We Are Other People

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Who are my heroes? It’s a more pressing question for me than most people, because I have never had an original thought. They all come from my heroes, writers who have tried their best to make sense of life.

If my mom is reading this, I should point out that I don’t mean this in a self-demeaning kind of way. I have a big, healthy ego; I am full of all the amour propre that a good, bourgeoisie upbringing in a land of plenty brings.

But from the time I seriously began to clarify my own ideas, in my late teens, I saw that the only ones that made sense came from the writers I read and admired. My own mind was a tangle of deadends whose insignificance would have stupefied Faulkner.

The first steps upward were crude–Tolkien, the Bible, the Arthurian tales–but they were my first tottering efforts to shape a wilderness of scattershot thought scraps into a worldview as such. It was not very pretty work.

It was only in my forties, and after two and a half degrees in philosophy, that I could pick up ideas at speed and adapt them to the ones that had already stuck together near the center of my mental life. The Polish writer Wittold Gombrowicz eased me into this mode with his unusal novel Ferdydurke, in which he illustrates that persistent immaturity is the natural state of being human. Plato and Aristotle expressed this point long ago, and more stolidly, saying we humans are constantly becoming, never simply being.

Orhan Pamuk spins out a theme closely related to this one in his excellent novels: our identities are to a great extent constituted by impressions of things around us and the ideas, sayings and attitudes of the people closest to us. We are other people.  (And to a lesser extent, we are the constellation of our physical accoutrements, a theme for another day.)

By the way, for the benefit of you analytic philosophers out there–I know you of old–you won’t frighten me with the prospect of eternal regression that threatens this proposition. If we are all other people, you might object, the people from whom we derive our identities are other people as well, and ultimately you’ll have to say that no one is who they really are. For the moment, I’ll just say I’m fine with that. In my thirties I would have at least tried to argue my way out of it, but for now my response would be: read all of Milan Kundera’s novels and see if you are as discomfited with the idea as you were before you picked him up. Kundera, I have found, has the power to make you stop thinking of a number of silly things.

existentialism

But to my point. Given the path my life has taken, I’ve found it a highly useful exercise to examine the matter of my heroes: who are they, where did they come from, why do they speak to me?

So as soon as I have time, I’d like to write down some thoughts on three of the writers who have most captivated me in recent years, three of my heroes: Camus, Orwell and James Baldwin. They seem an unlikely trio to shove together, but that is the way of stargazing; constellations often don’t leap out at us, we construct them over time.

What could these sons of (respectively) French Algeria, provincial England, and 1930s Harlem have to say to me, a hillbilly Army brat of the late 20th century who is constantly become, never being? I hope to tell you soon.

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