In all the world there’s no one like you or me

Clothes make the man.

A story told by Arthur Naiman

A man goes to a tailor to try on a new custom-made suit.
The first thing he notices is that the arms are too long.
	"No problem," says the tailor.  "Just bend them at the
elbow and hold them out in front of you.  See, now it's fine."
	"But the collar is up around my ears!"
	"It's nothing.  Just hunch your back up a little … no,
a little more … that's it."
	"But I'm stepping on my cuffs!" the man cries in
desperation.
	"Nu, bend your knees a little to take up the slack.
There you go.  Look in the mirror -- the suit fits perfectly."
	So, twisted like a pretzel, the man lurches out onto the
street.  Reba and Florence see him go by.
	"Oh, look," says Reba, "that poor man!"
	"Yes," says Florence, "but what a beautiful suit."
		-- Arthur Naiman, "Every Goy's Guide to Yiddish"

Naked

According to Mark Twain

Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.

According to Steve Jobs

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

If you aren’t real, you aren’t powerful.

According to Jules Buccieri

If you aren’t real, you aren’t powerful.

See this essay by Howard Fine on why a speech was almost universally considered a disaster. It shows why you come across so much better when you’re spontaneous, and how important it is to have something important and real to say, compared to merely trying to say it well.

According to Phil Gyford’s notes on Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares

Be careful when rehearsing with a mirror — teaches you to watch the outside, not the inside.

According to John Wareham (The Anatomy of a Great Executive, pp. 35-36)

A person will often present a facade founded upon the aspect of his or her personality that he/she most fears — or knows — to be missing.

He says to ask yourself

What is the impression that this individual takes the greatest trouble to convey to me?

Then, until you discover more, work on the assumption that the real person may likely turn out to be the exact opposite of this facade.

Robbing ourselves

According to Scott Ballum

When we align ourselves with the opinions of others without examination, we are robbing ourselves of the opportunity to analyze our own preferences and desires, to determine our own solutions. We miss the chance to review the criteria others are utilizing, to question their biases and seek our own inspiration. In stunting the development of our own individual perspectives and initiatives, we trap ourselves in lives that appear to be predestined, and deny the possibility of realizing our personal potential.

According to Blayney Colmore

Mary Dyer and Jon Daniels […] turned from an identity adopted from surrounding culture, to their own inner identity and authority. It’s the kind of authority that cedes to no one what we call conscience, but what might more accurately be named authentic self.

Get out of that pickle barrel!

According to Daniel Kahneman

Look at yourself as a point in the distribution.

You may be a superhuman outlier, but don’t count on it. We’re herd animals, and a psychological force of gravity pulls us into orbit around the norms of our current social network.

According to Philip Zimbardo

It’s not the bad apples, it’s the bad barrels that corrupt good people.

and

You can’t be a sweet cucumber in a vinegar barrel.

When you notice that the system or your social network are a corrupting influence on the people around you, better play it safe and move on before you catch the same disease.

According to Trent Hamm

The first surprise about change is that the problem usually isn’t people, it’s the situation. If you want change, you’ve got to change the situation a bit.

According to Magic Johnson

If people around you aren’t going anywhere, if their dreams are no bigger than hanging out on the corner, or if they’re dragging you down, get rid of them. Negative people can sap your energy so fast, and they can take your dreams from you, too.

The arts and the insistent, speechless self

According to Mark Edmundson

The truth of what we’re best fit to do is latent in all of us, Emerson suggests, and I think this to be right. But it’s also true that we, and society, too, have plenty of tricks for keeping that most important kind of knowledge out of reach. Society seems to have a vested interest in telling us what we should do and be. But often its interpretation of us — fed through teachers and guidance officers and priests and ministers and even through our loving parents — is simply wrong.

and

To be young is often to know, or to sense, what others have in mind for you and not to like it. But what is harder for a person who has gone unhappily through the first rites of passage into the tribe is to know how to replace the values she’s had imposed on her with something better. She’s learned a lot of socially sanctioned languages, and still none of them are hers. But are there any that truly might be? Is there something she might be or do in the world that’s truly in keeping with the insistent, but often speechless, self that presses forward internally?

This, I think, is where literature can come in — as can all of the other arts and in some measure the sciences, too. By venturing into what Arnold memorably called “the best that has been known and thought,” a young person has the chance to discover new vital possibilities. Such a person sees that there are other ways of looking at the world and other ways of being in the world than the ones that she’s inherited from her family and culture.

and

It’s probable that most people will be relatively content to live within the ethical and conceptual world that their parents and their society pass on to them. Burke and Johnson thought of common-sense opinion as a great repository of wisdom stored through the ages, augmented and revised through experience, trial and error, until it became in time the treasure of humanity. Perhaps the conservative sages were right. But there will always be individuals who cannot live entirely by the standard dispensation and who require something better — or at least something else. This group may be small (though I think it larger than most imagine), but its members need what great writing can bring them very badly indeed. We professors of literature hold the key to the warehouse where the loaves lie fresh and steaming, while outside people hunger for them, sometimes dangerously.

