Convenient fictions

As a fictional character, I can’t help but wonder how many real people in the world are fictional like me.

No, that is not sarcasm, or condemnation, but a real question.

To make my case, very crudely, otherwise it will be a book, not a blog:

Many Asian cultures differentiate between public self and private self.

The Japanese make a sharp distinction on this front. They accept the idea that the private shelf that is shared with friends can be radically different for the one shared with business associates which may be different again from the one shared with strangers.

This is played out in social customs of doing things such as holding business meetings over drinks, where one can lets one’s hair down and discuss matters (indirectly, of course) as friends instead of co-workers. There are even culturally established norms for acting drunk and who you should and should not act drunk in front of. So someone who among friends appears to be so drunk that they can barely stand may suddenly seem very sober if the boss or spouse calls them on the phone. Unless, of course they really are plastered and not just politely drunk.

The Chinese make this splitting of selves obvious in their zodiac. Most of us know the Chinese New Year and the animals associated with the years. To be born in a specific year associates you with a specific sign and determines certain aspects of your personality. What many people don’t realize is that there are also animals associated with the month, and with the exact time of birth. The last one is as complicated as trying to calculate star signs in the Western tradition, where you need the exact time and location to calculate the positions of the stars and moon and the like. So each person has three signs too represent them. They may all be the same, but more likely they are different.

For example, my year is wood dragon, but my month is water rat, and, as near as I can figure without a professional, my time of birth is wood rat.

The three signs interact to determine personalities, which is why people are all unique and not so easily grouped into twelve categories of personality. If you add all the factors that can contribute to the signs, there are something like 800,000 possible combinations. Yes, I made that number up. It is probably much higher when you figure in intermediary influencers like the day, the specific alignment of the stars, and all that stuff.

The yearly sign is the public face you wear, and since cultural attitudes do tend to cycle with generations, there may very well be some truth to the cycle, who knows? But the yearly sign is modified by the other two.

The monthly sign is the face you show to your close circle of friends and family. In the social sense, it is the real you. The real you. That means that public face is not the real you. So then what is it? It is a convenient fiction, a face you are expected to present in public, through which your real self interfaces through the world, but in mediated form. Part of the cycle of life is trying to slowly make the shift that brings the talents of the private self to the fore, while still maintaining the public self as is expected of you.

So then, if we have the public self and private self covered, then what is the third sign? The third sign is your secret self. It is the self you share with no one, and the self you strive to be. In a sense, it is also a true self, but it is one that is not shared, and one you may not even be aware of, but it influences how your other two selves interact with each other and with the world.

If we want to talk about it in Freudian terms, we will fail … but we can make pretend that these three match to superego, ego, and id respectively. For those who know their Freud, hopefully you can see the fail point in this description, but also how it is useful. The public self is the socially determined self, the private self is the personally determined self, and the secret self is the underlying motivation that may or may not be clear to the person in question.

But the primary point of these two examples is that in both of them there is a public sphere / private sphere distinction in which the public sphere is where you are expected to behave according to specific social norms, only taking the mask off in private. Want some fun? Try getting a newly met Japanese friend to take their mask off. Just don’t get pushy and offend them.

This explicitly acknowledged division is lacking in much of Western culture. Unless you are a rugged New Englander, firmly of the opinion that what goes on behind closed doors has nothing to do with your private face (which is why Boston probably has more liquor stores than bars, and no strip joints but a color supplement in the Yellow Pages for call girls) you are raised to think that people are who they are. This creates an interesting conflict of personality when people feel that they are not who they are in public, because it is something that according to Freud is definitely a neurotic state. This is an interesting assertion in the Victorian age, which was all about suppressing the true self.

So anyway, what I am saying here is that we are all convenient fictions, personalities created for interacting with the world through whatever mode we prefer to interact with it in. Just some of us are more aware of it, or more open about it, than others. 

Our public selves exist to interface with the public. They may not be who we perceive ourselves to be, but who we must be in order to operate. Every living, breathing person is, in their own way, a convenient fiction.

So what about me? I am a fiction. Am I also a convenient fiction? Or am I closer to my true self than I could ever be by being a real person? 

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