Identity, Maslow, Desire, Cheap Means of Self-Esteem

Today’s social fuel is identity. I’m not sure why it hasn’t been more clear why we insist on, and sometimes fight vehemently about some sort of identity or other, but it is certain that we mostly can’t stop fussing and tweaking at it. Is it really anything at all? Is it actually just entirely subjective? Is there anything especially important about maintaining and defending a particular identity?
Years ago I took an anthropology course, back when I was trying to identify as a scholar or an intellect, the course taught us that the concept of race is scientifically defunct. What we think of as race is really just a function of over-valuing minor variation usually resulting from too small a sample an individual can compare the breadth of variation with. In other words, we generally don’t have enough people in our lives to really clearly see that people vary on a grade and that when you have enough people they don’t seem to pool into clear groups of black, brown, yellow, or white. In further words, there are more colors, and there are many intermediate shades. What we end up thinking of as race is very often actually only cultural, what we end up thinking meaningful—food, language influences, religion—are really nothing but the fun diversity of life. So there you have it, there is no such thing as race. This speaks nothing about the many great swaths of people who identify as some particular group or other. This they do despite science and despite knowing better because people are loopy about their desires and personal interests (and preferences and expectations and self-image). I contend that much of this is overblown and we spend far too much of our time—especially when young—entirely too worried about it. And of course being incredibly fickle creatures we often shift our allegiances with our chosen sets of identifiers.
Some time back I was thinking of a game of choosing images that represent us. I thought a limit of five would be fine, and not spend too much time on it but pick favorite images. I also reviewed some of what Maslow had to say about human nature. Once you get past the requirements for staying alive (food and shelter) the rest of it gets more interesting. The social level of the hierarchy is next and includes all those things that seem to make us gregarious animals. We after all need to feel loved, and like we belong to some group or other (this is all that identity stuff I’m riffing on). Then the next level is the part that can really create issues, the ego. Here is where the individual starts demanding recognition and starts garnering prestige—at least when things aren’t going necessarily very well. Many of us desire a kind of power, and I’d go so far as to add trust. We want our voices to carry portent. Many folks just assume they do, and this always amuses me. So many folks, especially since, the advent of the internet and the ability to reach so many without much more effort than making a free website (like this one you’re reading).
At the very top of the hierarchy is a kind of unexpected thing. It entirely makes sense to me as I desperately feel like the world is flying by me when I don’t partake. This need is one sometimes referred to as self-actualization and it is manifested as a desire for intellectual growth, development, and creativity. People actually need to work and feel accomplishment, even when it seems so many do nothing but watch others do things through the variety of media sources as well as other forms of entertainment, like sports, or concerts.
The five images I tacked to my wall were as follows: 1. representing my martial interests, and the moment of violent decision taken in the famous Kurosawa film Seven Samurai, this is a photo of the lead samurai Kambei played by the terrific Takashi Shimura charging the villagers with his sword. They were rebelling and this moment brought them back into line to defend their village. Their fear is understandable, the bandits are well armed, and strong, and they are not trained, and have a low chance for success. Kambei loses his temper just this once, and it is enough to impress the rebels. I often wonder if I have this capacity. When people walk away from my enterprises I rarely consider force as an option. Of course, I’m rarely in a position of life and death either. 2. Sonny Sharrock playing a big jazz-box of a guitar. Sharrock died quite a long while back and is probably best known for his blistering lead work on the Space Ghost Coast to Coast theme, but he was a jaw-droppingly innovative and creative musician who had developed a way to make the guitar behave like a saxophone, which is an instrument he meant to play, but ended up playing guitar. I read that at one point after having played with the likes of Miles Davis and a variety of other impressive stars of jazz he was working as a chauffeur for children at a private school. He’d stopped doing music and became this rather shoe-shine level laborer. It wasn’t until a musical friend of his realized where he was that he was revived and put back where he belonged. Blowing people’s minds with his incredible guitar work. I dreamed about him one time. In the dream he had me working on a harpsichord (an instrument I’ve never touched nor been interested in) because, he said, it would help me develop my knowledge. I also love his story because of the hope that is contained in great skill. He could have gone to waste, but his powers helped raise him out of the morass. 