On Friday afternoon I was walking on a sidewalk and saw raindrops falling into a huge puddle.
The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has written about what he calls “the experiencing self” and “the remembering self.” The experiencing self is the you that tastes food, has sex, etc. The remembering self is the you that reflects on your experience as a coherent whole. This was a useful distinction as I made sense of this week’s themes. In particular, as I thought through the tension between people’s simultaneous desire to lose themselves in transcendent moments & group experiences and to establish an identity.
Humans are totally into losing their sense of self. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly coined the term “flow” to denote those experiences where people lose their sense of self and get totally lost in the task at hand, whether that means an athlete “in the zone” or an artist totally absorbed in a painting. For example, the calligrapher Professor Inouye talked about in class was unabashedly more interested in the “flow” state of of calligraphy than the final product (“excrement” as he called it). And intense spiritual experiences are described as “transcendent.” People merge with their surroundings — whether that’s nature or other people. Norinaga calls the transcendence that can occur in nature “a temporary dissolution of the mundane ego,” (7). Inouye writes, “The lyrical thrust of Japanese aesthetics points us to a breakdown of the barriers between the self and its surroundings, between the inner and the outer” (85). But humans are also totally into constructing a stable sense of self (i.e. an identity). As Inouye points out, some modern male authors explored their envy of females whose objectification/commodification gave rise to a stable identity — like Saikaku. Kahneman’s distinction allows for a possible resolution of these two human motivations — the drive to lose ourselves and the drive to find ourselves. Our experiencing self pushes us towards moments of self-transcendence. Our remembering self pushes us towards the construction of a stable sense of self.
My sense is that different cultures and time periods tend to emphasize one of these selves over the other. For example, during the time of hedonism as the main response to evanescence, the experiencing self was more important. If you treat life as a collection of stand-alone moments, then “the joy of the part will speak to the whole” (Inouye, 86), but will not constitute it. This was reflected in artwork of the time. The details of a painting were important in and of themselves, the point wasn’t to be a collection of details that adds up to a whole. If art is a kind of reflection of the psyche of a time & people, this reflects a greater emphasis on the experiencing self. The remembering self is all about wholes, all about weaving the disparate moments of a life into a coherent narrative. Hedonism doesn’t lend itself well to engaging the remembering self. I’m looking forward to seeing how the emphasis in Japanese culture shifts from experiencing self to remembering self — as suggested by the shift in aesthetic style towards perspectival representations that emphasize the whole, not the details.