In a wonderful essay on Cézanne's art Jonathan Jones writes in The Guardian on August 11 2017:
"...In a beautiful pairing by the curators, Cézanne in 1885-6 portrays himself in a tall bowler hat (in French it’s a chapeau melon) looking from the side, as if he has just turned round and spotted himself. He looks displeased. This painting has a strong, solid, almost sculptural finish. But then he thinks again. In a second painting he has the same pose and hat but the image is dappled, incomplete, vanishing. Did he really see what he thought he saw? He’s uncertain now. Another unsettling reperception of his own image is a painting from about 1885 based on a photograph taken in 1872. Can the Cézanne who is painting it even be sure he is the same man he was 13 years earlier? He seems far from convinced. One eye in the portrait is almost closed. The figure is isolated in ghostly blue. Who was I, then?
Cézanne not only anticipates Picasso but also Proust and Joyce as he meditates on the nature of the self. We are not continuous beings, his portraits suggest. We are mysteries to ourselves and others, divided and fragmentary behind our masks. He is the true inventor both of modern art and the modern soul."
This reminded me of John Gray's writings:
"In (David) Hume’s view, we cannot even know that the external world really exists. Indeed we do not even know that we ourselves exist, since all we find when we look within is a bundle of sensations. Hume concluded that, knowing nothing, we must follow the ancient Greek Sceptics, and rely on nature and habit to guide our lives...
...For Hume, selfhood is only a rehearsal of continuities. As he wrote:
The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different; whatever natural propensity we have to imagine that simplicity and identity. The comparison of the theatre must not mislead us. They are the successive perceptions only, that constitute the mind; nor have we the most distant notion of the place, where these scenes are represented, or of the materials, of which this is compos’d.
Hume’s experience of finding no simplicity or identity in himself was also (Goronwy) Rees’s. In a fascinating memoir, Rees’s daughter confirms his account of himself as ‘Mr Nobody, a man without qualities, a person without a sense of “self”’. Rees’s experience may have been unusual in its intensity, as the name his daughter gave him suggests; but it is in no way abnormal. The discontinuities he perceived in himself are present in everyone. We are all bundles of sensations. The unified, continuous self that we encounter in everyday experience belongs in maya. We are programmed to perceive identity in ourselves, when in truth there is only change. We are hardwired for the illusion of self.
We cannot look steadily at the momentary world, for if we did we could not act. Nor can we observe the changes that are taking place incessantly in ourselves, for the self that witnesses them comes and goes in the blink of an eye. Selfhood is a side effect of the coarseness of consciousness; the inner life is too subtle and transient to be known to itself. But the sense of self has another source. Language begins in the play of animals and birds. So does the illusion of selfhood.
On watching two monkeys playing, Gregory Bateson wrote thus:
… this phenomenon, play, could only occur if the participant organisms were capable of some degree of meta-communication, i.e. of exchanging signals which would carry the message ‘this is play’.… Expanded, the statement ‘This is play’ looks something like this: ‘These actions in which we now engage do not denote what those actions for which they stand would denote.’
Not only does the playful nip not denote what would be denoted by the bite for which it stands, but in addition, the bite itself is fictional. Not only do the playing animals not quite mean what they are saying, but they are usually communicating about something which does not exist.
Ravens have been recorded swooping over bands of gorillas, teasingly playing at attacking them. Again, they have been observed pretending to make a cache in which to hide food and then – when they believe they are unobserved – secreting it elsewhere. These birds show the ability to deceive that comes with the power of language. In this they are no different from humans. Where humans differ from ravens is that they use language to look back on their lives and call up a virtual self.
The illusion of enduring selfhood arises with speech. We acquire a sense of ourselves by our parents speaking to us in infancy; our memories are strung together by many bodily continuities, but also by our names; we contrive shifting histories of ourselves in a fitful interior monologue; we form a conception of having a lifetime ahead of us by using language to construct a variety of possible futures. By using language we have invented a fictive self, which we project into the past and the future – and even beyond the grave. The self we imagine surviving death is a phantom even in life.
Our fictive selves are frail constructions. The sense of I is dissolved or transformed in trance and dreams, weakened or destroyed in fever and madness. It is in abeyance when we are absorbed in action. We may forget it in ecstasy or contemplation. But it always returns. The dissolution of self that mystics seek comes only with death.
The I is a thing of the moment, and yet our lives are ruled by it. We cannot rid ourselves of this inexistent thing. In our normal awareness of the present moment the sensation of selfhood is unshakeable. This is the primordial human error, in virtue of which we pass our lives as in a dream."
('Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals')
Artist: Frank Cotham, The New Yorker, July 2015