ON ONESELF – by Nicolas D. Sampson
Books lead to other books. Read one and you’re reminded of another. New publications refer to past ones, famous and obscure. Genres cross over, involving similar concepts, tropes, devices. Writers lift, pay tribute, re-imagine, claim as their own and take it a step further in their effort to tell gripping, original stories. Pick up the trail and we end up making extraordinary connections.
Welcome to Connection Degree Three …
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami; White Noise by Don DeLillo; Altered States by Paddy Chayefsky: three mind-bending tales on the struggle between life and death, the known and the unknowable, the effort to stay in shape in the wake of advancing age. Each of these books deals with the subject of ‘self,’ containing at least one reference to it in terms of breakdown and reconstitution.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running mentions briefly the tendency in artists and celebrities to ruin their health in pursuit of fame and recognition. It goes on to explain in great detail how Haruki Murakami, the author/narrator, strives to maintain his health via a grueling system of exercise that breaks him down daily, only to reconstitute him stronger than before.
The author says at one point:
‘I’m not a human. I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead. That’s what I told myself. That’s about all I thought about, and that’s what got me through. If I were a living person of blood and flesh I would have collapsed from the pain. There definitely was a being called me right there. And accompanying that is a consciousness that is the self. But at that point, I had to force myself to think that those were convenient forms and nothing more. It’s a strange way of thinking and definitely a very strange feeling – consciousness trying to deny consciousness. You have to force yourself into an inorganic place. Instinctively I realized that this was the only way to survive.’
White Noise mentions how Elvis Presley became a legend only after he ruined his health, as if his personal destruction somehow inspired others to create a myth around him. The destruction of the self is a revered process, nowadays the subject of ever-increasing scrutiny in the age of mass media, which leads to more damage, which explains how tormented celebrity is, in turn affecting ordinary folks.
The destruction of the self is in part a byproduct of fear, a dread which, if faced and acknowledged, defines one’s sense of identity. The process is counterintuitive. By annihilating ourselves, or causing damage to our core, we gain a new persona. An existence destroyed is a means to an end, an end that leads to a new beginning.
The author goes on to say through an elusive yet brilliant side-character called Winnie:
‘Picture yourself, Jack, a confirmed homebody, a sedentary fellow who finds himself walking in a deep wood. You spot something out of the corner of your eye. Before you know anything else, you know that this thing is very large and that it has no place in your ordinary frame of reference. A flaw in the world picture. Either it shouldn’t be here or you shouldn’t. Now the thing comes into full view. It is a grizzly bear, enormous, shiny brown, swaggering, dripping slime from its bared fangs. Jack, you have never seen a large animal in the wild. The sight of this grizzer is so electrifyingly strange that it gives you a renewed sense of yourself, a fresh awareness of the self – the self in terms of a unique and horrific situation. You see yourself in a new and intense way. You rediscover yourself. You are lit up for your own imminent dismemberment. The beast on hind legs has enabled you to see who you are as if for the first time, outside familiar surroundings, alone, distinct, whole. The name we give this complicated process is fear.’
And Jack replies:
‘Fear is self-awareness raised to a higher level.’
‘That’s right, Jack.’
Altered States is the story of Dr. Jessup, a brilliant scientist in search of meaning in a world of shallow and profane phenomena. Jessup believes there is something more profound underwriting the human condition, something he can access by applying himself to the human experience in a way that breaks down all barriers, peering into the original thought. There, beyond the fear of death and annihilation, a new identity is going to be born.
Says Jessup (and the author through Jessup):
‘I’m a man in search of his true self. How archetypically American can you get? Everybody’s looking for his true self. We’re all trying to fulfill ourselves, understand ourselves, get in touch with ourselves, get ahold of ourselves, face the reality of ourselves, explore ourselves, expand ourselves. Ever since we dispensed with God, we’ve got nothing but our selves to explain this meaningless horror of life … Well, I think that true self, that original self, that first self is a real, mensurate, quantifiable thing, tangible and incarnate. And I’m going to find the fucker.’
Jessup, in fact, succeeds. He finds what he’s looking for, but only after breaking his identity down to indiscernible existence and then watching his pieces dissolve and disappear. Jessup has pulverized his humanity to discover the very thing he’d been carrying inside him all along, which had eluded him all this time: his humanity! – conceptualized only after having lost it. Assembled out of the remains of his shattered existence.
Which leads us back to What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and Murakami’s choice of running long distances over the course of decades, a task during which he not only mentally reinvents himself as a machine – it’s his way to overcome the punishing distances – but also breaks down his muscles daily, allowing them to rebuild in harder, leaner form, enabling him to stay in touch with the deeper aspects of himself.
And here we are. The fear of old age and degeneration, the fear of death and failure, plus the ability to transcend one’s limitations, all of it achieved through breakdown and reconstitution. The notion of ‘self attained and reinforced’ by the fear of death and failure – by the breakdown of one’s body and the tampering with one’s health, and the ability to reclaim said health should one wish to, or surrender to its collapse should one choose to – all of it rendered with conviction in these three books.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running; White Noise; Altered States: three grueling tales of self-exploration, three challenging takes on the nature of breakdown and reconstitution, the outcome of which may be hard to predict, yet always discernible in relation to oneself.