On Constructing Identity

I recently read Nicole Krauss’s 2002 novel Man Walks Into A Room for my philosophy class. The plot centers on Samson Greene, an English professor in his thirties who suffers brain damage and consequently loses all recollection of his life after age 12. He can form new memories, but his wife and his career are now completely unfamiliar to him. Though I found the book itself rather lacking, the following week’s class discussion proved riveting. I realized that Samson’s effort to reconstruct an identity without any awareness of the past speaks to a quandary that should resonate with any college student: to what extent does self-discovery depend on knowledge gained through experience rather than on the identities we construct for ourselves?

At the risk of romanticizing the same trite and borderline-meaningless notion of experience that weakens Krauss’s novel, I present a thought experiment inspired by the book and our discussion. Pretend that it’s May of your senior year and you have just received your degree; four exhausting but rewarding years are behind you. Unfortunately, a tragic accident occurs, and the same variant of amnesia that plagues Samson Greene befalls you. Memories of your childhood and early adolescence are intact, but the time you spent in Claremont evaporates from your consciousness forever.

After the initial shock subsides, you have no choice but to confront the preceding four years as an archaeologist would. You worked so hard to achieve a fundamental understanding of yourself and your destiny, but you must now examine a mass of concrete evidence in order to evaluate the success of that effort. You navigate Facebook photo albums littered with red plastic cups and an e-mail account overflowing with Chirps notifications. Outside of cyberspace, you may have a tome of graded term papers and exams collecting dust in a file cabinet, or a shelf of textbooks defiled with those haphazard annotations you made to convince yourself you were processing the material. Frustrated, you realize that none of this is what you want; accreted miscellanea like these shed no light on the more subjective value of a college education.

You look elsewhere. You contact your classmates and interrogate them. You ask what they thought of you as a person, whether you were a passionate scholar or a loyal friend. You may meet them in person and reflect on the inside jokes and awkward pastimes you shared with them. Eventually, a more holistic picture of the identity you cultivated over the last four years comes into view, one that accounts for both your own actions and the way they impacted and were governed by the people around you. This conception is the standard by which you will judge the personal development that a Pomona College education offered.

Now, what could possibly have been my point in entertaining such a morbid and admittedly unrealistic scenario?

Somewhere between Animal House and Good Will Hunting, you likely have picked up on the individualistic American narrative that college is a place to find oneself. Pop culture reinforces this belief through motifs and images ranging from substance-infused fraternity hazing rituals to poetry slams at campus coffeehouses, but the focus on self-actualization is constant. The rhetoric accompanying a liberal-arts education especially ingrains the tendency to regard college as a journey, the destination of which is only ascertained through introspection and the excavation of a predestined and immaculate self.

I have come to decide that this person—this enlightened, fully actualized homunculus inside me who can break free if I just do the right soul-searching—does not and never will exist, at least not in any constant, fixed form. Self-discovery is an arduous lifelong endeavor, and any attempts to complete it during the college years will amount to little more than solipsistic existential panic if you view identity as an isolated, closed system. I think the attempt to define oneself is perhaps the single most important and potentially beneficial struggle for any college student, but relief is not locked away inside you.

In Krauss’s novel, Samson Greene ultimately rejects his old life and sets out to construct a new identity independent of memory. Accepting his former circumstances would mean failing to choose his fate. One of my worst fears is that once I receive my diploma, these four years will last only as a blur of imposed associations, an era without freedom or purpose. I think there is hope, however. Identity does not develop within a vacuum, so I can always choose the relationships and experiences that shape it.

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