Saturday, May 12, 2007

Today's Quote: What is an Individual?

What is an individual? Wherein does his identity reside? All novels seek to answer these questions. By what, exactly, is the self defined? By what a character does, by his actions? Yet action gets away from its author, almost always turns on him. By his mental life, then? By his thoughts, by his hidden feelings? But is a man capable of self-understanding? Can his secret thoughts be a key to his identity? Or, rather, is man defined by his vision of the world, by his ideas, by his Weltanschauung? This was Dostoyevski's aesthetic: his characters are rooted in a very distinctive personal ideology, according to which they act with unbending logic. For Tolstoy, on the other hand, personal ideology is far from a stable basis for personal identity: "Stepan Arkadievich chose neither his attitudes nor his opinions, no, the attitudes and opinions came to him on their own, just as he chose neither the style of his hats nor of his coats but got what people were wearing" (Anna Karenina). But if personal thought is not the basis of an individual's identity (if it has no more importance than a hat), then where do we find that basis?

To this unending investigation, Thomas Mann brought his very important contribution: we think we act, we think we think, but it is another or others who think and act in us: that is to say, timeless habits, archetypes, which--having become myths passed on from one generation to the next--carry an enormous seductive power and control us (says Mann) from "the well of the past."

From Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts by Milan Kundera.

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