Personality Perplex

The Roberts Browning (Father and Son)
The Roberts Browning (Father and Son)

So much these days about the brain “acting” in priority to “thought” (self-reflection?) that I wanted to again assert the prescience of the 19th century as regards our current scientific moment.

Morse Peckham on Browning:

We never know what we are doing. It is only after it is done that we can create constructs which are themselves in the service of our interests, whether our interest be a the moment self-justification or self-condemnation…he had arrived at the realization that what unifies will, perception, cognition and truth is personality, and that the problem of epistemology, that is, of knowledge and of what can be known, is inseparable from the problem of personality…epistemology is a personality problem, not a philosophical question. (Victorian Revolutionaries)

If the brain “thinks us” (a fun “zen” anecdote here recalls the little boy who sneezed and was chastised for not “excusing” himself saying “but it sneezed me”) then personality too is a response to that organ’s adjustment to environmental stimuli.

It will also upend Descartes, right? I am therefore I think. (The contention here must be and always have been how the “I” is defined.) Of course this brings the conception of the linguistic frame of God back into play “I am that I am” (or is that Popeye?).

I will confess to writing poetry in this mode. I write it, then I think about what I meant by it–that is, I am only one interpreter of the stimulated brain inside my head.

Also, one might imagine “image” or the “reflection” of our physical appearance would take on even more significance as regards “mind” or “personality” right? A brain that is “Doug Storm” resides in the head of Doug Storm who is only recognized as Doug Storm by a view of his countenance, i.e., we really do “reflect” the myth of Narcissus (and don’t forget the Echo part!).

I am not identified by fingerprints but rather the “carrier” of this brain is identified (as a car is identified by VIN but the driver is in question).

whew…my jekyll is tired and the confusion is prompting my hyde to stir. Wait, that’s using the idea of a different Robert!

But wait, here’s more from the 19th century–yes, it’s Melville:

So that there are instances among them of men, who, named with Scripture names—a singularly common fashion on the island—and in childhood naturally imbibing the stately dramatic thee and thou of the Quaker idiom; still, from the audacious, daring, and boundless adventure of their subsequent lives, strangely blend with these unoutgrown peculiarities, a thousand bold dashes of character, not unworthy a Scandinavian sea-king, or a poetical Pagan Roman. And when these things unite in a man of greatly superior natural force, with a globular brain and a ponderous heart; who has also by the stillness and seclusion of many long night-watches in the remotest waters, and beneath constellations never seen here at the north, been led to think untraditionally and independently; receiving all nature’s sweet or savage impressions fresh from her own virgin voluntary and confiding breast, and thereby chiefly, but with some help from accidental advantages, to learn a bold and nervous lofty language—that man makes one in a whole nation’s census—a mighty pageant creature, formed for noble tragedies. Nor will it at all detract from him, dramatically regarded, if either by birth or other circumstances, he have what seems a half wilful overruling morbidness at the bottom of his nature. For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease. But, as yet we have not to do with such an one, but with quite another; and still a man, who, if indeed peculiar, it only results again from another phase of the Quaker, modified by individual circumstances.

And in a chapter on the character (personality of) Starbuck:

With memories like these in him, and, moreover, given to a certain superstitiousness, as has been said; the courage of this Starbuck which could, nevertheless, still flourish, must indeed have been extreme

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. But it was not in reasonable nature that a man so organized, and with such terrible experiences and remembrances as he had; it was not in nature that these things should fail in latently engendering an element in him, which, under suitable circumstances, would break out from its confinement, and burn all his courage up.

Or perhaps we look to the 17th century?

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.—Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it;—you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, &c. &c.—and a great deal to that purpose:—Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man’s sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracks and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, ’tis not a half-penny matter,—away they go cluttering like hey-go mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it. –from Chapter One of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759)

And I wrote this, which strikes me as pertinent, out of some letters written by scientists in the 19th century who worked with Louis Agassiz.

The Stranger says to Willy as regards
the exfoliating Now
(“an open
secret, the formula by which we see”)

walk round yourself in the revelation

philosophy a hound hunting his own
the more he hunts the farther he has
to go, and his nose never catches up
with his heels, because it is forever
ahead of them

the present already
a foregone conclusion for which I am
now too late to understand

the moment
of recovery from anesthetics,
just then, before starting on life, I catch,
so to speak, a glimpse of my heels, a glimpse:
the eternal process just in the act
of starting

we travel on a journey
that was accomplished before we set out;
the real end is in ending, not when we
arrive at, but when we remain in, our
destination (being already there) —
which may occur vicariously if
we halt intellectual questioning

a smile appears upon the face of the
as we view it
it tells
we are forever just a blink too late

