“I Know Who I Am”:Don Quixote, Self-Fashioning, and the Humanness of Ordinary Identity
“I know who I am” is a commonplace phrase about ordinary identity. It also is a poem of sorts, expressive of something far beyond its few words. When Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote states it, the identity he fashions is clearly imagined but also, somehow, real. In this paper, I will critique and clarify this seeming puzzle. Doing so will help me to consider the role of self-fashioning in Don Quixote, as well as the idea that our own self-fashioned identities might be best understood not as “real” but as bound to the possibilities of a poetry of “who we are.”
What does it mean to know who you are? Is it a matter of knowing your name? The things that you’ve done? The people you love? Such indispensible knowledge is somehow not enough; I can know all of these things, and still feel puzzled about who I am. “I am not the person I once was,” “I am not myself today,” and “I am learning who I am,” are all commonplace poems of a kind: expressive sentences completely at home both in literature and ordinary life. Such a poem is the sentence “I know who I am.” This last is one of the many grand and emblematic boasts of Miguel de Cervantes’s hilariously self-fashioned knight, Don Quixote de la Mancha, a boast that can seem both impossible and yet utterly sensible, part quixotic and part mundane. Much as they are for the willful knight errant, my senses of who I am, and my articulations of those senses, can seem to exist somewhere between ordinary life and literary expression, and in some instances, perhaps even between the fictional and the real. [End Page 511]
This last assertion is enigmatic, and I will attempt to clarify and assess it in what follows. Knowing who I am has something to do with the wider category of my identity, used here in an ordinary, nonlogical sense. This is the sense of identity, in Sydney Shoemaker’s accounting, by which I might feel I have “identities,” plural, that can, importantly, change.1 For example, I might mean all of my answers to the question “Who am I?” at certain times (I am a woman, a teacher, a daughter), and discard some, even most, at others (I am no longer the person I once was). To further complicate my sense of who I am, my ordinary identities are not always up to me. By this I mean that they are bound, both in their sense and force, to my myriad social situations. These, in turn, have inextricable ties to prevailing social and political structures (systems of power). Shoemaker notes that ordinary identities can be lost, even stolen (Shoemaker, p. 41). These words, though evocative, do not really capture what any dominated person feels and what they know: one’s identity can be seized, stripped, diminished, violated. In these moments too, I want to know, whom is it that I know?
I would like to begin with a few framing claims. One’s ordinary identity is not just an attitude, or merely a performance. It is also not simply a locus of recognition or misrecognition, somehow inalienably bound to dominant social norms. Identities, which comprise our shifting, myriad answers to the question “Who are you?” are importantly constructed, but not merely so. This complex situation is not unrelated to some of the philosophical problems of being what we are: persons. Richard Rorty bluntly separates the questions of “who I am” and “what I am,” noting that the first is a political question and the second, scientific or metaphysical.2 John McDowell, almost contemporaneously, asserts that my references to my first-person senses of myself are simultaneously references to my third-person ones, rendering the gap between my “who” questions and my “what” questions less clear.3 More recently, Linda Martin Alcoff implicitly challenges the validity of clear who/what distinctions altogether, suggesting that all metaphysical or scientific “what” questions are political questions too.4 Adding to this picture, Shoemaker claims that the relationship between what he, following Bishop Butler, calls “identity in the . . . ‘strict philosophical sense’”—that is, my being myself and no one else—and ordinary identity is not clearly understood (Shoemaker, p. 41).
I do not wish to argue directly with these positions (and will simply state my claims), but I do want to speak at least obliquely to the thread of their concerns: if my “who” questions are inextricably bound to [End Page 512] my “whatness”—the kind of thing that I am—I cannot get at that tie or relation (political, moral, or metaphysical) if I do not understand what it means to know who I am. Specifically, what does it mean that my ordinary identities—the identities I refer to when I express who I am—are in some important sense made but are also not simply social, political, and personal constructions? In asking this question, and in the light of my asking it, I am keenly aware that my knowing “who I am” has the look of a contradiction and, as a result, any assertions I might make about my identities have the peculiar and unsettling quality of seeming like fictions: impossible things I nonetheless make up and tell.
