Who the Hell Do You Think You Are?

In the first sentence of John Barth’s novel, The End of the Road, protagonist Jacob Horner affirms, “In a sense I am Jacob Horner.” The novel hooked me with this one line because I am fascinated by the shadowiness of identity. How well do we really know ourselves? How much of our identity is foisted upon us? How much is constant? How much is bullshit?

 

Sixteenth-century essayist—and kindred spirit—Montaigne wrote, “I have nothing to say about myself absolutely, simply, and solidly, without confusion and without mixture, or in one word.” Here is a man who knew himself—or knew he didn’t know himself. In the nineteenth century, the living and breathing aphorism factory known as Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen, philosophers and divines.” Breathe in that fresh air of honesty—honesty to admit that we all are, in a way, dishonest. Richard Rorty, my favorite postmodern provocateur, recommends that we jettison the will to truth as we cultivate our identities. The goal is not to find out who you “really are,” but simply to create and re-create yourself. Who you are depends upon imagination and your will to believe it.

 

Socrates is the gadfly who got all this confusion started when he proclaimed, “Know thyself,” thereby hurtling us into this maze of identity. Of course, Socrates took this Greek commandment from the Temple of Delphi, where the oracle would tell you your future in language so cryptic and ambiguous that no one every truly know what the hell she was saying. Who, after all, ever correctly interpreted the oracle’s prophecy? 

 

In the eighteenth century, when the genre of the novel comes lumbering along, it dives headfirst into this maze. By generic definition, the novel focuses on the individual. Just consider the novel titles from this period: Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Moll Flanders, Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy, Roxana, etc. Many of these novels are psychological portraits, depicting the complexity of identity. In the case of Tristram Shandy, nothing happens for the first 400 pages of the novel because the eponymous narrator can’t get past his own idiosyncratic perspective.

 

In Golden Notes, I tried to create identities that are realistic, which is to say volatile and, in some cases, unpredictable. As many novelists affirm, once you create characters, once they come alive, they begin to act on their own. I found that to be true. My characters are testaments to the fact that “Know thyself” is less of a command and more of a conundrum.