The Challenge of Living with Multiple Identities: 'Does Monotheism Breed Monomania?' ([Dagger])

By Cooper, Howard | European Judaism, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The Challenge of Living with Multiple Identities: 'Does Monotheism Breed Monomania?' ([Dagger])


Cooper, Howard, European Judaism


1.

I think this is a wonderful theme--'The Challenge of Living with Multiple Identities'--and as soon as I heard it I thought of this quotation from a contemporary novelist and essayist. I hope it's a useful starting-point.

   In the modern age, we have come to understand our own selves as
   'composites, often contradictory, even internally incompatible. We
   have understood that each of us is many different people. Our
   younger selves differ from our older selves; we can be bold in the
   company of our lovers and timorous before our employers, principled
   when we instruct our children and corrupt when offered some secret
   temptation; we are serious and frivolous, loud and quiet, aggressive
   and easily abashed. The nineteenth-century concept of the integrated
   self has been replaced by this jostling crowd of Is. And yet, unless
   we are damaged or deranged, we usually have a relatively clear sense
   of who we are. I agree with my many selves to call all of them
   'me'. (1)

Now although the author suggests that this mode of self-understanding -that our selves are composites, often contradictory, even internally incompatible--is a modern phenomenon, it has a long history. I'm not going to trace it now, but just mention in passing Walt Whitman's famous line from 'Song of Myself' 'I am large. I contain multitudes' (stanza 5, first published in 1855), and his stanza 16: 'I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise / Regardless of others, ever regardful of others, / Maternal, as well as paternal, a child as well as a man, / Stuffed with the stuff that is coarse, and stuffed with the stuff that is fine'.

And we could go back to the French essayist Michel de Montaigne in the sixteenth century:

   Anyone who turns his prime attention on to himself will hardly
   ever find himself in the same state twice. I give my soul this
   face or that, depending upon which side I lay it down. I speak
   about myself in diverse ways: that is because I look at myself in
   diverse ways ... There is nothing I can say about myself as a whole,
   simply and completely, without intermingling and admixture. (2)

And so on.

So when I think of multiple identities I think firstly of this kind of internal polyphony of voices. (I'll come back to this aspect of our theme at the end). And then, when I think about multiple identities from a more sociological--or maybe its anthropological--perspective, I think of ways in which I'm male and English (though with a Scottish father), a Mancunian by birth yet also European by temperament; and I'm Jewish and religious (after a fashion) but also secular (after a fashion) and a rabbi by profession but also a psychoanalytic psychotherapist by training, and I'm a writer by accident, and a Manchester United supporter by circumstances of fate--and so on--and I take for granted the fruitful co-existence within me of these aspects of my identity (recognising that each of these designations, labels, is only a signpost, gesturing towards complexity, a marker on a journey rather than a destination arrived at).

And it's the creative interplay between these selves which is the stuff of life, and like all of us I'm weaving the fabric of a life out of this profusion of threads.

My specific self-questioning title for this evening--'Does Monotheism Breed Monomania?'--which I hope is both playful and provocative, has emerged from the conversation inside me between two of these identities, as it were. The dialogue within me between the analyst immersed in particular traditions of thinking about the human mind and its unconscious processes--and the rabbi who is one link in a chain of a millennia-old Judaic cultural heritage which can be thought of as a 'concentric tradition of reading' (the phrase is George Steiner's) centred on the Torah, but spreading ever outwards, and involving a 'fidelity to the written word' from the sacred scriptures of tradition to the definitive so-called 'secular' texts of our own times, like Kafka or Freud, texts which have their own luminosity, perhaps even, at times, numinosity.

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