What do we see when we look at ourselves?
An episode of the popular NPR podcast Invisibilia begins with the story of a woman named Karen Byrne who, suffering from severe epilepsy, underwent an operation that cut through her corpus callosum, the band of tissue that connects the two hemispheres of the human brain. Afterward, she discovered that her left hand seemed to act on its own—and at times seemed to be angry with her, frustrated by her decisions. From the show’s transcript:
ALIX SPIEGEL: And at first, Karen couldn’t make sense of what that half was about, why it was getting so angry. But as time went on, she saw a distinct pattern and came up with a theory of what that part of her self wanted. Now, this is not science, just how Karen sees it. She says she thinks her hand wants her to be more moral.
It is simply not the case that when you subtract religious accounts of the world from our common culture, secularity is the inevitable remainder.
BYRNE: It’s trying to make me a better person.
Her hand tried to teach her “not to smoke and not to curse and being nicer to others. . . . When I go to light a cigarette, the hand will either put the cigarette out or flick the ashes around.”
SPIEGEL: Karen hadn’t realized how deeply those cultural messages had penetrated. And she wasn’t that happy about it, either.
BYRNE: Oh, it’s such a pain in the rear end, it really is. I understand you want me to quit, but cut the crap (laughter).
And all this leads directly to the show’s self-description: “INVISIBILIA is a show about all the invisible forces that shape human behavior—our thoughts, our emotions, our beliefs. And today, we have another episode in our concept album. We’re calling this show The Culture Inside. It’s about the concepts we absorb from our culture, how they affect us and the people around us.”
After exploring Karen Byrne’s curious experiences, that episode of Invisibilia went on to tell the story of a steadfastly liberal white man named Frank who grew up in Berkeley, California, when American public schools were being desegregated through busing, and who ended up enjoying his multiracial high school. “This experience left Frank with the strong belief that racially we were moving forward in this country and he was part of that movement forward.” But then Frank catches himself in a moment of implicit bias against a black person, and is deeply grieved by the realization that such a response is a part of him too. And so, the narration continues, “All of us have ideas in our head implanted by our culture, concepts big and small, the idea that a solo black man walking down the street at night might be a threat to a white woman.” Those insidious cultural messages at work again. Culture is something outside me that my sovereign self, ideally, can manage—it’s a matter of gatekeeping, access control.
The really interesting and important point here is this: It never occurs to anyone associated with the podcast that smoking is as much a “cultural norm” as disapproval of smoking, or that a commitment to multiculturalism and anti-racism emerges from “cultural messages” just as surely as does racism. And the really interesting and important question that follows is: Why not? How is it possible that a point so blindingly obvious could utterly escape the notice of people making a podcast about “the invisible forces that shape human behavior”?
The answer, it seems to me, is the presence of what Charles Taylor calls a “subtraction story.” In his massive account of the rise of secularity in the West, A Secular Age, Taylor demonstrates the inadequacy of such stories to explain the attitude toward religion that is common today, especially among our educated elites. It is simply not the case that when you subtract religious accounts of the world from our common culture, secularity is the inevitable remainder: rather, secularity is an achievement, an ordered set of intellectual possibilities that was carefully constructed over several centuries. Yet the subtraction story is what many atheists naively and unreflectingly believe in.
By precisely the same logic, the makers of Invisibilia clearly believe—though probably not consciously—that if it were possible to subtract the “cultural messages” that teach us racism then we would automatically and naturally be tolerant, open-hearted, and anti-racist. They are therefore disciples of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose single leading idea through his convoluted career was that we are born morally pure but are corrupted by our encounters with society.
However, Rousseau’s view is not the only one on offer to us today. Staying within the orbit of recent popular culture, let’s look at a very different model of selfhood and identity: Pixar’s 2015 film Inside Out, which tells the story of a young girl named Riley whose life is upended when her parents decide to move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Her confusions and frustrations are revealed to us not through dialogue, or even internal monologue, but through a close look at the inner workings of Riley’s mind, ordinarily invisible to her and to everyone else, and portrayed here with an imaginative wit remarkable even for the gifted people at Pixar.
