The Self Under the Lens

Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders, Bloomsbury, 2017


What is the self? Elizabeth Bishop’s 1971 poem ‘In the Waiting Room’ comes close to a definition. She recalls a moment of self-realisation aged six: ‘But I felt: you are an I, / you are an Elizabeth.’ The self is this first person pronoun, ‘I’, that sits within the publicly observable entity ‘identity’, the third person ‘Elizabeth.’ Bishop’s first-person speaker is experiencing the realisation that she can view herself both as subject and as object, as an ‘Elizabeth’ and as ‘I’. There is a lapse, a line break between these two persons. The self, then, is a reference by a person to the same person: an individual to themselves. Galen Strawson, the British philosopher, marks this distinction between the self and one’s personal identity on similarly phenomenological grounds. He distinguishes between two uses of the first person pronoun ‘I’. There is the ‘I’ who is the subject of consciousness; and there is the publicly observable ‘I’, a being viewed as object by others. The ‘I’ pronoun, then, includes both the first person and more controversially the third. Strawson marks a distinction between the ‘I’ used in the sentence ‘I will see you at the lecture hall,’ and the ‘I’ used in the sentence ‘I see the lecture hall.’ One’s person, by extension, is experienced both in the third and first person. It is experienced as ‘I’, the subjective knower and as ‘me’, the known subject.

George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, and Ali Smith’s How to Be Both (2014) explore the twenty-first-century self and specifically its dependency on storytelling. Stories are depicted as integral to the way we fashion our identities and externalise our sense of self. This remains true even of today: in 2011 Mark Zuckerberg introduced Facebook’s Timeline feature, collecting posts from previous years, to present one’s life staked out onto a unilinear narrative, and punctuated by a handful of ‘highlights’. At Facebook’s F8 conference, he went as far as to introduce it as ‘a new way to express who you are.’

Ali Smith sets half her novel in fifteenth-century Italy, at the beginning of the Renaissance. Smith shows that Zuckerberg’s principle of self- storying was just as relevant 500 years ago. Part One’s action is narrated from the perspective of Francesco del Cossa, a historical artist who is in the process of decorating the walls of the Palazzo Schifanoia, in Ferrara. He is commissioned to depict the life of his patron, the Duke of Modena, through narrative fresco cycles. Identity can be fashioned by the narratives we tell about ourselves. Del Cossa’s fashioning of his patron’s identity is a consciously workmanlike act, plastering the walls of the Palazzo Schifanoia, before painting scenes that depict his virtues of generosity or justice. An event such as the Papal visit is used like a piece of scaffolding upon which a version of identity is built. This is self-construction and stories are depicted as the central element of it.

Smith’s decision to locate Part One at the beginning of the Renaissance period is a conscious one. That which Stephen Greenblatt labelled ‘self-fashioning’ is necessarily an Early Modern phenomenon. The patron-artist pairing of Modena and Del Cossa occurred throughout the age: the artwork of Brunelleschi, Raphael and Michelangelo commissioned by the Florentine banking family, the Medicis, stands as testament to this. The Renaissance self-storying is a form of propaganda. However, it was not viewed through this suspicious term; the attitude towards it is one of optimism. Self-storying is pivotal for Humanism, and the establishment of a human-centric universe. To put it crudely, an intellectual shift takes place when man assumes control at the centre of the universe at the expense of traditional power structures: family, state and religion. Man has agency – the individual’s identity is no longer tied to these organisations. He is able to carve out his own narrative. Self-construction, then, is partly perceived as a stamp of individuality. It is the realisation of self. Smith introduces the Duke of Modena with a dramatic pageant announcing the establishment of his title ‘The First Duke of Ferrara’ and his rise from Marquis. The proceeding action can be read as an exploration of this self-creation.

