Being “nobody-but-yourself”

This bit of advice from e.e.cummings made me think. (h/t Maria Popova).

A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words.

This may sound easy. It isn’t.

A lot of people think or believe or know they feel — but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling — not knowing or believing or thinking.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

e.e.cummings, from “A Poet’s Advice to Students” in A Miscellany, Revised

It made me think of several things.

The first was Cyril Connolly’s quote about it being better to write for oneself and have no public, than write for one’s public and have no self.

The second was Mark Ronson’s TED talk about sampling, and the quality difference he mentions between the good (an artist sampling but injecting something of themselves into the music to create something new and of its time) and bad (pastiche).

And the third was a 2×2 matrix Harold Jarche shared recently:

All of the above all concern the struggle to be “nobody-but-yourself”. In the face of “a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else” and to make you a “consumer”, it feels very easy to follow the crowd and feel like you are “losing yourself”, rather like the subjects in Asch’s conformity experiments.

I think, though, that that struggle to be “nobody-but-yourself” is not, as bleeds into the worlds of knowing and thinking and believing, perhaps more so given today’s technology. Being “nobody-but-yourself” does not mean you cannot read other people’s ideas and agree with them, in the same way that being a musician does not mean you cannot listen to other people’s songs and sample them.

In the world of the arts, my guess is that e.e.cummings would have approved of Ronson’s suggestion to tackle that sense of self-loss and pastiche by unapologetically injecting yourself, and your feelings, into the things you love. In the worlds of knowing, thinking, and believing, my guess is that we should be unapologetically injecting questions into the ideas we love to fight that “hardest battle”.

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