You could kiss your own lips, have all the fun
to and of yourself, it says, if only
you knew the trick

it would be perfectly easy

can’t you manage it

In the first place, yes,
I agree,

the revelation
doesn’t move me

not the reading
not even the script
but the onion skin

an utter impress
of forgotten slough

as blood says,
the one sole sufficient
the how of it
when fast is a
vacuumed past
a now
forever too late
for futures

in time
revealed by precedent

an initiation of the past
out of itself,
never unloosed
but kept to retreat

by formal stay
mere logic
contains questions
in asking

a backfill
of wholly no propulsion

it goes because it is a-going

…was and is, a-going it

(catch it) can’t

without your look

But Pessoa says it better, with brevity:

The poet is a faker
Who’s so good at his act
He even fakes the pain
Of pain he feels in fact.
And those who read his words
Will feel in his writing
Neither of the pains he has
But just the one they’re missing.
And so around its track
This thing called the heart winds,
A little clockwork train
To entertain our minds. (tr Richard Zenith)

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  1. Sarah July 3, 2014 at 8:06 am

    Interesting stuff. So, you’re saying personality is a constant, immutable facet of our being? Is personal change an illusion? Or do our personalities allow for shades of grey? Using your example of your own poetry, you could write the same poem and interpret it differently on two different days, so you could potentially mean something entirely different to yourself even though your brain produced the same stimuli to react to. Right?

    1. Douglas Storm July 3, 2014 at 8:17 am

      Hoo-boy! No, I don’t think I’m saying that…rather, personality is a construct of a self-regarding being living in the world in a particular milieu (as Melville writes of Starbuck–a man so organized as this) at a particular moment(s). I suppose the “mask” is assembled to achieve what the brain needs to contend with the world it confronts. One can imagine changing the mask–this is Browning’s assertion (or poetic insight). This is Ahab’s philosophy and motivation–to “strike through the mask” of creation–to see behind (through) the constructs…and what awaits us there is I suppose the “abyss” of which Nietzsche warns us; and is perhaps seen in Stevens’ “The Snow Man”:

      One must have a mind of winter
      To regard the frost and the boughs
      Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

      And have been cold a long time
      To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
      The spruces rough in the distant glitter

      Of the January sun; and not to think
      Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
      In the sound of a few leaves,

      Which is the sound of the land
      Full of the same wind
      That is blowing in the same bare place

      For the listener, who listens in the snow,
      And, nothing himself, beholds
      Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

      1. Douglas Storm July 3, 2014 at 8:22 am

        But maybe more importantly, as Pascal notes of training the mind to believe (I’m a name-dropping quoting machine today), I think the use of language DOES indeed offer us a way to “reorganize” the self.

        1. Sarah July 3, 2014 at 8:49 am

          That makes sense, especially when you consider the amount of internal dialogue that goes on in our brains. If we’re constantly talking to ourselves about ourselves than that would provide a moveable framework, though not always easily moveable.

          1. Douglas Storm July 3, 2014 at 9:22 am

            So, maybe there’s a bit of difference here (is it gendered?) in that I rarely if ever “worry” or “think” about anything unless I am ACTIVELY engaged in a topic I intend to engage. I am sure my mind is “running” on autopilot (autopsicografia via pessoa?) but I am not conscious of “talking” to myself about me or my situations of concern.

    2. Eric Sargent July 3, 2014 at 9:46 am

      I agree with Sarah here… to a degree. I can write something, a song for instance, come back the next day and see a whole different perspective. Then I will convince myself that that is what I intended initially. I think our brains, our being, have a way of editing themselves as a means to “save face” or “put the best foot forward” or whatever cliche you want to enter here. We, like many Facebook users for instance, have this innate ability to “edit” our outside persona, while all the while trying to make it look natural and happenstance…. when in reality, there is a great amount of pre-thought, after-thought, and manipulation happening just behind/below the surface. Maybe all our thinking is just a happy accident.

      To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

      Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—

      If one, settling a pillow by her head,

      Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;

      That is not it, at all.”

      1. Douglas Storm July 3, 2014 at 10:00 am

        Ugh, Eliot!

        I think, rather, that FB responses have become nearly like “autopsicografia” as the brain itself–with our “attachments,” our external brains (our peripheral drives) shoot “impulse” into and through the texting fingers.

        Poor Lazarus there, chattering his teeth against the curbstone for his pillow, and shaking off his tatters with his shiverings, he might plug up both ears with rags, and put a corn-cob into his mouth, and yet that would not keep out the tempestuous Euroclydon. Euroclydon! says old Dives, in his red silken wrapper—(he had a redder one afterwards) pooh, pooh! What a fine frosty night; how Orion glitters; what northern lights! Let them talk of their oriental summer climes of everlasting conservatories; give me the privilege of making my own summer with my own coals.


        After the ceremony was concluded upon the present occasion, I felt all the easier; a stone was rolled away from my heart. Besides, all the days I should now live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after his resurrection; a supplementary clean gain of so many months or weeks as the case might be. I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest. I looked round me tranquilly and contentedly, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience sitting inside the bars of a snug family vault.

        I think Melville is indeed addressing himself to a “self-recovery” in both of these separate passages–to make one’s own summer is to make oneself over to live in happier climes.


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