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Self, tense

Let’s talk a bit about the grammar of the self, shall we?

As a(n assistant) language teacher, you spend a lot more time thinking about grammar than most people. Clauses and tenses are less automatic.

I realized just now that, barring narrative or a lower-level English student, there is only one tense that is really appropriate for talking about oneself: the present continuous. There is only one voice: active. There is only one mood: indicative.

To speak of a time other than the present, even in the first person, is to speak of someone else. The self, the self now (or now, or now, or now…) is only in the present. The past is who you were (or, more likely, who you want to have been). The future is who you might be. They are different people. Every moment you are destroyed and recreated (it’s not impossible to step into the same river twice because the river is different; it’s impossible because you are different). The past is another country, and another person lives(/d) there. (Really, really, even if the rest of this doesn’t make sense to you, or you disregard it: think of a foolish thing you’ve done out of ignorance. Would you do it again? The same person would, but you are a different person, who learned from that experience, and you know better.) Now, now is when are doing the thing that makes you you. Now is when you are choosing.

And only the continuous will do. You don’t live. Either you are living, or you are not living. I don’t write (really, I don’t), but I am writing. I am studying Japanese. I am learning to teach English. I am scratching my head. Either it’s happening now, or it’s not happening. Now matters. Now always matters. Now is when it is all happening.

Or, rather, now is when I am happening. I imagine Nietzsche as a grammarian would have been very against the passive voice, and Sartre too. The passive voice lets in words like someone, puts objects in the place of people, pretends there are actions without actors. To say “something is happening to me” is to deny (for a sentence, for a moment, now) your culpability for what you are doing, to retreat from the responsibility that is choosing, is doing, is being.

And that responsibility means there can be no question, no what-if, no I’d-rather. There can be no command (at, least, no command can be accepted; and how could you command when you couldn’t obey?).

To say “I am this thing” or “I am this adjective”, “I do this thing” is to lie, to tell a story about a permanent self that does not exist, a self of attributes, of habits, of definitions. But the only real self is the self now, the self who is reading, who is breathing, who is … what?

The self is doing, or the self will not do.

Filed by shaun at September 3rd, 2010 under indifferenthonest

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