Brains, Literature, Disposable Selves

The Self is Disposable, Isn’t It?

Not for most of us for most of the time. But its reality can be brought into question. There are exotic cases of apparent persons who seem to lack a self. Bureaucracies and the structures capitalism seem to deflate any rich sense of self. And the splendor of brain science swallows our better judgment about the reality of selves.

My previous Zeteo post, 01.03.2016, followed the incredible story of a girl of many disguises, told by Maria Konnikova in a New Yorker essay

For we who observe from the outside our first impression is that she is driven by the risk, adventure, and challenge of setting up new identities in new places among trusting, credulous strangers. They become her friends and unknowingly support her deception — until she calls it off, and runs to a new location.

As we absorb more of her story, we come to doubt she has anything to tell herself about her exploits. She would have a real self only if she could tell herself a story. It would be the story of an unfolding “someone” deeper than her publicly traceable episodes of deception, and more or less continuous between them – “someone” who could take pride or feel shame or be cavalierly indifferent as she reflects on her serial exploits.

Instead, she works like an idiot savant, a genius of deceptions with no bone fide self underneath it all. She can’t frame her exploits narratively to herself as things that she does, or as things for which she might be responsible.

Stories should be front and center in our understanding of selves, our own and others, but this fact is often sidelined. For one thing, we think that “narration” or “story” are terms for literary critics to juggle.

Then, from another angle, we bypass stories when we think of how we must present ourselves to bureaucracies and institutions: through internet passwords, monthly bills, parking tickets, paychecks. This identity is indispensable in day to day activities, but it’s hardly a self to value or recount to grand-kids or friends-to-be. We are more than our identity cards on file in a face-less data base “elsewhere” or stacked in a drawer of our desks.

This archival identity is necessary. It flits through an impersonal world that meshes nicely with the soul-stealing worlds of capitalism and consumerism — worlds that funnel through bureaucracies that take on a faceless life of their own.

images-6But this complex juggernaut swallows up the space of stories we would otherwise tell to ourselves and others. Rather than make a lengthy diary entry, or write a three-page letter to a friend, or read Jane Austen, or compose a poem, or think thoughtfully about our ups and downs and directions, gazing out over water, we dash up to Facebook and back.

Where is the soul, the deep self that cares for our feelings and felt-realities, our ventures, relationships, and roots? Do we even seek such a stream?

There’s another distraction, beyond archival identities and hijacking by faceless institutions that makes the self (or soul) seem like an illusion. I’m thinking here of the irresistible glamour of brain-science.


The Dec 30 New York Times gives us a dramatic introduction to the British neurosurgeon, Henry Marsh.

His job, we’re told, is to “slice into the brain.” Exciting enough! But the writer goes on to assure us that

the brain is the most complex structure we know of in the universe, where everything that makes us human is contained

What if love, or looking at stars, or being offended by indignities or having children, makes us human? Of course we need brains, but brains must be linked to hands that caress and eyes that gaze hatred or kindness, and to a child’s intuitive 553098_508303782525729_716802173_nunderstanding of the joys of dance.

Why say our humanity is “in the brain” rather than “in the eye”  that stares or looks lovingly. Why not say our humanity is “in the hand”  that slaps or delivers a caress?

Why not say our humanity is in the joy of finding limbs, arms, and flying hair in play?

And what, pray tell, makes a brain more complex than an Outer Galaxy or a WWII Naval Battle in the Pacific, or the untold depths of a Great Russian Novel?


Novelists and poets display all sorts of persons — who they are, the selves they become or lose, their formation or collapse, and always with identities changing, in transition, and flowing among others. All this sense of our humanity is displayed without reference to brain-circuitry.

If “everything that makes us human” is contained in a Homer or Dostoevsky (and endless, endless others), why do we run for the brain?

We embrace brain-science because of a noble myth. It says that science rightly rules over all questions of how things work. Literature, after all, is “fantasy” and “entertainment,” “make-believe.” We want the truth and nothing but the truth.

But literature in its tenderness and cruelty and joy can be true to life in a way nerve firings never can.


Why not amend that quote to say,

literature gives us the most complex structure we know of in the universe, where everything that makes us human is contained

After all, we have Melville, Homer, Austen, or Dostoevsky (or endless others) telling stories of selves in the making, and also telling a larger story of devils or gods, a larger, cosmic reality that infuses and surrounds whatever makes images-2Penelope or Ivan or Starbuck tick.

Jane Austen (among endless others) will tell us what makes families, and communities tick, leaving out the cosmic embellishments. And telling what makes our communities and we who inhabit them tick is also telling us what we might love or shun, pursue or leave aside, embrace or remain indifferent to.

We get all this treasure without a shred of data about brains.

As I find myself setting down roots in a new town and making new friends I imagine what parts of my story will be easy for others to assimilate and what parts, out of prudence, I will for the moment keep to myself.

And I wonder what parts I’ll reveal gingerly, monitoring their reception.

I’ll wonder what stories of me they’ll tell when I’m out of sight.

images-4This is all so familiar we can easily overlook its centrality to all lives, real or imagined.

I admit that in fact I love to read about brains, and have become somewhat knowledgeable. But for me, that’s challenging but largely recreational reading. It feeds my imagination and fantasies, aesthetic sensibilities and attraction to problem-solving. It’s like reading detailed accounts of a North Pole expedition. There’s even drama hidden away in the launching of this new theory or that.


Literature – and my attention to stories told and heard in the everyday – work together to shape and expose a wondrous, delightful, imagesand often fearsome swirl of selves and worlds, not least, my own, woven mysteriously but surely into it all.


—Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor

Credits: Zeteo, 01.03.2016: Narrative, Performance, Selves, and Solitude;  Maria Konnikova, “How Stories Deceive, The New Yorker, posted December 29, 2015, at Thanks to Google Images for items suggestive of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, and for this stalwart woman to your left, for whom neither self nor soul are illusions: The Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey, for whom there is no weekend — every day is luxurious.

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