Josna Rege

227. The Commanding Self

In 1990s, Books, Childhood, India, Inter/Transnational, reading, Stories, United States on October 4, 2013 at 10:06 pm


As a girl of seven or eight, I remember thinking of myself as a serious person, like an adult, and of my peers as frivolous, interested in nothing but having fun. Of course, that perception was itself a sign of my immaturity, since no doubt my peers were thinking people too, whose happy-go-lucky self-presentations concealed their own fears and sorrows. I had a happy childhood, laughing, playing, and making mischief as children naturally do. But I also spent a great deal of time reading and thinking. Looking back at photographs of myself between the ages of one and ten, I often see a sober little face looking back at me, neither worried nor unhappy, but thoughtful. Even well into my teenage years most photographs show my face in repose.

Over the years, though, something changed. I can’t quite pinpoint when, but people who met me in high school in the United States remember me as a person who was always smiling and laughing. (Strange, because I think of myself at that time as having been full of doubt and turmoil.) Eventually that person—or rather, that persona—must have become a habit, because after a while I began to notice that my jaw was aching from being stretched continually into that toothy grin.

Martha Quest, the protagonist in Doris Lessing’s five-volume Children of Violence series, created such a persona in her young adulthood and spent a lifetime learning to set it aside. “Matty” was the life of the party,  a clown who didn’t seem to take herself seriously and invited everyone else to do the same. I came to realize that not only had I created a Matty of my own, but that she had taken over to the extent that I had almost forgotten how to recognize my own voice when it spoke to me.

A little more than ten years ago I participated in a series of faculty workshops on recovering one’s voice, both literally, as in learning how to breathe and project, and figuratively, as in feeling comfortable speaking extemporaneously in various academic settings. (Ironic, isn’t it, that so many professors, who spend much of their working lives lecturing to a classroom of students, feel strongly that they have lost their authentic voices, that they can no longer speak with full-throated ease?) In an early exercise, we were all asked to think of the animal that most closely resembled us, adopt the animal that first came to mind, and walk around the room interacting, as at a cocktail party, in the persona of that animal. To my dismay, the creature that presented itself to me was the hyena. Walking around the room consciously wearing the fixed smile that in recent years had come to wear me, forcibly brought home to me the strain of that constant pretense.

I associate the hyena with Tabaqui the jackal, that slinking sycophant in Kipling’s The Jungle Book who never approached anyone directly, but cringed and sucked up to power, snarling at the weak while positioned safely behind his master, Sher Khan. One humid, mosquito-infested night in West Bengal when I was about ten years old, I actually saw a hyena, a mangy creature skulking in the shadows. Our family and friends were camping overnight on the beach at Digha,  and it was drawn to our campfire. It was one of the most menacing-looking creatures I have ever seen, and I have never forgotten it.
Why was the decidedly unattractive hyena the first animal that came to mind? The so-called laughing hyena’s teeth-baring giggle is thought to be an ingratiating signal that it makes after being attacked, asking another hyena to desist, not to snatch the animal carcass it has between its teeth. Apparently, it often has the opposite effect, attracting the attention of others so that it is pursued all the more aggressively. Was my now-automatic grin also a defense mechanism that in fact had the opposite effect, making me more vulnerable rather than offering me any real protection?

The Commanding Self (1994) was the last book written by Idries Shah, Doris Lessing’s Sufi teacher. In a review of this book, Doris Lessing writes, “‘The Commanding Self’ is a Sufi technical term for the false personality, which is made up of what a culture puts into a person—parents, schools, the zeitgeist. This false self is an enemy which has to be recognized for what it is and then by-passed (not destroyed) if the Sufi understanding is to be received.” In The Four-Gated City, the  final volume of The Children of Violence, Martha finally learns to recognize “Matty” and allow herself to listen to the quiet wisdom of the Watcher, the self long overshadowed by that clowning persona.

What would happen if one learned to quiet the chatter, relax the rictus, and trust the self hidden behind it? I’m still trying to find out.

Teach me half the gladness
                That thy brain must know,
         Such harmonious madness
                From my lips would flow
The world should listen then, as I am listening now.
—from To A Skylark, by Percy Bysshe Shelley
  1. “What would happen if one learned to quiet the chatter, relax the rictus, and trust the self hidden behind it? I’m still trying to find out.” I find this extremely challenging Josna. My voice has been at the centre of what I have done for over thirty years. Strange how when you get older you question the very things you communicated. For me age has definitely made me more discerning of the The Commanding Self and all it’s motivations behind its communications. Not always nice to look at. Thanks for sharing this and for being so open and vulnerable.

    • Thank you for this, Don. What you say about our questioning what we said so insistently in our youth rings true for me–and perhaps as importantly, the way that we said it, as if there were no other truth, no other perspective than our own. And yes, I was certainly less self-aware of my underlying motivations. Now, although I am more attentive to these matters, I haven’t necessarily stopped behaving in the way I’ve so long been in the habit of acting, but just notice it more quickly; unfortunately, only after I’ve said something that does more harm than good. I suppose that’s some kind of progress, but it’s very slow!

  2. Jojo, I found this one of the most endearing of all your pieces. I have always known you were a deep thinker and also that you frequently question your own motives and goals and I find that admirable to a certain extent but also want to encourage you to come to an appreciation of what an interesting and wonderful person you are. Through your now many stories in this blog you have presented many aspects of a personality who is both exceptional and appealing and delightful, your doubts notwithstanding!
    Needless to say, I count myself very fortunate to be one of your long-time friends and fans for life!

    • Thank you for your confidence in me, Marianne, and for giving me the sweetest possible admonition. Perhaps self-doubt can itself become a habit! xo J

  3. interesting about the hyena’s smile being a sign of submission. I read that the chimpanzee’s smile is a sign of aggression. I understand myself at odd moments but I can’t always take that information and make use of it to change things for the better.

    • Yes, at first I assumed that the tooth-baring only looked like a laugh to humans, but was in fact a sign of aggression. But apparently not, at least for the “laughing” hyena.
      And yes, I understand myself in flashes and am able to make use of those insights only sporadically. From your writing, though, I feel that you know yourself very well, and make constructive use of that understanding much more consistently. Thank you for your comment–I’ve missed reading a few of your most recent entries due to commitments at my end. Looking forward to my next chance to catch up.

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