Wael Al-Mahdi

“The genius which runs into madness is no longer genius.”  -Otto Weininger

One of the lasting contributions of evolutionary psychology to our understanding of human nature is undoubtedly a list of human universals composed by Donald Brown.  The list runs into the hunderds and includes: 

  • Actions under self-control distinguished from those not under self-control.
  • Anthropomorphization
  • Self as subject and object

Human univerals “comprise those features of culture, society, language, behavior, and psyche for which there are no known exception”.  In other words, regardless of their place in history or geography, all the cultures that have been studied so far show evidence of these shared human characteristics.  All humans have the salient ability to perceive the objects and  phenomena of the world and make abstract mental representations of them.  They also have a tendency of anthropomorphize, or personify, what they perceive.  Inner psychic objects are no exception; humans personify thoughts, emotions, and inner states of feeling.  Any person who can have a conversation with himself has already seen his self as object.

The unity of human personality has never been a sure thing, and still faces difficulties in our modern times.  In primitive cultures, the individual is wont to identify with the tribe; that is, the person feels no selfhood or standing outside the context of the tribe.  This may be a difficult to imagine for modern persons belonging to individualistic cultures, but is a condition still prevailing in many apparently modern societies.  We could cite many Middle Eastern societies or even communities in parts of Europe where the individual’s social and psychic well-being hinges primarily on his being a part of the whole.  But the primitive also identified with other objects in his/her environment:  animals, trees, sacred places; and from a temporal point of view, with his or her ancestors, or even descendants.  This condition was given the name participation mystique by the ethnologist Lucien Lévy-Brühl, who first observed it among Australian aborigines while studying their dreamland mythology.

But perhaps the most striking result of the disunity of human personality is the individual’s variance with himself.  It is here that we find the most urgent symptoms and also the most interest from the lay public and experts alike.  We all know the common examples:  patients with multiple personalities, criminals who blame their alter-ego, and lost men who can’t remember who they are.  The arts abound with examples:  Jekyll and Hyde, comic book characters who are docile in the morning and swash-buckling heroes at night, and my favorite example,  the 1999 film Fight Club which portrays a morally ambiguous and wish-washy insurance officer (Edward Norton) whose compensatory personality is a charismatic, square-jawed muscleman who also has a taste for existential philosophical questions (Brad Pitt).  In an act of ultimate compensation, this brazen alter-ego sets up a nation-wide network of fight clubs whose goal is complete liberation from social constraints through vicious fighting between the male members.  As in many other stories in the same vein, the alternate personality is eventually vanquished, but the victory of the normal ego is usually dubious and comes at an excessively high price.  This raises the vital question of integration as opposed to suppression of vagrant psychic elements.   

These examples, whether they be fictive or real, touch on a very important element in our discussion, namely the question of abnormal psychic functioning.  Is any kind of psychic disunity a symptom of disease?  It would appear that a great deal of psychological anguish stems precisely from such a variance with oneself.  For examples, neurotic patients with compulsive obsessive behavior simply lose control of the part (or parts?) of themselves which insist on obsessive actions.  We also know, for instance, that schizophrenic patients suffer a fragmentation of personality; this results in them hearing voices, or of performing actions they are unaware of, or in states of megalomania.  It might be queried as to what the functional purpose of these fragmentations might be; we might discern a definite adaptive purpose in some instances, such in cases of multiple personalities which help the individual to deal with early and continued abuse.  In any case, it can be observed that it some states a part of the personality habitually escapes conscious control and exerts an abnormal and pathological effect on the individual by inducing clearly undesirable and detrimental behaviors.

Literature and art seem to be an especially rich fountain of examples of exceptional and also pathological psychic states.  Carl Gustav Jung frequently referred to literature and mythology to illustrate his concepts, and indeed encouraged his patients to produce art themselves in their attempts to form a better relationship with the unconscious.  But it is the concept of the heteronym that is the most interesting from the point of view of the multiplicity of personalities and that effect that this might have on an individual.  This term was invented by the influential modernist Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who sought a term that would not be confused with pseudonym, which simply means false name.  According to Pessoa, the heteronym is no mere false name; rather, it represents a complete personality, with its own attributes, psychic and physical characteristics, worldview, and literary and philosophical taste.  Succinctly put, a heteronym is a fully-fledged and independent personality which possesses its own distinct literary style. 

