top of page
  • Writer's pictureUriel

Know Thyself! Or Else What?...

A meandering trip from Gallup, through Norman Rockwell, to LSD – a first part of a duo on Knowing. I hope to soon write the second-part post, on “knowing thyother”…

Public opinion polls make me happy. Whatever they may find, they reassure me that the public has opinions. That’s why I’ve registered for an occasional Gallup newsletter, informing me, for example, that “Americans' Strong Support for Euthanasia Persists,” that “More Say 'Nature' Than 'Nurture' Explains Sexual Orientation,” or, astonishingly, that “Migrants' Happiness Tied to Whether They Are Accepted.” Still, nothing in this statistical windfall prepared me for a recent Gallup promise that landed in my inbox: “One Assessment to Discover the One True You.” And it worked! Declining to take the test, I discovered, at long last, the One True Me: A dude too busy, poor, skeptic or fearful, to discover his one true self. I’m not sure which of the 34 CliftonStrengths this disheartening revelation fits, but sensing Cliftpn would have considered that more of a weakness, I revisited, anxious, an academic piece I wrote about authenticity. After all, what’s authenticity but “discovering the one true you”?

This is certainly not a new human obsession, going back to the famous instruction by the Oracle of Delphi, “Know thyself.” Easier said than done. Can we, truly, know ourselves? One of the rare species to pass the mirror test, we humans often turn to the looking-glass to help us in this self-reflection. What do we see?

Norman Rockwell’s wonderful Girl at Mirror (1954) shows us what a young girl sees – herself, but not only through her own eyes, but through the eyes of society: us, the people, who produce and purchase the magazines that feature celebrities as idealized, idolized, beauties (in this case, the Hollywood star Jane Russell). Goodbye the innocent doll, which doesn’t even get an ounce of reflection. Welcome hairbrush, red lipstick, and powder – making-up a face that has yet to learn how to hide insecurity. Do we recognize ourselves in the girl?

Rockwell shows us what a young girl sees – herself, but not only through her own eyes, but through the eyes of society
Norman Rockwell, Girl at Mirror, 1954
Norman Rockwell, Girl at Mirror, 1954

The young girl herself didn’t. Mary Whalen Leonard, Rockwell’s favorite model, shared her memories of the artist, “a genius with a childlike heart,” and of posing for this particular painting: “I was only in fifth or in sixth grade, and I wasn’t a kid who was at all interested in growing up. I was just having a good time.” Rockwell tried to explain to her the idea of stop playing with dolls, but Mary, who describes her younger self as a tomboy, couldn’t care less: “I was saying to myself, ‘Yeah, I never did that anyway’… I think [Rockwell] just told me to think about being a beautiful woman and what I might do with my life. But it did not connect with me.”

Does it connect now? It seems that we, like Rockwell, projected upon Mary’s reflection our own. How ready, even eager, we were to lament what wasn’t even happening. But have we truly missed the mark, or perhaps were right, and it’s just that Mary didn’t realize it back then? Is it just a matter of time before social norms take hold of us, and of our self- knowledge and esteem?

How readily, even eager, we were to lament what wasn’t even happening. But have we truly missed the mark?

Rockwell may have been slightly myopic about Mary, but not about the shape of things to come. Art, at its best, is truer in time. So it might be with this painting now, over seventy years after Rockwell painted Mary, living as we are in an age that meshes endless mirrors and display windows into social kaleidoscopes of health and happiness. Is childhood the only, inevitably passing, phase when we can truly see ourselves, as we are here and now, neither through the eyes of others – nor through the passage of time, staring into the abyss, onto death?

Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Julie Lebrun, 1787
Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Julie Lebrun, 1787

Pablo Picasso, Girl before a Mirror Paris, 1932 [when “know thyself” coalesces with “memento mori”]
Pablo Picasso, Girl before a Mirror Paris, 1932 [when “know thyself” coalesces with “memento mori”]

If knowing thyself is hard, a much harder task awaits us in late modernity: don’t merely know thyself – Be thyself! A Google ngram indicates the dramatic rise, since the 1960s, in relative frequency of this modern command: in books, Hollywood films, commercials, and daily conversations, we advise, even order: be yourself!

