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The Anti-Self (The Cat and The Butterfly)



Live the lives, live them all.
Keep the dreams separate.
See: I rise, See: I fall.
Am other, am no other.

PAUL CELAN




I once had a long conversation with a friend a year ago when he opened up to me regarding some problems he had. He was having some difficulty with creating and maintaining romantic relationships with women. Not that he was undesirable or a bore; actually he is quite good-natured, rich and intelligent. But among us high school friends, notwithstanding some close but no cigar relationships with women, he is the only one who has yet to have a girlfriend. And this fact would always be the butt of our jokes among us. Though he does not find it funny, he is also quite at a loss as to the reason why, among his many attempts, he has yet to hear the word "yes" from somebody he loved.

After asking him some questions first and thinking about his dilemma, I suggested one thing to him: to reinvent himself. Reinvent in the sense of going beyond his limits, changing some things, and thus expanding himself. "Maybe," I suggested, "you can try being your anti-self or go against yourself--what you usually are or who you usually are." Because, I continued, what he has been has not been working--in the sense that women, perhaps, are not that impressed with how he presents himself or what he brings to the table. Perhaps he is too polite, too much of a gentleman, too kind, etc., while women look for something dangerous, something mysterious in men. Though I professed that I am no expert in this field, I told him that maybe it was time to go against the very grain of his personality, and from there, see how it goes.

I do not as yet know if he followed my advice (but he is still single as of press time). But what I suggested to him got me thinking about myself as well. As is usually the case, I do not practice what I preach. So I asked myself if I had in any way reinvented myself. If I had dared to go out of my skin or comfort zones. Or if I had gone against myself--even just for fun. Curiously, my answers would mostly fall on the negative and as to why this was so I came up with a lot of answers: convenience and my love for inertia, being scared perhaps, and finally, which I thought was the real reason, because I was happy with my self in general. I am quite proud that I know myself--not completely, of course--but I have a profound sense and understanding of myself. Better put, I am a student of my self. And there is nothing selfish or vain in this; the Greeks from Heraclitus to Socrates thought that this was the only task worth doing for man. But this led me the obvious question: how then did I get to know myself?

Philosophy supplies us with an answer: man can only know himself through his experience of himself. All knowledge, Aristotle says, must come from experience and pass through perception: there is nothing in the intellect which did not first pass through the senses. Experience is the fount from which we draw knowledge of ourselves. Why is this so? Because being finite, man cannot have immediate knowledge of himself without the mediation of the body and the world. It is said that only angels--who possess instant perception without mediation in time--and God--who Aristotle thought to be a mind thinking itself--do not need experience to know themselves. Thus for man, the deepening of his self-knowledge relies on the variety and depth of his experiences. If not for these experiences, I would have no direct intuition of who or what I am. (Like Descartes who could only posit his existence through his experience of doubt and thinking).

It is only in going through experiences that we become aware of ourselves and this through reflection. Reflection comes from the word reflexio which literally means "to bend back" or "to step back." To bend or step back from what? From ourselves and the experiences we go through. Reflection is usually thought to be "an activity" among other activities that man does. Or that it is something done after going through experiences (like retreats, prayer time, grieving, etc.). But reflection is something that man always is; what separates him from the animal is his profound awareness of himself, that is, his consciousness. Man always bends back from himself in that he is not merely going through experiences but is aware that he is going through such experiences. Consciousness, as phenomenology has it, is always a consciousness of something experienced (a phenomenon). In self-reflection, this consciousness is awareness of one's self vis-a-vis its experience.

We always learn something about ourselves which is revealed in experiences, e.g., that I prefer Chinese cuisine over Indian food after trying both; that I may not be good in math as I learned from my algebra classes in high school; or that I am a patient lover in the way I try to understand my partner even in the middle of a misunderstanding. To borrow something from psychology, our personalities are pretty much amorphous to begin with (like clay) and it is only through certain experiences (say, in childhood especially) that it begins to take shape. Thus, as they say, I am the people that I met, the books I have read, the relationships I have formed, etc. As one matures, the person becomes more aware of the self he has become because of the many experiences he has gone through. Slowly, the self begins to unfold to itself.

