This summer I blogged about my life as a monkey psychologist in Puerto Rico. Six entries in all, lots of pictures and, by personal standards, wild times: daily barefoot beach runs, secret mango forests and a thousand incorrigible monkeys. An immaterial collection of images and words is a tropical fountainhead of sights, smells and shrieks.
Two months removed, these sensations seem strangely foreign. I was the one from whom the memories came and the one who blogged about them. They were, at one point, my own. But since then, they’ve gradually fallen into the possession of blogspot.com and represent a negligibly small slice of purchased Web domain. There they wait to exist, until someone — including me — scans the flat pixelation where they are kept.
The words are easily accessible via the Internet but what they represent is less so, distorted in the process of recording. When I sat at my desk at the Caribbean Primate Research Center, what I typed became a new memory — a modified version of the “real” one. I don’t remember the latter, at least not consciously.
And so, sacrifices were made, sensations blemished, reality reconfigured. Something indefinable and ineffable became solid and concrete yet crudely manufactured.
But who cares? If anyone, it would be me, the sole bookkeeper.
I don’t. One need not be a gonzo or a Samuel Beckett to distort the narrative truth. The simple fact of (personal) history is that we frame it the way we want to.
So why not preempt ourselves?
I had my cake in Puerto Rico, and now I can eat it again and again, whenever I want. It’s an eternity of colonial fortresses, ethereal cloud forests, roadside quenepas and free mangoes. No need to ruminate on what my thoughts, in their own hopeless distortion, really are. Objectively, on paper, they’ve been spelled out for me.
Of course, eternal cake is a cheap thrill, and pleasure is not an end in itself. There’s more to the narrative than that. When I reread my words, I relive a facet of myself.
In “Delusion and Dream,” Sigmund Freud claims that each of us is like an entire cast of characters in a novel or play. Here, a new character has been added to my cast. It may only be summoned a single time and may be quite different from the others, but such was enough for Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Grushenka to be rightly redeemed: “Just know one thing … I may be wicked, but still I gave an onion.”
This is the lasting artifact of my summer — a new self added to my permanent resume.
But there’s nothing to say summer can’t be a year-round affair; the self is a complicated composite with an enormous capacity. Normally, however, perhaps blinded by cultural bias, we do not see our own compositeness. Instead we see a thing inside of us — call it a self-god — that has ultimate control over our actions and a sort of intransience and continuity.
This conception of self is an intuitive belief and it is adaptive in the sense that it gives meaning, predictability and consistency to our thoughts and actions. It is still, however, a belief, and one with which it is easy to get carried away. Only a faint line separates our notion of self as a single entity that persists across time and the view that traits, qualities and dispositions are situation-independent and stable.
In a recent New York Times column (“Where the Wild Things Are,” Oct. 19), David Brooks assails psychology’s view that each of us is “a community of competing selves,” extolling instead the ingrained, defining traits of ancient heroes. Brooks laments the modern age as “one of those periods when words like character fall into dispute and change their meaning.”
That we do — much less should — act upon rigid rules and virtues all the time is a distinctly Western conceit. It assumes that words and blog posts embody immutable realities; that ways of being and acting can be transported over seasons and seas; and that a cast of inner characters is foremost a singularity as opposed to a composite. When in Puerto Rico, do as you do — but allow yourself to do it differently from how you’ve done it before, and do it proudly.
James Cersonsky is a junior in Timothy Dwight College.