“The Mind’s I: Fantasies and reflections on self and soul” is an anthology of writings on the nature of self and consciousness. Its editors Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett (who have also contributed to this anthology) reflect upon the issues expressed in each piece. Their major take on the issue is on how the physical brain creates the metaphysical mind or soul. However, each essay, since it is centered on a theme of most central significance to humanity, can be read at many levels: psychological, spiritual, social, and neurological.
Borges on self
The anthology begins with a translated version of Borges’ short story piece called Borges and I, which was originally published in his short story collection titled The Maker in 1960. Jorge Luis Borges was a famous Argentinean writer known for his fictions on matters of philosophical and metaphysical significance. In the story referred above, Borges explores themes that are in fact near to all of us by focusing upon his ‘social self’ as ‘someone different’.
Personal vs. the Social self
All of us can experience two distinct sides of us. One is our inner nature, the true us, that only we have real access to. This is the inner side that God refers to when He says:
وَلَقَد خَلَقنَا الإِنسٰنَ وَنَعلَمُ ما تُوَسوِسُ بِهِ نَفسُهُ ۖ وَنَحنُ أَقرَبُ إِلَيهِ مِن حَبلِ الوَريدِ
Translation: NOW, VERILY, it is We who have created man, and We know what his innermost self whispers within him: for We are closer to him than his neck-vein. (Sura Qaf, ayah 16)
The other is the more public side, composed of our outward behavior, our appearance, our sayings and doings, open for all the observers. This is the social self and our social self varies according to each different context that we enter in our lives.
This distinction also relates to a more basic subject-vs.-object distinction in nature. A subject can be said to be an observer, a being that is conscious, that knows. Whereas, an object is simply a thing that is observed. Thus all subjective beings themselves are available as objects for others’ observation. Here, Borges is treating his own ‘objective’ side as something distinct from him, the subject.
As you will read the essay, you will see that Borges is aware of the ’empty’ and ‘artificial’ quality of the social facade to which others react with awe and admiration given that this social facade belongs to a famous person. Even though, most of us are not famous, still we can related to this feeling of discomfort when we are the focus of others’ attentions. We can feel the essential distance that remains between the real us and the ‘presentation’ we are giving before others. This presentation rarely matches the original inner story as it is. In simple words, there may be only a few rare relationships where we are able to interact spontaneously and genuinely without any distortion or gaps introduced. We have to mold our urges and impulses into behavioral patterns that will be acceptable in the situation we are in.
Carl Jung in his analytical psychology, called this ‘medium’ or ‘the point-of-contact’ between the real us and the society out there as persona. He literally described the persona as a mask. Borges seems to be painfully aware of the empty and fake nature of his mask and feels averse to it.
But the story of self is not this simple.
Persona is a reality of life, a process that is necessarily there, that cannot be by-passed. Most of us do feel uncomfortable more or less when our persona is activated but still we accept it as a necessary compromise. The fact that Borges is feeling so averse to this persona hints to other things.
Our self-awareness is never complete. At birth we have been born with a myriad of tendencies, not all of them have had a chance to come out in the open yet. While one reason for our full potentialities not being conscious is that we have not encountered the environment which naturally evokes and instills those latent capacities; another important reason is the discouragement and punishment we receive from our elders in our up-bringing when our skills and tendencies are expressed in forms that they consider as undesirable. Urges and impulses arising from these hidden potentials then remain unconscious – what Jung had called as the personal unconscious. There was also a more colorful term to reflect this layer of the self: the Shadow.
The word shadow has a negative connotation. It is so because of the negative feelings often associated by our repressed/suppressed tendencies: the original shame, embarrassment, or hatred caused when we received our punishments, whether verbal, physical or nonverbal.
When we confront those same tendencies in others (other ‘objects’ so to speak), we react negatively. In a way we ‘project’ our own ‘weaknesses’ on to the objects around us and feel averse. Since Borges has treated his persona as an object, he now projects his shadow onto it and feels averse. Notice all the negative qualities of that other Borges he cites in the short piece.
When he says things like: “I am giving over everything to him” he shows that he is more and more realizing that the real source of all the attributes of the shadow is his own unconscious. He cannot conveniently shoulder the blame on to the ‘demands of the social situation’.
However, the interesting point is that even where he acknowledges some valid accomplishment by this Borges, he is humble: He attributes his creations as a writer to ‘the language’ and ‘the tradition’ and says: “what is good belongs to no one”. Why is he saying so? Herein is actually a reference to a much more deeper and broader level of unconscious that Jung also conceptualized:
The collective unconscious
If what is good belongs to no one to whom does it belong then? Where does it come from then?
Borges is showing the sophisticated awareness that those ‘breezes’ of thoughts and ‘waves’ of feelings that we attempt to transform into words are rooted much deeper inside us than we may think. The range of our self-awareness is very short: at surface we think so and so, we are impressed by so and so. In reality, we have no idea what is the rootcause, the real source of that idea that urge; what was it in some external provocation that held us so strongly in its grip that we were stunned or awed or else were moved so gravely by it.
According to Jung, this deep source of everything, that cannot be consciously traced by us is actually the treasure-house of the whole range of human potentialities that we bring into this world, and that is common across all of us. If you think, every single bit of thought, inspiration, motivation, fear, desire, need, that we have had is not ‘originally ours’, not experienced by us and only us in the world. Thousands of people have experienced the same thing before. The unique combination of our experiences may indeed be ours but not the ingredients. This is what Borges means when he says what is good really belongs to none and this is the same idea that we encounter repeatedly in the Quran…
The universal Self
Jung identified several distinct ingredients (he called them archetypes) of this collective unconscious, the one most relevant here is the concept of the Self (or the objective psyche). Self actually is the harmounious human totality, in which all our diverse, and often opposite tendencies come together. As our Ego (the plainly conscious self, in Jung’s theory) comes to realize over the course of years, that the same people, objects and institutions often evoke very different and ambivalent responses in us: love hate, dependence independence, acceptance rejection, trust suspicion. To a more or less extent, the maturing Ego comes to understand and accept these apparent discrepancies, to resolve them or to reach and bring out in the open the complicated causes leading to such complicated responses. As this happens, we can say that the Ego is now more in line with the universal self. In Jung’s terms the Ego is becoming more and more individuated into or identifying with the Objective Psyche.
But this process is not easy. There are lot of anxieties on the way, a lot of fears to be encountered. The most significant fear is the threat of losing one’s individuality, realizing that one is nothing more than a human, nothing above and beyond a human, just that. I personally feel that it is this same fear that stops many of us from fully identifying with our God and from realizing our essential smallness and nothingness in His Omni-Presence.
With the fear of being nothing is tied the fear of ‘ending’ or ‘perishing’. What is a drop in a river? The river will keep flowing, but a drop…. might ‘not exist’ the next moment. It is these fears that make the fictional Borges run away from the ‘shadow’ – the shadow which is actually a doorway, a threshold onto the much deeper layer of the collective unconscious in which resides the universal self… It is the same fear that makes Borges say: “my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.” (from the translation in the Mind’s I).
To sum up:
وَجاءَت سَكرَةُ المَوتِ بِالحَقِّ ۖ ذٰلِكَ ما كُنتَ مِنهُ تَحيدُ
Translation: And [then,] the twilight of death brings with it the [full] truth – that [very thing, O man,] from which thou wouldst always look away! – (Sura Qaf, ayah 19)
A nearly identical translated version of Borges’ piece along with the orginal in Spanish can be read here.
A different, more elaborated and somewhat scholarly version of this essay I wrote before this post which I am considering for publication. If it was published, I would share the link. JazakaAllah for your constant readership.