In this paper, I would like to approach the puzzling conflict I’ve just laid out by attempting to understand something somewhat specific, even inward looking, that nonetheless may have important implications for understanding our ordinary concept of identity. The largest part of my inquiry may not at first seem related to identity at all; it concerns a novel experimenting with notions of the fictional and the power of the imagination. That experiment—Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote—is informed by the politics, class, and religious conflicts of early seventeenth-century Spain. Both the novel’s driving interests and its context, however, work through critical aspects of identity formation, a stylistically and politically inflected development that dramatizes the problem of “real” construction I have been articulating thus far.
In order to investigate this dramatization, I first ask in what sense Cervantes’s comically tragic Don Quixote can be called “real” in the world of the novel. I will have more to say about what it means for something or someone to be “real” in a moment, but for now I want to say that Don Quixote’s driving desire to be what he cannot be—a knight errant from fiction—is real in the sense of genuine (he does not become a knight errant in bad faith) as well as in the sense of true (having such a desire is true of his newly crafted identity). If I might be allowed this initial haziness, a seeming contradiction comes to the fore: Don Quixote’s identity is both fabricated (self-fashioned), and true of who he is; it is both imagined and real.
In this first, more strictly literary-focused part of my argument I will strive to make sense of such a seeming contradiction (and it is only seeming, as I argue). In doing so, I hope to offer one way of reading Cervantes’s serpentine novel reconciled through an attention to both the role of identity formation and the importance of fiction’s total separation from reality.5 Though this first ambition is modest, it is also tied to a now common, yet vitally urgent, idea: empowerment of the [End Page 513] socially and politically marginalized can be found in self-fashioning and self-definition. What is not so common—nor perhaps so clearly understood—is the relationship between such an important notion and the concept of identity itself, either ordinary or “strictly” philosophical. A “strictly” philosophic identity is numeric, in the world, the argument goes, while the personal, social, and political are “mere” constructs prone to deconstruction, ephemeral, fictional (the unexamined list goes on).
I am not interested here in “saving” an ordinary notion of identity (or showing its legitimacy) in opposition to the philosophic, though I will have something to say about the distinction. Rather, I want to know something that seems to me both more meaningful and commonsensical: I want to know in what way our fashioned, imagined, and (most important) chosen self-definitions are real, as opposed to mere fantasy, delusion, and so on. By way of this question, a critical account of the role of self-fashioning in Don Quixote may lead to a notion of ordinary identity that we may wish to mobilize outside of the text. As I go on to illustrate, this question, in the form I’ve just articulated, is insufficient, even misguided. Nonetheless, I want to start by taking seriously the idea that the vitality of ordinary identity, the force of its empowerment, depends on its truth within the (often falsifying) structures of the world, and on their (the world’s and our) simultaneous reality. Understanding the role of the idea of the real in questions of self-fashioning and ordinary identity is one goal of this paper.
Don Quixote’s escape into the worlds of his vast library of romance and chivalry, and the narrator’s bald insistence that the withered man has “lost his mind,”6 set an unlikely stage for something both comical and strange: an ensouling. Armor cleaned and repaired (pasteboard is required), steed and knight named (it takes eight days to decide), Don Quixote realizes that something indispensible is still missing if he is to be a knight errant: “He realized that the only thing left for him to do was to find a lady to love; for the knight errant without a lady-love was a tree without leaves or fruit, a body without a soul” (DQ, p. 23). Layered in the narrator’s mock-serious adoption of Don Quixote’s voice, the metaphoric passage suggests that even for the hopeful, romance-laden Quixote, the man in the mildewed armor is as yet in some way a sham; he is a tree without life, “a body without a soul.” As the basis for Quixote’s metaphor, the idea of the soul here has ancient precedent, particularly familiar from Plato’s Phaedo, in which the soul animates all living bodies, both plant and animal.7 According to the Phaedo, prior to being ensouled a body was lifeless. [End Page 514]
Don Quixote’s yearning observation uses both the hyperbole of grand expression and the diffusive meaningfulness of metaphor to express the acuteness of the knight’s unfulfilled identity, tying the idea of a life-giving animation to his comic attempts at self-fashioning. Significantly, a dual idea of identity is apparent here, with “soul” being that which might bind the physical world of pasteboard helmets to the moral and psychological realms of chivalrous desire. For Quixote, the trappings of self-fashioning, both physical and psychological, remain separate—a kind of costuming on the one hand, daydreaming on the other—if the knight is not understood, even by analogy, to be ensouled. Stated less grandly, without a ladylove, the knight errant has all the accessories of chivalry, but remains a pretense, a mere costumed man of immense desire. To have a ladylove, on the other hand, is to become realized.
