There are moments in life in which we are not in ourselves, but out in the midst of others’ reaching out. These may be intimate, as when love seems to fold two together. Or they may be more social, as when a group of friends banter out of their common experience, their store of private jokes and mutually acquired turns of phrase. Communication follows a direction not chosen by one of the group, or pair, but created between them, each of their contributions a tributary entering into, but not directing, the river of discourse.
In these moments we forget ourselves, lost in the improvisation of an identity that is a matter of mimicry more than contrast. An attempt to generate not just a shared understanding, but a shared persona for the duration of the dialogue. Sometimes it is less that individuals create the relationship, and more that relationship creates the individuals. How can such moments, and the movement in and out of them, be narrated?
What’s Your Point of View?
Stories are narrated from one or more points of view. Often this is in the first person, that is, as if the story is happening to the narrator:
For a long time I would go to bed early. Sometimes, the candle barely out, my eyes closed so quickly that I did not have time to tell myself: “I’m falling asleep.”
In Search of Lost Time – Marcel Proust
Occasionally it is in the second person, as if the story is happening to the person the narrator is narrating to:
The whites of your eyes are yellow, a consequence of spiking bilirubin levels in your blood. The virus afflicting you is called hepatitis E. It’s typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral. Yum. It kills only about one in fifty, so you’re likely to recover. But right now you feel like you’re going to die.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia – Mohsin Hamid
Usually it is in the third person, that is, the narrator tells a story that is happening to people other than themselves and the reader:
Raskolnikoff’s misanthropy did not take offence at the dirty state of his den. Human faces had grown so distasteful to him, that the very servant whose business it was to clean the rooms produced a feeling of exasperation … Nastasia, who had to cook and clean for the whole house, was not sorry to see the lodger in this state of mind, as it diminished her labours: she had quite given up tidying and dusting his room; the utmost she did was to come up and sweep it once a week. She it was who was arousing him at this moment.
Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky
We can sum up these points of view by the pronouns associated with them:
- First person: I
- Second person: you
- Third person: she or he
So far, so standard commentary on narrative voice. But from what point of view do we narrate our selves? Or, to put it another way, from what point of view do we live our lives? One might assume from the first person: ‘I’. But I didn’t just now: I expressed that last thought as ‘one’, the indefinite third person pronoun. Because even if I am always in myself, always an ‘I’, I can nevertheless conceive myself as another, for example becoming an illeist by speaking of myself in the third person. Quite often I address myself as ‘you’, as in, ‘You idiot!’.
How often in the general course of things do I take a first person point of view? I am doing so now, but this is in the context of a particular activity – I am interrogating myself, having a conversation with myself. This reflexive procedure demands that I objectify my point of view, title it, ‘I’ it up.
The Place Where We Live
The psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott described how we learn to be an I. To begin with, he says, ‘There is no such thing as a baby.’ Rather, there is (usually) a baby-mother unit: a baby is never seen by itself. ‘The centre of gravity of being does not start off in the individual. It is in the total set-up.’1
There is at first no distinction between what is our mind and what is the world. The baby cries and the breast arrives, and to the baby it seems the crying produces the breast: it feels omnipotent. As the arrival of the breast is delayed, or the wooden cube fails to fit through the round hole, and so on, the baby gradually discovers the parts of its environment that are independent of its thought.
When beginning to realise its separateness, a baby employs a ‘transitional object’, often a rag or soft toy:
The object is a symbol of the union of the baby and the mother … This symbol can be located. It is at the place in space and time where and when the mother is in transition from being (in the baby’s mind) merged in with the infant and alternatively being experienced as an object to be perceived … The use of an object symbolises the union of two now separate things, baby and mother.2
The transitional object stands in for the mother and the baby begins to form a mental image of her, a sense that though she may be a separate being, she can be relied upon. Linus sucks his thumb, already a substitute for the nipple, while holding his security blanket, associating his mother’s care with his transitional object but knowing that it is not his mother.
The coincidence of the concepts of union and separation is perhaps clearer in a case Winnicott recounts of a child whose mother had to spend time away from home. The child came to fear a permanent separation. He developed a habit of tying household items together with string. The string in this game represented both separation (why tie together things that are not separate?) and joining: in his play, the string both joined and separated.3
For these and other reasons, Winnicott says that we only learn to be alone in the presence of another. Our ‘I’ can only develop insofar as we realise there is a ‘we’.
Over time the significance of the transitional object is diffused as we learn to use symbols more generally: that is, to see objects as at the same time external to us but given meaning according to our inner reality. Between dreamy introspection and reflex response to stimuli, between the subjective and the objective, there is:
…the third part of the life of a human being … an intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute. It is … a resting-place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet inter-related.4
It is culture: play, art, religion, and more. It is a potential space between self and other, where we can take a break from figuring out what is and isn’t us, where we don’t have to think ourselves in the first person. It is ‘the place where we live’.5
This cultural space, overlaying the objective world and knitting together our subjective worlds, is resonant with Karl Popper’s Three Worlds model:
- World 1 – the physical world
- World 2 – the mental world
- World 3 – the objective knowledge generated by interaction of Worlds 1 and 2
It also recalls the ‘noosphere’ popularised by palaeontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.6 The noosphere began when we started to represent our thought in the world around us, through gesture, speech, writing and so on. It is the store of knowledge passed on by learning rather than genetics and is an addition to the earth’s spheres of activity, such as the biosphere. Imagine a child raised by wolves: what the child would lack is access to the noosphere. A baby must be taught as well as fed to become human.
