Writing prose, anything goes (pt I)

21 06 2010

I’m very hard-working for one so lazy.

And analytical, for one so emotional. Ditto excitable and nonplussed, enthusiastic and apathetic, ambitious and resigned, arrogant and doubtful, ignorant and well-read, watchful and impatient, attentive and brusque, orderly and chaotic, disciplined and scattered, impetuous and thoughtful, collegial and contrary, motivated and inertial.

It’s not that I’m unique in my dichotomies, but I am certainly of the type that veers toward one end or another. Some of us are naturally moderate; some of us are. . . not.

Temperament has popped up fairly regularly on this blog, and against all expectation: I don’t know how much I thought about it before I began blogging (or before I passed the midpoint of my life).  And I’m not sure what to make of it.

I think it’s a real phenomenon, but I’m uncomfortable giving the concept (completely) over to psychology. I’m not anti-psychology, especially in the psychotherapeutic realm, but my eyes thin at some of the grander, i.e., more reductionist, claims of the field. To the extent that psychology has modeled itself on the physical sciences, it has, like all non-physical sciences, lost sight of its subject.

(I think this is even a problem with the biological sciences, although much less; that’s another post.)

I used to joke with my grad school therapist that she spoke psychology to me and I, philosophy to her, and most of the time we managed to make ourselves understood to one another. So I guess that as much as I recognize the psychological aspect of temperament, I’d like to preserve, perhaps even privilege,  its practical-philosophical dimension.

What is it to be one way rather than another? How adaptable are we? What is temperament’s relationship to character?

How I am now is not how I always was—no surprise, given that I’ve aged—but I’ve also wondered how durable is my who-ness. Circumstances matter—it’s highly doubtful a woman from the lower-middle classes could have earned a PhD even a hundred years ago—but would I have been as driven by ideas? Would an 18th or 19th century version of me be recognizable to me, or would I have gotten married and had kids and been more like my contemporaries than is the 20-21st century version?

Or what if I hadn’t fallen off a cliff in my early teens? I had been a happy, hopeful, outgoing, and optimistic child; those traits shriveled in darkness of my depression. I broke, and broke with who I had been.

What emerged was not unknown to me—I think those characteristics had been running through me, submerged, before—but did they cause that break? Did they only emerge afterward?

Could it all—could I—have been different?

Of course—so much is dependent upon circumstances.

And of course not, because I can recognize in the memory of that sunny child traits which I see today: the dichotomies, the conflicts and contradictions, the poles to which I was always drawn.

I’m an adult now, past the sunshine and no longer living so obstinately in the dim, living in that middle space which was never my natural home.

I am unmoored; I need new poles.