Forster on personality

Dora Carrington's portrait of Edward Morgan Forster, ca. 1924-5

Good description, bad prescription:  

[P]sychology has split and shattered the idea of a “Person,” and has shown there is something incalculable in each of us, which may at any moment rise to the surface and destroy our normal balance. We don’t know what we are like. We can’t know what other people are like. How, then, can we put any trust in personal relationships, or cling to them in the gathering political storm? In theory we cannot. But in practice we can and do. Though A is not interchangeably A, or B unchangeably B, there can still be love and loyalty between the two. For the purpose of living, one has to assume that personality is solid and the “self” is an entity, and ignore all contrary evidence. -E.M. Forster, “What I believe,” 1938  

It confuses and frustrates me when people suggest acquiring knowledge of things which have always been true about the human condtion somehow poses a threat to the possibility of accepting that condition–for example, when Einstein said we should treat human beings “as if” they possessed free will, even though he had just said he could not imagine what a will uncompelled by internal necessity could possibly look like. Recognizing humanity as a natural thing bound by mechanistic laws, Einstein recognized individuals as the causes of the effects of their actions, and wished to arrange society so as to provide incentives for good behavior and punishments for bad ones. Which is to say, he wished for people to be more-or-less treated as they always had been. Despite our intuition’s insistance otherwise, responsibility can be thought of as an individual being the necessary cause of the effects of their actions; and belief or disbelief in determinism or indeterminacy has no effect on our valuation of incentives or fear of punishments. 

Perhaps this frustration arises from my gnosticism. I use the term not in reference to the early immaterialist Christian sects, but in the broadest possible sense of the word. I am a gnostic insofar as I believe truth is liberating, is soteriological. 

So I accuse Forster, otherwise an exemplary liberal, as a destroyer of human liberty in urging the ignorance of a difficult truth. He is does so because he is mistaken as to the utility of his untruth. Human relations do not depend on belief in an atomic “self.” They are probably, in fact, harmed by it. All bad psychology, all corruptions in our theory of mind force us to hold intercourse with ghosts of fancy. 

All personalities we interact with are fictions–but some more fanciful than others. We surmise other minds only by analogy and inference, which is to say invention. This is necessarily true of our own minds as well. Too much information passes before consciousness for all of it to be remembered or even processed correctly the first time. This is true even of entirely subjective knowledge, pleasures, pains, emotional reactions, daydreams, unspoken comments, flutterings of the esprit d’escalier, etc. So we know ourselves by means of a working fictional account of ourselves, an overly simplified embodiment of general trends of our behaviors real and imagined, or at least real but so heavily redacted in remembering they cannot be called true.   

This fiction is not our ideal self. We admit ourselves faults, though not all of them. The importance of some may be exaggerated, other perhaps more important ones downplayed. As La Rochefoucauld said, 

Often we admit a vice to conceal a greater one. 

Forster speaks of those occasions in which “that something incalculable” bubble up, which is to say, the spontaneous fluxes of our personality, as if they are rare occasions that only might disturb our “normal balance.” If by “our normal balance,” he means a pattern of behavior aligning with our conception of ourselves, this is broken all the time.  But a battery of cognitive biases prevent us from recognizing change within ourselves, or makes us forget its appearance, or rationalize it away as a fluke. I am more than what I am. My form is capable of a wider array of passions and behaviors than I can ever be allowed to recognize by myself. And yet. Another person, one who has been around me long enough to notice the inconsistancies in my character can alert me to my betrayals of my best selves. They could, if they cared for me. 

 friendships are those which do not indulge either friend, but one in which the joys of exertion are shared, where friends work together to refine themselves to achieve the highest possible potential. This can only be done if both participants are brutally honest with each other, if they highlight the other’s self-deceptions and hypocrisies. Which is to say, only if both recognize the other’s personality, which they themselves love so much, is as a phantom.

The fracturing of personality is not the end of friendship; rather, it means when we befriend an individual, we gain more friends than we can count.


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