But what does “realized” mean? Quixote suggests an answer in the passage that follows his expression of soullessness:
He said to himself: “If I, because of my evil sins, or my good fortune, meet with a giant somewhere, as ordinarily befalls knights errant, and I unseat him with a single blow, or cut his body in half, or, in short, conquer and defeat him, would it not be good to have someone to whom I could send him so that he might enter and fall to his knees before my sweet lady, and say in the humble voice of surrender: ‘I, lady, am the giant Caraculiambro, lord of the island Malindrania, defeated in single combat by the never sufficiently praised knight Don Quixote of La Mancha, who commanded me to appear before your ladyship, so that your highness might dispose of me as you chose’?”(DQ, p. 23)
These are Don Quixote’s first directly quoted words in the text. His previous statement, filtered through the narrator’s mocking, is a small musing, and a dual metaphor, albeit an important one. But now, blissfully carried away with his story, Don Quixote offers the seemingly casual conditions of his knighthood.
I say “seemingly casual” because the story he tells here will be the one he strives to find in his life for the majority of the first book. The story, too, which is one long sentence, is itself conditional, both grammatically (“If I . . .” / “would it not be good to . . .”) and, most peculiarly, at the level of category. In a single sentence, Quixote includes the chronology of story in contrast with the details and emphasis of plot, an instance of dialogue, as well as overt modeling of the kinds of adventures that “ordinarily befall knights errant,” including a battle with a giant (complete with plot options for his defeat: Unseated? Cleaved [End Page 515] in two?), a capitulation to the knight’s lady, and an encomium to the absent hero. As a demonstration of major formal elements of storytelling and the characteristics of chivalric tales, Don Quixote’s single sentence accomplishes what his metaphor alone does not. He is seeking his own self-fashioning, his own realization or ensouling, and discovers a particularized version of a general model and story about himself, told, as the narrator notes, “to himself.” This, indeed, is a wonder. What kind of creature seeks a soul (a means of realization) in their own formalizations of a set of conditions (formal and moral) chosen for that very process of ensouling? A creature whose soulfulness depends on a desire to be ensouled, but also who recognizes the having of a soul in their own pictures of it.
I lay aside, just for the moment, the fact that we are such creatures. What I want to note now is that in his story (which is a particularized articulation of a model of a story), Don Quixote has provided himself with not just an idea or metaphor that might collect the senses of his forming identity, including having a soul, he has extended the way in which he conceives of himself as ensouled. The difference here is crucial. I noted before that the analogue of the Platonic “inanimate” was something like “unrealized” in Don Quixote’s description. If not taken as a kind of self-fashioning in progress, his metaphor (he is a fruitless, leafless tree; a soulless body) would simply serve as a sort of stand-in for whatever qualities of lack we thought the metaphor collected. Language, then, would be treated as if it were crystalline, a kind of object. But for Quixote, storytelling is a presentation of who he will be with a ladylove, with this added peculiarity: the formal characteristics of chivalric tales meet the moral conditions of knight errantry in his now-specific imaginative flights, as if particularized presentations of ensouling could be the means by which a knight is ensouled. Language is a medium of existence, dynamic and conditional, in this sense, and individualized imagination more real to Quixote than the fashioning of armor.
