The Question of Identity : Wuthering Heights, the Personal and the Relational

emily_brontë_by_patrick_branwell_brontë_restored

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a troubling book. On many levels. A story of unrequited love and wandering spirits and race and class and hate – all wrapped around the wind tousled moorland, a story of longing unfolded in a lonely place. Loneliness – the impassibility of loneliness – is in many ways the theme of the book. The story, at its core, is about Catherine, the girl who would be a ghost, and Heathcliff, the orphaned gypsy boy, about their more-than-love, about the one-ness of their spirit and the unsurpassable gulf – the material world – that separates one spirit trapped in two bodies.

There is a moment in the book, when Catherine speaks of her bond with Heathcliff – I am Heathcliff, she says, and he is me. What does this mean? What does it mean to be someone else? Is it an illogical statement, romantic and emotional at best? We are so used to questions of love thrown around our popular culture that statements of longing – and belonging – such as this, seem almost cringe-worthy. But I want to explore this still – the idea of being someone else, of the ‘I’ being someone else, the ‘I’ which extends beyond one body, and, an ‘I’ which is only complete, which is only itself, when it is so extended. Anything else, a separation, is an abridgement of the idea, a reduction, a containment.

There seem to be two ideas of the self here, in conflict. One, the personality argument of the self. The other, the spiritual argument. Is the self a person, so a body, an organism? Or, is the self a mind, a soul, a non-material spiritual being?

If we take the first view, it seems illogical to speak of the self being complete only when it ‘bonds’ with another body. Or does it? Would a person be a complete person if he was to be alone? Absolutely. Alone and separated from not just human company but all company, animal, vegetational, everything. Can the self be a self in a vacuum, in a void? What is a body? Is it a physical unit contained within the skin? Look at it differently. The body, at any moment, is a a conduit for innumerable flows, in and out of the environment. There is the complex of sense perception, then respiration, ingestion, hydration, excretion. Everything is coming and going, in and out, while the body seems to be an intersection of flows.

That is one subject, yes. But then, let us talk about thought. Thought from speech and thought from experience. Is thought, in the mind, self born? Or is thought seeded in the mind? From outside? In this moment I might sit, and ponder, contemplate. I might feel that my mind is churning out ideas, interpreting the world and producing thought. But think harder. Is thought produced or reproduced? One line of thinking is this : all thought is composed of language. And language itself is never a personal thing. How can thought then be personal? It might ‘sound’ in the chambers of the mind, so we gain the impression that it sources from the mind, but only one step further into the origins of thought, we learn that its is not such a personal thing.

I have often wondered about two experiences. First, often when I am thinking of a song, or a tune, sometimes even a name, someone sitting next to me will mention it. It happens to everyone, I believe. Is there some supernatural explanation for this? Or does the environment around us, through our thinking, speaking and sharing, become a sort of shared extended mind environment? Second, often I have some idea, about some project like a story or a film idea, or something similar, and I will find out in a matter of time that something to the likeness has been made, by someone else, far away, with whom I would have had no possibility of contact. How does that happen? Again, through influences, from the world, from the larger, shared world of mass media and popular culture. One finds such occurrences with even more regularity in specialist communities, often small, which share the same sources of information and are trained to interpret and expound in similar disciplines. Take for example, the Newton-Leibniz calculus controversy. Or Darwin and Wallace and the theory of evolution.

Then, there is the second argument. The view about the spirit and the soul. Personally, I have always understood such themes as being more metaphoric than real – if metaphors are unreal, that is. But then, there are views and there are views. Scientifically speaking, one could not deny the existence of a soul, or to extend it, a world spirit. But equally so, current scientific knowledge leads one to be very sceptical about such views. Memory, experience, their articulation is language, are all physical acts – which happen in the material world. Problems in the systems – especially the brain – that facilitate these experiences, result in directly perceivable problems in them, which, on correction of those problems, correspondingly, correct them. So, we have not only correlation but causation.

Regarding the spirit, or the soul, we can not use our spiritual essence as an argument against the scientific view until we are clear about what the soul is. Which we, unfortunately, are not unless we confine ourselves to the narrow domestic walls of our personal belief systems. There are so many views about the nature of the soul that it makes it impossible to conduct any sort of debate between the souls view and the scientific view.

Nevertheless, I mentioned that I understand the soul to be a metaphor – for the complex of experience that creates a substantial sense of the self, a whole view of who one is as a person, inclusive of memory, beliefs and desires. The question is – can this view of the self be reduced to physical phenomena, especially when contained within one body, bounded by the skin, so to say? I have already mentioned that the person is not one unitary being but an intersection of flows. A satisfied self – that is, a person in a ‘happy’, for want of a better word, state of being – is a person who is provided all the flows which make him or her happy. Even the reduction of one flow would reduce the happiness of the person. And this, I believe, would be a reduction of his personhood.

This might seem like a New Age prescription for the existentially challenged soul. But it is actually an old idea. In ancient Indian thought, it was believed that a balance between the four goals of righteousness, pleasure, wealth and spirituality create a complete person. Aristotle called this state of being eudaimonia – in which one lived the good life.

But my investigation is not about therapeutical strategies. I am concerned about the question of identity. At the end, I would like to pose a question, in light of my discussions above. Can the identity of a person be wholly personal? Or, rather, should we look at the question of identity as being a relational one? Returning to Catherine, when she says, she is Heathcliff, what does she mean? I interpret this as saying that she can be herself, as she wants to be, only when she is with Heathcliff, together, they create one another, and complete one another – not in a romantic but ideational sense. The idea of one is of her making when she makes it as she wants to be. Anything else is forced on her – by the world, by circumstance, anything, but all a manifestation of the operation of power on the person forcing her into a form conceived for her by that power.

There is a conflict between the personal and the relational aspects of identity. Personal identity is complete when the person is the sole constructor of its nature, which includes the freedom to associate and make relations with the world as the person would want, free of any force. But the fact that our existence is relational, makes us subjects of power. We are written, constructed, shaped by the operation of power, which itself uses relational channels of contact, and prevets us from being whole persons.

This is a musing, an exploration and a question. Even though in the form of a rather meandering essay. It is still one rather small question.

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