The Contingency of Selfhood

Richard Rorty

As I was starting to write this I came across a poem by Philip Larkin, the last part of which reads:

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is as clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
To exist.

And what’s the profit? Only that, in time
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.

This poem is about the fear of dying, of extinction, to which Larkin confessed in interviews. But ‘fear of extinction’ is an unhelpful phrase, and needs unpacking. There is no such thing as fear of inexistence as such, but only fear of some concrete loss. It is not enough to say that poets, like everybody else, fear death, or that they fear nothingness. ‘Death’ and ‘nothingness’ are equally resounding, equally empty terms. To say one fears either is as unhelpful as Epicurus’s attempt to say why one should not fear them. Epicurus said, ‘When I am, death is not, and when death is, I am not,’ thus exchanging one vacuity for another. For the word ‘I’ is quite as hollow as the word ‘death’. To unpack such words one has to fill in the details about the ‘I’ in question, specify precisely what it is that will not be.

Larkin’s poem suggests a way of unpacking what Larkin feared. What he fears will be extinguished is his idiosyncratic lading-list, his individual sense of what was possible and important. That is what made his ‘I’ different from all the other ‘I’s’. To lose that difference is, I take it, what any poet – any maker, anyone who hoped to create something – fears. Anyone who spends his life trying to formulate an answer to the question of what is possible and important fears the extinction of that answer. But this does not mean simply that one fears that one’s poems may not be read. For that fear blends into the fear that, even if they are read, nobody will find anything distinctive in them. The words that were marshalled to one’s command may seem merely stock items, rearranged in routine ways. One will not have impressed one’s mark on the language, but rather have spent one’s life shoving about already-coined pieces. So one will not really have had an ‘I’ at all. One’s poems, and one’s self, will just be better or worse instances of familiar types. This is what Harold Bloom calls ‘the strong poet’s anxiety of influence’, his or her ‘horror of finding oneself to be only a copy or a replica’.

On this reading of Larkin’s poem, what would it be to have succeeded in tracing home the ‘blind impress’ which all one’s ‘behavings bear’? Presumably it would be to have figured out what was distinctive about oneself – the difference between one’s own lading-list and other people’s. If one could get this recognition down on paper – if one could find distinctive words for one’s own distinctiveness – then one would have demonstrated that one was not a copy or a replica. One would have been as strong as any poet has ever been, which means having been as strong as any human being could possibly be. For one would know exactly what it is that will die, and thus know what one has succeeded in becoming.

But the end of Larkin’s poem seems to reject this Bloomian reading. There we are told that it is ‘hardly satisfying’ to trace home one’s own distinctiveness. This seems to mean that it is hardly satisfying to have become an individual – in the strong sense in which the strong poet is the paradigm of individuality. Larkin is affecting to despise his own vocation, on the ground that to succeed in it would merely be to have put down on paper something which ‘applied only to one man once,/And that one dying’.

I call this ‘affectation’ because I doubt that any poet could seriously think trivial his own success in tracing home the blind impress borne by all his behavings – all his previous poems. Since the example of the Romantics, since the time when, with Hegel, we began to think of self-consciousness as self-creation, no poet has seriously thought of idiosyncrasy as an objection to his work. But in this poem Larkin is pretending that blind impresses, those particular contingencies which make each of us ‘I’ rather than a copy or replica of somebody else, do not really matter. He is suggesting that unless one finds something common to all men at all times, not just to one man once, one cannot die satisfied. He is pretending that to be a strong poet is not enough: that he would have attained satisfaction only from being, of all things, a philosopher.

I think Larkin’s poem owes its interest and its strength to this reminder of the quarrel between poetry and philosophy, the tension between an effort to achieve self-creation by the recognition of contingency and an effort to achieve universality by the transcendence of contingency. The same tension has haunted philosophy since Hegel’s time, and particularly since Nietzsche. The important philosophers of our own century are those who have tried to follow through on the Romantic poets by breaking with Plato and seeing freedom as the recognition of contingency. These are the philosophers who try to detach Hegel’s insistence on historicity from his pantheistic idealism. They try to retain Nietzsche’s identification of the strong poet, rather than the scientist, as the paradigm of humanity, while discarding what Heidegger called Nietzsche’s ‘metaphysics of the will to power’. More generally, they have tried to avoid anything that smacks of philosophy as contemplation, as the attempt to see life steady and see it whole, in order to insist on the sheer contingency of individual existence.

