DISCLAIMER: If one is to set out on a Einsteinian quest for a unified theory of the first-person singular, one must be mindful that the good professor failed in his attempt to develop a unified theory of the nature of the physical (read: physics). That an effort to theoretically unify the first-person singular should somehow escape a similar fate is an unlikely and remote possibility. (Some might say, a folly.) Let the pilgrim be forewarned.

* * *

Fully aware of the dangers, I trudge ahead blindly, searching for the illusive first-person singular. The black curse of self-conscious awareness nips at my heels. History laughs. And spectators shake their heads. Those who claim to love me repress ridicule, and removed friends think my quest quaint at best. What is the nature of this undertaking, this ego-intensive Sisyphean endeavor? Where do I find my voice? And should I discover it, will I find, behind it, my identity? The professor and journalist Jay Rosen calls journalism the “view from nowhere.” I seek, conversely, the opposite: The view from somewhere.

* * *

I am torn, bicameral even. There is someone named me who scoffs at this endeavor and finds it silly. And there is the other I, the I who thirsts for revelation. The question, Who am I?, is not a question the first someone tolerates. That someone quotes Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent.” It all seems sophomoric, doesn’t it, this quest? Yet, the other someone, the other I, cannot remain silent. The question, or rather, the quest for the first-person singular, bubbles to the surface, a gas escaping–alas!–a solid. Just hearing the bubble pop–pop pop pop–begs the question. I tire and am bored, yet nothing else captures my attention. Like a mistress, replete and opulent, full of obvious trouble, I attempt to ignore her. Yet her seduction cannot be avoided. I fall into her arms.

* * *

I am old-fashioned. I wish for an oracle. It does not escape me that oracles are more often women, that those seeking them more often men. Women are riddle makers, men systemizers. This from Pythia, the goddess oracle at Delphi:

“Look into yourself, know yourself, keep to yourself; bring back your mind and your will, which are spending themselves elsewhere, into themselves. You are running out, you are scattering yourself; concentrate yourself, resist yourself; you are being betrayed, dispersed, and stolen away from  yourself. Do you not see that this world keeps its sight all concentrated  inward and its eyes open to contemplate itself? It is always vanity for you, within and without; but it is less vanity when it is less extensive. Except for you, O man, each thing studies itself first, and, according to its needs, has limits to its labors and desires. There is not a single thing as empty and needy as you, who embrace the universe: you are the investigator without knowledge, the magistrate without jurisdiction, and all in all, the fool of the farce. “

The fool of the farce! Me, this pilgrim, an investigator without knowledge.

* * *

This quest for the first-person singular is a personal meta-discourse on my existence and therefore largely senseless. It is not given to us to understand the nature of this question. “The solution of the problem of life,” wrote Wittgenstein, “is seen in the vanishing of the problem.”

* * *

If I were an artist, twisting my existence into a symbol, or a lyric, or a color or a sound or a pearl strand of beautiful phrases, I would, I think, exercise my demons. But, alas, I am not. I am nothing but a note taker, an observer and voyeur upon the plains of existence. I cannot, unlike the artist, make the problem vanish. Where is my project if I where to make it vanish? (Again, with the two “I”s.) But vanishing is release. “Know yourself,” admonished Pythia. That is a riddle–the riddle.

* * *

The world of child-raising, the world of commerce, of chores, of errands, of conference calls and meetings, the world of sleeplessness, of the grind, of traffic jams and anger, of frustration and remorse–in the main, the world of distraction, is largely behind me and what remains–clarity, ha!–I wrestle to the ground. But what remains, is the vanishing mystery.

Irony defined, that one is.

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DOUG BRUNS: Husband, father, son, thinker, reader, writer, Mainer (application pending), photographer, walker, traveler, recluse, gadfly & cook. He confesses: to having problems with details; needing more quiet time than most; confusing wisdom and knowledge; missing the summer lakes of his youth and loving the smell of a pine grove. He flosses every night. He is currently at work on a book tracing the history of the idea that the unexamined life is not worth living. His blog can be found at: "...the house I live in..."

14 responses to “The First-Person Singular”

  1. It’s great in many ways to come across someone like you digging for the deeper answers. And I think you tend to be right that men seek out oracles, as misguided as our search might be sometimes. But all these larger, wider points you raise remind me of the Heidegger quote that “the essence of life lies in the form of a question.” Always a line that tends to stall any declarative response.

