
He paused. Who is for persons . . . was the topic. It was mine. I wrote that. I was pleased when it was chosen. You should understand this. I know he did; I do; therefore, so should you, as would any other . . .
“You are, I am, he is, in the mirror. Who am I in my fantasies? Who do I become when I talk to myself about my problems, or to others in my head about my problems? Who was I when I prayed? Who am I when I talk to the dead–and I do talk to the dead? The world is a stage–and my mind is the world, the universe. I am not a solipsist, though. You can handle this. You can figure this out. I do not have to spell things out for you; I do not have to draw you pictures–although you probably have some already fleshed out, images fleshed out means what to the one who shows? To the one who has been shown? Who have I been as friend, as lover, as son, as student, as colleague, as stranger–I have been many things based on many variables in an equation incalculable?” He asked. He does ask a lot of questions. He had a professor that used to say that a question the way he questioned when he would raise questions in his essays, had no place in a philosophical essay. Without putting into words what it was he imagined, what he thought,what he believed for writing philosophy—and that was that it was okay to ask the way he would ask in fiction, short or long fiction—he believed it must also be okay for them to appear in philosophical essays, the questions he would raise, or how he would raise them, because it was a matter of understanding without having framed the idea that philosophical essays were fictions of a kind. So, if questions asked the way he would ask them were appropriate for short fiction, then they were also appropriate for philosophical essays. Philosophical essays were essays, themselves like all essays, in form, we could say some things similar or generically about them all; one thing being that they could be either fictional or non-fictional, the way we mean either of these when we say a biography is non-fiction and a novel is fiction, although either one may be told in a manner nearly identical to the other. And so every essay could be a fictional essay, that is, an essay as an essay is when it is an essay not exactly a short story as we traditionally understand the short story as part of a generically defined category of writing or telling—essays are either fictional or non-fictional. What is it that we could say? An essay is easily another form for fiction. Fiction and non-fiction–we do have non-fictional stories, no. Didn’t Gibbon learn from Fielding? He asked.
He paused. This is how it was done, but why it was done this way is interesting to note. We had decided that he was going to talk about a topic we had randomly selected–that he randomly selected by picking a piece of paper out of a hat, yes a hat; pieces of paper that each of us had written a topic for discussion on. We were going to sit at the table and he was going to extemporize on the subject, and we would record it, not shutting it off for the time of the talk which was to be concluded, with a real conclusion long before the end of the tape we were using; we had forty five minutes on one side. The interactions with the surrounding were to be recorded too, only not transcribed in the text.
“But then this what I am becomes central for so many others around me with me against me for me at me that I need to consider what it is I am in the eyes of others,” he said. “I know my wife considers this past when she should. I can’t as she does, or as others do. There is a point or a place when or where I no longer consider what others think about me. Whatever they do think about me is their problem. Not giving a fuck was a plus in the eyes of many I grew up with–it is nothing but the most central attitude for any advancement anywhere, it seems–at least advancing through the lower levels of the pettiest authority, which is why most managers and administrators are–maybe I should have said something else, but how could I have said anything else other than what I have thought having had the experiences I have had with those I have been in conflict with, those going along to get along to get their moderate advance through a system that rectumizes you.”
He pauses. He sips. He pauses. He looks about. He turns to consider the bistro as it is laid out behind him. “You do have to learn how to get along with something shoved up your ass it seems everyone has been telling me for a very long time–no one lives without someone shoving something up your ass; and most of what you have to say or do to achieve this success you desire has nothing to do with your true self or your original self or your integrity, not really.”
He does not have faith in a government of the people by the people and for the people so long as the people abdicate their responsibility to freedom and remain a docile and State-serving Public in place of Populus, in place of We the People.
“Yet, there is enough of it that does and that is where many lose sight of who they are for what they are,” he continues from where he left off above, here. “Who I am is a tree in a forrest of what I am, of what I have become,” he said. “Acting is imperative–knowing how and when and with whom for whom is important to learn,” he said.
He paused. He sipped. He looked around again. He caught the waitresses eye and asked for menus. he wanted to start ordering food.
“I am we is something I have already concluded. I am many; we are legion in the world and within. Inside me is a world of many selves. I wear masks in the world and I wear them on the selves inside. To know who I am, I have to get behind the masks, but most importantly, the mask inside me. There is no singular person who reveals itself himself to me. I don’t know who I am or even what I am, ultimately–the what I am is also anything but singular,” he said. He gazed at the menu as he talked. “I guess I must come to say that I am who I am which says that I am me,” he said. “I am me whoever I am at anytime I am anything I am with whomever I change what I am or become at any time anywhere for whatever reason or unreason,” he said. “If I were to wake up with amnesia tomorrow, I would still be me, whatever that is at the time it is,” he said. :There is really no such thing as not being one’s self,” he said. “There are exceptions to this–but even in how I am legitimately not myself I am not myself in only the way I could not be me,” he said. “Do I have to describe me for you to know I have remained the same?” He asked. “I can’t just tell you,” he said. “Do have to show you?” He asked.
He wanted duck. He was going to get the Magret.