I don’t know. I suppose there is a theme here. Possibly.
I’ve never been able to remember what I look like. I can look in a mirror and think, Oh yeah, that’s me. For a split second, it’s always kind of a shock to see my reflection, but then I understand, it’s just me.
The second I look away, the image in my mind fades and I can’t recall the specifics of my appearance.
I mentioned this to a psychologist one time; she asked a few questions.
Have you ever tried memorizing features?
Yes. But it never sticks, the images just vanish.
When you do try to think of your appearance, what comes to mind?
General shapes. I can get hair color, eye color right. I can memorize the words for those. But it’s the shapes I can’t hold onto.
General shapes…so, generic forms, like an outline of a person?
No. It’s the image of a person, only it’s constantly shifting. I can’t pin down any particular form when I try to remember what I look like. It stretches, shifts; it won’t settle.
She thought about that and said it made sense based on previous conversations. I didn’t know what she meant. She pointed out that we had once discussed proprioception- the mind’s ability to know where one’s limbs are located at any given time. Like, you don’t have to look at your arm to know where it is…your brain is constantly sensing and coordinating body movements, locations.
It’s something I struggle with. My limbs, especially my arms, feel sort of disconnected, strange. It’s like they’re floating next to me, not really attached. I had mentioned this sensation to the psychologist before, and she had described proprioception; she said many of her autistic clients were in physical therapy for issues like this.
Not remembering what I look like: she went on to speculate that perhaps proprioception was involved with this as well. If your body feels disconnected, amorphous, perhaps this would make it difficult to internally track and recall the specifics of one’s appearance.
I said Maybe. It made sense. I didn’t really know.
It’s difficult to take new information like this and mesh it with the ebb and flow of internal sensations. I think the more accurate sorts of labels and information are helpful to think about, because they give you a frame of reference to play around with. But in the moment…as you breathe and feel…words never really seem completely helpful. They’re like tiny, foreign invaders…dust motes drifting into consciousness…disruptive, but too numerous to dispel.
Still: a frame of reference. It was interesting to have one. I’d been thinking about memory and self and appearance (and been confused by it all) for a long time. It was nice to have new words like proprioception to throw into the mix.
When I was little…maybe six or seven…there was a specific moment when I realized that other people perceived me the same way that I perceived them: as something purely external.
For me, my perspective on the world was central, the axis around which everything revolved. And it was strange to realize that other people had their own perspective on the world, one that felt as central to them as mine felt to me. I intuitively understood that I could only ever be an outside presence to others…an appearance, always external.
We each have a brain encased in a skull, peering out at the world through the lens of our eyes. And that’s what hit me: I’m the only one who can see through my eyes. No one else will ever see through mine…and I’ll never see through theirs.
So I made a game of trying to imagine what I looked like to other people. I wasn’t trying to imagine what they thought of me, the goal was just to envision myself objectively, from a purely external point of view.
If someone walked into the room, I would still my thoughts and pretend to see through their eyes, picturing the room from a different angle, viewing me from outside of myself.
If I was a passenger in a car…and another car drove by, going the opposite direction…I would try to imagine our car from the other driver’s point of view, as just a random, passing vehicle. I would see how long I could cling to that other perspective, watching as my actual self passed by, my face an anonymous dot in an unfamiliar car, passing, dwindling away in the distance.
“I am me, but also not me.”
A kid tinkering with perspective. We all do this in various ways as we grow older. Our consciousness expands and develops and plays around with its sense of self, trying to see who we are, what the nature is of this existence.
Over time, it was frustrating to realize that…since I only have this one perspective…I can never truly see myself as an external presence. Any imagining I use…any picture I hold in my mind…is still me, within myself, doing the imagining.
The play of self, the tinkering, it finds its limit: subjectivity. (Hamlet put it this way: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a kind of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”)
I was at the mall recently, roaming around, lost in thought. I was looking down as I walked, using peripheral vision to navigate, in the way that I do.
At one point, I turned a corner. As I rounded it, I was startled to see a person walking right next to me. From the corner of my eye I could see this presence, right there, very close; it made me jump.
Turns out, it was one of those mirrored windows and I was reacting to my own reflection.
I had startled me.
I sat on a bench and thought about that for awhile. After all of those years of conceptual play, I realized that I had come quite close to viewing myself objectively…as something outside of myself.
Obviously I’ve looked at mirrors…but that generally happens in a conscious manner. We go into a bathroom, look at ourselves…but that’s us knowingly viewing ourselves from our own perspective.
When I startled myself in the mall? That was me…for a tiny split second…viewing my body as a thing stripped of my personal identity. As not-me.
I’m sure that’s happened before, me randomly seeing a reflection of myself…but when it happened at the mall, that was the first time I really thought about the significance of it. The fact that my self and my body were briefly separated, at least in my own mind.
It was such a quick, fleeting moment. And now that I was aware of it…had absorbed it into my subjectivity…it was gone forever. Impossible to replicate.
So Marcel Proust wrote this long novel.
His gift is that he articulates all of those small, secret moments we have; the little games we play with our thoughts, the hidden moments of a growing, changing selfhood. He catches these moments…examines them…and describes them beautifully.
When I came across the following passage, I was struck by how familiar it felt. I thought, “I know that moment”.
This is from the second volume.
The narrator (curiously named M) is drinking champagne after joining friends in a private room at a bar:
“Not only every kind of intoxication, from that which we get from the sun or travel to that which is brought on by exhaustion or wine, but every degree of intoxication- and each should have a different grading mark, like sea depths on a map- lays bare in us, at the exact level affected, a particular sort of man.
Robert’s private dining room was small, but the single mirror that hung in it was such that it seemed to reflect some thirty others, in an endless progression; and when it was lit at night and followed by the procession of thirty or more reflections of itself, the light bulb placed at the top of the mirror frame must have given the drinker, even when alone, the impression that the surrounding space was multiplying itself along with his own sensations, heightened by drink, and that, shut up by himself in this tiny room, he was nevertheless reigning over something far more extensive in its indefinite, luminous curve than just a walkway in Paris.
And at that moment, I was the drinker in question: suddenly, as I looked for him in the mirror, I saw him, a hideous stranger, staring back at me. The joy of intoxication was stronger than my disgust; out of gaiety or bravado, I smiled at him and found that my smile was simultaneously returned. And I felt myself to be so much under the ephemeral and powerful sway of this minute’s intense sensation that it is not clear to me whether the only disquieting element of the experience was not the thought that the hideous self I had just glimpsed was perhaps about to breathe his last, and that I should never meet this stranger again in my lifetime.”