Will I Ever Be Real?

My psychology is contorted by strange concepts of time and expectation. But there is hope.

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I woke again with a fatigued sense of who I am, and a numbed sense of bearing. I don’t sleep well. Usually — and this has been going on for a while now — I jolt awake at intervals, to be later followed by dreams that tangle me up in doubts and giddiness, dreams about unfinished work and unfinished friendships.

In the morning I want to get up, partly because I am sick of lying there in the cave of my sleeplessness, and partly because I have anxieties about the day ahead. There are things I want to get on with, slices of my life I want to reclaim and slot into place. I think about those toys I used to play with as a child, with those coloured blocks that slot into the right-shaped holes.

Getting up before the sunlight — before it has sparkled over the distant tree-tops — is beneficial, because I can assert myself more purely when the light is not looking at me.

I feel down in health, like a river whose waters are low. My breathing is shallow and uneven. What is the trouble here?

I tend to blame my work, but when work is going well, I find other things to blame. I have no clarity, and only a feint sense of what makes me happy.

I have ambitions I am now scared of. I used to crave adventure but I feel as if a few months of complete regularity — pure silence — would help me. The love of my family often makes me feel better but I don’t have the time to be with them as often as I used to.

“Why now?” I ask myself. “What has changed?”

Back in 1995, when I was in my later teenage years, I went travelling around Europe with my older brother. We started in Paris, and made friends with gangs of other travellers, some Australians, Canadians, a Dutchman and a couple of South Africans. We drank from bottles of cheap wine beneath the Eiffel Tower, and roamed the galleries of the city in elated optimist. After Paris we went onto Brussels and Amsterdam, then over to Prague via Berlin. After that, we went south through the glades and groves of Italy, Greece and Spain.

Internet cafés were popping up everywhere, often in disused shop units or in hostel lobbies. In one such place, a long-haired Australian showed me how to create my very first email account so that I could send messages home and notify the tiny list of contacts I had scribbled in my notebook of my whereabouts. As we met other travellers, I appended my list with more newly-generated email addresses, so that if we should ever cross paths again we could meet up.

Memories of those travels return to me every now and again, and I think of them as formative. Sometimes, I scroll to the dusty back-pages of that primitive email account (Hotmail!) and read through the messages there. I remember the genuine pleasure of locating an internet café and the excitement of waiting for a machine to become free, so I could see who had sent me messages in the last 3 or 4 days since I had last looked. Often nobody had.

Back then I had no spam. I was on nobody’s mailing list. If I had anything new in my inbox, I had the patience of mind to read it from beginning to end. The only pressure on my time was the cost of the computer I was sat at. Sometimes 2 Francs per hour, sometimes 5 Deutschmarks for a 30 minute stint.

These days I look after about seven email accounts, each of which came into existence at different times in my life for one purpose or another. They are like bank accounts, being easy to open but less obviously simple to close, so that they accrue and proliferate: junk, data, information, a weird history of me.

I can’t imagine waiting 3 or 4 days to check my inbox.

Beyond these I am signed up to five social media platforms on which I am in anyway active, and several others that have fallen by the wayside. I have two personal websites, and have untold numbers of other accounts that help to administer my consumption of music, gas and electricity, flights, car parking tickets, hotel bookings, food, clothes, train tickets, books, newspapers, mobile phone tariffs, theater seats, and so on. On any typical day, my inboxes might swell by anywhere from 10 to 100 new messages, most of which I don’t want and which I delete without reading beyond the subject line.

Of late, I have recognised a darkness in my skeleton. It is a new discovery, a bone-shadow of unrest, hardly noticeable until the room empties or the music stops, when the wind calms or the lights are switched off. Then the feeling makes itself known, tentatively arriving off-camera, like a twig cracking beneath a footstep or a small lizard peeking from under a stone step, ready to retract itself from view should attention fall on it too heavily.

If I can occupy the thought for a moment, I can see it has something to do with my identity. “Will I ever be real?” I ask myself. Something about a lack of coherence. Something like a shift in the earth beneath my feet, as when an underground train passes invisibly and the ground rumbles.

Will I ever be real? The question enters the viewfinder and poses briefly as the expression of the thought. I dislike the self-concerned implications here. I don’t want to be too narrow or too fixed in my definition. If there is a permanent part of my identity, then I would prefer it to be a distant beacon — something like a faraway lighthouse on the shoreline. Instead, I have a wriggling animal within me that scratches and asserts itself in unsound tempers.

The protean self — from the Greek sea-god Proteus — is a constantly changing form, encouraged to fragment into new combinations as new possibilities arise. Mother-tongues are multiplied, futures are floated, migration is always possible. Opportunities are strewn wherever there are words. Psychologists talk of a multiplicity of selves, of plural personas, and of a polyphony of voices.

In The Saturated Self, K. J. Gergen expresses the point succinctly: “Under postmodern conditions, persons exist in a state of continuous construction and reconstruction; it is a world where anything goes that can be negotiated. Each reality of self gives way to a reflexive questioning, irony, and ultimately the playful probing of yet another reality. The centre fails to hold.”[1]

The question of where one’s centre is — and how to hold it — feels most compelling. I think of the snake that eats itself. The Ouroboros.

It is often easier to spot someone else’s centre than our own. The picture frame that calms the passage of experiences from one moment to another is easier to place around the lives of others. We abstract others; we are more resistant to abstraction ourselves.