    I like your last sentence too, its open-endedness and its slight uplift. Thanks for this interesting post.

    • Doug Bruns says:

      N ~ Yes, I an a digger. But so then the grave requires a digger…

      The Heidegger quote is the essence of it all. Thanks for sharing that. Too, it’s like Socrates’s admonition that the examined live is not worth living. Heidegger leaves the question on the table. No answer. And Socrates didn’t say that there was a posting required after examination. Just examine. Lots of questions and no answers and we’re off and running. As it should be.

      Thanks for reading the and comment.

  2. Brad Listi says:

    the other day i wrote a postcard to a friend and asked aloud whether or not anyone is actually good at this….are there actually human beings who are really good at being alive?….and what would that even entail?….

    in its own way, a plea for an oracle….

    is the word “pithy” derived from pythia?….

    that would make some sense…

    • Doug Bruns says:

      B ~ Your question: “….are there actually human beings who are really good at being alive?….” is the most exciting question I’ve ever encountered. Thank you! That’s it. That’s the question I’ve been seeking. Now, if I only had an answer…

      • Brad Listi says:

        well, there have to be at least a couple of people on the planet who really have this thing figured out….right?

        it is a skill i want to acquire…

        i’d be curious to know if you or anyone else out there has ever met someone who is really spectacularly good at existing….a true wiseperson….

        i don’t know that i’ve ever met one….

        or maybe i’ve met plenty, and it is a testament to my own deficiencies that i didn’t recognize them…

        • Doug Bruns says:

          Brad ~ Again with the really good questions. (Questions are the heart of the matter. Who cares about the answers, eh?) But yes, I believe I’ve met a couple, and know of a couple more, really wise individuals, people who live life. (“Live” as a fully utilized active verb.) That’s what keeps me going: knowing–or at least soundly believing–that such as state of existence can be achieved.

          “a skill i want to acquire…” I like the word skill, haven’t I thought about it that way, but it might be a good word for the thing we seek. It implies, if nothing else, that a discipline can be acquired, a thing learned–a thing that would afford us the tools we seek. Yes, that works. Skill.

          ..and we’re off…

        • Simon Smithson says:

          David Allen, author of Getting Things Done.

          I know I harp on about this guy all the time, but he’s devised a meta-system that translates, basically, into effectiveness; the ability to change things from a state that is undesirable into a state that is desirable, depending on the individual’s desires.

          If that isn’t the basis for being good at existing, I don’t know what is.

        • Gloria says:

          My friend Roman, a clinician in Santa Monica, is tremendous at doing this. Oddly, though, I’m not sure he’d agree. But, I mean, is that part of it – of being good at it?

    • Greg Olear says:

      Q. Are there actually human beings who are really good at being alive?
      A. Yes. Kardashians.

      Doug, have you read the Jaynes book? (Whenever talk turns metaphysical, I default to Jaynes).

      • Doug Bruns says:

        G ~ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind? Yes, I read it years ago. Man, I confess that it took a google search to find pull up that reference. Which, brings me to the Kardashians. Can’t say I ever saw the show, but I’m gonna take your word for it…
        The Jaynes book has been in my radar lately, I keep thinking about it. I know the premise, but don’t recall the details. I think I need to re-read. Thanks for that! Another book on the desktop. Have to get back to to you on that.
        Thanks for checking in.

        • Greg Olear says:

          That’s the one. The word “bicameral” made me think of it in your post, as well as the exploration itself. Well worth a re-read.

          The Kardashians, on the other hand, may safely be ignored.

  3. I tripped into this because of title. This is Miami. My neighborhood mostly Caribbean Black. Was high school history teacher 34 years. The English of the people of Trinidad uses the first person singular and the first person plural. Exclusively. There is no objective case pronoun and the is no possessive case pronoun. Pronouns are in in subjective or nominative case only. If you’re around it enough, well I must catch myself from saying that is he book or give it tt he. Me is also often substituted for I. Me now well go to store man. Gosh, traffic too bad boy! “…the magistrate with jurisdiction.” Is that Don Quixoteish irony?

    • Doug Bruns says:

      C ~ That is interesting and makes me wonder what influences the language was subject to such that it developed in that fashion. That’s curious.

      Thanks for stopping in and the comment.

  4. correct “to magistrate with no jurisdiction”

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