Smith pays close attention to Del Cossa’s artistic process and technique of forging a self with a paintbrush. She makes continued references to Leon Battista Alberti, whose treatise De Pictura (1436) ultimately established one- point perspective. Perspective is the ultimate statement of a human-orientated culture. It centres everything on the eye of the beholder: it is there that the vanishing point lies. As John Berger, the late art historian, wrote: ‘the world is arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God.’ Del Cossa’s storytelling mode puts the eye, or the ‘I’, at the centre. The Schifanoia narrative frescoes not only further Modena’s status, but as Del Cossa’s first commission they are also the basis for the travelling artist’s self-construction. Smith locates this self-actualisation firmly within the processes of storytelling. This is true of both patron and artist.

Smith’s novel, however, also explores the flip side to this ‘self-realisation’. Although the Duke of Modena is able to forge an identity, it is a reductive identity, which correlates little with his self. The fresco cycle works to reprocess the events of his life into a unilinear narrative, aligning all events teleologically so that they point unequivocally towards his virtue of justice. The formation of an identity can also be a process of depersonalisation. It converts the messy multifariousness of the self, the ‘I’, and repackages it as an objective single-faceted personal identity, a ‘me.’ A story’s treatment of the self can often be crude, turning it into a blunt identity, a character that finds a slot within a broader narrative arc. Indeed, Del Cossa’s supposed self-realisation as an artist was equally frustrated. Underpaid and undervalued, he abandoned life as a court painter and, more importantly, abandoned the fresco cycle half- complete. The term ‘identity’ displays the double-sided nature of externalising the self through storytelling. Its definition covers the two polarities of what is distinct in an individual, but also what ties that individual to a group, how they identify.

Lincoln in the Bardo, set in Victorian America, depicts how the Renaissance positivity about the self soured with the advent of a more modern outlook. George Saunders takes a historical seed of truth – that Abraham Lincoln used to return to the crypt of his dead son Willie in order to hold his corpse throughout February 1862 – and explodes it into a surreal story about the dead’s relationship with the living. The novel is made up of the dialogue of ghosts, who share Willie Lincoln’s Georgetown cemetery, alongside contemporary historical accounts. Set in the ‘bardo’ – the Tibetan purgatory – the action is located at exactly the moment when body and soul bifurcate. Lincoln comes to the realisation that the body he has been returning to hold, like an unhinged Hamlet, is little more than ‘meat’. Lincoln finally looks upon it and realises, ‘It is that which used to bear him around. The essential thing is gone.’ Saunders must place a particular pressure on what makes up one’s self.

Saunders’ novel aptly reflects Victorian attitudes towards the self. It echoes the contemporary philosopher William James’ stance that self- formation takes place in a wholly relational way. James wrote, ‘a man has as many social selves as he has acquaintances.’ James postulated that the self has no intrinsic quality, but that it is instead plural, hinging entirely on the viewpoint of others. Contrary to Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, which posits the seventeenth century self as an autonomous ego, existing prior to and above any consideration of the external, material world, the idea that the Duke of Modena warps his identity through art is predicated on a belief that there is an intrinsic, core self that can be misrepresented. George Saunders expresses a more sceptical attitude towards this core ‘self’. There is a shift in the place of stories in relation to identity. No longer is it the case that identity can be fashioned by storytelling. Instead with the erosion of any clear central self, identity is wholly fashioned by storytelling.

