Naive thoughts on the fragility of human identity

These are some ideas I have had recently while reading Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral, which, among other things, examines the nature of our endemic misconception of our fellow actors in this theatre of the absurd, namely the question of identity.

Given the fact we perceive directly (by sight – in a momentary glimpse or an eternal gaze, by sound, by touch and so on) a tiny proportion of the entire human population of the world, the question arises; where do the other 6 billion people live? When I die what conception of the totality of humanity dies with me? Have I lived a life that has engaged with even the slightest notion of the vastness of our species, and more importantly, have my moral choices suffered as a result of this fact? Growing up in this part of the world, I think I will die with a view that is stilted by the blinkered existence of comfort that I have lived to this point, the cataract of wealth and health blinding me to the painful reality of the lives of almost every other person on the planet, save for a relative handful of intimate acquaintances and companions (and of course, family – telling, I added this one on revision.)

Is it possible for me, as an individual, to comprehend in its totality – or even to a useful degree (I mean morally useful) – the reality of the experiences of all human individuals on Earth? Above all, i__s this total comprehension necessary to function as a moral human being? This is an especially important question given that we now are tied in increasingly inextricable fashions to the economic and political fates of increasingly larger demographics thanks to the reality of globalisation. Now, more than ever, the moral choices we make both as consumers and as citizens have an effect on a massive number fellow human beings, fellow-travellers endowed with equal moral agency in innumerable aspects of their lives, not least their personal (physical) and economic security.

I suspect the answer to the above is in the negative, that is to say, no, such a feat is psychologically impossible given the number of human identities involved, and would never achieve meaningful consistency given the organic permutations of a living population – not least considering the binary realities of death and birth.

Accepting that, we could consider generalising our conception of humanity – something humans do quite well, compartmentalising and compressing our reality into bite-size, yet wholly low-resolution chunks of generality, and this seems to be what is being done, especially by those who take up a deep concern with the future of the wider human family in the myriad genuine humanitarian institutions. I will not consider the merits and demerits of a watered-down and sanitised conception of the vastness of the human race, save to flag my skepticism that such an approach is working.

For the time being, I am more interested in the way we set about trying to understand the small fraction of humanity we do come into direct contact with, the people we meet from the moment during infancy in which we realise the distinction between the self and society at large until the moment we cease to be of interest to he or she, that ruminant historian that “will be the last, the very last” to pursue our identity for what it was. I am more interested in the way our personality, our human identity rests in the minds of others – and nobody else, namely that this beast called identity is somehow both me, and outside of me, both mine and outside of my control. By outside of my control, I mean that even the best of us manipulating bastards can never mould with complete control the image of ourselves in the mind of an other. We (our identities) are at the mercy of everyone else’s perception (and hence their mind), and they are at ours.

This means that when I die, a little piece of the identity of the collection of human beings I have come in contact with withers. A fragment of the reality of their identity ceases to exist (insofar as we understand a conception to conform with statements of existence). It is also true to say that when a fellow human being dies, should I have had the happenstance to grace their peripheral field of vision in a forgotten instant or the misfortune (as I shall consider later) to have fallen deeply in love with them, a part of my identity is destroyed too, leaving nothing but scattered fragile and ultimately transient physical artifacts, the only tangible remembrances of an individual whose delicate steps traced barely perceptible patterns on the surface of this earth.

Yet from none of these artifacts can be extrapolated the contingently social nature of identity, that is what it is to be that human, and to be identified so by your peers, in that entirely implicit way we do on meeting anyone – the way we realise, you are in essence another I, and that we are equally lost, equally mortal, equally flawed, equally hopeless and above all equally insignificant should we remain alone. This is the tacit acceptance that binds us together, for the time being.

Isn’t it a profoundly deep tragedy that those that we love the most we damage the most in our dying, because of those we love we conceive and nurture what we mutually consider to be the most elaborate, detailed and intricate picture of the identity of our loved ones. And worse, if we are to be ideal lovers, we hope, in the way that true lovers should, that our conception, our comprehension of that single individual is more intricate and more faithful than that of any other human mind ever to have existed or ever to exist. Then when one lover dies, inevitable as nature wills it be, the closest conception of the infinitely complex self of the bereaved is obliterated, and obliterated eternally, and they feel the piercing pain of what it is to lose, not just a compassionate fellow-traveller, not just a professed lover, not only a perceived component of themselves, but a component of their self, of the life they have lived up until that heart-shattering moment, after which nothing remains the same.