Call yourself what you want to call yourself

According to Neil Tweedie, writing here of the modern French Foreign Legion

“We don’t accept the hardened criminals any more, the murderers or rapists,” says Capt Samir Benykrelef, “so this makes our job easier.”

But there is still a hint of romance: all recruits must assume a new name on joining the Legion. This is because some recruits do indeed want a new start and new identity, and it is fairer to make all new Legionnaires undergo the same process. Soldiers can revert to their real identities after a year.

“Real” identities?

According to Bob Dylan, when asked why he changed his name

Some people …. you’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens, You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.

Maybe everyone should change their names every 10 years. Your “given name” doesn’t come with a gift receipt, so no refunds, no exchanges? Why should we be stuck with their choice? Yet, we feel we are. Same for our “family name”. Why doesn’t each wedding announce a cool new “family name” for the couple, like the reign name of popes and emperors?

I was tempted to title this section “Self-hatred is underrated.” Too strong, yet there’s some truth to it. People are so attached to whatever identity they got imposed on them, and accidentally acquired, often by bad choices and limited experience, or even victimhood and suffering. That’s the most dangerous attachment.

If you could reboot into a totally different self, why would that be so bad? It’s a trick programmed into you somewhere; loyalty is often so foolish.

Self-improvement, rewrite the program, reboot. Reinvent according to your own blueprint, not theirs, not the accidents of history. Sure, putting on airs, playing like you’re a bigshot, can be ridiculous, but the impulse to better yourself is not at all ridiculous.

According to James Camp

As the publication date drew near for Slaughterhouse-Five, on which Vonnegut had worked, fitfully, for 20 years, he brooded over his author photo. He was clean-cut, clean-shaven, a bit paunchy—in 1969, an unlikely candidate for cultural eminence. He decided “to cultivate the style of an author who was in.” “To meet the expectations of his audience was key,” Mr. Shields writes. “He lost weight, allowed his close-cropped hair to become curly and tousled, and grew a moustache. … He looked like an avant-garde artist and social critic now, not rumpled Dad-in-a-cardigan.” His upper lip would never reappear. Slaughterhouse-Five became a number-one New York Times best-seller, and its tousled (not rumpled) author became an icon of the counterculture.

Maybe that’s the way he saw his real self. Maybe it was the first time he was authentic?

Is authenticity overrated?

According to David J. Gordon in Shavian comedy and the shadow of Wilde

But Wilde’s dandies are self-possessed because, paradoxically, there is no single self for them to defend, only a mask or persona to adopt opportunistically; it is in fact Wilde’s main argument against “sincerity” that it must be false because there are many selves.

His footnote cites The Picture of Dorian Gray

For the canons of good society are, or should be, the same as the canons of art. Form is absolutely essential to it. It should have the dignity of a ceremony, as well as its unreality, and should combine the insincere character of a romantic play with the wit and beauty that make such plays delightful to us. Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities. 

Such, at any rate, was Dorian Gray’s opinion. He used to wonder at the shallow psychology of those who conceive the ego in man as a thing simple, permanent, reliable, and of one essence. To him, man was a being with myriad lives and myriad sensations, a complex multiform creature that bore within itself strange legacies of thought and passion, and whose very flesh was tainted with the monstrous maladies of the dead.

and The Critic As Artist

ERNEST. Well, at least, the critic will be sincere.

GILBERT. A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal. The true critic will, indeed, always be sincere in his devotion to the principle of beauty, but he will seek for beauty in every age and in each school, and will never suffer himself to be limited to any settled custom of thought or stereotyped mode of looking at things. He will realise himself in many forms, and by a thousand different ways, and will ever be curious of new sensations and fresh points of view. Through constant change, and through constant change alone, he will find his true unity. He will not consent to be the slave of his own opinions. For what is mind but motion in the intellectual sphere? The essence of thought, as the essence of life, is growth. You must not be frightened by word, Ernest. What people call insincerity is simply a method by which we can multiply our personalities.

Aside: Unrelated to selves, but also about sincerity, from The Picture of Dorian Gray

“I don’t agree with a single word that you have said, and, what is more, Harry, I feel sure you don’t either.”