Significantly, “real” in this process means, for Quixote, something like “recognizable in one’s own life,” but also something like “meaningful.” Quixote is treating reality-making like soul-making here, as if the opposite of “real” were not “unreal” or “not real” but “meaningless.” Importantly, however, he is not simply shifting one concept onto the other, a version of reducing identity to its own autobiography. For Quixote, the story he tells himself is less autobiography than it is a kind of supposing, an envisaging: “If I . . . meet with a giant somewhere,” he muses, “would it not be good to have someone to whom I could send him”? As I’ve [End Page 516] noted, Quixote’s language is conditional, full of possibility, but also comically qualified by the styles and conditions of the romance and chivalric traditions. Imaginative possibility is inextricably linked to an adherence to certain constraints for Quixote, both stylistic and moral.
What this means for his self-fashioning is not that narrative and identity will be treated as if they were the same, or even simply that the conditions set forth in chivalric tales will serve as the general principles in relation to which Quixote might determine if he has the identity that he is striving for. Instead, oddly and intriguingly, Quixote’s life authenticates the general narratives and principles of the chivalric tradition, and their particularized reality, if exemplified in his life, are a guarantee of his ensouling. Such embodiment must be recognized as such and, in the fiction, this leads to a peculiar kind of bragging. “I know who I am,” Don Quixote insists, “and I know I can be not only those I have mentioned but the Twelve Peers of France as well, and even all the nine paragons of Fame, for my deeds will surpass all those they performed, together or singly” (DQ, p. 43).
Quixote’s mad mixing of historical figures and fictional characters culminates in the even madder declaration that his own late life will be greater than those traditions. It is not that he believes the boundary between fact and fiction will dissolve once the general greatness of tradition’s heroes becomes realized in the particularity of his new, truly great identity (indeed, he is confused about what is historical) but rather that his identity need know no boundary other than that demarcated by his most exemplary desires. Imagining stops looking like mere supposing and envisaging and looks more like the background against which an identity gains particularity in the world.
A peculiar wisdom in this mad process of ensouling lies in the explicit tying together of identity’s epistemological and moral aspects in Quixote’s imaginative process. Specifically, that which allows Quixote to ensoul himself and understand that he has been so ensouled (which is simply his identity’s particularity in the world) is bound to the normative requirements of his self-fashioning as he both tells and imagines his own story. The problem of recognition (and hence authentication) of the knight errant’s “virtuous desire” in the frail man’s life is thus part of the process of ensouling itself. “I know who I am,” as Quixote puts it, because the criteria for recognition are of his own improvised, makeshift imaginings, and the formal qualities of chivalric tales stand out against these imaginative choices, somehow enriched, realized: pasteboard becomes a helmet, an innkeeper becomes a king. Most intriguing, as [End Page 517] he engages in self-fashioning, Quixote always knows when he is realizing and failing to realize his identity, his ensouling; he is the most important listener to his own story; it is for him that the pasteboard ceases to shine. Quixote’s identity, which demands a form that his greatest aspirations, his most virtuous desires, can never realize, will always be in danger of showing its own stories to be unreal.
Charles Taylor insists that “a basic condition of making sense of ourselves [is] that we grasp our lives in a narrative,” and have an “understanding of [our lives] as an unfolding story.”8 For Quixote, this says both too much and too little. Too much because there is no suggestion in the novel that there is only one way of self-fashioning, and too little in that the new knight gains personhood not simply by grasping his life in the form of an unfolding story. In recognizing his life, in its particularity, as something that can embody the moral and formal demands of a tradition of his own choosing, stories that cannot on their own embody and realize his virtuous desire (and hence show his life to be meaningful), he begins to understand himself as identified, as ensouled, against all odds.
Daniel Dennett claims that “the chief fictional character . . . of [one’s] autobiography is one’s self.”9 For Quixote, the story of one’s identity is not that of a fictional character made coherent through narrative; the problem goes in the other direction. It is the story of an identity founded on the requirements of fictional stories that one’s life demonstrates and hence that realize one’s identity through their own, newly fashioned reality: the self makes the stories true. In Dennett’s account, Quixote would be the fictional man who acts in his own life story. In Quixote’s vision, he demands that his life carry the special burden of meaningfulness normally reserved for stories. Ironically, Dennett’s idea starts to look like a choice to live an illusion, while Quixote’s grand imagination, his boasts of courage and fights with giants, look like being a person.
