Features

Bored with a Capital ‘I’

22 September 2007 | Features
Originally published in New Escapologist

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes become so utterly sick of being myself that I would do anything to escape if only for a moment the curse of being ‘Me’. I imagine this is why some people watch soap operas: they enable you to vicariously experience other people’s domestic crises and spicy liaisons and to take you away, for twenty-eight minutes a day, from your own.

I don’t just mean to talk about being tired of one’s life – the trappings and commitments, discomforts and barriers involved in being yourself – but rather the idea that it’s possible, even easy, to tire of having the same sorts of ideas all the time or of hearing the same inner voice echoing around the walls of the same old skull.

I’ve occupied this particular skull for twenty-five years now. It’s nice. I think I’ve finally got the décor right but it can sometimes get a bit claustrophobic in here. Oh, to sneak out and visit the mind of a neighbour – perhaps for tea and toast.

Jean-Paul Sartre in his play, Huis Clos famously suggests that “hell is other people” but can you imagine how uncomfortable it must be to be locked away for all eternity with only yourself for company? Maddening to say the least. Sure, it would be fun comparing identical birthmarks and blemishes to begin with but you’d be at each other’s sanctimonious throats in less time than it takes to read an emergency exit sign.

It might be interesting to be able to change who you are occasionally; to somehow undergo the experience of being someone else for a little while. Alas, until scientists develop a magic portal akin to the one from Being John Malkovich, there is very little you can do about this. You’re stuck with your own personality and completely unable to leave that head of yours from now until the day you die. Doesn’t that freak you out just a little bit? No wonder some people go nuts, wake up one morning and decide that they’re Jesus.

The idea of ‘the self’ didn’t even exist properly until Sigmund Freud invented it in the 1920s. I don’t mean to be deliberately facetious in the same way that dull people quip that Isaac Newton invented gravity: gravity is clearly a universal force which existed prior to its being written about by Newton but the self is a comparatively new manmade concept akin to romantic love, sexual taboos or belief in an afterlife. It’s almost impossible to imagine life without some of these things now but the three aforementioned examples have clearly been challenged respectively by swingers, bohemians and atheists. Today the new escapologist can take on the idea of abandoning the self in pursuit of true psychological freedom.

Perhaps the best thing to do first in order to escape your boring old self is to identify exactly what this boring old self consists of. You might want to spend some time in dark cupboard to do this or in a sensory deprivation tank so that you can enjoy a good long period of summing yourself up akin to the guy in Haruki Maurakami’s The Windup Bird Chronicle who spends days on end sitting at the bottom of a dry well formulating ideas about himself.

Subverting the norm

Alternatively, you might want to take a personality-orientated psychometric test such as the ‘Myers Briggs [Personality] Type Indicator’ (MBTI). Check it out on the Internet. As a left-winger armed with a psychology degree, I must disclaim that I have never been a fan of this sort of thing. I dislike the idea of the existence of any standardised test which is capable of tagging people and making their inner secrets a matter of quantified communicative interest. I find it extremely tacky. But bear with me: while I’m recommending giving MBTI (or other similar system) a shot, I’m about to tell you how to grossly pervert it in the name of psychological freedom. Oh yes.

In order to explain further the borderline rightwing ‘ickiness’ of psychometric tests, I’d like to alert you to the case of Arthur Jenson whose controversial use of the IQ system ‘proved’ that black Americans were subservient to white Americans. Nice, huh? This kind of analysis is just a way of using science to label, dissect and ultimately govern, control and placate the masses. I feel for Freud: like how Nietzsche’s writings about ‘supermen’ were interpreted by Hitler as “kill all the Jews”, I doubt Freud anticipated how his ideas would be used.

