"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, June 19, 2015

Who Are You? Identity Is Increasingly Difficult To Pin Down

Darrell Phibbs wondered about his integrity.  Not about honesty or truthfulness, but about the coherence of his character.  Things did have to cohere, after all, even if flimsily.

A number of years ago Phibbs’ identity had been stolen by a Nigerian fraud ring.  His credit had been compromised; and it took him two years to convince his credit bureau, the Virginia Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and every low-end furniture store in the metropolitan area that he was Darrell Phibbs and not the Nigerian posing as him.  “How do we know who you are?”, they asked; and since the Nigerian’s documents were all in order – name, address, social security number, driver’s license, credit rating – there really was no way to answer the question.

Nigerian credit fraud

Not only did Darrell have to spend hours expunging fraudulent charges on his various accounts; go down in person to the DMV with the original of his birth certificate duly notarized and certified by Epstein, Vicar, and Pickard; and document his residential and professional history for the credit bureaus; but he had to deal with existential angst.

“If I can’t prove who I am, then perhaps I am not”, he said.  Only his mother knew for sure; but then again she couldn’t actually prove that it was he who had come out of her womb. Nor could he absolutely attest that Herman B. Phibbs, lately of the Altoona Bank and Trust and formerly Vice President of the New Brighton First America Bank, was his father.  Only his mother knew that for sure, and no matter how earnestly she confirmed his parentage, how was he to know for sure?

When you came right down to it, Phibbs averred, we are all nothing but accumulations of past events. The Darrell Phibbs who went to Muirland Country Day School, the Lefferts Academy, Yale, and Harvard?. The one who worked at Binker & Thompson selling hardware, summered on the Vineyard, and whose investment portfolio was top-heavy in Chinese financial futures?. 

Image result for logo yale university

Darrell’s mother was very good at keeping a baby book and a family photo album; so there he was at Narragansett Beach burying his sister with sand, being confirmed, pitching against the Plainville Panthers in Little League.  Yet in this existential phase the cute photographs did nothing to allay his concerns. 
“Isn’t that Uncle Joe in the back row?”, his mother had asked him one day when he was going through family albums.  “The one on the left with the string tie.”  Neither he nor his mother could tell for sure, and until the old black-and-white glossies turned sepia and finally faded, the man third from the left would always remain a phantom.  Probably Uncle Joe, but no one could tell for sure.
At about the same time of his identity theft, an interesting court case had been reported in the New Brighton Clarion.  Three eye-witnesses had been no more than ten feet from the car from which three shots had been fired, killing Marian Fox, but none of the testimonies agreed. The shooter was either black or white.  The car was either a Buick or an Oldsmobile. Mrs. Fox had either waved to the man in the passenger seat or had not. Nothing was what it seemed.  There is no one version of fact which means that fact itself is only subjective. “If I am made up of other people’s recollections, then I am simply a subjective composite.”
Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am” was no consolation either.  Nabokov, explaining his memoir, Speak, Memory, said that he was a memorist – one who understood that since the present was only momentary and the future only speculation; and thus the only reality that gives one substance is the past.  He ran old reels in his head of his childhood, adolescence, summers in St. Petersburg, winters in Berlin; affairs, food, and fantasies to keep them alive; to keep whatever integrity ‘Vladimir Nabokov’ had intact.
Image result for images descartes
That made good reading, thought Darrell, but he knew that science had disproved all traditional concepts of memory.  It now appeared that less than ten percent of our memories are accurate, and the rest are fill-ins created thanks to the equally fragile and creative memories of family and friends. More than likely his memories of strolling down Rue Vaneau one evening in late summer 1922 were only partially true. Perhaps it was chilly and not the warm, soft night he remembered.  Perhaps he did not eat at the Café du Mont on Rue du Bac, but at the Restaurant des Deux Flambeaux at the corner of the Rue de Grenelle.
Image result for images vladimir nabokov
So what exactly did Descartes mean by Cogito, ergo sum? Was awareness of oneself really enough to define being? Doubtful, concluded Phibbs.
Thankfully this existential period passed quickly.  Although the questions of being and existence were still important to him, they only niggled occasionally as he returned his attention back to family and friends.
Recently, however, there were a number of questions about identity which got him back to thinking.  A well-known former athlete changed his sex and became a woman – or at least that was his contention – but critics asked whether the record of his achievements as a male Olympic champion should be expunged from the record.  Should the male Barbara Twining be airbrushed out of history? Did Jacob Twining ever really exist?
Or, as many people contended, sexuality was fluid; and both Jacob and Barbara Twining did exist.  Others, however, said that Barbara Twining was a fraud at worst and a disturbed man at best.  His hormones were still pumping out testosterone at a healthy rate, so all that had changed was his attitude which he said was now ‘completely feminine’.  What nonsense, thought Darrell. If attitude defines being, then we are all doomed.
Worse yet, a young woman who had convinced everyone and herself that she was black, turned out to be white, outed by her Wonder Bread parents in Iowa.  For years she had been a champion of black causes and civil rights, rose to the head of a major African American lobby group, and even sang gospel in the church choir.
Image result for images wonder bread
A well-known progressive writing for The Cause said that race like gender was ‘fluid’.  The artificial categories of black and white were artificial semantic constructs applied by reactionaries to further demean if not oppress people of color.
A late-night show comic said, “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck”.  In other words, who cared what color the woman was?  It was up to her to decide race, gender, and ethnicity.
Image result for images ducks
Darrell liked this idea. Given all the unavoidable subjectivity in applying definitions, remembering the past, and witnessing events, why not agree that a person is no more than what she says she is. The black-white woman had defined herself by her political commitment, her compassion, and her devout allegiance to civil rights. Barbara/Jacob Twining was a woman more than anything, and so be it.  Darrell Phibbs thought of himself as funny, provocative, intellectual, and shaky when it came to flying.  To others his mother was a failed aesthete who could never master the nuances of either Schubert or Schumann, but she thought of herself as a woman of high sensibilities. Who cared where the truth lay?
This time Darrell’s run-in with existential reality was gentle.  There was no more angst and only bemusement.  For the first time in his life he actually exhaled with a sigh of relief.  Not only did anyone really care who he was, he didn’t either.
Whoever it was eating a dozen chilled Hama Hama oysters and a good Sancerre, it didn’t matter in the least.  They tasted good!
Image result for images oysters on the half shell

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