In discussing his notion of “the self,” Richard Rorty starts with a poem by Philip Larkin. Here is the final part of it:
And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is as clear as a lading-list
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
And what’s the profit? Only that, in time
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,
On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that man dying. (”Continuing to Live,” Larkin 1988)
The poem is an examination of the fear of dying, which suggests to Rorty a way of unpacking this fear by asking concrete question about the one’s I: “what it is that will not be” (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity(CIS): 23). For the word I as such is an empty phrase, which is why Freud says that psychoanalysis “seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even master in its own house” (S.E. 16: 284).
Freud puts an end to the common-sense assumption that a single human body typically contains a single self. So in the Freudian picture the metaphysical questions like “But what am I really?” “What is my true self?”, become unhelpful phrases. For the I is a multifaceted character (Joyce Mcdougall: “Theaters of the Minds”), and the same human body can play host to two or more persons (Donald Davidson: “Paradoxes of Irrationality”).
Good God, where am I in all this and how do I manage to make adjustment to the inevitability of death? What Epicurus says as to why we shouldn’t fear death, Rorty tells us, is as clumsy as the question, But what am I really? Epicurus said, “When I am, death is not, and when death is, I am not.” According to Rorty, this is just exchanging one empty phrase with another.
Mcdougall puts these holistic considerations to work as follow. Most of us manage to make unstable adjustments to the fact of aging and the inevitability of death by becoming in our unconscious fantasies “all omnipotent, externally young, and immortal”(1986: 9).
What Larkin fears, Rorty suggests, is the extinction of “his idiosyncratic lading-list, his individual sense of what was possible and important. That is what made his I different from all other other I’s” (CIS: 23).
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