They thus find themselves in the same sort of awkward, but interesting position as Larkin. Larkin writes a poem about the unsatisfactoriness, compared with what philosophers hoped to do, of doing the only thing that poets can do. Post-Nietzschean philosophers like Wittgenstein and Heidegger write philosophy in order to exhibit the universality and necessity of the individual and contingent. Both of these philosophers became caught up in the quarrel between philosophy and poetry which Plato began, and both ended by trying to work out honourable terms on which philosophy might surrender to poetry. Both gave us ways of thinking of the creator of metaphor, rather than the contemplator of literal truth, as the paradigm of humanity.

Consider Larkin’s suggestion that one might get more satisfaction out of finding a ‘blind impress’ which did not apply only to ‘one man once’ but to all human beings. Think of finding such an impress as being the discovery of the universal conditions of human existence, the permanent, ahistorical context of human life. This is what the priests once claimed to have done. Later the Greek philosophers, still later the empirical scientists, and later still the German idealists, made the same claim. They were going to explain to us the ultimate locus of power, the nature of reality. They would thereby inform us what we really are, what we are compelled to be by powers not ourselves. They would exhibit the stamp which had been impressed on all of us. This impress would not be blind, because it would not be a matter of chance, a mere contingency. It would be necessary, essential, telic, constitutive of what it is to be a human. It would give us a goal, the only possible goal – namely, the full recognition of that very necessity, the self-consciousness of our essence.

By comparison to this universal impress, so the pre-Nietzschean philosopher’s story goes, the particular contingencies of individual lives are unimportant. The mistake of the poets is to waste words on idiosyncrasies, on contingencies – to tell us about accidental appearance rather than essential reality. To admit that mere spatio-temporal location, mere contingent circumstance, mattered would be to reduce us to the level of a dying animal. To understand the context in which we necessarily live, by contrast, would be to give us a mind exactly as long as the universe itself, a lading-list which was a copy of the universe’s own list. What counted as existing, as possible, or as important, for us, would be what really is possible or important. Having copied this list, one could die with satisfaction, having accomplished the only task laid upon humanity: to know the truth, to be in touch with what is ‘out there’. There would be nothing more to do, and thus no possible loss to be feared. Extinction would not matter, for one would have become identical with the truth, and truth, on this traditional view, is imperishable. What was extinguished would be merely idiosyncratic animality. The poets, who are not interested in truth, merely distract us from this paradigmatically human task, and thereby degrade us.

It was Nietzsche who first explicitly suggested that we drop the whole idea of ‘knowing the truth’. His definition of truth as a ‘mobile army of metaphors’ amounted to saying that the whole idea of ‘representing reality’ by means of language, and thus the idea of finding a single context for all human lives, should be abandoned. His perspectivism amounted to the claim that the universe had no lading-list to be known, no determinate length. He hoped that, once we realised that Plato’s ‘true world’ was just a fable, we would seek consolation, at the moment of death, not in having transcended the animal condition but in being that peculiar sort of dying animal who, by describing himself in his own terms, had created himself. More exactly, he would have created the only part of himself that mattered by constructing his own mind. To create one’s mind is to create one’s own language, rather than letting the length of one’s mind be set by the language other human beings have left behind.[*]

But in abandoning the traditional notion of truth, Nietzsche did not abandon the idea of discovering the causes of our being what we are. He did not give up the idea that an individual might track home the blind impress all his behavings bore. He only rejected the idea that this tracking was a process of discovery. On his view, in achieving this sort of self-knowledge we are not coming to know a truth which was out there (or in here) all the time. Rather, he saw self-knowledge as self-creation. The process of coming to know oneself, confronting one’s contingency, tracking one’s causes home, is identical with the process of inventing a new language – that is, of thinking up some new metaphors. For any literal description of one’s individuality, which is to say any use of an inherited language-game for this purpose, will necessarily fail. One will not have traced that idiosyncrasy home, but merely have managed to see it as not idiosyncratic after all, as a specimen reiterating a type, a copy or replica of something which has already been identified. To fail as a poet – and thus, for Nietzsche, to fail as a human being – is to accept somebody else’s description of oneself, to execute a previously-prepared programme, to write, at best, elegant variations on previously-written poems. So the only way to trace home the causes of one’s being as one is would be to tell a story about one’s causes in a new language.

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[*] My account of Nietzsche in what follows owes a great deal to Alexander Nehamas’s original and penetrating Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Harvard University Press, 1985).

[†] This qualification is inserted as a response to Ellen Scarry’s remarkable The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford, 1985). In this book Scarry contrasts mute pain, the sort of pain which the torturer hopes to create in his victim by depriving him of language and thereby of a connection with human institutions, with the ability to share in such institutions which is given by the possession of language and leisure.