A Fake Somebody Versus A Real Nobody

Why classicism is the denial of self, a posture of openness to the transcendent God, an obsession with humility.
Mar 10, 2014

At the mall, you pass the window display of the Gap and see they have “classic khakis” on display. The model wearing the classic khakis has a classic look, as well— a young Steinbeck mustache, shock of curly hair towards his forehead, pomade. The last pair of pants you’ll ever need. This is written in the window display. What if this is true? you wonder. You have always reckoned yourself a classic person, though you give yourself a once over and you don’t look particularly classic today. Busted running shoes. Cargo shorts. You look like an idiot, actually. In fact, you feel like an idiot, too. You enter the store and a sales representative asks if you need help, but you say you do not. Some journeys must be undertaken alone. You find the classic khakis, but when you touch them, new horizons of being open up before you. Obviously you buy them. The pants, that is. You are classic. You will be wearing the same khakis ten years from now. You have found a you that you can sink into deeply, refine, cultivate.

At home, you put on your new classic khakis and go to your closet. Very few of your shirts and sweaters and blazers seems classic. A shirt made of rayon and polyester you loved last Autumn has lost its' charm. Rayon isn’t classic. You keep a wool sweater, which seems classic. You make a pile of clothes to take to Goodwill. As you do, you drink tea, which seems appropriately classic. You put on a Maroon 5 album while you sort your clothes, but quit it after two songs, because it does not match your classic pants, your tea or the new you, which is classic. Paul Simon seems a bit more classic. Coltrane. You’ve always liked Coltrane. Loved him. You find a jazz station on the radio and call your girlfriend. “I know we were going to go to the movies, but you want to watch a video instead? New movies are so loud, you know? Why don’t you come over to my place? Did you know Rock Hudson was in A Farewell To Arms?”

The movie is okay. “The Hays Code meant filmmakers had to be more subtle,” you say when the show is over. “Nothing is subtle anymore.” You go out. You order a Manhattan. You cannot simultaneously wear your classic khakis and order an Old Fashioned because… because of the Ouroboros. You drink rye.

Catcher in the Rye is a classic novel which goes with your pants, with Coltrane. You praise things that are mild, patriotic. You use the word unsullied and wear your classic khakis. You buy a record player. In conversations, you try to use the word negro without irony. You are you, classic you. For your birthday, a close friend buys you cufflinks. You are satisfied. Now your friends know who you are. They have made you real. They have made you classic you.

But then you go back to the mall.

You disdain the mall because it is so flashy, so outré, but then you pass the Gap and see “new classic khakis” in the window. In your soul, you feel a pinprick. You stand before the window, regarding the model which wears the “new classic khakis,” and you give yourself a once over. The new classic khakis are— but I speak of a great mystery— very similar and very different from the classic khakis you are wearing. You think they are just a touch tighter around the thigh, around the ankle. They are a little bit grey, perhaps. The model has cut his hair a little higher on the sides than you. You enter the store confused. You haven't finished Catcher in the Rye. A sign above the new classic khakis says something like, As timeless as the new you. The pants you are wearing suddenly seem quite loose, quite asexual. There is a party you have agreed to attend that evening and you suddenly think, “I have nothing to wear to that party,” even though you are fully dressed in such a way as you found immensely pleasing not five or six days ago. You select a pair of the new classics and try them on, and as you stand in front of the mirror, beholding yourself, a glimmering vista of possibility lays itself bare before your imagination.

After all, there were always some gaps in the classic you that never properly filled in. Those gaps are turning into doubts. Sometimes Coltrane was unlistenable. You had forced yourself, at times, but the new classic seems so easy, so comfortable with itself. You’re no luddite. “Negro.” What were you thinking? The new classic recognizes that styles don’t aimlessly change, they mature, and that’s what you need to do. Quick faking it with the Coltrane.