Saunders creates a striking new form in order to convey this, using a panoply of voices, living and dead, historical and fictional, all set in perpetual dialogue with each other. There is no mediating narrator. His novel relies entirely on dialogue without authorial oversight. Nothing is allowed to exist outside the space of ‘written text’. Saunders recently revealed the production of the audiobook took 166 different actors. I suspect the result will be incoherent. However, on paper we are given a novel without a central voice around which the story can rotate. Instead, each character depends on other characters to delineate their identity . The ‘social self’ described by James is the only self that is permitted to exist by Saunders. The optimism of Renaissance self-construction is collapsed. Instead, ‘the centre cannot hold’ and the novel is overrun from the periphery. By way of example, Saunders’ introduction of Willie Lincoln a third of the way through the novel shatters the reader’s conception of the upright Mr Hans Vollman. Saunders immediately reveals a secret that has been kept from the reader up until now, Vollman’s persistently erect and ‘considerable’ member. Vollman has formerly been able to conceal his overwhelming sexual frustration through pleas for silence, saying: ‘Come now no need to speak of…’ However, Willie Lincoln’s revelation entirely collapses our concept of his identity, so that we cannot read his dialogue without picturing his priapic phallus, swollen so large that Vollman must hobble around the book. Unlike Descartes’ philosophy, Saunders’ self exists only through the prism of the external world. Vollman is the unfortunate embodiment of this: his self is hindered by the crassly corporeal, his ‘swollen member’.

Saunders extends this same philosophy of relational identity beyond fiction to reveal the extent to which our understanding of historical figures is equally constituted of stories. A large section of his novel is made up by unmediated historical sources centring on Abraham Lincoln. These are formatted to appear the same as the surrounding dialogue of the fictional characters. It is apt, for a book set in a cemetery, that the genre itself wavers in a purgatorial space between fact and fiction. Lincoln, President of the United States, is shown to be as dependent on the viewpoint of others as the laughable character Hans Vollman. The accounts paint an incongruous view of Lincoln, ranging from the obviously subjective viewpoints, such as whether Lincoln was a good or bad president, to the more objective scientific and clear-cut questions, such as whether ‘his eyes [were] dark grey, clear, very expressive’ or ‘kind blue eyes, over which the lids half dropped.’ This latter example rocks the naivety of the Cartesian self. Surely, probes Saunders, our identity and the identities of the dead are wholly comprised of the stories we tell. The self is found in the conception of others.

The self, then, is located entirely within the stories told. Despite this, Saunders paradoxically clings to the idea that there remains something sacrosanct and truthful about it. Saunders posits the idea that the story should function not reductively, but instead should work in the opposite direction, to flesh out a character and give them a rich subjective interiority and individuality. Saunders’ ideal storytelling does not convert the self into something experienced as other or third person. Instead, the object must be felt as subject. The self is still located within stories, but Saunders heralds a change in direction for this storytelling: it should operate sympathetically. This is epitomised at the close of the novel with a moment of ‘mass cohabitation’. The ghosts that populate the cemetery suddenly dive inside Abraham Lincoln’s body and Saunders’ narration turns to the wildly surreal. Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III narrate together the sensation of ‘entering one another … becoming multiply conjoined.’ The basis of this orgiastic, orgasmic unity is one of shared spirituality. ‘We thought / We all thought / As one. Simultaneously.’ Immediately, the concept of ‘identity’ breaks down and the self replaces it. Every person experiences the other from an internal perspective, sharing each’s subjective inner consciousness together. This is true self-realisation, the realisation of self by others. Saunders reveals that storytelling is far more than just antagonistic to the self.

In fact, both Saunders and Ali Smith herald a shift in the relationship stories share with the self. In How to Be Both, Smith surprisingly raises concern about how stories can flatten identity through the form of the novel. By choosing fiction, she could be seen as party to the same accusations of flattening and externalising identity as the Duke of Modena’s fresco cycle. Instead, as del Cossa creeps back in the middle of the night to strip off the crowning portrait of Modena and rework it, completely rearranging the title ‘JUSTICE’ to simply ‘ICE’, so too does Smith overthrow the traditional storytelling mode. She radically changes the form of her novel, to align with her thinking on self. She splits her story into two parts: Part One and… Part One. The twist is that the novel exists in two editions. My copy began with del Cossa, a fifteenth century artist from Ferrara, watching a boy analyse her painting in modern day England; it was followed by the story of this same character, George, from an internal perspective. Yet, half the copies exist in the reverse order. This is the novelistic equivalent of a double take and it challenges the teleology and unilinearity often present in stories. We are presented with a boy, George, from del Cossa’s perspective for 150 pages before realising at the beginning of George’s first person story that she is in fact a Georgia. The copies that exist in the reverse order have a similar process of uprooting expectations. George’s narration considers del Cossa’s artwork from the standpoint of the twenty-first century, believing him to be another male artist, only for the second half of the novel to switch perspectives and reveal del Cossa’s biological sex as female. Smith creates a story (or two stories) that makes the same shift Saunders’ does from an objective perspective to a subjective one.