Teilhard, student of the fossils of our ancestors, imagined the emergence of the first ego, that is, the first consciousness capable of reflecting that it is conscious, of saying ‘I’. He thought that the first ‘I’ could only derive from a ‘We’. If there are no degrees of reflection – either I can know myself or not – then there could have been no individual creature at an intermediary stage between knowing and not knowing itself:
Either this being has not yet reached, or it has already got beyond, this change of state. Look at it as we will, we cannot avoid the alternative – either thought is made unthinkable by a denial of its psychical transcendence over instinct, or we are forced to admit that it appeared between two individuals.7
The truth of this is so far in the past it seems impossible to establish, but the possibility of ‘placing’ awareness between, and prior to, individuals, rather than ‘inside‘ them, is what I want to find a way to describe.
The Porous Self
If, then, we spend much of our time unconcerned with policing the boundaries of our selves, with establishing ‘I’ and ‘other’, how does writing accommodate this unreflexive point of view?
Authors have occasionally used a first person plural narrative voice. Usually the ‘we’ in question is a group:
All leave is cancelled tonight; we must say goodbye.
We entrain at once for the North; we shall see in the morning
The headlands we’re doomed to attack; snow down to the tideline:
Though the bunting signals
‘Indoors before it’s too late; cut peat for your fires,’
We shall lie out there.
Ode – W.H. Auden
Study of pronouns reveals that, ‘poets who eventually commit suicide use I-words more than non-suicidal poets.’ Auden died a natural death, so case closed.
It is also possible for the context of a narrative to signal to the reader that a ‘we’ point of view is that of an exact number of people, perhaps only two. Old English was able to specify this, with first and second person dual pronouns, wit and git, meaning ‘we two’ and ‘you two’. A vestige of the practice survives in the terms ‘both’, ‘either’ and ‘neither’. Some languages use clusivity to be even more precise, with inclusive and exclusive ‘we’ words meaning ‘you and I (and perhaps others)’ or ‘he/she/they and I but not you’.
Regardless, though, of the possible points of view English can indicate (or not) directly, a narrative littered with any pronoun continually names the boundary of self, even if that is an enlarged self, or group of selves. How can the moments in which those boundaries are not reflected upon, and become porous, be captured?
Free Indirect Style
Ottilie alone regarded the dead man, whose features still retained the amiable expression which characterised them, with a kind of envy. The life of her soul had been killed, why should her body remain alive?
Elective Affinities – Goethe
Here the narrative is in third person, but the second sentence, explaining what ‘kind of envy’ Ottilie feels, appears to be in her own voice. The author might tell us so by framing the sentence as:
- direct, or quoted, discourse – ‘The life of her soul had been killed, why should her body remain alive?’ she wondered.
- indirect, or reported, discourse – She wondered why her body should remain alive if the life of her soul had been killed.
But Goethe gives Ottilie’s thoughts without any signal that her voice is talking over that of the narrator. This is free indirect style, which moves between third and first person point of view, and can hover in between. Here’s Gerty MacDowell, both observing her friend and making observations about her, without paying attention to the distinction:
She jumped up … and she ran down the slope … tossing her hair behind her which had a good enough colour if there had been more of it but with all the thingamerry she was always rubbing into it she couldn’t get it to grow long because it wasn’t natural so she could just go and throw her hat at it. She ran with long gandery strides it was a wonder she didn’t rip up her skirt at the side that was too tight on her because there was a lot of the tomboy about Cissy Caffrey and she was a forward piece whenever she thought she had a good opportunity to show off and just because she was a good runner she ran like that so that he could see all the end of her petticoat running and her skinny shanks up as far as possible.
Ulysses – James Joyce
This solves the problem of narrating a self that, rather than contemplating itself, is out there experiencing the world. But there is still the question of moving between points of view. I remind you that Winnicott tells us that the centre of gravity of being begins between mother and baby, and as the baby learns to separate, that centre moves ‘into’ the self it creates. My contention is that this centre of gravity can, and does, move ‘out’ again. How can a narrative represent this movement?
Professor Dora Zhang draws attention to narratives whose words don’t belong precisely to a narrator or a character: they are stereotypical (‘she was a forward piece’), ‘commonplaces, collective myths, signs of the social that is inside’ us.8 James Woods, in How Fiction Works, calls this unidentified free indirect style’: stories that are narrated in third person, but whose narrative voice seems to belong to the community it describes. Whereas typical free indirect style moves between third and first person, the unidentified version moves between third and first person plural. If free indirect style can slide between the voices of a narrator, a character and a community, carrying over words and phrases from one to the other, then it shows ‘that our language is not always, not only (not ever?) our own.’9
An interpersonal exchange then, in which the centre of gravity of two individuals moves between them, tending to identity, can be represented by the characters involved using each other’s words. Our voices are drawn from the culture we inhabit, it is from the existing store of language that we learn to speak. Therefore the representation of our mutuality, our intimate exchange, the crossing of the boundaries between one self and another, can occur by building out of the resources of two, or more, individual voices the unique register of their interaction. The efforts of two to accommodate and understand each other create a third between them.
1 The Language of Winnicott, Jan Abram, p 69.
2 Playing and Reality, D.W. Winnicott, p 130.
3 Here I recall having thought that the longing of love makes us painfully aware of the unfathomable distance between hearts – but at the same time that loving longing is what bridges the distance. Something like that intuition is explored in Don Paterson’s poem The Day.
4 Playing and Reality, D.W. Winnicott, p 3.
5 Playing and Reality, D.W. Winnicott, p 140.
6 Teilhard is credited, somewhat hyperbolically, with predicting the internet, and more pertinently with influencing the notion of the Singularity.
7 The Phenomenon of Man, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, p 171.