Ida-Verné Stanfield

On Severalness


ISSUE 29 | FACES AND MASKS | JUN 2013

Surrounded by infinitely multiplying urns, the deaths of all we have created, once vivid beneath our faces, I need to protect myself from similar ends. The promise of the face in the mirror is a singular self in whose singularity lies the parameters of a singular death, a physical death, one that I can guard against. Not this aching sense of multiplicity, of several selves living in the limen between I and all the you’s that make up my life. No, that’s not right. They do not exist in the limen, but are the limen themselves, a place to dwell when there is no place else. And there never seems to be any place else, just this hell of assuming a different self, depending on whom I am with, because inside me there is nothing but emptiness. And as each self lives, each has its own personal end, which I must endure when estranged from the Other in whom it has its source. If I go on living fragmented by all these selves, these boundaries, these faces, their number obscured beneath the face in the mirror, the mask of physicality, if I go on dying all their individual deaths, remain standing despite the weight of successive collapse, the implosion of potential as I watch my life shrink, when or will I ever be able to say this is who I am, rather than this is who I am willing to be? Shouldn’t I, mustn’t I, retreat back into myself, my “one authentic self,” the one whose essence is innocence and insight, who sees the Janus nature of human relations without having tripped into that sin myself? Is it a contradiction to know without having fallen? Is it a delusion to think myself a fundamental truth, rather than a made thing, made things, a person rather than a moment, a great “I Am” rather than a mere “I am here”? For the sake of sincerity, for the sake of only dying once and thus, for the sake of a real life before death, don’t I need to be just one thing?

But which thing: daughter, friend or associate? And then, am I essentially a daughter as understood by my mother, my father, or my stepfather? A friend as understood by which friend? An associate to which colleague, or familiar acquaintance? Choosing one, the most fundamental: Who am I to my mother, and is that me my “real” self? To her I am proof of all the individuality she struggled for, evidence she attained it, evidence she understood it well enough to try to teach it. I am her nervous and over-dutiful daughter, a reflection of herself in her youth. I am irrefutably odd. I am compassionate and over-sensitive. I am tightly-wound, strong-willed, and mildly insane. We’ve built this interpretation together and I maintain my end as far as is reasonable and possible. She may have seen my cruelty, but she has not seen and will not see the worst of it. Most people won’t, though it is a very real impulse. She has not seen me let loose and get wild in a manner suiting my age. It might change her sense of me as improbably neurotic or maybe not; maybe she already assumes this is the case come weekends. Despite having endured me as a teenager, she has not seen me express frustration as heedless pettiness. If she had seen all these impulses, these options, she would see a different person when she looks at me, though my mask remains the same. It isn’t deceitful not to act on these options when I am with her. It’s honest as anything could be, for she is a context, which inspires and shapes the self I am around her, the self I am for her. That self is a conjecture really; who I could be, considering certain givens. Moreover, when she is gone, her view of the traits that only she is in a position to see—how my determination to overcome my shyness mirrors her struggle to do the same when she was my age—goes with her, as does her particular conception of traits that other people have also been privy to see. When she is gone, the self I was for her dies and cannot be recovered. It gets buried with her, alongside the remains of the selves she saw of her parents, her siblings and her friends. Her physical face, her mask, will cover them all, and indeed already covers a few of them—the face of my father, the face of her mother, and the face of a stepson who died before I was born. They are gone and the visages of them, which belong to Mum, are buried behind her face, irrecoverable and unexplainable. Indeed, they mingle with the still living visages of herself. In turn, my own face will conceal one of her selves, the one that I knew her as, the mom that she and I built together. There, behind my mask, the liminal space between others and myself will become more and more an urn, where the ashes of the dead will color the words I use with the living, not unlike a kind of Holi.1

But is my mother’s daughter my essential self? It overlaps with but is still very different from C’s friend or R’s lover. More importantly, the contexts are different. What I mean to and how I am interpreted by C is very different from what I mean to and how I am interpreted by my mom, even when there is an overlap between apparent traits. Knowing this and having a sense of their differing perspectives influences how I further contribute to building these selves. This is especially true with respect to R, who, as we are long estranged from each other, carries around one of my selves, dead as a result of the distance, as I carry around one of his. From the outside, it’s not possible that Mom, C, and R see the exact same self when they look at me. From the inside, the conjecture I make of myself is different with each of them. What I am capable of, what I want to be capable of, and the reasons behind both are very different. The number and nature of the potential trajectories of my life depend on the people I have the privilege of building selves with. Even within the context of one person, these trajectories evolve over time as the Other, like myself, engages with more people, collects their dead visages, and dies again and again himself.