We encounter Riley’s inner turmoil chiefly through the occupants of Headquarters: the five primal emotions of Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. But from the windows of Headquarters we can see a series of fantastically complex edifices constructed from “core memories”: these are the “Islands of Personality,” and Joy—giving us a guided tour—tells us that they “are what make Riley . . . Riley.” Yet these islands all intimately involve Riley’s experiences with other people: her parents (Family Island), her friends (Friendship Island), her favourite activity (Hockey Island). Her core emotions are hers alone, but her identity is always shaped in relation to others—they are essential to her formation, not mere external provocations.
At an especially dark time for Riley, some of these islands collapse, and, in one of the many remarkable narrative moves in this remarkable movie, such collapse never has a single cause: the actions of other people are certainly involved, and simple circumstance as well. At the heart of the story is a series of conflicts and negotiations among the emotions, especially Joy and Sadness, but all five of them are constantly responding to stimuli from outside. It is a richly dynamic model of the inner life as a contested world: Riley does not have a unified self that can be defined over against the rest of the cosmos, but rather is troubled by all kinds of inner division.
And yet for all this richness, something is missing. Several reviewers of Inside Out have commented that it lacks a villain, or even an antagonist. Bad things happen to Riley, but not because she has enemies; rather, a combination of altered circumstances and, perhaps, imperfect family communication have disrupted what had been a pretty settled life. Riley loses her temper once or twice, as does her father, but no one in the story wishes anyone ill or is clearly bad. The film’s psychological richness comes at the price of a complete inattentiveness to the moral life. It is in that sense the opposite of the view endorsed in the episode of Invisibilia I cited, which acknowledges moral challenges but only within the context of an unsustainably simplistic distinction between Inside and Outside the person.
Something is being evaded here; something is being forgotten. We can draw nearer to grasping what it is by turning away from the products of popular culture and toward one of our more usefully provocative thinkers: Friedrich Nietzsche. In his great essay “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” Nietzsche explores the debts we owe to a very important set of others: the past (which could also include our parents, even when, like Riley’s, they’re still around).
Sometimes, however, this same life that requires forgetting demands a temporary suspension of this forgetfulness; it wants to be clear as to how unjust the existence of any thing—a privilege, a caste, a dynasty, for example—is, and how greatly this thing deserves to perish. Then its past is regarded critically, then one takes the knife to its roots, then one cruelly tramples over every kind of piety.
We take the knife and cut, yes, trying desperately to end the connection between ourselves and these established social forces; but, Nietzsche continues, “if we condemn these aberrations and regard ourselves as free of them, this does not alter the fact that we originate in them.” So we try to “implant in ourselves a new habit, a new instinct, a second nature, so that our first nature withers away.” We try to make a new self through telling ourselves a new story about the past, in “an attempt to give oneself, as it were a posteriori, a past in which one would like to originate in opposition to that in which one did originate.” It’s not an ideal strategy. Nietzsche suggests, though he does not explain, that there may be a “limit to denial of the past”; moreover, he warns, “second natures are usually weaker than first.”
But even given this acknowledgment of danger, Nietzsche is forgetful too. What he forgets is that the flaws in our pasts—our familial, and cultural, and political pasts—are not the only ones we must reckon with. Some flaws are ours and ours alone.
We will, it seems, do almost anything, construct almost any story, to avoid the recognition that something is deeply wrong with all of us.
Yuval Harari, the Israeli professor and popular writer, recently described what happened when he took his Pokémon Go–loving nephew to hunt Pokémon and saw that several children “got into a bit of a fight because they were trying to capture the same invisible creatures.”
And then it hit me: This is just like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict! You have two sides fighting over something that I cannot see. I look at the stones of buildings in Jerusalem and I just see stones. But Christians, Jews, and Muslims who look at the same stones see a holy city. It’s their imagination, but they are willing to kill for it.
This is quite a revelation: Just stones! No history, no labour, no culture, no generations of living people. Just stones. Everything is so simple now that Harari has punctured our ideological balloon. A city in which people have lived for thousands and thousands of years, and then some digital Pokémon: what’s the difference, really? Only stones. Only pixels.
Harari is a practitioner of Onlyism, which he seems to think is a new religion but in fact is rather venerable, going back at least as far as some of the less sophisticated Epicureans. A twentieth-century devotee was the young Joy Davidman, who wrote in a letter, “In 1929 I believed in nothing but American prosperity; in 1930 I believed in nothing.”
