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  • The Summoned Self Under Siege:Shaw, Ricoeur, Poetics of Personhood in Too True to be Good
  • Howard Ira Einsohn (bio)

The "summoned self" a concept thematized in the corpus oand thef Paul Ricoeur, the French philosopher of hermeneutical phd sometime biblical exegete with whom Shaw shares several affinities. Conceived narrowly, the notion signifies any individual, group, or community that responds affirmatively—directly or indirectly—to the call latent in the metaphoric structures of the Bible that project alternative but potentially redemptive ways of being in the world.1 Ricoeur, the proximate sites are the extravagantly hyperbolic parables, sayings, and aphorisms associated with the life and teaching of the Nazarene Jesus that converge on the idea of an "economy of the gift." This type of economy summons us, both individually and collectively, to treat others with an exuberant (though not unlimited) solicitude in the manner that Jesus lived and taught. That is to say, with no thought of a quid pro quo, we are enjoined to give and give generously to the commonweal, even if such gifting incurs a cost, because life and life-supporting systems have been given to us. Conceived more broadly, the notion of a summoned self applies to any analogous conceptual framework that links a sacred call and human response relation to a conscientious effort aimed at enhancing the species' well-being. The idea need not be limited exclusively to the orthodoxies of the Judeo-Christian tradition. "Summoned-hood" is a feature of existence common to societies around the world, religious and secular alike. It is an archetypal pattern deeply woven into the fabric of lived experience. In this essay, however, I want to focus primarily on a Shavian summoned self: the Honorable Aubrey Bagot, of Too True to Be Good—a summoned self under siege, a Jesusian [End Page 112] self traumatized both physically and psychically by the disfiguring violence associated with the Great War of 1914–18.2

I have elsewhere noted the symmetry in thinking between Shaw and Ricoeur with respect to a gift-giving economy.3 Here, using Too True as an exemplary case in point, I want to widen the discussion by showing that, in addition to this symmetry, the two also share the same conception of selfhood in general and summoned selfhood in particular—the latter being integral to the idea of an economy of the gift. Put simply, both Shaw and Ricoeur construe selfhood as a protean work-in-progress that is narrative in nature. For each of them, selfhood is not a fixed, fully realized state of being bestowed upon us from the outset. Rather, it is a fragile condition we gradually build piecemeal by following two intersecting tracks simultaneously: expending energy in the direction of our desires and goals and compiling our life experiences into cohesive stories in which we are the leading characters and primary narrators.4

More particularly, within an economy of the gift, as Shaw and Ricoeur conceive it, the drive toward narrative selfhood is fueled by an irrepressible need to answer a subterranean summons that commissions receptive listeners to exhibit a degree of care and concern toward the neighbor that exceeds the customary requirements of custom and law. At the same time, the summoned self is the self that aspires to constancy, the self that labors to preserve its integrity, the self that strains mightily to keep its ultimate commitments in the face of life's often obstructive vicissitudes.

In the end, should the summoned self persevere intact through its travails, emerging from the fray scathed but uncompromised, it will have maintained what Ricoeur calls, in contradistinction to its idem identity (identity as sameness), its ipse identity (identity as personhood—or selfhood). The former is associated paradigmatically with character, the settled dispositions and allegiances that enable us to identify and reidentify through the years an individual as the same person.5 The latter is associated paradigmatically with promise keeping, the long-term maintenance of self in such a way that despite changing circumstances others can count on us to keep our word. Together, these two modalities of permanence in time constitute an identity polarity bounded by limiting cases at either pole: sameness without selfhood...


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pp. 112-136
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