- Subjects, Selves, and Survivors
The Subject of Time
Classicists can legitimately argue that their right to be stakeholders in the new economies of the academy is based on the philosophical idea, first fully developed in Martin Heidegger's Being and Time (Sein und Zeit ), that a key constitutive element of subjectivity is temporality. With the slightest degree of modification, the notion of temporality in subjectivity intensely illuminates the reasons why ancient Greek and Roman texts and artifacts have proved so culturally long-lived and versatile. In his interpretation of Heidegger, Albert Shalom (1993) emphasizes that subjectivity in the known universe only arose after a long time when there was no subjectivity at all; in each one of us, subjectivity only arose at some unknown point after our father's spermatozoon fertilized our mother's egg. Temporality, which currently remains entirely beyond our control either as individuals or as a species, thus constitutes the very source of our subjectivity (Shalom 1993, 189). There are, of course, one or two other philosophical concepts that can certainly stake nearly equivalent claims to importance in the makeup of the self, especially spatiality and corporeality. There has also been a great deal of recent literature produced by psychologists on what they call the "self."1 They often assume that the dominant explanatory metaphor for the sense of a continuous self, which unites our diverse constituent "selves," is no longer the linear story or plotline, but something more like a computer that processes information, a central processing unit (CPU) (Knowles and Sibicky 1990). Yet even the scholars who have produced these studies would undoubtedly agree that the CPU needs loci by which to sort that information, and that the dominant loci by which we, as subjects, experience the world are always primarily temporal. From this point of view, the ancient world from which we trace our origins, and against the backdrop of which we constitute our identity, has always represented—and will probably always represent—a key locus by which we experience temporality. [End Page 125]
It is in black American thought that the arguments from temporality have been developed more than in any other arena, a reaction to the appalling fact that slaves were until so very recently not only denied a collective history, but even individual dates of birth. Here there is much to be learned from the remarkable black American Frederick Douglass, born into slavery in Maryland during the second decade of the nineteenth century, who became obsessed with discovering his date of birth. This need continued to nag at him throughout his life; he called it "a serious trouble" even as a free man in his sixties (Gates 1987, 98–102). Henry Louis Gates has written that
We mark a human being's existence by his or her birth and death dates, engraved in granite on every tombstone. Our idea of the self . . . is as inextricably interwoven with our ideas of time as it is with uses of language. In antebellum America, it was the deprivation of time in the life of the slave that first signaled his or her status as a piece of property. Slavery's time was delineated by memory and memory alone.(Gates 1987, 100)
To a classicist, therefore, it is distressing to find Phillis Wheatley, a late eighteenth-century Boston slave, and the first African ever to publish a book of poems in English, express her reflections on memory, race, and the lacunose nature of her own cultural inheritance in a poem that is classically infused. In On Recollection (an abstract she names by abbreviating Mnemosyne to Mneme), Wheatley muses on the way that this female personification of Recollection enables her new "vent'rous Afric" poet to range "in due order" the "acts of long departed years," and to paint "the actions done / By ev'ry tribe beneath the rolling sun" (Wheatley 2001, 34–5). Wheatley could have had little access to any data about the long departed acts of her own ancestors beneath the sun that shone on the continent from which she came. But she was, in fact, fortunate in the (relative) richness of the information about her personal beginnings: she...