I’ve been drawing a mostly implicit connection between Don Quixote’s self-fashioning and the idea that we, too, realize ourselves and the stories we tell, but more important, that when we seek meaningfulness, sometimes we do so through the identities we fashion. In one significant way, Quixote’s case in the fiction is unique. No matter what he desires, the world contains no knights errant. Comically, and tellingly, embarrassment ensues. Can my life exemplify my own requirements for animation, enlivening, realization, ensouling? The list is a burden. Quixote stumbles as he carries it.10 And yet the alternative is a kind of staid emptiness. Perhaps the most important, and the most human, aspect of Don Quixote’s self-fashioning is that he defines “the real” for [End Page 518] himself relative to the pressures of a world without heroes and chivalry. In this world, people simply live and die (“velvet breeches . . . for feast days” and “an occasional stew” [DQ, p. 19]). For Quixote, this kind of existence represents a deep-seated indifference, as his long speeches on the loss of the Golden Age attest.
In Quixote’s world of choice, language, and imagination, however, life matters and has the potential for meaning. “Meaning” is not just understanding one’s life as definitively x, y, or z, but, again, as meaningful, ensouled: x laden with an “intrepid heart” beside “the implacable waves of the deepest ocean.” Quoted in full, this passage is an expression of loss:
No longer does anyone ride out of this forest and into those mountains, and from there tread upon a bare and desolate beach, the sea most often stormy and tempestuous, and find along the shore a small boat without oars, sail, mast, or any kind of rigging, and with intrepid heart climb in and give himself over to the implacable waves of the deepest ocean, which first raise him up to heaven and then toss him into the abyss; and, with his breast turned to the insurmountable storm, when he least expects it he finds himself more than three thousand leagues distant from the place where he embarked, and he leaps out of the boat onto a distant unknown land, and there things occur that are worthy of being written not on parchment, but bronze.(DQ, p. 465)
In this passage, Quixote’s impossible imaginings are a call for courage. The unfettered boat, the rise to heaven, and the drop into endless depths characterize just the beginning of the adventure. What further poetry may come from a step upon that distant shore? No one knows, Quixote says; something irreplaceably meaningful is “no longer” understood. This something seems to include the scope of one’s sense of life’s possibilities, at the very least. Even more striking, the words of Quixote’s accusation stand in stark contrast to the kinds of hierarchies that would render such language meaningless; the grandiose and archaic tenor of the passage is meant to recall the world Quixote is attempting to fashion anew. Though beyond the scope of this paper, an important way of reading the novel’s much-analyzed opening is similarly through attention to the social strata the description never states, but simply implies. Cervantes pits the poetry of the mundane—“hash most nights, eggs and abstinence on Saturdays” (DQ, p. 19), for example—against the implicit force of an unrelenting feudal grading. [End Page 519]
More important, it is not the natural world that Quixote finds indifferent, either in the passage above or throughout the novel, but rather the social systems he sees around him. This perspective is a shift in that familiar problem of human existence that pits the value-laden human spirit, variously understood, against the cold indifference of the natural world.11 The latter is a problem arguably initiated with the first rumblings of modern science a little more than half a century before the publication of the first part of Don Quixote in 1605. Quixote, however, is neither concerned with nature’s inhumanity nor with potential views of personhood pitted against biological or mechanical views of life. Instead, he casts something that to our eyes should look strikingly contemporary in nature’s role: the dominant normative structures that would seem to determine ordinary identity. These, again, are specifically figured as soulless. Speaking in his typically romantic and naïve fashion, Quixote describes his imagined Golden Age: “In that time amorous concepts were recited from the soul simply and directly, in the same way and manner that the soul conceived them, without looking for artificial and devious words to enclose them. . . . Justice stood on her own ground, and favor or interest did not dare disturb or offend her as they so often do now, defaming, confusing and persecuting her” (DQ, p. 77).
