THE CONCEPT OF THE SELF IN MODERNISM

James Soliah, Tyler Stokes and Anna Thomas

Sigmund Freud

The self has been a topic of interest throughout the history of human thought, and certainly remains one today.  The modernists writers, those working in the first part of the twentieth century, were particularly interested in subjectivity, the concept of self.  This interest arose from, and indeed contributed to, the new theories of self being presented in the social sciences and philosophy.  Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis was particularly important, even revolutionary, and influential.  An opposing, but just as important, school of thought came from the existential philosophers, starting with Friedrich Nietzsche, and later from writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

Freund emphasized the role of the unconscious in shaping subjectivity.  He divided the human mind into three parts: the id, the ego, and the super-ego.   These parts, representing different drives or motivations, are in constant struggle against one another.  Another of Freud's major hypothesis was that “adult human consciousness and identity is the culmination of a complicated childhood development process that includes various crises, with often unsteady resolutions? (Hall 60).  The self, then, was formed in early childhood, and any problems with it (those who were not "normal") could be fixed through therapy.  According to Freud, the past lingered always over the current self, and one had little agency when it came to changing that self.  The fact that a science, psychology, was developing at the turn of the century to study the self, seeking to "'discipline' subjectivity" (Hall 63), demonstrates the immense importance that the concept had gained in Western culture.

Philosophers have always had much to say about subjectivity, and Nietzsche and his followers are no exception.  The existentialists believed in the ability, the necessity, of the individual to construct his or her own self.  Life is given meaning by the individual, and though existentialists are accused of a lack of morality, Sartre maintains that in addition to constructing one's own identity, one is also responsible for society.  Indeed, the “struggle between individual freedom and social responsibility in self-creation animates much of the literature of the first half of the twentieth century? (Hall p.72).  Agency, then, was the most important concept in the existentialist picture of the self. 

 Modernist literature was concerned primarily with these concepts of self, but true to the character of the time, it did not present a consistent view of subjectivity; certainly, different writers had different ideas on the topic.  Even the obsession with subjectivity can be called into contention: while on the one hand, "it seems that modernism is built on highly subjective premises... elevate[ing] the ego in proportion to a diminishing awareness of objective or coherent outside reality" (Eysteinsson 27), on the other hand, "modernism is often held to draw its legitimacy primarily from writing based on highly antisubjectivist or impersonal poetics" (27).  Stream-of-consciousness writers fall into the first category, while writers like Eliot fall into the second.  In general, though, many modern writers were interested in the ways in which identity was constructed, and in the place of the self in modern society.  Paul Gaugin, in his well-know painting, asked "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where are We Going?"  Indeed, those were the questions that concerned many modern artists and writers.       

The ideas of Freud and of the existentialists, while certainly not the only concepts of self being considered in modern literature, were turning points in the way that people thought about subjectivity.  These concepts, in their many and contradictory forms, are apparent in the writings of many modern authors, T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys chief among them.

             T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett were two modernist authors who wrote largely self-reflexive poetry and drama.  Both authors adeptly creaded multiple copies of the self, opening up the possibility for internal dialogues.  The psychological concept of the divided self, which gained momentum early in the 20th century with first Freud and then Jung, left an indelible mark on literature of the modern era.

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T.S. Eliot

Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock? is a particularly potent example of this splitting of the self.  Donald Childs notes that the first line of the poem (“Let us go then, you and I?) is frequently the centerpiece of critical examination.  The psychologically-oriented interpretation holds that there is “a distinction between ‘I’ and ‘You,’ [Prufrock] differentiates between his thinking, sensitive character and his outward self… He is addressing, as if looking in a mirror, his whole public personality? (Childs 687).  Thus, the entirety of the Love Song is Prufrock talking to himself, reflecting not only on the way others view him but, more importantly, the way he views himself.  Later in the poem Prufrock admits that he has “seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter? (82).  He is looking inward, but in a sense places himself outside himself to gather perspective.  In fact, throughout the poem, Prufrock inhabits an interior landscape of his own creation.  The mermaids, the yellow fog and Prufrock’s two selves are all contained within him.  Prufrock also mirrors the thought of Carl Jung in splitting the self, particularly because the protagonist is so concerned with how he appears to others.  Prufrock illustrates forcefully Jung’s idea of the outwardly-focused self, in opposition to the true inner personality.

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Samuel Beckett

            The work of Samuel Beckett often reflected the prominent philosophical and psychological ideas of the time, including one important basic tenet of existentialism – each human being is defined by himself.  This is especially clear in Krapp’s Last Tape, where the protagonist is the only character in the play.  Because there is no one else to define himself against, Krapp is composed only of his own actions and how he describes himself.  The physical layout of the play even denies definition of Krapp by his surroundings.  Isolated and sparsely surrounded, Krapp turns to his only means of definition – himself.  The tapes provide a glimpse into his past; they are the “voices of consciousness reeling out, [the] ‘ends and odds’ of disjointed memories and stories? (Postlewait 473).  Krapp compares himself constantly to the slightly more idealistic voice on the tape, and this provides the only frame of reference the audience has in which to place Krapp.  The isolation and withdrawal into self-reflection represent the profoundly modern idea of existential self-definition.  Beckett’s work also reflects changing ideas in psychology, specifically Freud’s work concerning the division of the self into Ego, Superego and Id.  Waiting_for_Godot, one of Beckett’s best-known plays, depicts two bedraggled wanderers, Vladimir and Estragon, in a vaguely existential wait for a man named Godot, who never comes.  These two characters mirror the Ego and the Id.  Estragon, the more base of the two, is constantly troubled by basic needs: His shoes do not fit him well, his hat is itchy, and he repeatedly asks Vladimir for food.  He represents the Id, the subconscious part of the Freudian mind that expresses basic desires and needs.  On the other hand, Vladimir is the Ego – the conscious intellect.  The more intelligent (albeit slightly) of the two, he answers Estragon’s questions, performs the reasoning and provides his friend with food and companionship.  The two men can be thought of as separate parts of the same mind, working as a single unit to explore the human condition.  Extrapolating from this idea, Godot can be interpreted as an absentee Superego, whose very idea keeps Vladimir and Estragon returning to the same spot for an indefinite number of days, keeping them in check.  Waiting for Godot presents an absurdist realization of Freud’s divided self, manifested in its two tragicomic lost souls.

