4/20/2012

Self-alienation

Consider a woman who has a phenomenal talent for music, who always wants to be a cellist, but who decided to pursue a medical career because that was what her parents very much wanted her, and pressured her, to do. She has finally become a top brain surgeon after years of study and hard work, but this has never been what she really wants herself to be. Suppose someone congratulates her on her achievement; if she responds by saying "Thank you, but that's my parents' achievement, not mine", she will be saying something that is in a clear sense true. Since being a brain surgeon is not what she wants herself to be ¾ since she alienates herself from her identity as a brain surgeon, she cannot address positively her concern about who she is by answering "I am a brain surgeon" even if she can annex something positive to it such as "who helps people in a big way". The problem is that, for her, the "I am" is misplaced in such an answer.

We all have some identities that we do not identify ourselves with; this is just normal, for a person can have a strong and stable sense of who he is only if there are not too many things that he thinks he is, that he thinks define who he is. It would not be a problem if a person alienates himself from some, or even many, of his identities, but it would be a serious problem if he alienates himself from all of his identities. When a person has no identities that he identifies himself with, he is alienating himself from his whole biographical life. In that case, he is indeed alienating himself from himself, for some of his identities must define who he is in order for him to be the person who is living the biographical life that he is living, to be the I who would own the first-person version of his biography, i.e., his autobiography. As Camus so vividly and penetratingly portrays it in L’√Čtranger,* the life of a person who alienates himself not only from the world around him, but also from himself, is a meaningless life to the person himself.


* “√Čtranger” in French means either "foreigner", "outsider", or "stranger". Some English translations use the title The Stranger, some the title The Outsider. The protagonist Meursault is a stranger, a foreigner, or an outsider not only to people around him, but also to himself.

1 comment:

  1. Been following your blogs intermittently for a while. As one without a clear identity I quite enjoyed this particular post. A serious problem indeed. Thank you for the book recommendation, The Stranger is an interesting read.

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