You buy the pants. On the way home, you buy a Michael Chabon book. The first few chapters are... just amazing. For a few hours, you try to reconcile some of the classic stuff with the new classic stuff. Paul Simon is still quite arresting. Maybe that leaner cut of pants and Paul Simon can work together. The new classic spirit is not libertine, but neither is it nostalgic for nostalgia’s sake, and if you’re honest with yourself for a second, that’s all that old self was. The new classic self is honest, but contemporary. Honestly, who still listens to Paul Simon? The new classic is still classic, but it’s also new, so you phone your girlfriend and invite her to the new David O Russell film. You pay, because that’s classic, but David O Russell is a genius who will be no less celebrated than David O Selznick in fifty years, thank you very much, so it's new classic, too. 

Eventually you go back to the mall in your new classic khakis. You are drinking coffee in the atrium when a tall, lean man dressed entirely in black walks by. Black, you think. All black, you think. New vistas… new horizons…

A few readers will have already guess I'm stealing from Percy. 

Lost in the Cosmos, Walker Percy’s most unusual book, is playfully subtitled The Last Self-Help Book and does for modern psychology what Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions did for science. Lost is a series of quizzes, some of them multiple choice, and some of the choices go on for pages. Some chapters are elaborately staged scenarios which culminate in a series of questions. One chapter is a transcript from an episode of the Phil Donahue show in which John Calvin mysteriously appears and announces the Earth will soon be destroyed. I could go on, but suffice to say that I’ve yet to meet someone who has read it and not been leveled by it. The book was first commended to me by a friend who left the Church for several years, proclaimed himself agnostic, and, in the midst of his confusion and suffering, read the book and greatly credited it for bringing him back to Church. Hopefully your curiosity is piqued.

Why is Lost in the Cosmos the last self-help book? The book aims to discredit the importance of the self; the reader who submits to the logic of the book finishes certain that a self is ultimately nothing, and thus the self needs no help. Percy distinguishes between “the person” and “the self.” The person is whole, entire, the telos of the human being; personhood is all there is to you, and so personhood transcends thought, word and deed, which are mere aspects of personhood. Because a man cannot step outside his person and view his person in pure separation, a man’s personhood is a mystery, even to the man. Your personhood is hidden in Christ; you cannot find it whole until you find Christ whole. 

On the other hand, “the self” is an edited version of the person. A man cannot comprehend his entire being at once, and so he creates an avatar of his entire being. This avatar is the self. The self is a truncated image of the person, and the self is fabricated by the person so that his personhood can be contemplated. “What am I? Who am I?” a man asks, but a man asks himself and his self responds. The self is what a person hopes his person is, or what he aims his personhood towards. Most people answer the question as generously as possible. 

Selves are copious, legion. The classic self. The new classic self. The punk. The goth. The jock. The teacher. The student. The American. The queer. The bassist. The libertine. The democrat. The Lutheran. The African. The thief. The priest. The essay writer. The clever essay writer. There are endless ways of imagining what we are; each image comes with a particular set of songs and sayings, dances and drinks, books and bespoke opinions.

Percy argues that the self is a closed system, though, forever devouring itself. In fashioning an image of what we are, a wide range of things we are not is forever becoming more and more apparent to us, and, in the end, every self seems like a cage, a set of restrictions on the person which longs for fulfillment. We look at a closet of clothes and say “I have nothing to wear,” because the self which looks at the clothes is not the same self which purchased the clothes. Over time, the self has consumed the clothes, become the clothes, and the self has grown hungry again for a new self to devour. If we had no skin, skin would not be nakedness, but clothing. However, our selves become our skin and we feel naked in them, desiring new selves as new clothes. 

Ours is a society particularly open to such problems.

In the Republic, Socrates suggests there are five forms of government which correspond to five kinds of human souls. The most noble government, and the most noble soul, is the republic (or the aristocracy, depending on the translation), which is governed by a desire for wisdom. As the republic degenerates, it becomes a timocracy, a government which seeks after honor. The timocracy degenerates into an oligarchy, which principally values wealth. The oligarchy degenerates into a democracy, which seeks after all kinds of freedom, both good and evil. Finally, the democracy descends into tyranny, which values power and the evil use of freedom alone.  

