“We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”
— Kurt Vonnegut
I might return to this later, but for now, I’ll just present this buffet for thought by Elisabeth Camp:
Wordsworth is thus presented to a reader of The Prelude as a blessed soul, gifted with a high calling and the imaginative powers to achieve it. To a mainstream analytic philosopher, though, Wordsworth’s faith in his fortunate fate is likely to look like a bad case of wishful thinking and metaphysical confusion. He is lucky only in the sense that he has succeeded in deluding himself into a self-aggrandizing lie. It may well be right, as Wordsworth claims, that we ‘spread the sentiment of Being’ over the earth, by imbuing the objects and events around us with a moral life. Hume makes much the same point, in much the same terms, claiming that the faculty of taste “has a productive faculty, and [by] gilding or staining all natural objects with the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises, in a manner, a new creation.” It might even be true that Nature participates in or guides this ‘spreading’ or ‘staining’ in the sense that there is some general evolutionary advantage to projecting moral and aesthetic properties onto nature. But it is most certainly not the case that Nature designates individual people for particular tasks, like being a Poet, and then manipulates their surrounding circumstances—conjuring an advancing storm, say, or orchestrating their discovery of a little boat on a lake—to mold those individuals into agents capable of performing their allotted tasks.
A natural way to respond to the accusation that The Prelude manifests nothing so much as self-serving delusion is to point out that the accusation depends on treating The Prelude in a flat-footedly literal manner, one which ignores the various ways in which Wordsworth the author signals that he is creating a character—the hero of an epic poem—in the service of a larger project of promoting a secular, naturalized, neo-Humean conception of imagination, beauty and morality. This response is fair enough as a matter of literary analysis. Indeed, it allows us to identify another source of The Prelude’s rhetorical power: its appropriation and adaptation of heroic tropes from earlier epics like the Odyssey, Aeneid, Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost. However, precisely because this response takes The Prelude’s ‘literary’ status so seriously, it also renders The Prelude problematic as a model for a narrative conception of self-identity. Many people in the past have believed, and many today continue to believe, in a powerful, purposive Agent who selects a particular destiny for each person and guides us toward its fulfillment. However, such a view is not seriously supportable by contemporary intellectual standards. Even proponents of Intelligent Design do not claim that specific, substantive self-identities are ontologically given or objectively determined; and Intelligent Design is itself at best a highly marginal view in serious academic discussions. Further, naturalistic teleological conceptions of evolution as a mechanism for explaining apparently adaptive properties of entire species have come under sustained attack over the last thirty years. More fundamentally, however, many philosophers—especially, analytic philosophers—argue that a clear-headed examination of the metaphysical facts reveals that there is no self in the substantive sense required to determine a distinctive ‘bent’ or ‘office’ for any particular individual.
…One might wonder why autobiographical narratives need to take as specific a form as that of anything resembling a ‘quest’. Some theorists, like Jerome Bruner and perhaps Kenneth Burke, appear to simply assume that all narratives are inherently structured in terms of agents pursuing goals through obstacles; but this is clearly too restrictive, insofar as it rules out many narrative histories, such as those concerning families and nations. However, I think we can justify something very close to this restriction within the context of an individual’s biography. If a person’s life is to be explained in narrative terms, then it must be governed by an overarching, forward-looking explanatory trajectory; and if that explanation is to be plausible and compelling, then it must have some significant causal basis. But further, if this explanatory-causal role is not to be filled by an external agent who manipulates the biography’s focal subject, as in Augustine’s Confessions or Wordsworth’s Prelude, then it must be occupied by the subject herself. That is, the subject must be an agent who imposes an explanatory unity on her unfolding life by striving to achieve some goal. Otherwise, we are left either with no unifying, sense-making ‘rationale’ for the narrative at all, or else with a ‘rationale’ that is presented as merely epiphenomenal: as emerging mysteriously from out of a miasma of blind contingency.
…Similarly, some people—what Galen Strawson calls “Episodics” —move through life without any special commitment to long-term, identity-defining goals at all. Instead, these people savor each moment, and meet each temporary challenge and opportunity as it comes. (As examples of Episodics, Strawsoncites himself, along with such luminaries as Montaigne, Stendhal, Woolf, Borges, Murdoch, and Bob Dylan.) In neither case do we want to conclude that these people cannot have selves, or that their selves must be deeply fractured, simply because there is no narratively compelling connection among the disparate episodes or strands of their lives.
A second class of narratively problematic selves does live a strongly goal-oriented life, but in a way that produces spectacularly boring narratives. These people have as their overarching goal simply to be a certain kind of person: to achieve a particular personality trait, like serenity, for instance, or a certain professional status, like being the town doctor. When things go as planned, they achieve that crucial, self-defining quality quite early, and simply manifest it in a consistent, ongoing way from then on. The stereotypical pater familias, farmer, or town doctor coasts through life indefinitely, savoring the pleasures and confronting the challenges of each day and season, but without any particular expectation or hope of substantial change. Asked to tell the story of their lives, they’d say there wasn’t much to tell, or proudly offer a one-line characterization. Much like Episodics, they accumulate many anecdotes—variations on an unchanging theme—in lieu of a compelling developmental narrative. I take it that this is an utterly familiar, even paradigmatic type of selfhood. But because the narrative conception focuses so strongly on becoming at the expense of mere being, it is forced to disvalue these selves.