Once we’re all analysed to the full extent of psychometrics and our details recorded, we become what Michel Foucault called ‘The Calculable Man’: the human being who can be represented by a few lines of text or shorthand code and governed with the corresponding measures invented to control ‘that sort of person’. It’s a great way of splitting society into chunks and dealing with them accordingly. It’s how Derren Brown figures out what people are thinking but where he uses it to entertain, governments can use it to render powerless their peoples. Rather than the conventional, more common-sense idea of government being able to unite society into one national easily-governed force, Freud’s ideas and those of Myers-Briggs or IQ-style psychometric tests show us that individuality should be encouraged by governments and companies (“Because you’re worth it” / “Just Do It”) in order to divide society into a number of groups because individuality only goes so far.

Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays (left), is often seen as being the father of modern Public Relations (PR). He employed his uncle’s ideas to come up with a new concept of PR and person-focussed marketing: to sell products that appeal to individuals and can help foster in them an off-the-shelf construction of individuality. An iPod, for example, will appeal to Type A while record players will appeal to Type B: each shall be marketed accordingly. He arranged for 1929’s ‘torches of liberty contingent’ (as documented in John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton’s brilliant expose of PR history Toxic Sludge is good for you and in Adam Curtis’ eye-opening documentary, The Century of the Self): a women’s liberation movement in which hundreds of women would march down New York’s streets brandishing cigarettes. Until then, there was a perception in America that women shouldn’t smoke and so this was a hugely equalising movement.

Equalising? Sure. Women became liberated. As a result, cigarette sales doubled, a lot of tobacco companies got rich and from then on every family soon had two cars and every house doubled in price. With women in the game, companies had doubled their markets for almost every expensive product. Eventually men would undergo a modernisation process too so that sales of cosmetics might go up and homosexual couples would be able to buy a product called ‘marriage’ and become as miserable and taxable as everybody else.

Go get your MBTI letters. Do a quick test on the Internet or track down a qualified MBTI tester. You will find your ‘self’ represented by four letters. You’ll be represented by something along the lines of “INFJ” with each letter referring to a particular element of your ‘personality’ – in this example you’re an introverted person who uses intuition rather than facts, feels rather than thinks and plans carefully rather than acts spontaneously. They’ve got your number now, or rather, your letters. You’ll now be able to read a pre-packaged profile of yourself (one of twenty-eight types of person) and it will be so eerily similar to the sort of person you believe yourself to be that you’ll want to run screaming for the hills.

Yeah, it is spooky. But on the plus side, you have now identified precisely the ‘self’ you must seek to escape if you’re going to enjoy a holiday away from your own head.

Next, have a look at the complete matrix of MBTI personality types and seek to think and behave in ways utterly the opposite of the way you’re supposed to. If you find that you normally behave in an introverted, gentle way, join a fight club or something. If you find that you normally behave in an extroverted, aggressive way, join a chess club. Of course joining a chess club might not be ‘you’ but that’s the whole point. Experience how the other half lives.

I’d like to see some sort of Wife Swap-style reality TV show produced for Channel 4 which forces people to do things that go against their personal nature. It would be scary but hugely invigorating for the people involved and we’d all learn a lesson from watching it.

Role some bones

Why not try a ‘Dice Man’ approach to intellectual freedom?

In 1971, Luke Rhinehart wrote a kick-ass novel about a man who casts dice to make decisions. Sometimes they might be fairly trivial decisions such as what he should have for breakfast (but usually containing one or two undesirable options, introducing an element of Russian roulette into the game) or completely life-changing decisions such as whether he should leave his job or cheat on his wife that day.

The intellectual element is largely removed from the decision-making process so he gives himself over to chance and ceases to be ‘himself’. Instead he invents an all-new fractured, random self. You may not want to go this far but I recommend reading the book and its sequels any day of the week: again, it’s a hugely liberating model of living.

In The Dice Man, Rhinehart’s character (unsurprisingly a Freudian psychoanalyst) experiments with ‘dice therapy’: encouraging his troubled patients to live by the dice. If you’re looking for a flight from your own pedantic, predicable self it’s worth a shot.

Whichever approach you take to finding psychological sovereignty, the is one important thing to remember. The dandy/artist Sebastian Horsley probably put it most succinctly:

“Freedom is an internal achievement rather than an external adjustment.”