Monday, November 26, 2007

Why You Can't Ever Really Know Anybody - And Why That's Not So Bad, After All

We should be honest with one another, right? Because when we keep secrets from those closest to us, we create a rift: our intimates are being denied data they might otherwise use to understand us. So even when it’s awkward, or untimely, or it just plain hurts, we should be share the truth with our loved ones so that they can better understand who we really are.

Well. I don’t think so. I think that sometimes, some dishonesty can be really healthy in a relationship. Now, I don’t think that we should – in general – manipulate other people, if only for the simple reason that the pay-offs of manipulation (sex, attention, whatever) are outweighed by the distress of being a manipulator. But then again, sometimes hiding a part of yourself can be less about dishonesty and more about consciously crafting your public self.

To look at this, I’d point you in the direction of Jonathan Swift’s A Lady’s Dressing Room. In the poem a bumbling lover Stephon steals into the bathroom belonging to the girl he has a crush on, Celia. In there he finds a survey of disgusting things: her stained underwear, her dirty towels, and – worst of all – her chamber-pot. Stephon vows never to find another girl pretty ever again.

This poem is a staple of English classes. I was exposed to it countless times – burdened with ploughing through countless bumbling feminist analyses that marked Swift as a woman-hating demon. One prominent reading of the poem reckons Swift a misogynist (English professors, I suspect, use the poem to teach young undergrads the word misogynist). By focusing so much on Celia’s ugliness, Swift is saying that all women are ugly, he’s being a voyeur, he’s being bad, something.

But that’s a woeful misreading of the poem, I realize. In the last stanza, Swift writes that Stephon is actually an idiot. Now whenever he sees a woman, he thinks that they’re just ugly beasts instead of appreciating them as beautiful – even if they are ugly underneath their makeup, they are beautiful . Swift admonishes us instead to look at the conscious artifice of beauty, and appreciate it for the crafted thing it is:

Should I the Queen of Love refuse,
Because she rose from stinking Ooze?
To him that looks behind the Scene,
Satira's but some pocky Quean.

He soon would learn to think like me,
And bless his ravisht Sight to see
Such Order from Confusion sprung,
Such gaudy Tulips rais'd from Dung.

But what does this poem tell us about honesty? Well, Stephon does something that we modern 21st-century sensitive American types do: he tries to play archeologist to a person to discover their ‘true selves’. In loving someone, he wants to investigate. When he finds that what he loves is just an image, he reacts too strongly, and believes the lovely image to simply hide ugliness. When our friends keep secrets from us – especially those juicy secrets about betrayal, sex, pain, crime – we think that they are hiding important parts of their personalities, in the absence of which, we cannot understand their “true self”.

And thus we get a lot of clap-trap about coming clean, about talking things through.

Well, I don’t think that you need to talk everything in a relationship through. And I don’t think I need to know everything about a friend to stay friends with them. Instead, I think that the desire for knowledge about our friends’ secrets spring from no nobler source than a thirst for gossip and a hope for control. We have public, crafted selves. We reveal only parts of our personalities to the outside world. And rather than that being dishonest or slimy or wrong, I think it’s part of the essential part of being a person. But when we get close to someone, we may want to see their hidden side, thinking it somehow more special for being rarer.

Look, Celia’s private ugliness is accidental: she doesn’t mean for her dressing-room to be looked at. And yet her public beauty is conscious. And so Stephon makes a mistake by confusing Celia’s uncrafted accidental self with her crafted, public, intentioned self. Isn’t the consciously-crafted self more of a person than their accidental ugliness? If I am consciously kind, and yet, in a moment of drunken torpor, yell at a friend, you would forgive me, because I am in general a nice person – even if my natural reaction is nasty, and I display only a conscious, crafted niceness. We would not think that just because I put effort in to live well, that I am somehow nastily hiding a truer, albeit more vicious inner self.

This is why – by the way – it’s so embarrassing when people see you when you don’t expect them. When a co-worked walks by you when you are making fun of them, when your grandma accidentally stumbles across that video of you drunk that’s circulating around YouTube, when you send drunk e-mails.


One of the big problems with Stephon’s approach to Celia is that he sees the hidden Celia as her true self. He sees two descriptions of Celia: ugly Celia and pretty Celia. The ugly Celia is what’s ‘really real’. And similarly, when we demand honesty from our friends, we are imagining that getting all that juicy gossip will help us get to know our friends’ ‘true self’. But part of both Buddhist and (some) pragmatic epistemology is that descriptions of a thing are revisable and particular.

Let me unpack that. Buddhists think that all descriptions are impermanent and subjective. A person who we think is nice can be thought of as evil. A heavy rain might be a hassle for pedestrians, but great for farmers. Once we understand that the true nature of reality lacks human description, we are able to be more conscious with our description. Yeah, while we think that when a girl dumps us it sucks, we can also realize that it might not be the worst thing for everyone – the description is relative. Anyway – everything human, all description, is impermanent.

The pragmatic side of this is that all descriptions are revisable and particular. Whenever we describe something, we’re doing it from a particular angle, for a particular purpose, and we always leave open the option for changing our description. I describe a girl I see as beautiful, say – but then I see her face and, on closer inspection, she is actually a hag. Or: I think a girl is very charming and wonderful, then figure out that she is a girl that broke my friends’ heart, and suddenly her charm looks like artifice.

This doesn’t seem like too profound a thought on first blush. But, I think that it means something very important. For one, that we have no true self. There is no golden, unimpeachable, solid self: there is only a couple different selves under different descriptions. Look at the difference between Brendan as a cashier, Brendan as a journalist, Brendan as a roommate, and you can see how you can find at least three drastically different selves at play in a single person on a single day. This means, I think, that the process of trying to unearth our loved one’s true selves is wrong-headed. There is no true self to uncover. There are only various different manifestations of that self. And, if you want to have a self where you sit around and air your dirty laundry, then fine, but you should think over that: does it really help your loved ones understand you more? Is it useful? Or is it just another exercise, another act, one that’s just sloppier, and ugly?

1 comment:

shelli said...

I really enjoyed reading your observations and after doing so, very much agree with you.
I've been obsessed about being honest with friends, family, lovers and find that in many situations, it causes way more pain, confusion, complication and overall discomfort than if I chose not to say anything at all.
Really though, I think that it is more so a reflection of the person themselves, the one who needs/wants to know the information. Perhaps a way to cover up or relieve insecurities.
But why must we know everything? I'm trying to let go of that.