What? One would be forgiven to ask.  Do all these disparate and independent personalities exist in one person?  If ‘normal’ people are in a continuous state of disunity, why not a highly creative artist with an exceedingly complex and multi-faceted personality?  Furthermore, this very disunity, while adversely affecting his personal life, seems to have been the very fountain of his creativity.  But lest the reader think that this is all romantic, we must add that Pessoa was obsessed with the idea of madness and fragmentation of the personality.  In fact, posing as a psychiatrist he wrote letters to his former acquaintances asking them to describe his own personality.  It seems that Pessoa had so little psychic stability that his heteronyms found a ready conduit in his shaky ego.

Revealingly, this looseness of psychic forces produced in him an intellect that “has attained a pliancy and a reach that enable me to assume any emotion I desire and enter at will into any state of mind”.  His heteronyms might have been the result of these flexible emotions and states of mind.  But all this did not come without its severe drawbacks:  a pathological deficiency of will which he described as “purely negative”, and an ever unfulfilled search for psychic completeness in which “no book at all can be an aid”. 

Pessoa himself was very much conscious of his inner persons.  In a seminal passage hauntingly reminiscent of Nietzsche’s description of inspiration quoted later, Pessoa described the appearance of his ‘master’:

On the day when I finally desisted – it was the 8th of March, 1914 – I went over to a high desk and, taking a sheet of paper, began to write, standing, as I always write when I can.  And I wrote thirty-odd poems straight off, in a kind of ecstasy whose nature I cannot define.  It was the triumphal day of my life, and I shall never have another like it.  I started with a title -  ‘The Keeper of Sheep’.  And what followed was the apparition of a somebody in me, to whom I at once gave the name Alberto Caeiro.  Forgive me the absurdity of the phrase:  my master had appeared in me.  This was the immediately sensation I had.

In terms of psychological balance, it was characteristic that Alberto Caeiro was almost the complete opposite of Pessoa.  Caeiro was a almost natural philosopher, a straightforward pagan – he saw only appearances, indeed the whole universe was for him a surface.  When Caeiro observed nature, he did not see any deeper meaning behind the façade – and based on this, he wrote his poetry.  He expressed a complete Zen-like non-reflection on the world:  “My mysticism is not to try to know/It is to live and not think about it”.  He has been called the ‘innocent poet’. According to Jung, a vital function of the unconscious is compensation of the subject-ego; could Caeiro have been an attempt at compensation for Pessoa’s generally negative personality?  Octavio Paz defines Caeiro as ‘everything that Pessoa is not and more’.

According to some estimates, Pessoa had more than 70 heteronyms:  a veritable parliament.  But some stood out.  Take, for instance, Ricardo Reis.  Reis was also a disciple of Caeiro but in contrast to him was a sophisticated epicurist who was cultivated and well-read in the classics.  Then there was Álvaro de Campos – a futurist, an intoxicated dreamer in the best tradition of Nietzschean Dionysianism.    

Also Nietzschean is the tension between Pessoa’s solitude on the one hand, and his rejection of man on the other:  “Solitude devastates me;  company oppresses me’.  And he is very much aware of the Promethean price of his heteronyms:  “To create, I have destroyed myself…I’m the empty stage where various actors act out various plays’.  Contrary to the public’s romantic notions of multiple personalities, fragmentation of the self is always disastrous, even if the artist receives the gift of extraordinary genius. 

When investigating a phenomenon that is difficult to circumscribe and categorize, it is always helpful to seek analogies and examples.  And beautiful examples do we find in the case of the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung’s archetypes.  Jung always stressed the disunity of personality, pointing out at the same time the lamentable tendency of modern persons to believe that their intact egos possess full self-knowledge.  The external ego, masked by the persona, did not fool Jung; he realized the enormity and autonomy of our inner worlds, and set out to explore his own.  What did he find?  Specific tendencies to think and feel in certain pre-set patterns; that is, psychological instincts which produce typical human behaviors and frames-of-mind, and which mark our stages of development and have from the earliest times inspired our most sacred symbols and dramas.  These he called the archetypes.  In the context of our discussion, perhaps the most arresting attribute of the archetype is the personifications that it could assume.  Jung knew this early on and invented the method of active imagination in order to communicate with his unconscious archetypes.  What are we to make of Pessoa’s Alberto Caeiro when we read what Jung has to say about personified archetypes?  In his discussion of the anima (the inner woman in man), he describes active imagination and the personification processes:

I mean this as an actual technique.  We know that practically everyone has not only the peculiarity, but also the faculty, of holding a conversation with himself.   Since it is our intention to learn what we can about the foundations of our being, this little matter of living in a metaphor should not bother us.  The psyche not being a unity of a contradictory multiplicity of complexes, the dissociation required for our dialectics with the anima is not so terribly difficult.  The art of it consists only in allowing our invisible partner to make herself heard, in putting the mechanism of expression momentarily at her disposal, without being overcome by the distaste one naturally feels at playing such a apparently ludicrous game with oneself, or by doubts as to the genuineness of the voice of one’s interlocutor.  We are so in the habit of identifying ourselves with the thoughts that come to us that we invariably assume we have made them. 

