Broadcasters of the Self: Ian McEwan on Our Age of Identity and How the Politics of Modern Selfhood Imperils the Art of Listening
By Maria Popova
“A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her ode to correspondence — or what she called “the humane art.” But in today’s highly combustible culture, the mutual response at the heart of co-respondence has been replaced by a kind of mutual reactivity, a co-reaction — we fling intransigent opinions at one another, all the while continually contracting our humanity and calcifying our selves in order to shield against the hard-edged opinions of others. We are increasingly averse to engaging in the uncomfortable luxury of changing our minds, which is, of course, the primary practice of personal change and growth. The radiant self-revision of becoming, that most beautiful and hope-giving feature of the human experience, has given way to a stubborn self-righteousness of being.
A century and a half after Walt Whitman contemplated identity and the paradox of the self, the great English essayist and novelist Ian McEwan examines the subject from an inventive angle in his novel Nutshell (public library) — a modern reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, told from the perspective of the yet-unborn protagonist observing, reacting to, and rebelling against the classic murder plot from within his mother’s womb. Through the garden gate of playfulness, McEwan ushers us into to the wilderness of our messiest, most pressing civilizational and existential problems.
In one particularly poignant passage, he caricatures the identity politics of the modern self through his unborn narrator:
A strange mood has seized the almost-educated young. They’re on the march, angry at times, but mostly needful, longing for authority’s blessing, its validation of their chosen identities. The decline of the West in new guise perhaps. Or the exaltation and liberation of the self. A social-media site famously proposes seventy-one gender options — neutrois, two spirit, bigender…any colour you like, Mr. Ford. Biology is not destiny after all, and there’s cause for celebration. A shrimp is neither limiting nor stable. I declare my undeniable feeling for who I am. If I turn out to be white, I may identify as black. And vice versa. I may announce myself as disabled, or disabled in context. If my identity is that of a believer, I’m easily wounded, my flesh torn to bleeding by any questioning of my faith. Offended, I enter a state of grace. Should inconvenient opinions hover near me like fallen angels or evil djinn (a mile being too near), I’ll be in need of the special campus safe room equipped with Play-Doh and looped footage of gambolling puppies. Ah, the intellectual life! I may need advance warning if upsetting books or ideas threaten my very being by coming too close, breathing on my face, my brain, like unwholesome dogs.
I’ll feel, therefore I’ll be. Let poverty go begging and climate change braise in hell. Social justice can drown in ink. I’ll be an activist of the emotions, a loud, campaigning spirit fighting with tears and sighs to shape institutions around my vulnerable self. My identity will be my precious, my only true possession, my access to the only truth. The world must love, nourish and protect it as I do. If my college does not bless me, validate me and give me what I clearly need, I’ll press my face into the vice chancellor’s lapels and weep. Then demand his resignation.
In his wonderful On Point conversation with Jane Clayson, which originated this recording of McEwan reading from his novel, he addresses the problem of modern selfhood directly — a Gödelian incompleteness problem, as it were:
We live in a new era — mostly of self-expression, but not so much of listening. We are not Hamlet so much these days — we are broadcasters of the self… Selfhood is extremely important, of course — who can deny it? — but when you make the self the outer limit of your politics, you then begin to ignore a great deal of the attitudes, situations, dilemmas, misery of others. So there should be a limit, I think, on the limiting factor of selfhood.
Listening — that is, abandoning the self and abandoning yourself to another’s point of view — is what the internet has not really given us. It’s given us trolls, it’s given us tsunamis of opinion. Perhaps it’ll take a bend in the future that we can’t yet foresee.
Complement this fragment of the singularly satisfying Nutshell with philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of personhood in literature and life and Amin Maalouf on how we inhabit our identity.
Published October 3, 2016