One trouble with wives is that they have ideas of their own. My wife Ann has insisted for fifty years on having ideas of her own. So inconvenient.
One idea she pushed for the last fifteen years is that I write an autobiography. Fortunately, I have ideas of my own too, so I kept resisting. However, as those of you know from having read “The Importance of Hooey,” sooner or later it’s advisable to give in. So last year I began writing an autobiography.
However, it won’t be a typical autobiography. Ann and most other people may well be disappointed. The simple fact is that I’m not at all interested in the details of my life and don’t think other people should be either. The “autobiography” I write is the one I feel like writing right now, so we’re stuck with it.
What follows is the Preface and an excerpt from the first chapter of “Our Autobiographies.”
When I sat down one day to write an autobiography I soon realized that every time I used the word “I”, “I” was lying. We knew that we had no single self or “I”, neither now nor ever, and that pretending that we did meant we were missing the essence of what it means to be a human being. We knew that the boy of nine who came home one day to learn that his father had killed himself bore little resemblance to the young college teacher in his twenties, or that the selves of the old man now writing these autobiographies contains only a few leftovers of the selves of the man who lived and wrote THE DICE MAN forty years earlier. We thus concluded that if the word “I” was used we would bury the book in lies and illusions. It will undoubtedly have a lot of lies and illusions in it anyway, but fewer if we try to avoid the word “I.”
So we have come in this book to use the word “we” to refer to the personae residing in this corpus. Using the word “I” implies that there exists a single self that unifies every individual’s life. Most people feel they have such a single self and often refer to it as “soul.” Referring to ourselves as “we” keeps us and those reading this book aware that from our point of view every individual has hundreds of personae running through time and dozens during any given short time period. The only usefulness of the word “I” is in referring to the body that carries around the complex bundle of selves, but since you, my good readers, would unconsciously assume that “I” also refers to some single self or soul, the word has become hopelessly corrupted. With any luck in a few thousand years humans will have evolved to the point where they all refer to themselves as “we” because they all comfortably accept their inconsistency, mutability and multiplicity.
And I found a second problem with writing an autobiography: the genre assumes that a human being can be separated from everything else. We are forced to adopt the convenient fiction that we are actors separate from the environment that has created us and envelops us. The “we” as I have just described it above is also inaccurate. Even “we” don’t exist as I just posited.
Just as there is no single self, no single I, so too is there no individual ‘corpus.’ The word “I” or the word “he” both imply that the human being is separate from all that he is immersed in. When a man is playing with his dog by throwing a ball and enjoying the dog’s retrieving it, it has been suggested that we should ask whether it is the man getting the dog to chase the ball, or is the dog getting the man to throw the ball? Who actually is initiating the action?
Of course neither of them are, no one is. If our language were to get close to the nature of life, we would say “man and dog playing with ball,” or “man, dog and ball playing.” More accurately still, “man, dog, ball, ground, air, playing.” And even that is an oversimplification since all of these sentences imply that the man is separate from the dog and the ball and the ground and the air.
Nothing in the universe is ever separate from anything else. Every individual entity that we separate out from the universe is an artificial construct created for various purposes and limited by the language with which we express such separateness.
For many many purposes separating things out from each other is useful and we of course will do so in these autobiographies. Distinguishing a brown area that we see as a grizzly bear rather than a pile of dead leaves is useful in not having an unpleasant encounter with the brown area. All of science is based on separating out things from each other, observing them, and creating hypotheses about how they interact with other entities we separate out.
But there are huge swathes of life that are poisoned by our feeling ourselves a separate being from our surroundings. Our lives among them.
All autobiography separates a single entity from the universe that bore “him” and sustains “him” and from which he cannot be separated.
We are all the tiniest of grains of sand aswirl in the ocean, “deciding” at one moment to swing a bit to the right and then “deciding” to surge a bit to the left. We are grains of sand swirling as part of an infinite whole and every thought and every action is embedded in the swirling whole and never separate from it. The universe decides everything. And decides nothing. One is no more free letting a die “decide” among options than he is if he decides himself. The casting of a die itself
We were born. Or so the evidence suggests. None of us remembers a thing about it. Or much of anything that happened during the first nine years of our life. This failure to remember much of anything before the traumatic day that our father, dying of cancer, shot and killed himself, indicates, so we are told, deep repression. Freud is quite clear that when a father dies, the son, especially if he is between the ages of seven and eleven, always feels guilty for the death. Freud would know that our father had done many things that had built up aggression in our little child so that when the father suddenly goes “bang”, the child assumes his thoughts helped cause the tragedy.
We have no comment. Being deeply repressed we are unable to confront what happened. We have no painful memories pre-Dad’s death-day nor happy ones either. Until Freud pointed out our neurosis, we assumed we had a boring childhood. Since there is no evidence from other sources of anything out of the ordinary, we will simply write that we were born in 1932, lived a pleasant but not memorable nine years in a little town outside of Albany, New York, and then, with the death of our father, began to have memories.