Personification, then, was key to Jung’s dialectic with the unconscious.  And if we allow the anima, or any other archetype, to speak through us, why not allow a literary personality, a heteronym, to write poetry through us?  Jung considered his confrontation with the unconscious to be the main source of his contributions to our understanding of the psyche.  As a child, Jung felt he had a No. 2 personality who was in fact a 18th century gentleman.  And in his autobiography he relates that in his researches he “let himself drop” and descended into a psychic world where he met a beautiful young girl in the company of an old man called “Elijah”.  Later, Jung drew a winged old man called Philemon, which he said represented “superior insight”.   

The implications of this disunity of personality on artistic creativity was not lost on Jung.  He had a great interest in the “inspired artist”, a man who gave himself over completely to the unconscious and who became its conduit of expression.  Jung cited the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche as a prime example of such an artist.  The reason for this becomes clear in the following bombastic passage by Nietzsche describing how he is violently seized by inspiration.  The similarity with Pessoa’s description of the appearance of his ‘master’ is astonishing:

Has anyone at the end of the nineteenth century a distinct conception of what poets of strong ages called inspiration?  If not, I will describe it.  If one had the slightest residue of superstition left in one, one would hardly be able to set aside the idea that one is merely incarnation, merely mouthpiece, merely medium of overwhelming forces.  The concept of revelation, in the sense that something suddenly, with unspeakable certainty and subtlety, becomes visible, audible, something that shakes and overturns one to the depths, simply describes the fact.  One hears, one does not seek; one takes, one does not ask who gives; a thought flashes up like lightning, with necessity, unfalteringly formed – I have never had any choice… The involuntary nature of image, of metaphor, is the most remarkable thing of all; one no longer has any idea what is image, what metaphor, everything presents itself as the readiest, the truest, the simplest means of expression.  This is my experience of inspiration; I do not doubt that one has to go back thousands of years to anyone who could say to me ‘it is mine also’.

I have quoted this passage, despite its length, to illustrate the idea of ‘involuntary’ inspiration, of the inner autonomous personality that descends upon the almost pathetic artist and makes him its ‘mouthpiece’.  Vitally for a poet, this revelation inspires ‘metaphor and images’.  Nietzsche characteristically uses awe-inspiring words, and as usual, makes claims to uniqueness.  I do not think that one has to go back a thousand years to find such an inspiration, as there are examples readily available from recent times; Pessoa himself was an important example.  Nevertheless, the passage is an excellent description of the process of the inspired artist.

Nietzsche must have known, because Nietzsche, after all, had given speech toZarathustra.  The ancient prophet, who has come back to atone for his invention of good and evil by ‘transvaluating all values’ and carrying new ‘value tables’, could perhaps be considered Nietzsche’s heteronym, albeit a colossally inflated one.  Or was he? Keeping to Nietzsche’s experience of inspiration, wouldn’t it be closer to the truth to say that the poor mortal Nietzsche was Zarathustra’s mere conduit of expression?  Similarly, was not Pessoa the mouthpiece of Caeiro and a host of other heteronyms?  Toward the end of his sane life,  Nietzsche identified increasingly with his wise old man and signed his letters as Zarathustra.  In a little poem Nietzsche describes the coming of Zarathustra:  Da wurde eins zu zwei und Zarathustra ging an mir vorbei, “The one became two and Zarathustra passed by me”.   

But are we, so-called ‘normal’ people, so different in our fragmentation and disunity?  Since ancient times we have recognized that there are many streams inside us, and that our waking ego is not the complete self.  Even in everyday matters we use expressions like “I said to myself” and “I was beside myself”.  And we have constant problems with willpower – “I couldn’t force myself to do it.”  What it is in me that I can’t control, and goes on sleeping, or over-eating, or drinking despite my conscious objections?  In following Jung’s assertion that pathological or abnormal processes are simply exaggerations of normal processes, we can all catch a glimpse of the processes that were going on in the psyche of a genius such as Pessoa.  With a multi-layered brain with diverse cognitive modules, conflicting goals and desires, and instincts designed by natural selection vying for control of the psyche, is it strange that we are not masters of own house?  The discovery of the complexities of the brain, I believe, will ultimately provide the complete answers for these dilemmae of spirit and self.  And in this vein let us leave the last word to the well-known evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker:  “Our mental life is noisy parliament of competing factions”.



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