The self is an illusion

Virginia Woolf – “The emergent self” – Jonah Lehrer Proust was a Neuroscientist (2007)

Jonah Lehrer has written a beautiful and clever essay on Virginia Woolf. It can be found in his book Proust was a Neuroscientist (2007). I must admit, I have no idea of how I came to buy this book, but yesterday morning, on my way to a meeting, I suddenly discovered it on the top of a shelf. It must have been me who put it there …

Anyway; I grabbed the book, because this was the kind of meeting where I was asked to wait until it was the right time for me to enter the room. And while waiting, I thought, I might take a closer look at Lehrer’s book.

And so I did. I started at the end, on an essay on Woolf, because she is a favourite author of mine. I have read most her works, and several works on her work, so therefore, I thought to myself, I should be able to assess Lehrer’s competence on this theme.

And as I have already told you – I was not disappointed.

Ten years ago I wrote my MA “On Self and Subjectivity in Samuel Beckett’s Trilogy”, I find Lehrer dealing with many of the same literary and philosophical questions as I did. His chapter on Woolf discusses how it is possible to experience a feeling of self when all of us, all of the time, are filled with a thousand thoughts and ideas running through our mind.

He tells us about how the two scientists Sperry and Gazzaniga, through research on split-brain patients, introduces a new idea about how the brain works: ”For the first time, science had to confront the idea that consciousness emerged from the murmuring of the whole of the brain and not just from one of its innumerable parts.” The feeling of unity, Sperry says, is a “mental confabulation” – we invent the self in order to ignore our innate contradictions.

And then listen to Woolf: “Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves?” (Street Haunting).

As I see it, this experience of murmuring and massive production of thoughts and ideas are nowhere better demonstrated than in The Waves. It’s a fantastic narrative composition. The Waves does not only challenge the idea of a true and limited self, but also our understanding of inter-personality.

Through her work, as a process from the beginning to her final works, Woolf deconstructs the self, but she never let go of it. What she does is to show us how the self continually reshapes itself. Time passes, impressions comes and goes, thoughts build up and vanishes from our head, but the self remain as a feeling of being me in the middle of life’s internal and external murmuring.

The self is simply our work of art, a fiction created by the brain in order to make sense of its own disunity. In a world made of fragments, the self is our sole “theme, recurring, half remembered, half foreseen”. If it didn’t exist, then nothing would exist. We would be a brain full of characters, hopelessly searching for an author.

Modern neuroscience is confirming the self Woolf believed in – we invent ourselves out of our own sensations. As Woolf anticipated, this process is controlled by the act of attention, which turns our sensory parts into focused moments of consciousness. The fictional self – a nebulous entity nobody can find – is what binds these separate moments together.

Lehrer is a good reader and writer, letting literature speak as art – and he is also very good at making neuroscience understandable for a lay reader: that’s a great achievement!

For more on Lehrer: http://www.jonahlehrer.com

4 thoughts on “The self is an illusion

  1. I have this book on my shelf but never realized it was essays and had no idea one of them was on Woolf. Now I’m going to have to pull it off the shelf in get it into my reading queue!

  2. How fascinating! All my academic work has been on the relationship between identity and narrative, one way or another, and essential to that relationship is how the white noise of the self is dealt with, as well as our occupation of innumerable roles, and the spanner in the works that is the unconscious. I’m so intrigued to hear that you wrote about Beckett! I’ve written on him too, a couple of times, and find him a continually fertile author to think about.

    • I’m on holiday, and my reading is not very concentrated, but I have gotten around to read a few essays in Hermione Lee’s book “Body Parts”, that is her essays on Woolf. And as a result I asked myself; if I was to redo my thesis – would I then have chosen Woolf instead of Beckett? The question turns up not because I’m no longer fascinated by Beckett, but because there are some thoughts on being a woman that have come to be more important to me now than they were 15 years ago. And I think Woolf grasp the link between being-a-woman/writing/reading like no one else.

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