My friend Tom Abel comes and meets with me on Tuesday afternoons. The purpose for our meetings, ostensibly, is to read Martin Buber’s I and Thou, but we make remarkably little progress week over week. We begin with the text, but it always takes us elsewhere, which is, as I have argued many times, exactly what reading should do.
Yesterday, one of the ricochets in our conversation struck the question of how we come to define ourselves as human beings in our social and cultural landscape. More plainly, we were wondering exactly how we managed to enter highschool with very little idea of who we were and exit it with an idea of ourselves that has remained largely operative ever since. What, we asked, was the catalyst for this self-realization.
As we proceeded to tell the stories of this experience in our lives, it became obvious that the central element in both narratives was the role of writing. Both of us identified our increasing ability to define ourselves with an increasing ability to express ourselves through language, particularly in its written forms. For both of us, it seemed that our growing linguistic ability allowed us to define ourselves precisely as people who had this ability, and also provided us with the tools and the vocabulary to express this self-definition to ourselves and to others.
Now, there are those, perhaps, even probably, whose aptitudes and interests produce an experience of self-definition that is not primarily linguistic. There are also those, almost certainly, for whom this experience of self-definition does not occur during highschool. There are even those, I suspect, unfortunately, who never have this experience at all. Even so, I am interested in the degree to which both Tom and I found this self-defining process to be interrelated with a coming to writing. I am curious to know how common this experience is and to understand more fully how writing and self-definition are related.
My very preliminary thoughts on the subject would include a strict insistence that a linguistic facility can never be adequate to the self as such, but can only ever define the self sufficiently for my own needs. Though my linguistic self-definition certainly bears a relation to the self that I am, I would argue that this relation is not essential. Its function is not to reveal the self, but to translate, construct, produce, define, delimit the self in ways that permit me to function in the world. Beyond this, however, I am uncertain how to proceed, and I would welcome the contributions of others on the subject.