Socrates’ descriptions of the democracy are fascinating, prescient. While the democratic society is on the verge of total collapse, it remains the most beautiful. Socrates and Adeimantus discuss the democracy:

So: And where freedom is, the individual is clearly able to order for himself his own life as he pleases?

Ad: Clearly.

So: Then in this kind of State there will be the greatest variety of human natures?

Ad: There will.

So: This, then, seems likely to be the fairest of States, being an embroidered robe which is spangled with every sort of flower. And just as women and children think a variety of colours to be of all things most charming, so there are many men to whom this State, which is spangled with the manners and characters of mankind, will appear to be the fairest of States.  

The democracy opens itself to the pure volition of each citizen; people-watching is fun in America, but wouldn’t have been fun in communist China. Here, going to the mall is more exciting and fearful than going to a zoo. You get your cup of coffee and a thousand iterations of the self pass before you. Eventually, a self more flavorful than your own passes before you and the chase is on. Clothes to match, vocabulary to match, home décor to match. Now you want to be this. Now you want to be that. In the end, nobody is actually anything. Nobody gets to spend years entering deeply into any certain reality; nobody goes more than a few months or years down any particular investigation of Truth, which only occurs when a person is self-forgetful and thus open to God alone, and so we retreat further and further from personhood. The more a self you are, the less a person.

This is a distinctly modern problem. A thousand years ago, the man born a poor French Catholic onion farmer would die a poor French Catholic onion farmer. Today, a man born a poor French Catholic onion farmer might die a rich German woman, although if he’d made it another year or two, who can say what he might have been?

Classicism fails if it merely offers another self to be. Classicism fails if it is merely a preference for church clothes on Monday afternoon, an inevitable defense of classical music, a correct pronunciation of angst. Too often, we hold classicism out to our students as a true form of being, when we have really reduced classicism to a series of aesthetic preferences which are no less truncated, edited, Protean, worthless and quickly self-devouring than punk, republican, goth or theologian. There is no classical self. Classicism is the denial of self, a posture of openness to the transcendent God, an obsession with humility.

The teacher who spends five, ten years in a certain high school watches his students pass through selves, and there is always the temptation to black market your own self as a kind of true personhood. At times, it is painful to see a student affect some attitude of defiance or effeminacy, to waste their time on some petty avenue of the self when another equally abject road will unfailingly intersect it within weeks or months, and all the tackle and furniture (purchased with precious time) devoted to one helpless style will be heaped up like so many dead barbarian bodies on the funeral pyre of the pocketbook and immolated. It is tempting to offer students the tucked-in world, the premature world of formalized adulthood, an unembarrassed fatness of the belly, jazz… as though these are the things which will save you from endless variations of the self.

When I am so tempted, I am reminded of Peter Leithart’s rather haunting commentary on David Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite from some years ago. Peter quotes the book in this memorable summation:

…Nyssa developed a metaphysics in which multiplicity leads toward the highest truth; we don't skim off the multiplicity of the world to get to the truth of the one, for God Himself, infinite truth, is multiple. Thus, "to pass from the vision of the world to the theoria of the divine is not simply to move from appearance to reality, from multiplicity to singularity, but rather to find the entirety of the world in all its irreducible diversity to be an analogical expression (at a distance, in a different register) of the dynamism and differentiation that God is" (p. 192).

On the rare occasion someone makes even a little headway transcending the self, forgets they exist, they open up their spirit to the “irreducible diversity” of the Trinity, which we find is often unsettling because it is not truncated, edited, small and digestible. They appear to be selves, but that’s only to the rest of us, those ensconced in self-reflection. The truly open— Jesus Christ, St. John the Theologian, El Greco, Simeon Stylites, Francis of Assisi, Matthias Grünewald, Bach, Gerard Manley Hopkins—  induce a sublime, spiritual vertigo in the devotees. These names are the ones we’re aiming for. These are the searchlights.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches online classes at GibbsClassical.com. He is the author of How To Be UnluckySomething They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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