A Chance to Find Yourself

At The American Scholar you can read William Deresiewicz’s lecture to the plebe class of 2009 at West Point. The lecture is titled “Solitude and Leadership” and it makes an eloquent case for the necessity of solitude, and solitary reading in particular, to the would-be leader.

Throughout the lecture, Deresiewicz draws on Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness and near the end of his talk he cites the following passage. Speaking of an assistant to the manager of the Central Station, Marlow observes:

“I let him run on, this papier-mâché Mephistopheles and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt. . . .

It was a great comfort to turn from that chap to . . . the battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat. . . . I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come out a bit—to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work,—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.”

Much to think about in those few short lines. “Papier-mâché Mephistopheles” — what a remarkably apt image for what Arendt would later call the banality of evil. It is also worth reflecting on Conrad’s estimation of work in this passage. He evocatively captures part of what I’ve tried to describe in my posts on the discontents of the frictionless life and disposable reality.

It was, however, the line “for yourself, not for others” that struck me with peculiar force. I’ve written here before about the problems with solipsistic or misanthropic individualism. And it should go without saying that, in some important sense, we certainly ought to think and act for others. But I don’t think this is the sort of thing that Conrad had in mind. Perhaps he was driving at some proto-existenialist pour soi. In any case, what came to my mind was the manner in which a life mediated by social media and smart phones is lived “for others”.

Let me try to clarify. The mediated variety of being “for others” is a form of performance and presentation. What we are doing is constructing and offering an image of ourselves for others to consume. The pictures we post, the items we Like, the tweets we retweet, the status updates, the locations we announce on Foursquare, the music we stream, and dare I say it, the blog posts we write — all of these are “for others” and, at least potentially, “for others” without real regard for them. Others, in the worst forms of this dynamic, are merely an audience that can reflect back to us and reinforce our performance of ourselves. In being “for others” in this sense, we risk being “for ourselves” in the worst way.

There is another, less problematic way of being “for others”. At the risk of oversimplifying, let’s call this an unmediated way of being “for others”. This mode of being for others is not self-consciously focused on performance and presentation. This way of being for others does not reduce others to the status of mirrors reflecting our own image back to us. Other are in this case an end, not a means. We lose ourselves in being for others in this way. We do not offer ourselves for consumption, but we are consumed in the work of being for others. The paradox here is that those who are able to lose themselves in this way tend to have a substantial and steady sense of self. Perhaps because they have been “for themselves” in Conrad’s sense, they have nurtured their convictions and character in solitude so that they can be for other in themselves, that is “for others” for the sake of others.

Those who are for others only by way of being for themselves finally end up resembling Conrad’s papier-mâché Mephistopheles, we could poke our fingers through them and find nothing but a little dirt. All is surface.

Altogether, we might conclude that there is an important difference between being for other for the sake of being for yourself and being for yourself for the sake of being for others.

The truth, of course, is that these modes of being “for others” are not new and the former certainly does not owe its existence uniquely to social media. The performed self has roots in the emergence of modernity and this mode of being for others has a family resemblance to flattery which has an even older pedigree. But ubiquitous connectivity and social media do the work of amplifying and generalizing the condition. When their use becomes habitual, when we begin to see the world as potential material for social media, then the space to be for ourselves/by ourselves collapses and we find that we are always being for others for our own sake, preoccupied with the presentation of surfaces.

The consequences of this mode of being are good neither for us, nor for others.

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