Friday, October 24, 2008

My Identity

The previous four postings have had the goal of establishing a background against which a discussion of IDENTITY might be made. According to the Swiss writer Max Frisch, whose novels (Stiller, Homo Faber, Mein Name sei Gantenbein, and Montauk) stood in the focal point of my research made while writing the honours essay required for the completion of a B.A. Honours Program in German, identity is a complex structure seen differently by the various people in our lives (as in the story of the blind men who encountered an elephant: one felt its trunk and said “An elephant is long and skinny like a snake”, another felt one of its legs and said “No, an elephant is thick and sturdy like a tree trunk”, and a third felt its side and said “No, an elephant is wide and flat like a wall”… and they were all right!). Psychologically, we all try to categorize the people we know, and we imagine that we can predict their behaviour: we do this because “knowing” what the various characters populating the drama which is our lives think and are inclined to do in given situations allows us to prepare appropriate reactions and have less stressful lives. But we cannot ever fully understand another person (perhaps not even ourselves), and so we sometimes get nasty surprises. Sometimes we think we “know” someone, and he says “But I am not that person you are describing!” as does the title character of the novel Stiller. Sometimes there are certain aspects of someone you know that you would rather not know and so you pretend they don’t exist, as did the title character in Frisch’s play Biederman und die Brandstifter, who wilfully ignores blatant evident that his new tenants are arsonists. (Dieses Theaterstück ist übrigens das erste Theaterstück, das ich auf deutsch gelesen habe.) Sometimes people develop a incorrect mental image of someone and then through their behaviour force that person to adjust his identity to fit the incorrect mental image: this happens to the title character in Frisch’s play Andorra and perhaps also to the title character of Stiller. (In Stiller wird ein in die Schweiz Einreisender als der verschollene Architekt Albus Stiller “erkannt”, aber er behauptet, er sei kein Schweizer sondern ein Cowboy aus der USA [der irgendwie Schweizerdeutsch spricht und sehr ähnlich dem Verschollenen aussieht]: zur Erklärung der Sache wird der Mann in Untersuchungshaft gesetzt, und es werden ihm viele Geschichten aus dem Leben des Architekten und auch verschiedene Personen, die mit der Geschichte des Architekten verbunden sind, vorgestellt. Monate verpassen, und endlich „gesteht“ der Cowboy, daß er der verschollene Architekt ist ... aber der Leser kann am Ende nicht ganz sicher sein, ob das Geständnis echt ist oder ob der Cowboy „gestanden“ hat, um die neuen Freunden – unter ihnen der Untersuchungsanwalt und die Frau des Architekten – zu befriedigen.)

Social identity is defined by the groups that a person associates with, and it is normal in most cultures for a person to belong to a number of different social circles, defined by employment, religion, marriage, location of residence, and common interests. The complexity of social identity is compounded for a polyglot such as myself, because through intense interaction with speakers of the various languages I have mastered I have become a man of many cultures. Resolving the differences between the various cultures I now belong to has not always been easy – I have experience the psychological distress associated with cultural confusion known as anomie – but with age, a supporting family, and a stable social environment I believe I have achieved a fairly good integration of my cultures. It is for this reason that I have chosen to start my blog with a series of paragraphs outlining my social identity in terms of the groups/cultures I associate with.

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