Google Books ngram viewer: "be yourself," 1800-2008
Google Books ngram viewer: "be yourself," 1800-2008

One word captures this modern imperative: authenticity. But what does “authenticity” mean, and what have been its social roles?

The search for authenticity is a hallmark of romantic modernity. Romanticists since the late 18th century prescribed intuition, emotion and a return to nature as a necessary corrective, even an antidote, to Enlightenment’s “cold” reason. Authenticity, however, is elusive. Its calling – being true to oneself – seems simple, but what is the “self” that authenticity speaks of, and what does it mean to be “true” to it?

What is the “self” that authenticity speaks of, and what does it mean to be “true” to it?

Authenticity seems like another existentialist concept – and it is. But the popular reading of authenticity is quite different: not existentialist, but essentialist. Essentialist authenticity calls upon us to find and follow our destiny, to align our thoughts and conduct with our innate nature, our inborn core. Individuals ought to peel layers of masks to reveal what lies at the heart of their personality and then answer its call. But being a social animal, to be true to oneself, one needs not only to discover, and follow, its private core, but its collective core too – to “trust the tribe,” and be loyal to it. The alternative is, of course, inauthenticity: a failure to realize that “true self,” a horrible lie that turns your life into a sham, a betrayal of yourself and your group.

Rembrandt, Artist in his Studio, 1626
Rembrandt, Artist in his Studio, 1626

Existentialism offers a different take on authenticity. Submitting that “existence precedes essence,” Sartre strongly rejected the notion that we are born with a certain innate nature, either individual or collective, we must adhere to. Unlike a paper knife, for example, which is first mentally conceived, and only then manufactured, a godless universe does not instill in humans any preordained essence, which they can (let alone should) find and follow. Instead, existentialist authenticity prescribes “determine your destiny!” If there is any innate core it is a universal one that all humans share: the freedom to choose, and existentialist authenticity urges all people to become aware, indeed often painfully aware, of their freedom to choose their own path, which may, but need not, join that of others. While essentialists search for signs of self-betrayals, existentialists defiantly ask, “How am I not myself?” and answer: only when I forget my freedom, when surrender to “bad faith.” Otherwise, my choices – whatever they might be – constitute me. You are what you make of yourself, not what you were made of.

My choices – whatever they might be – constitute me. You are what you make of yourself, not what you were made of.

Can we truly see through, and beyond, what we’re supposedly made of – how can we transcend know thyself and be thyself onto become, even make, thyself? Seeing through the ways things are to imagine how they might become, and make them so, is perhaps the hardest task: letting go of the ego while embracing the self. One peculiar path to such transcendence is at least as old as the words of the wise Oracle, and is now undergoing a renaissance of sorts: psychedelics.

No need to reiterate here the history of psychedelics, especially how it entwines with the fascinating story of the rise and too-fast fall of the late-1960s counterculture. But just as a side note, consider why US president Nixon dubbed Timothy Learythe most dangerous man in America,” turning LSD, which is far less dangerous than alcohol and non-addictive at all, into a schedule 1 substance, alongside heroine and cocaine.

LSD is far less dangerous than alcohol and non-addictive
Salvador Dali, Baby Map of the World, 1939
Salvador Dali, Baby Map of the World, 1939

Too far from the shores of the 1960s, I was intrigued by Michael Pollan’s new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. What captured my attention was not merely the striking findings of how helpful psychedelics can be to people in dire circumstances, but how they might “change the minds” of others. Pollan was intrigued by the testimony of a “psychologist [who] felt that LSD gave her insight into how young children perceive the world. Kids’ perceptions are not mediated by expectations and conventions in the been-there, done-that way that adult perception is… LSD appears to disable such conventionalized, shorthand modes of perception and, by doing so, restores a childlike immediacy, and sense of wonder, to our experience of reality, as if we were seeing everything for the first time.” While influenced by changes of mind-set and environmental settings, a leitmotif to many LSD-like experiences is “the dissolution of one’s ego followed by a sense of merging with nature or the universe.”

Just some food for thought 😊

The Soul should always stand ajar That if the Heaven inquire He will not be obliged to wait Or shy of troubling Her

Depart, before the Host have slid The Bolt unto the Door — To search for the accomplished Guest, Her Visitor, no more —

Emily Dickinson

1,408 views0 comments


bottom of page