The Decline of Self

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The Decline of Self

The Tenth Edition of Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary has this to say on the subject of self:

self n., pl selves 1 a: the entire person of an individual b: the realization or embodiment of an abstraction 2 a (1): an individual's typical character or behavior (2): an individual's temporary behaviour or character b: a person in prime condition 3: the union of elements (as body, emotions, thoughts, and sensations) that constitute the individuality and identity of a person 4: personal interest or advantage 5: material that is part of an individual organism.

The French existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre has this to say on the subject of self:

In the state I was in, if someone had come and told me I could go home quietly, that they would leave me my life whole, it would have left me cold: several hours or several years of waiting is all the same when you have lost the illusion of being eternal. I clung to nothing, in a way I was calm. But it was a horrible calm -- because of my body; my body, I saw with its eyes, I heard with its ears, but it was no longer me; it sweated and trembled by itself and I didn't recognize it anymore.

The existentialist movement, fairly recent in terms of human history, has found expression in some very different forms, from the religious examinations of Søren Kierkegaard to the solid atheism of Friedrich Nietzsche. One point upon which a fair number of existentialists have shared opinions, however, is that there is a strong element of uncertainty to human life: uncertainty, in particular, about just who or what this thing we call "self" is. This awakening to a dilemma concerning knowledge of, and connection with, one's self is one way in which the existentialist ...

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...llows him to pin a label on his self and pretend he knows what it is. What Sartre and Beckett are both trying to say, of course, is that such self-understanding is impossible, and the sooner we accept that, the safer our mental health may be.

Though existentialism is primarily a philosophical movement centering around free choice and the ultimate responsibility of each and every person, it seems to have taken a stance on the impossibility of knowing oneself, one's mind, one's desires, one's truth, as well. Perhaps, it being the major philosophical movement of the modern era, its members feel a responsibility to express the difficulty of living in this time. Perhaps they are trying, by showing us such stark futility, to shock us into an awareness of the impossibility of understanding our own existence. Perhaps they're just writing in the hopes of finding themselves.

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