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This Is Not the Real Me
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Francis Sparshott THIS IS NOT THE REAL ME ii* I 1HiS is not the real me you're seeing, Mrs. Clisbie." It is the caption X of a cartoon by James Thurber. The speaker is a man in evening dress and top hat, lying on his back on the floor, a tear running down his cheek, a bunch of flowers beside him.1 Why is that funny, if it is? I suppose because it is the real him, visibly down there. Who else? He can hardly be expecting to deceive the recipient of his plea, who is there in her armchair, looking as concerned as a Thurber woman can. Is he self-deluded? But if so, what is his delusion? If he didn't know he was down there on the floor, he had no occasion to deny his presence. He is absurd. But the absurdity would not be funny, if it is funny, were it not that we imagine him making the same disclaimer, but about his spiritual posture or inward capacities— he might say "This is not the real me" if he were weak from sickness, or recovering from a stroke. And that would be absurd, too. Because what Mrs. Clisbie saw would really be him—it wouldn't be anyone else, surely. So how could it not be the real him? Thurber's caption picks out a whole genre of possible jokes. Even the pathos of the sick or exhausted person who says "This is not the real me" has a comic side, because it so obviously is that person, though the person wishes it were not. A deception too transparent becomes laughable when it is not embarrassing. We can imagine other scenarios, too. The judge passing sentence of death, for instance. "Prisoner at the bar, this is not the real me you are hearing. . . ." What thejudge would mean might be that it is not the human person who condemns, but the office holder. It is ajoke, black as the humor may be, because thejudge and the human person have between them only one voice, and the condemnation that the prisoner hears is real and sends Philosophy and Literature, © 1993, 17: 1-15 2 Philosophy and Literature him to a real gallows. Or we may imagine a flasher in the park shrubbery: "It's all right, miss—this is not the real me you're seeing." A whole raft of possible jokes there, best not thought about. The cartoonist will perhaps draw the man in the raincoat from the back, and leave us to guess from his victim's face whether the flasher is lying or not, and, in either case, what the lie or the truth might possibly be. II A few years ago my colleagues and I were all given answering machines for our telephones and had to make up messages, all of which began by saying in effect "I am not here"—"This is not the real me you are hearing." We were captivated by the paradox ofsaying that we were not speaking, and for the first few days we rang each other upjust for the fun of hearing what droll or fanciful ways our more ingenious colleagues had found ofcommunicating their inability to communicate. After that, we all grew up. But we in the philosophy department knew that this hiatus was nothing but the condition of communication in general. As when the astronomer sees a distant galaxy which perhaps ceased to exist a billion years ago, what we see and hear is always already in the past. Light-waves and sound-waves have already taken time to travel. Presence and presentness are illusions. Should we then say that the line "This is not the real me" is always false when it is uttered and true when it is heard, because what is heard is the voice of a self that already belongs to the past? No, that would be silly. Some of the things I think and say about the person I am now must be true, simply as contrasted with the lies I might have told instead about the same aspect of myself. Jean-Paul Sartre warned us about this form of...