More on self-alienation

Self-alienation is incompatible with a sense of having a biographical life of one’s own; such a sense is necessary for seeing one’s own life as meaningful. This is perhaps why sometimes a person who sees his life as meaningless would express his dim view by saying “I don’t even have a life”. Obviously he has a life, a biographical life; it is just that he has no identities at all that he identifies himself with. This is why a person might not see his life as meaningful even if he is, as Susan Wolf puts it, “actively and at least somewhat successfully engaged in a project (or projects) of positive value” (“The Meanings of Lives”, p.65), for he may still alienate himself from the project (or, from his identity as the person who has that project) even if he pursues it actively in some way.

It is not unimaginable that a person would alienate himself from a project of his which he is being actively and successfully engaged in and which has positive value in the eyes of others. Let us consider the case of Tolstoy. For most people, his identity as a great novelist, or more specifically, as the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, certainly had positive value, but the following is how Tolstoy himself thought about this identity in A Confession:

During this time I began to write out of vanity, self-interest and pride. In my writings I did the same as I did in life. In order to achieve the fame and money for which I wrote I had to conceal what was good in myself and display what was bad. And this is what I did. Time and again I would contrive in my writing to conceal under the guise of indifference, or even of light-heartedness, those strivings for goodness which lent meaning to my life. And I succeeded and was praised.
Or thinking about the fame my own writing brought me, I would say to myself, “Well fine, so you will be more famous than Gogol, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Molière, more famous than all the writers in the world, and so what?”

It is clear that Tolstoy himself, at least when he was writing A Confession, did not think his life was meaningful by virtue of his identity as a respected and famous novelist. It did not matter to him what others thought; even if everyone else thought his life was meaningful by virtue of his identity as a greater writer, he did not think so because he did not identify himself with that identity ¾ he did not think this is what he really was or what he wanted himself to be.

If it is not clear enough from the above quoted passages that Tolstoy alienated himself from his identity as a novelist, a writer, or an artist, the following passage should make it clear:

‘Art, poetry …’ For a long time, under the influence of success and praise from others, I had persuaded myself that this was a thing that could be done, […] But I quickly realized that this too was a delusion. It was clear to me that art is an adornment and embellishment of life. But it had lost its charm for me, so how could I charm others? While I was not living my own life but was being carried along on the crest of another life, as long as I believed that life had meaning even if I could not express it, the reflection of life in poetry and in art of all kinds gave me joy and I enjoyed watching life through the mirror of art. But when I began to search for the meaning of life, when I began to feel the necessity of living, I found this mirror either unnecessary, superfluous and ridiculous, or tormenting.

It is also clear from what Tolstoy said about his identity as a writer that he did not value this identity even though it was (and would be) valued by others. This suggests that a person cannot value an identity of hers without identifying herself with that identity. Some may think that since a person can identify herself with an identity that she does not value (such as in the case of a Dalit), she can also value an identity which she in fact has but which she does not identify herself with. Let me explain why the latter is not true. To identify oneself with one’s identity as x is to see x as part of what one really is, while to value one’s identity as x is to see x as what one wants to be or what one should be. It is possible for a person to believe that she really is x without wanting to be x or believing that she should be x ¾ it is possible for her to identify herself with x without valuing x. Now if a person wants to be x or believes that she should be x, and if she indeed is x and is aware that x is one of her identities, then it does not make sense for her to deny that she really is x. Indeed, given that she wants to be x, she cannot consistently refuse to embrace her identity as x ¾ she cannot consistently value x without identifying herself with x.

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