This self-knowledge was what the German philosopher Hegel, borrowing something from the Greek command know thyself, thought to be the goal of all philosophizing. For Hegel, the Mind (Thought, Consciousness or Idea) was primal reality (thus Hegelian philosophy was the pinnacle of Idealism). But in order for the Mind to know itself, it must first pass through the mediation of experiencing what it is not. In the same manner, in order for the ego to know its self, it must first experience what it is not, i.e., the alter-ego. Why this necessary step, on may ask? Because there would be no way for the Mind to know its self; just as consciousness is consciousness of something other than its self, then it has to become the other of its self or what it is not. Simply put, Mind must test itself against Reality, be Real and not simply Ideal (hence Hegel's idealistic conclusion that "the rational is the real and the real is the rational.") This is what Hegel calls alienation or the process by which the I (Identitat) must become what is not-I (Differenz). Or more specifically, he uses the words thesis and anti-thesis.

This calls for some examples. The Teacher once referred us to a ripe and sweet mango fruit in class. But for the mango to reach its full potential, i.e., to be what it truly is, it must pass away from being the sweet fruit that it is and become the seed that it truly is; come to think of it, the fruit is only a fruit for us but a seed by itself. Thus it must "die" from its being a fruit, perched high on a tree, and fall on the ground, wither away, rot and then become a seed in the soil. The seed now is far from being the fruit it once was--an anti-theses or alientaion from its (former) self; but because it has become a seed it may now come to grow into the mango tree that it was meant to be. Its being a mango tree now does away, or better yet, takes up (Aufheben) what it was, i.e., the fruit (thesis) and what it became, i.e., the seed (anti-thesis) to become closer to, if not really, what it is, i.e., the tree (synthesis). The last "step," if you wish is the "completion" or "fulfillment" of the mango becoming itself; it is its final synthesis.

Hegel himself sees this dialectical movement (from thesis, anti-thesis and to synthesis) at work in God's creation. He argues that God, which is pure Mind (thesis), created Nature, i.e., man and the world (anti-thesis or not-God) in order to see Himself in them and thus possess Absolute knowledge of Himself (synthesis). That man was created in the "image and likeness of God" was to be interpreted to mean that, in man and nature God found a mirror against which He can see Himself and thus know Himself. But the difference between God and man must be stressed more than their similarity or "likeness"; nothing could be more obvious than the fact that man is not God. And this was Hegel's point. God had to be alienated from Himself and become what He was not, i.e., a mortal man, in order to become and know Himself Absolutely. We find this nowhere else than in the figure of Christ: the God-became-man through Whose redemption the created world (exitus) shall return (reditus) to the Absolute God.

Going back to the question of one's self-knowledge, we then see how Hegel's dialectic helps explain to us who we become and what we know of ourselves. The person can only know himself if he "tests" himself in experience or "stakes" his self against reality. To a certain extent, the cliche that life is an experiment holds true in the sense that it is in life's playground where we play our selves or put our selves on the line not in order to win but in order to learn from and study our selves. And to heighten the metaphor, those who have earned a wealth of knowledge about themselves are those who have wagered themselves in higher stakes and participated in the most number of games. In literal terms, those who know themselves more are those who have been willing to "lose" (sorry, there goes the metaphor again) themselves in a variety of experiences even in the danger of passing through the painful experience of alienation. Because for them, the more varied the experiences they go through, the more chances they have of revealing and knowing themselves.

Camus said that when it comes to life, the rule is quantity over quality. He meant to say that one has to be many things. To clarify, this does not merely mean "trying new things out" or a kind of adventurism to be found in the curiosity exhibited by the young. It is more like being an actor who is able to play many characters and play (or wear) different personas (masks). To be many means to be open to different possibilities and actually pursuing them (and not just skimming the different waters or what the Filipino word tikim or "to just taste" means). For Camus, life is not something to be built but something to be burned; what is important is its appetite and not its moderation. For, we may add, it is only in the different lives we try to live or in the different personas we play out that we may have true knowledge of our own lives and of our own personality.

Becoming many: this means leaving your self and testing it against different selves. It may thus entail having to go against yourself, being alienated from yourself and playing the anti-hero if the script so requires. This was what I meant when I told my friend that it might be good to try being his anti-self. For like a phoenix which rises from its ashes, it is when one's self dies that the true self is born to fly.


With thanks to Allan for the epigram.

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