Men, I said, are only apes. Virtue is only custom. Life is only an electrochemical reaction. Love, art, and altruism are only sex. The universe is only matter. Matter is only energy. I forget what I said energy is only.
Similarly, Harari thinks that contemporary neuroscience—and Pixar!—has disproved the existence of the self: “There is no true self,” he informs us. “There is just a complicated connection of biochemical connections, without a core. There is no authentic voice that lives inside you.” And just as Pokémon Go taught him that Jerusalem is just a bunch of rocks, so Pixar is his teacher in selfhood, or the absence thereof:
Have you seen Inside Out? For me this was the tipping point in popular culture’s understanding of the mind. For decades Disney sold us the liberal individualistic fantasy: Don’t listen to your neighbors or government, just follow your own heart. But then in Inside Out, you go inside this little girl Riley, and you don’t encounter a self or a core identity. What the movie shows to children and their parents is that Riley is a robot being manipulated by chemical processes inside her brain.
I’m pretty sure the notion that Inside Out “shows” that people are robots would occur only to an Onlyist.
Now, I don't want to take Harari too seriously here. He is a huckster in the Jonah Lehrer mode, a P.T. Barnum of the book trade, and the “robot” line is clearly meant to rattle the cages of the trousered apes whose money he hopes to snatch. (He borrowed it from another idea hustler, though a considerably more intelligent one, Richard Dawkins, who in The Selfish Gene wrote, “We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”) But it might be worth taking a moment to consider a couple of important points that Harari seems not to be aware of.
Note the concepts that he treats as synonyms: “true self,” “core,” “authentic voice.” It may well be that there is a modern, popular, Disneyfied, largely American model of selfhood for which this is true. But to critique that and then claim to have demolished the very notion of the self is just silly.
For there are older, more rigorous, more deeply engaged models of selfhood which strenuously deny that selves are unified and authentic—that see the human self as real but constituted by its divisions.
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. . . .
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
For St. Paul there are indeed selves, but they are never simply unitary, they have no obvious “core,” their territories are always and strongly contested.
This essay has been, I hope it is now clear, a series of stories of evasion. Human beings wish to believe in a pure and good inner self led astray by “cultural forces”; or a conflicted self that is concerned not with righteousness but only with happiness and unhappiness; or a self afflicted by and seeking to throw off the burden of a flawed and inadequate past; or no self at all. We will, it seems, do almost anything, construct almost any story, to avoid the recognition that something is deeply wrong with all of us, that whatever it is causes us to do what is wrong, and that we cannot plausibly blame that wrongdoing wholly on external forces.
Such evasion is understandable. When, in the late 1930s, Rebecca West visited the small Yugoslavian town of Struga, where she came on a curious little “biological museum” that contained, among other things, a stuffed two-headed calf in a glass case: “Of the two heads which branched like candelabra one was lovely, but one was hideous, like that other seen in a distorting glass.” The museum’s custodian told West and her husband that the calf “should be alive today had it not been for its nature”—a puzzling statement. Its “nature”? Yes, said the custodian: when milk was fed to the calf through its beautiful head, its ugly head spat the milk out, so it received no nourishment, and soon died.
This account prompted West to reflection: “To have two heads, one that looks to the right and another that looks to the left, on that is carved by grace and another that is not, the one that wishes to live and the other that does not; this was an experience not wholly unknown to human beings.” And the book in which she tells this story, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, an enormous account of the history of Yugoslavia told at the very moment when Europe was falling into a second catastrophic war in twenty years, is suffused with West’s pain at this divided condition.
I wrote about West at some length in my book Original Sin, and in the years since I have come to believe ever more strongly in what I noted at the time: that West’s position, a Pauline anthropology decoupled from Paul’s belief in a Redeemer, is one of the most wretched I can imagine. To see so clearly our two-headedness, our ultimate and irreconcilable dividedness, but to imagine no means of healing—that is a dark place to be.
Which, then, explains the stories of evasion I have been recounting. We will tell ourselves almost any tale—we will look at Jerusalem and claim to see only stones; we will describe all our sins and crimes from the outside in—rather than confront the darkness of our nature. Surely when we see such corruption we are merely the victims of a “distorting glass.” Because, if what we see in that glass is true, then we can have only one cry: “Who will deliver me from this body of death?”