Day 143: the swelling spleen and phrenzy raging rife

On my drive to work on Tuesday I decided that George Michael’s song “Freedom ’90” is a Rousseavian critique of Franklinian self-fashioning. I was on my way to lecture, where I was to teach Franklin’s Autobiography, that paean to the art of self-reinvention. For Franklin as for Hume, identity is labile: “… as the same individual republic may not only change its members, but also its laws and constitutions; in like manner the same person may vary his character and disposition, as well as his impressions and ideas, without losing his identity” (Hume, Treatise, 1739). The words “character” and “identity” are important, here. You can vary your “character” without changing your “identity.” For Franklin, then, a self, like a republic, may be vastly improved and even perfected, with the use of the right methods and the cultivation of the right habits.

For Rousseau, by contrast, there is an essential, persistent self. His aim in the Confessions is to record that self, not to reinvent it: “The real object of my confessions,” he writes, “is to communicate an exact knowledge of what I interiorly am.”

“Freedom ’90,” as I heard it on the way to work, views the speaker’s misguided, Franklinian past from the perspective of a Rousseauvian epiphany. The speaker recalls how he initially achieved professional success by adopting Franklin’s technique of fashioning his self according to the demands of his audience: “I went back home got a brand new face / For the boys on MTV.” But eventually the speaker tires of this “show,” and an authentic, interior self asserts itself:

“I think there’s something you should know / I think it’s time I stopped the show / There’s something deep inside of me / There’s someone I forgot to be.”

I could go on with this reading of the song, but I can’t be bothered. I have deep affection for Rousseau, Franklin and especially George Michael, but on Tuesday I found myself profoundly irritated by their self-actualizing narratives. Both the idea that the self is infinitely variable and the idea of some ineffable interior self buried deep beneath the socially molded exterior share the assumption that one might shrug off the socialized self like a snake shedding its skin. Both models resist an idea of selfhood as material and embodied. And that’s why both the Rousseauvian and Franklinian models ring false with me.

Here I should probably quote Spinoza, or Deleuze but I can’t be bothered with them either. Instead I will just say that I find it difficult, at this moment, to distinguish myself either from the imperatives my body exerts upon me, or from the imperatives the external world exerts upon me. If only my perceptions felt the way Hume characterizes them. He makes them sound so light and gauzy, like a fluttering swarm of butterflies, “which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.” But if the mind is a kind of theatre, as Hume represents it, mine is not one through which perceptions elegantly “glide,” sylph-like, as he would have it. No, my perceptions land, heavy-footed, like a ton of bricks.

Hunger. Fatigue. Grief. Guilt.

Sensation for me comes more like Edmund Spenser’s sickly parade of sins in The Faerie Queene, “The swelling Spleen, and Phrenzy raging rife, /The shaking Palsey, and Saint Frauncis’ Fire,” tramping through the theatre on their crew of motley beasts, pissing on the stage and leaving mud stains on the seats.

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