What Don Quixote describes never existed, but his charge is nonetheless forceful. Prevailing structures seem “artificial” and “devious” to him, and those who uphold them are confused by “strange designs which idle curiosity has taught them,” hollowly accepting superficial favors at the expense of those who may need justice (DQ, p. 77). Tied to this moral charge is Quixote’s sense that the gentry have lost a sense of the poetic in life, becoming indolent and indifferent. Faced with the soullessness of the prevailing social hierarchy, Quixote imagines a world in which his identity can realize the stories he finds meaningful. How does one fit a soul into a soulless world? Quixote’s answer is to try and ensoul the world, too.
For Quixote, a soulful world does not just include the trappings of the world of Amadis de Gaul but is that world, newly realized. He sees it everywhere and in everything, no matter how unlikely or mundane, and at times is able to convince Sancho that he sees it too. Again, “soul” here is not a quasi-religious notion but one way of expressing the difference between feeling alive in the world and feeling somehow unrealized; it is that which can collect and carry one’s answers to the question “who am I?” Troublingly, part of the fun for both us as readers and the often-cruel participants in Don Quixote’s imaginative flights, [End Page 520] however, is the fact that we know he is not who he thinks he is. There is no “Don Quixote,” only the struggling minor gentleman of La Mancha, temporarily deranged. Our laughter continuously reminds us of this: there are no knights errant, or giants, or innkeeper kings. The further temptation, however, is not just to laugh but to dismiss Don Quixote’s self-fashioning, seeing it merely as eccentricity and madness. In one way, in such judgments we as readers are complicit in the soullessness of Don Quixote’s world, failing to take seriously the knight’s sense of who he is, or that it is in some way meaningful to himself. But just as important, in highlighting fiction’s utter separation from reality, the novel calls into question our sense of the value of an identity fashioned with fictions.
We laugh, too, in other words, because we cannot enter a fiction, nor can the events of fictional stories enter our world. Don Quixote at least seemingly fails to realize this, seeing what cannot be seen and acting in response. Self-fashioning and hence identity, however, are of Don Quixote’s making, and have not somehow arisen, ensouled, from the pages of his beloved texts, no matter how much he wants this to be the case. In the world of the novel, “Don Quixote” is a particularized version of many fictional models, but not “fictional” himself. This stark distinction comes to the fore largely through our own laughter. Identity, in other words, can be a choice, but not therefore a mere character or a performance; Don Quixote’s impossible choice is mad, but still his own self. What the novel ultimately does, then, is bring the very question I asked at the beginning into a new light, showing its terms to be a mistake: in what sense are our imagined, our self-fashioned identities real? The novel places Don Quixote and the problem of meaningful self-fashioning and self-knowledge before us, not the question of what it means for something to be fictional.
One of the ongoing storylines of the novel involves the priest’s and the barber’s repeated attempts to bring Don Quixote home so he can be “cured” of his new self. At the novel’s end, Quixote himself declares that his self-fashioning was a sickness and that he is once again the person he once was: Alonso Quixano. A new version of “I know who I am” takes over at the novel’s end, allowing the dying man a kind of peace in his final declarations of self and moral realization.
The important thing to notice in this trajectory is that questions of “who” Don Quixote feels he is at any given time are separate from our questions of fiction versus reality. In fact, the problem the novel dramatizes is not one of the difference between what is fictional about one’s identity and what is real; the problem is not one of a “difference between” [End Page 521] identity aspects at all but rather between the self one attempts to realize (render meaningful) and the indifferent world. In Don Quixote’s life, as I’ve been describing it, ordinary identity shows itself to be a problem of what one takes to be meaningful and how one fits that meaningfulness into a world not suited to it. The process of self-fashioning requires one to see the seeming soullessness of prevailing structures and attempt to realize a new identity nonetheless. A failure to do this, at least for Don Quixote, is to risk fading into the background of social norms. One of the most joyful elements of Don Quixote is how hilariously involved in imaginative self-fashioning each character becomes in light of the frail knight’s strangeness. Their own ties to romantic fiction, their own role in Don Quixote’s attempts to enliven his world with meaning, come to the fore. Their identities, who they are, are given a new life according to the meaningfulness of the stories they now tell.