   […] “How English you are Basil! That is the second time you have made that observation. If one puts forward an idea to a true Englishman — always a rash thing to do — he never dreams of considering whether the idea is right or wrong. The only thing he considers of any importance is whether one believes it oneself. Now, the value of an idea has nothing whatsoever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it. Indeed, the probabilities are that the more insincere the man is, the more purely intellectual will the idea be, as in that case it will not be coloured by either his wants, his desires, or his prejudices. […]”

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3 Comments

  1. According to David Guaspari

    This is an unusual biography of a highly unusual man, the prodigiously gifted mathematician and professional eccentric John Horton Conway—creative scientist, teacher, showman, and cult figure. His third ex-wife told the author, Siobhan Roberts, that he was both “the most interesting person I have ever met” and “the most selfish, childlike person I have ever met,”

    and

    Every superhero needs an origin story, and Conway’s comes in two acts. As a schoolboy, he says, he was a shy, insecure outsider, the “math brain.” But when he arrived at Cambridge to begin university studies he realized that, since no one there knew him, he could start from scratch. So he willed himself to become an extrovert. (On first encountering Conway, I wondered: Is he really like that? Is it all an act? The answer, it turns out, is: Yes.)

    According to Siobhan Roberts

    On a late September day in 1956, John Horton Conway left home with a trunk on his back. He was a skinny 18-year-old, with long, unkempt hair – a sort of proto-hippie – and although he generally preferred to go barefoot, on this occasion he wore strappy Jesus sandals. He travelled by steam train from Liverpool to Cambridge, where he was to start life as an undergraduate. During the five-hour journey, via Crewe with a connection in Bletchley, something dawned on him: this was a chance to reinvent himself.

    In junior school, one of Conway’s teachers had nicknamed him “Mary”. He was a delicate, effeminate creature. Being Mary made his life absolute hell until he moved on to secondary school, at Liverpool’s Holt High School for Boys. Soon after term began, the headmaster called each boy into his office and asked what he planned to do with his life. John said he wanted to read mathematics at Cambridge. Instead of “Mary” he became known as “The Prof”. These nicknames confirmed Conway as a terribly introverted adolescent, painfully aware of his own suffering.

    After loitering for a time with the teenage reprobates at the back of the classroom, Conway ultimately did well enough on the university entrance exams to receive a minor scholarship and get his name published in the Liverpool Daily Post. As he sat on the train to Cambridge, it dawned on him that since none of his classmates would be joining him at university, he would be able to transform himself into a new person: an extrovert! He wasn’t sure it would work. He worried that his introversion might be too entrenched, but he decided to try. He would be boisterous and witty, he would tell funny stories at parties, he would laugh at himself – that was key.

    “Roughly speaking,” he recalled, “I was going to become the kind of person you see now. It was a free decision.”

    Now 77, John Horton Conway is perhaps the world’s most lovable egomaniac.

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  2. According to Peter Schjeldahl

    Katy Siegel called me “The Feeler” among critics, which sounds kind of creepy! But aren’t feelings the only things in the universe that we can really know? They’re the actual us. Thoughts are just lawyers for our feelings. Memory is a pile of stories determined by feelings and constantly revised to fit new feelings. I guess the emphasis in my writing has to do with my never having been educated in art. I saw and loved art before I knew anything about it. I lucked out of the problem of learning about art before you see it—because you will always be dealing with that information at the expense of what moves you first-hand. I discovered very quickly in the ’60s that I was the world’s leading expert in my experience. And then I got praised for making the most of that. I think Jasper Johns said one of my favorite lines, which I remember vaguely but goes something like “Style is only common sense. You figure out what people like about you, and you exaggerate it.”

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  3. According to Katherine A. Powers

    Some explanations for the special flavor of this book occur to the dismayed reader. One is that it is simply a product of the natural human desire to speak ill of others, but another is more particular, an animus arising out of Mewshaw’s characteristically American hostility to artifice and lack of earnestness. (One of Vidal’s most memorable aperçus: “I like to think I have depths of insincerity yet unplumbed.”) It gets Mewshaw’s goat that Vidal presented himself as a patrician model of cool reserve and witty distance when, in fact, “for all his pretense of detachment, Gore seethed beneath the surface with infantile rage.” Just look at Vidal’s memoir, Palimpsest. “Where,” wonders Mewshaw, “was the anger, the rankling resentment at his exclusion, the humiliation, the professional and personal disappointments, the drinking, and the yearning for death?” In Mewshaw’s opinion, “the greatest flaw in Palimpsest was Gore’s refusal to come to grips with his inner life, with painful traumas he suffered in private while he sustained the impression in public of perfect equanimity.” For my part, it strikes me as not very nice that Mewshaw would want his friend to abase himself in that therapeutic manner, but then I prefer wit, irony, and the sparkling apothegm — all abundant in Palimpsest — over soul baring, weeping, and the gnashing of teeth.

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