You ask, isn’t there or can’t there be someone who knows me well enough to see a single person, identical with herself, who endures across time and the differing contexts of her life? Leaving off recourse to a god2, it’s not likely. We’d still have to build that self together, and even assuming the Other was uncommonly observant and I was completely open, there would still be unreachable places, options which would not arise, and reasons for my acting or not acting that would be rooted so deep that their atavistic grunts couldn’t be understood by us. Furthermore, that self, like all the rest, would exist as the limen, between the mask of my face, an object of the world, and the inner void. Any complete view would have to take into account that void, which can only be approached by an individual, confronting herself, not another.


These things being stated, in unsteady moments I wish that omniscient, objective eye were possible, and I wish it were mine. In these moments, I feel a dizziness not unlike Kierkegaard’s in The Concept of Anxiety. There he describes the dread that anticipates a person’s self-aware participation in the world. This dread is a disquiet that exists when a person lives in a childlike innocence - the ignorance of moral consequence - and, living there, feels a sense of boundless possibility. Alas, the actualization of this possibility, an actualization that the person longs for as much as they hate, can only happen at the expense of innocence that gave birth to it. That is, it can only happen, when a person leaps into sin. Kierkegaard says there is no going back, but I offer a slightly different opinion.

What if the void in my core is the ignorance in which a person begins, and, in which I then, like everyone, begin again and again with the birth of each one of my selves? And what if each self is a conjecture, the possibility of possibility, the tremulous promise of consequence and knowledge? Then would Kierkegaard’s leap into sin be my leap into the, however transient, embodiment of my face, which being a mask can’t ever be but a lie, a sin against authenticity? That is, to embody my face is to momentarily embrace one self from my multitude of selves, while every memory of prior moments brings with it the knowledge that I am more than that occasion offers and more than my face can ever portray. Yet this leap is necessary as it is because of the resulting sense of inauthenticity that I begin to understand how many I really am. It is because of that sin that I begin to divine the complexity that lies behind every other face, and how none of us can help but wear a mask.

Yet still, death. The moment dies, the relationship that built it dies, one way or another, and the self dies with it. And I am afraid, for it is death. In the terror of living amidst so much death, I am sometimes tempted to reach not for the mortal Other, but for the eternal and the essential - a soul, if you will - and when it becomes apparent that I will never find that, I attempt to ignore the contribution of the Other, so that I may pretend that he cannot contribute to the construction of a self, thus sparing me that self’s end. It is here that I delude myself and begin to believe that I can be a single self entirely of my own making. I believe I have become new, that fabled person who understands her one self completely, and who understands the sin of the mask without leaping into it (or so she tells herself). I become she who, conceiving of death as a singularity, can objectify the void within and pretend it is an external nothingness to be repelled. But this is a problem, because in the process of running from the void, I lose sight of it’s being the innocence that every sinner longs for, the innocence that one returns to at the birth of each new self. For though the inner void mirrors the end that will swallow up each and every self, it is still the space of non-being on the edges of which possibility takes shape. To deny my multitude would be to deny the conditions for renewed innocence. Insofar as the path to knowledge begins in the ignorance of innocence, then it is only through embracing the several that one may approach any sense of understanding. Thus results a paradox: That one must embrace the face for all its falsity, so as to ever recognize it as a mask, and in this way free herself to explore the many living beneath it, and between it and the nothingness at her core.


1 The colors of the dead: Black and blue for relationships whose abrupt dissolutions taught me to grow cold. Blinding white for the ecstasy of loving someone and being loved, flaws and all. The melodious gray scale for lessons in how to recognize the subtleties of a situation or a person. Bright red for friends who appeared in my life like red envelopes for the Lunar New Year, their presence a gift of good times. Evergreen and cream for natural moments that didn’t take effort, or even thought. French violet for all the happy silences, and the wordless communication therein.

2 Wouldn’t that just end the investigation when it’s only just getting interesting, only just getting challenging?