What I’m suggesting is perhaps beginning to have the look of a prescriptive allegory: Don Quixote is a hero of self-fashioning, daring to be who he believes himself to be against all odds, and we can see our own identity struggles within his. But this is not quite what I mean. Rather, I am considering the idea that every act of ordinary identity formation (enactment, acknowledgment, and so on) is an attempt to ensoul the world in some way. We may doubt that we, or the world, need such activity. Our identities are not like nature or the hierarchical world that Don Quixote faces, effectively indifferent. They are constructs born of stories, shifting meanings, and the meaningfulness we demand; they are the souls we try to realize.
That meaningfulness, however, is turned singular through structural inequality (for one). Identity becomes attached to the structure and loosened from ourselves—that is, from our actual manifestations of our identities, and from our presentations of them. Even our own interpretations of our identities can lose their vividness for us, then, while seeming to take on a greater reality, fully beyond our control, within the structure. Prevailing social norms, now lashed to the humanness that is rightfully ours, are made to look natural, inevitable, real. Rights are stripped away, violence wrongfully justified. Questions of who and what we are clearly are not entirely separate, though we may hold them apart in our analyses and in our minds. The world, putatively natural and asserting the powerful indifference of a fact, can lead us to forget, or presume we never knew, that we are our identities, and this fact is an insidious violence. Our identities, after all, are the bearers of our humanness. This too is what is meant by “soul.” [End Page 522]
The very idea that my soul can be the world’s soul is an impossible story, an unlikely poem. It is an idea tied to metaphoric language and born of the hope that knowing who I am is a meaningful thing to say. As I have attempted to articulate, an important part of taking such an idea seriously is to trade talk of “real” or “authentic” identities for that of “meaningful” ones we attempt to realize (with the opposite of “real” here being “meaningless,” not “fictional”), and this shift is where Don Quixote’s mad process of self-fashioning and ensouling is indeed a kind of lesson. Significant for us, an identity that is not meaningful from the perspective of wider social norms can nonetheless show the structure to be a problem, and can have meaning beyond it. I believe that this idea, and this range of poetically inflected vocabulary, needs closer consideration beyond my own interpretations. “Reality” and the “real,” on the other hand, are often questions of absolutes. Something is real or it is not. Something is inside the world of a fiction or it is not. Such concepts can enable the talk of a conversant who has already decided what matters; it is a conversation that ends before it has begun. What Don Quixote offers us, on the other hand, is a vocabulary and poetry of possibility.
And what does all of this poetry leave us? Where have we come? First, I can now again ask, “What does it mean to know who you are?” At least in part, it means believing that the world can have a place for your identity, even if that place is one of opposition and you remain firmly defiant. At its barest, knowing who you are means believing that the world, and the indifference of dominating structures, can be ensouled. Ordinary identity is also thus clearly a construction: something we make, something we tell, something as easily born of stories and their shifting meanings as the examples of those around us, and also, so importantly, of the poems we speak in our attempts to express ourselves as the meaningful creatures that we are.
This is not to say that our chosen self-fashioning will necessarily be positive or useful. Don Quixote himself manages to destroy the livelihoods of a whole range of country dwellers in his extreme self-interest, and manages to injure himself and Sancho at every opportunity. We can realize ourselves as dangerous, indeed. But, as I have also been attempting to show, judgments of this sort constitute a separate question that cannot be fully addressed without first understanding what it means to have and to fashion one’s ordinary identity. One further thing we might gain in talking of meaningfulness is that clearly not all constructions are fictions. Don Quixote may have based his identity on impossible stories, [End Page 523] and he may see things that cannot be the case, but he—the man who knows who he is—is not a fiction; he is in his world, and distinctly, often maddeningly, matters to everyone he meets.