What can I say about my experiences? Today? I talked on the phone several times. I spoke to a couple of people face-to-face. Someone made me smile.

To say what one is experiencing at any single moment, however, is much harder to do — right now? right now? — unless it is so pointed as to be worthy of exclamation: I’m cold, I’m in pain, I’m tired, I’m so happy! These are easy statements to make, but to be more precise is far more challenging.

Memories contain the content of my experiences, and experiences are the content of my persona. This is one way to treat the question. If the repository of sense-objects makes up one’s personality, what memories do I want to create? What stories to take part in, lessons-in-life to learn and pass on, lists of countries to visit, gigs or sporting events to attend, an so on?

The before you die epithet has such an urgent currency in our culture. If you browse a bookshop you are quickly burdened with far too many things for to do before the final reckoning. There are a thousand paintings, five hundred cities, a hundred beaches, one thousand and one films…

When I look down the age-ladder to moments in my past, to moments in time when I’ve travelled or enjoyed spurts of creativity — those peaks of awareness that supplied me with way-markers of resolution and purpose — I wonder why they seemed so easy to achieve. Today, I have a propensity to leap between so many ideas of myself and how I ought to behave to fulfil them, that my mind is diffused and scattered by the interruption of many voices. How I relate to my past and to my future is full of uncertainty…

Time has shifted forward a few years, that is true. I’m a little older. The world has certainly changed, that is clear enough. There was a time when globalised connectivity was a novelty: a new invention to experiment with. Today I am dogged by persistent questions: Who is trying to contact me? Am I connected, or am I out of range? What’s on my mind? What’s my status? What’s happening (in each of those ubiquitous categories of news: politics, technology, art, health, sport, business, etc.)? Who will contact me tomorrow? When was the last message I got from so-and-so?

I think there is something wrong with this. I think it is pulling on my sense of concentration, on my sense of unity. I can be on holiday on a remote ribbon of shoreline or mountain, yet I can still feel the vibration in my pocket telling me what my friends are feeding their children for dinner. I am so enmeshed in these networks that when I disappear for a time, it gets noticed, and sometimes even criticised.

The problem with more complex experiences is that they tend to have no definite beginning and no obvious end. They are like the wind blowing, turning from nothing into something without warning. Today’s experiences are posted like notices in the form of pithy statements or a slideshow of photographs, or sometimes just a point on a map: “At Bangkok airport. Beaches here we come!”

How much of a defined experience this is for the protagonist themselves is dubious; the boxing up, the sharpening of the edges, is all done by the recipient of the notice. We ourselves are more resistant to abstraction…

There is an urgency to all this. We anticipate the responses from our digital peer group, the digestion and reflecting back of our posts: the likes, thumbs up, shares, retweets and claps. We await the never-final affirmation. The necessary simplification, the final word that will define the edges of our particular experience, always fails to culminate. In our hunger to enjoy the definition of our selves by others, we seek out opportunities to parade our everyday lives as noteworthy, often magnifying the present moment in order to justify making news out of it.

If you are old enough and have the imagination, it is just possible to remember life as it was before untrammelled connectedness. It was a time when life was lived just once, at a particular time and location. Memory and the odd photograph afforded you replays, but these were prone to fading and their scope was very personal and usually imperfect.

In a very definite sense, it’s possible to say that social media and the technologies that thread through it (smartphones, digital cameras, the web) constitute a stretching of experience over fluid parentheses of time and place. To take a photograph now, for instance, is to engage in a contortion of time: whilst doing so, we imagine the purpose to which, in just a few moments, the photo will be put, to generate a new set of possibilities within a conventionally defined experience. We report on ourselves: we cast our eyes upon ourselves mid-flow, mid-deed, attuning to both the experience first-hand and the appearance of it as we imagine it might appear to others. So seamlessly integrated into the flux of our everyday lives is this duality that we are becoming masters at playing the role. The life-span of an experience is contorted as the responses and comments interlace backwards and forwards, disarranging the apparent linearity of our lives into the more malleable form of news-feeds and time-lines.

Of course, memory has always done this: has always supplied conscious experience with a temporally kaleidoscopic passage of images. How new technology changes the dynamic is also to offer an expectation: that is, we live partly for the future, expectant of the feedback we are due to receive. Thus our experiences are organised into two parts, the forward looking eye and the over-the-shoulder glance, experienced as both now and what it will become, our future designed to become a satisfactory past.

I’ve begun to rest my eyes. I’m training myself towards no more twice-glancing.

More recently, I’ve been making a concerted effort to iron things out. I am flattening these folds and creases in time under the steam of a new lucidity. What Idid was this: I took some time away from work, I remembered my old heroes, I dusted off some buried memories, and I remembered my original commitments. It has made all the difference.

I remembered: I once liked to look at trees and follow the lines of the branches from the trunk to their tips. So many pathways that split off, the eye has a thousand choices to make as a branch weaves upwards and outwards. It is not a burden of choices but a freedom to roam. The eye moves back and forth, playfully and liberally. The tree teaches the higher wisdom of chance and durability. Each twine of that tree, each twisted ribbon of that long-lived organism, in itself forms a relic. Gestures of time exposed through the protean form of tree branches.

For the rest, I am learning, we know ourselves through our own personal architecture.


[1] Gergen, K. J., (1991). The saturated self: Dilemmas of identity in modern life. New York: Basic Books, p.71

Written by

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings” https://books2read.com/u/bw7vNY

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