 

While Virginia Woolf demonstrates many ideas of self that comply with the theories of Sigmund Freud and his contemporaries, her view of self is neither simple nor consistent. As she writes with interiority, she emphasizes the social through such interiority; while she expresses the importance of interaction and experimentation in constructing the self, she seems “to have adhered pragmatically to some concept of agency, a central soul;? although she “occasionally speaks of finding her own voice or style . . ., individualistic self–fulfillment is not Woolf’s strategy for art or living,? (Little 28-38). 

 

Virginia Woolf Virginia Woolf

 

In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf uses the interior monologue to bring the reader close to the self as it manifests in many different characters. The interiority of the novel, therefore, becomes almost collective and social rather than singular and isolated. For Woolf, the self is experimental and various and changes through discourse and interaction with other subjectivities. She sees society as necessary in the construction of the self and the individual as only one ingredient in the creation of a human consciousness. “Although several of her most famous characters—such as Mrs. Dalloway and Mrs. Ramsay—seek time alone as a means of understanding themselves and others, they always return to their friends, their responsibilities, or even the socially crowded party.? In this way Woolf’s ideas of self are also feminized; Little links the need for social interaction in constructing the self with a history of feminine discourses such as “the social gathering that affirms relationships and encourages conversation, communication, or even gossip.? The interior and feminine subjectivity, however, does not simply contrast or replace former ideas of self; rather, it “dialogically infiltrates[s] and modif[ies] the masculine ideologies that inhabit the same text,? (Little 28-38).    

Woolf’s ‘experimental’ self, which changes and grows through interaction, offers a contrast to the mirrored self which only reflects what it sees. Woolf does not find herself as a reflection of her friends, but uses her friends as a “light? to understand and see her own self (Little 30-31). Elisabeth Easmond, however, suggests that mirroring is still an important part of self-identification in Woolf’s writing. While the self is fluid and changing, it is still a reflection of the surrounding environment; the self is changed through reflecting and merging with the environment. Easmond compares Woolf’s novels, which contain characters that identify with objects in their environment, to the ‘self-portraits’ of Frances Hodgkins that display only objects (Eastmond).

 

 

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Self-Portrait: Still Life, Frances Hodgkins

 

Woolf sees the ‘experimental’ and ‘various’ self as perhaps most important to writers, who should undoubtedly incorporate multiple discourses and subjectivities in what they consider the self; “How can you learn to write,? she says, “if you write about one single person?? “The desire to know the (one) truth or to know just one self narrows a person’s humanity . . . and narrows a writer’s creative responses,? (Little 31-32). 

If Woolf needs society to mix with and construct the self, Jean Rhys needs society for almost exactly the opposite; the self, for Rhys, is singular and defined in contrast to society. Unlike Woolf, Rhys believes that a writer can only write truthfully with their singular subjectivity; “If you want to write the truth . . . you must write about yourself . . . I am the only real truth I know.? Rhys, therefore, uses her highly autobiographical texts as a means of constructing the self. Ford Madox Ford, who plays a large role in the life of Rhys, must accordingly play a large role in her novels and in her construction of self. Annette Gilson suggests that Rhys defines herself personally through a fictional manipulation and destruction of Ford Madox Ford. Following a model by D.W. Winnicott, Rhys uses Ford as a ‘transitional object’ through which she can understand the contrast and relationship between her subjectivity and the outside world (Gilson).

 

            Jean Rhys Jean Rhys                    http://www.lib.byu.edu/~english/WWI/memoirs/images/WWWIPIC_03.gif  Ford Madox Ford

 

Wide Sargasso Sea exemplifies the subjective contrast to society in a slightly different way. Antoinette is characterized as ‘other’ from a very young age and spends maybe her whole life trying to understand her relationship with society. She tries to find herself in the mirroring of other women, but ultimately fails. She does not receive the positive social feedback that seems important in Woolf’s notions of self-construction, but rather is rejected by those she wishes to mirror—namely her mother and Tia. Rhys’s work, therefore, exemplifies not a mixed and reciprocal relationship between the self and society, but a relationship of contrast and rejection.

 

While modernism did bring a new focus on interiority and the self, authors and artists encompassed a great variation of ideas. Some viewed the self as only the individual whose motivations come from within, and others described the self in relation to society and environment. Eliot, Beckett, Woolf and Rhys demonstrate the ideas of Freud, Nietzsche and other contemporary thinkers in their writing and thoughts on the self.   

 

 

Works Cited