We are made, but we are not fictional; there is no contradiction of being here. To say that we are constructions, but not “just” constructions, is one way of expressing this important, if mundane, fact. To say and mean “I know who I am,” too, is to treat ordinary identity as part of one’s humanness, allowing “what I am” the malleability of my often shifting senses of “who I am.” Our ordinary identities are thus most certainly an activity, but not merely a performance, and certainly not equivalent to the norms that would effect them. They are a kind of seeing, perhaps, but not of the inward sort. Self-fashioning as I’ve been describing it is to see outside yourself to the world that does not see you back, and it is a personal demand that your life realize the stories (the vision, the poetry) that would render the world as meaningful as yourself. Perhaps most important—because systems of power can seem as if they are the brute fact of existence rather than simply normative (one of Marx’s most important warnings)—it becomes all the more important to realize that it is often this falseness against which we strive to make meaning when we assert our identities.
When the world seems inexorable and effectively indifferent, we may be importantly understood as the bearers, and the sufferers, of our own self-fashioned souls. We may not wish to tilt at windmills, but we may wish to know who we are, even when such self-fashioning means risking the possibility of being incontrovertibly wrong about the selves, and the lives, we try to realize. Such a struggle is one human way of seeking meaning in a world that may not wish to sustain us. May we sally forth nonetheless.
1. Sydney Shoemaker, “Identity and Identities,” Daedalus 135, no. 4 (Fall 2006): 41; hereafter abbreviated Shoemaker.
2. Richard Rorty, “Who Are We? Moral Universalism and Economic Triage,” Diogenes 44, no. 137 (1996): 5–15.
3. John McDowell, “Referring to Oneself,” in The Philosophy of P. F. Strawson, ed. Lewis E. Hahn (Chicago: Open Court, 1998), p. 134. [End Page 524]
4. Linda Martin Alcoff, Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). One premise of Alcoff’s book is that social identity (who you are) is inextricably linked to the visible world (the “what” of your experiential nature), and as such has important political implications. She states that “identity designations are clearly the product of learned cognitive maps and learned modes of perception. Yet they operate through visible physical features and characteristics, and one cannot simply ‘rise above’ or ignore them” (p. ix). She also says “social identities are relational, contextual, and fundamental to the self” (p. 90).
5. For a clear and robust discussion of the concept of fiction, see Brett Bourbon, “The Logical Form of Fiction,” in Finding a Replacement for the Soul (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), pp. 50–79; hereafter abbreviated FRS. In this paper I am ultimately concerned with ideas of meaningfulness, not of fiction, but will utilize and assume Bourbon’s idea that there “exists a logical distinction between what we understand to be in a fiction and what we understand to be outside a fiction” (FRS, p. 75). This is the statement that I am relying on when I speak of “fiction’s total separation from reality.”
6. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, trans. Edith Grossman (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), p. 20; hereafter abbreviated DQ.
7. Plato, Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, 2nd ed., trans. G. M. A. Grube, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett Classics, 2002). See especially 70d, p. 107, which references plants and animals, and 105c, p. 143: “What is it that, present in a body, makes it living? —A soul.”
8. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 47.
9. Daniel Dennett, “The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity,” in Self and Consciousness: Multiple Perspectives, ed. Frank S. Kessel, Pamela M. Cole, and Dale L. Johnson (New York: Psychology Press, 1992), p. 114.
10. It has been frequently noted that Don Quixote’s attitudes and demeanor change starkly between the first and second parts. He becomes notably more melancholy, particularly following the events at the Cave of Montesinos, and eventually stops imagining himself as a knight errant altogether. See, for example, the telling passage: “They reached the inn as night was falling, and much to Sancho’s delight, he saw that his master judged it to be a real inn and not a castle, as he usually did” (DQ, p. 619).
11. I am indebted to Brett Bourbon’s account of Keats’s “soul-making” in the face of nature’s indifference for my sense of this historical progression. See “From Soul-Making to Person-Making” in FRS, pp. 27–49. In particular, Bourbon describes one way in which “our very particularity and projective understanding” of proverbs serve as a way of “resting indifference” in Keats’s poetic appeals (FRS, p. 35). Though such projection is still delusion for Bourbon, and Keats’s “soul-making” fails, I am nonetheless equally indebted to his descriptions of the process of “projective” illustration that is “soul-making.” [End Page 525]