Self-lessness at University

Photo: Mathieu Thouvenin

A longtime friend recently told me that he has gained notoriety at his university for exposing the errors, paperbound or otherwise, of a number of the university tabloid’s most seasoned writers.

“It’s fucking hilarious!” he gloated on Skype call. “For a while I was doing a fraud a week! I’ve become quite good at this writing gig. I think I found my calling.”

Forgive my friend’s unceasing modesty — in person, he has much more charm and wit than pomp and circumstance — but I, at any rate, found his anecdote more interesting for other reasons. For instance: had my dear friend, with such an offhand set of remarks, just disclosed to me his own peculiar ‘Self’ — that very Self which in present times is so in demand among blossoming youths everywhere?

For, you see, university is where one finds oneself, one’s identity — haven’t you heard?

Increasingly, there is much talk of the Self at university being found or discovered, and that if one doesn’t take the proper measures to do so, then one had better find a way to stop the clock. For, you see, university is where one finds oneself, one’s identity — haven’t you heard?

What is interesting is that the university student finds themself bedevilled by this Self, or rather their utter lack of it. The concern among people of my generation has become more urgently that who we are now is a fact, a permanent, unalterable fact, and if we have not a clue who we are by now, then, surely, we are lost.

Increasingly for my generation, the Self has become a cultural commodity. Today, the Self may be bought, sold, marketed on billboards, or brandished on television screens. But we crave something of lasting substance, and finding none, our relentlessness quickly turns to restlessness. And it is thus that we end up displacing sincere self-reflection with youthful discontent.

Because the university student inherits from society a notion of Self that categorically defines the individual — a notion at once both exalting and delimiting — we have reduced the novelty of genuine experience to a spurious need to “feel something.” As a consequence, we often mistake our dabbling into the excesses of university life for bona fide assertions of who we are. But where, in university, one had hoped to find one’s truer and better Self, one instead finds comfort in a plenitude of diversions, an inordinate batter of drink, drugs and sex. Not only this, but there also arises the tendency to be quite content, even quite apt, to divert ourselves.

It is an awful thing that at an institution of McGill’s stature not more is being done to address, or, at the bare minimum, delineate this phenomenon.

It is an awful thing that at an institution of McGill’s stature not more is being done to address, or, at the bare minimum, delineate this phenomenon. And upon closer inspection, it is rather difficult to pretend that our otherwise esteemed university has not itself played a part in fuelling our discontent. Naturally, this is not a popular opinion. There are those who would say that the wet-and-wild wealth of drinking games and campus-wide ragers are ordinarily constitutive of the ‘college experience,’ as in part they are.

Nevertheless, I suspect there is a growing minority, with which I identify, that is becoming more and more disillusioned by the seemingly antithetical search for Self and the grand spectacle of university life. So, far from a deeper understanding of who we are, we have become, perhaps unconsciously, desensitized to the question altogether.

Having been a fervent reader from a young age, I recently decided to measure my value in the ever-popular trade of fiction-writing. I have yet to be published, but I find that the majority of my work catalogues as coming-of-age stories. I cannot claim any expertise whatsoever, but my instinct is that the protagonists of such stories finally come of age when an affirmation of something like the Self manifests.

Often the fiction writer compresses this Self into one, maybe two, principal characteristics. But in each case, fiction fails to mirror reality completely — it merely succeeds in borrowing from it. Real life is more complex, its characters abounding in a great many contradictions, inconsistencies and uncertainties that the author must often neglect. But it is a romantic conviction that herein lies a very serious insight.

The Self is not a fact, as many would have us believe, but an ever ongoing process so long as we conceive of it as such.

Fiction falls short of capturing the complexities of actual or real coming-of-age precisely because it seeks to compress, to classify and diagnose with pinpoint accuracy, the Self, much like the modern age has done for us. We may, however, forgive the fiction writer of this transgression — his purposes are peculiar even to himself and are seldom understood. But the fact is we occupy a space in the real, and in the real, the premises are so far divorced from that of the author’s own that it would be utter absurdity to commit the same mistake. Whereas in fiction the protagonist’s self always eventually comes into full view, in reality the Self protests taxonomy with a vengeance.

It seems to me that the university student must come to terms with this if ever he is to be consoled and cease his own persecution. The Self is not a fact, as many would have us believe, but an ever ongoing process so long as we conceive of it as such.

It will not be long before many of us become doctors, lawyers, business entrepreneurs, teachers, writers and so on. These appellations, the times tell us, are essentially the Self, and that the university is to be an instrument for achieving it. To a limited extent, this may be true. But is the Self grounded not so much in character as in activity, in titles? History has shown that the most senseless doctrines have at one point or another been popular doctrines — and this glorified, determinate notion of the Self, I fear, is fast becoming one of them.

Being bashful, I humoured my friend with some names I might call him in light of his newfound fame, among which figured Bore Vidal and Tru(e)man Capote.

“I don’t do labels” he told me, mildly annoyed. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.

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