Both novels’ attitudes to selfhood have particular urgency in 2017, with the rise of identity politics. The number of gender pronouns (‘zie’, ‘zir’, ‘e’, ‘xyr’ or ‘xem’) seems to proliferate daily. However, labels are blunt and intrinsically inaccurate and to put so much faith in the idea that they might be able to capture one’s self is dangerous. They may not be a solution, but might simply become new stereotypes. Ali Smith’s writing is particularly helpful for understanding this notion. In How to Be Both, Smith’s protagonist is named George, which then disintegrates into ‘George-yah’ twenty pages later, or, as the reader finally works out ‘Georgia’: the female name. Smith pointedly takes pleasure in corrupting and trivialising the naming process with such misspellings and alterations. She includes a brilliant piece of dialogue, where George the pedantic teenager notices a mistake in her mother’s grammar, and corrects her, saying: ‘Georgia and I.’ George’s character represents a rejection of labels. She does not need to subscribe to one of the many available gendered/ungendered pronouns. Instead, she exists as herself, ‘I’. That is the subject of her own consciousness not as the object of another’s. Her distinction between ‘Georgia and I’ goes beyond a trivial grammar correction. It is a distinction that echoes Elizabeth Bishop’s poem. No name can correlate directly with oneself – to pretend it can is unhelpful.

Indeed, Smith’s title, How to Be Both, could signify both a question and a self-help guide. It is apt that a novel that so wholly rejects the concluded and labelled is published under a title that could be followed by both an exclamation or question mark. The novel advocates an unresolved-ness not found in the unilinear narrative fresco cycle of the Duke of Modena. Smith explores the etymology of ‘mystery’, writing that ‘it originally meant a closing, of the mouth or the eyes. It meant an agreement or understanding that something would not be disclosed.’ She opines: ‘now we live in a culture when mystery tends to mean something more answerable … where the whole point of reading it or watching it will be that we will find it out.’ The novel reacts against what it perceives as a twenty-first-century cultural phenomenon: to forever categorise and label the self into sexualities, genders, nationalities or ages. The narrator characterises the ‘culture’ as one which continuously attempts to externalise everything into ‘answers’. Smith, however, holds to an agreement in her writing ‘that something would not be disclosed’, or that some things should be left forever open.

George Saunders’ Willie Lincoln, on the verge of salvation, shouts: ‘I am Willie … am not / Willie.’ At the same moment, Abraham Lincoln has the realisation that his son ‘was never fixed nor stable.’ Both novelists recognise the messiness and instability of the self and, by extension, question the need to drag it under an objective lens, to externalise everything interior and subjective into language, a tool not sufficiently complex to deal with the messiness of self. One may well desire to assume control of one’s identity and assert one’s right to decide how one appears to others. (This is similar to the Renaissance notion of self-actualisation and carving out one’s own narrative outside of traditional power structures.) However, one would be naive to think that these public tags could ever encapsulate with precision the multivalence of one’s subjective consciousness. The novels impress the message that all labels are third person denominations and defective, whether it be the Duke of Modena who attempts to cram his inextricably complex self inside the four-letter title ‘Just’, or anybody who takes a pronoun. Instead, when discussing twenty-first-century selfhood, we should recognise that the self must always exist in a subjective perspective. Any attempts to forge an external identity will always be a crude rehashing of a core inner consciousness.