Was our childhood so traumatic we can’t face it? Our brother, Jim, thinks so. Jim is three years younger than we are and he remembers a cruel father that used to whip him with a belt. Wow. We don’t have a single memory of being beaten with a belt. A few spankings, perhaps, but a belt, no. Jim has many memories of his life before the age of nine; we have none. Jim is unrepressed, remembers a cruel father; we are repressed, remember nothing. Saw nothing, heard nothing, felt nothing.
Of course, Jim had a temper and threw numerous temper tantrums as a child. Parents rarely know how to treat temper tantrums, but some sort of physical force often comes into play. We ourselves were mostly a model child and had no temper, so the times we seemed to deserve a whupping were probably considerably less than Jim’s.
Who were we back then? At that time most of our selves wanted to be good. We wanted to please our mother. We always did our homework. We got excellent grades in school. Our teachers loved us. We never ventured to say or do anything original. In short we were everything most of us old “I”s today, and most our “I”s for the last fifty years, find criminally boring.
Fortunately, we also loved sports. We played baseball and touch football every time we got a chance. Our house was only a hundred feet from the elementary school grounds so the neighborhood kids would gather there for pickup games. We were mediocre in all major sports and many minor ones, but because we were among the oldest of the neighborhood boys who played in these pickup games, we were a leader and one of the best.
For five or six years sports took the center of our life. Of course, we had a few mutineers within us even then. Although we always made our bed in the morning, there were a few of us who felt it was a waste of time and thought the controlling self was a wimp for always being a mama’s boy. But mama’s boy almost always won out.
Who were these creeps who dominated our life during these years? You notice that the we who are writing this book, in our wisdom and senility, refer to our young predecessors as creeps. This is just the earliest manifestation of the alienation of one group of selves from others. We today feel nothing but disdain for the child and teenager that existed sixty-five years ago. We feel even more disdain for the jerks who ran our life when we first went to college. It seems a definite accident that we all inhabit(ed) the same body. The very idea that we have to write about these creeps as if they had anything to do with who we are today makes us irritable. Couldn’t we start these autobiographies a little later in our life—say when we were seventy and began actually to know something about life?
We could, but then we would totally miss the point that in the course of a lifetime a variety of people live in the same body. We have to tell you about our earlier selves even if they are boring. Of course, some readers will find that they much more approve of some of our earlier selves then they do of the diceman self or of the selves writing this book. Each to his own taste.
The most notable feature of our teenage years was that none of us had any thoughts. Not a single one of us. Oh, of course, we had little thoughts, thoughts about sports and sports figures, thoughts about girls, thoughts about school, about friends, and so on, but not a single thought analyzing these thoughts. No thoughts about thinking; no thoughts about life.
We attended The Albany Academy for Boys, a military academy in Albany that my mother sent us to because they would take care of us after school until she could pick us up after an eight-hour day. It was a fine academic school. We wore a uniform for six years and learned very well how to shine our shoes, something we have conscientiously never done since.
Although we studied Latin and English we were mostly illiterate. We never read a single book outside the high school or college curriculum until the spring of our sophomore year at Cornell University. Only then did we begin to blunder into literature. Before that it was SILAS MARNER and IVANHOE and THE HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES. No Thoreau or Tolstoy or Dostoyevski or even Mark Twain, except perhaps TOM SAWYER. No book to stimulate thinking.
And why did we go to Cornell and in what did we begin to major there? We went to Cornell because our father went to Cornell. We began to study electrical engineering because our father studied electrical engineering. Now how is that for the power of a dead man over a living son who claims he doesn’t remember a thing about his dad?
Nevertheless, it was during that sophomore year that some more interesting mes began to come to life. Some of them even had thoughts.
We owe this revolution to a professor named Max Black, who taught a logic and semantics course that for some reason engineering students were required to take. Max introduced us to the idea that our thinking was formed by our language and that different languages created different types of thinking. He showed that words not only denoted things but they also carried a cloak of connotation that made them more than pointers, made them paint the thing pointed at in different colors often unrelated to the thing itself. “Earth” and “dirt” might refer to the same thing, but the clothing arraigned over those two words by connotation made “earth” look wonderful, and “dirt’ bedraggled and ugly.
Max was thus the first entity–entities being both persons and books–that made us question how and why we thought. For the next sixty years questioning how we think and trying to clear away the underbrush that hides the more solid earth would be our primary intellectual passion. All the writers who have inspired us since–Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Zen masters, Sufis, Socrates, Montaigne, Freud, Taleb, even the seemingly uncultured Henry Miller–all knocked a few illusions out of our head and made us see more clearly the lies we live by. is simply another part of the swirl.