3. It is just a photo of Monty Python (‘s Flying Circus) in their heyday. They are young and accomplished, doctors and lawyers among them, but beyond that shockingly hilarious writers and performers who worshiped the Goons (the comedy troop including Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Harry Secombe) before them. It’s one of those fantastic things. I found them entirely accidentally as a grade school kid. We couldn’t receive much PBS where we lived, and so I only saw them when I rode my bike up to a friend’s house (Sean Harrington) who shared a love of guitars, and whose folks made beautiful pottery on a lovely property that I wish I had. He also had two gorgeous older sisters that I worshiped. We’d make crazy masks in the pottery studio and watch Monty Python. I still recall the very first skit I saw involving sheep nesting in trees and trying to fly. I also adored their seventh unofficial Python member Carol Cleveland who was not above showing a bit of leg and being saucy in various skits. The show was absurdist and I realized that that was my idea of humor. I have no idea to this day why that kind of humor resonates with me and absolutely not puns and slapstick, but it is the case. Taste is a function of familiarity and desire, I believe, and so I wanted to be more like Cleese, Chapman, Idle, Palin, Jones, and Gilliam (the American) much more than I wanted to be like the Three Stooges for example. Soon I’d find out about Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A film I’d desperately try to memorize whenever it occurred on Public Broadcasting. It’d always be very late, and very hard for me to dial in on our shitty black and white box I’d perch on my knees to hold onto the loop. These days, of course, I have at least two copies of it, but I have not forgotten the grail-like quality of that movie. 4. So many of these photos are from movies. And this next one is no exception. It is a behind the scenes still from the old Creature From the Black Lagoon movie. And while there are dozens of possible shots of Julie Adam’s lovely legs swimming with the monster, my picture is of the monster and a stand-in in a passionate embrace, actually kissing. This is of course a statement of nothing but sweet sexuality and little more. You don’t need to know. I fear too often we leave sexuality behind as something that we cannot handle. We’d rather not know that we are wired for sexuality and that it is one of Maslow’s needs. It’s just not stipulated as such. Sex is necessary and beautiful and clumsy, and sometimes quite awkward, but I won’t have it lied about, or debased. Without it you’re likely to be insane. 5. Henry Miller smoking at his desk. Already an old fellow, and having lived a life of mostly unrecognized poverty, I love Miller. I don’t always love his outlook or his stories. I am sometimes left surprised at how low he paints himself. But as time has gone by my love for him his blossomed. Originally I considered him unreliable and uninteresting, but I was a silly kid. It took becoming a grown man to realize his genius of tell all narrative. Also, and this cannot be overstated. He’s a senior to almost everyone we loved in the twentieth century. He’d out-Kerouac’d old Jack long before Jack was able to tie his shoes. The beatnics were kids to him. He was more than a generation older than Burroughs for crying out loud. He walked the world’s major cities and forced himself at the tables of so many people, he even traveled to NC and spoke admiringly of the underclassed blacks here. He wasn’t always benign and delightful, but his fearlessness and devotion to the writing arts is still inspiring. He even speaks of driving around Narragansett, Rhode Island and playing with ladies he found there, while my grandparents were nursing at their mothers’ teats. It’s a considerable body of descriptive work, most of it autobiographical and much of it having been banned at some point or other for being ferociously open about sex.
So that’s it my five images of what I hope to Identify with, and not a scientist among them. I suppose I see science as an occupation, and don’t think of it as a hero’s landing place. Certainly there have been stunning examples of incredible scientists who have changed the world from Darwin to Fleming to Borlaug and educators and popularizers from Einstein to Sagan and beyond. But frankly they don’t stimulate me the way the artists do. I respect Snodgrass’s work on the morphology and physiology of the insects. I respect efforts of hard working scientists, but I think of them as mechanics. I’m a mechanic too. Doctors especially are mechanics. And maybe if I allowed ten photos I’d have a few mechanics in there. Academics like artists of all sorts from visual to musical to martial are often boxes of broken cookies emotionally. And maybe I unfairly impugn their personalities unfairly as they should know better. Their grasping for the self-esteem of Maslow’s hierarchy seems worsened by them even knowing who Maslow was. I don’t forgive them their clamoring for the stage.
In the end identity seems a bit superfluous and is obviously not something you can just declare. You are what you do. No despot famous for the murder of his citizens can claim to be a peacenik and no draft-dodger a fearless hero under fire. Just work, just do, and eventually you’ll forget all about your all important identity.

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