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Philosophy & Literature

Don Quixote & Narrative Identity

Inês Pereira Rodrigues asks, are we always (or ever) who we say we are?

At some point in life, I venture to guess, we’ve all had suspicions about who someone claimed to be, being unconvinced by their story. There would have been something about how they presented themselves or the situation they were telling us about that was just not believable. Or perhaps we’ve watched, disconcerted, as someone we know well claimed to be the kind of person we’re quite sure they’re not.

The theory of ‘narrative identity’ tries to answer the question of how persons maintain their identity through time. It proposes that who we are is constituted by or formed from the stories we tell about ourselves. We make sense of the events and occurrences in our lives through story-telling, by weaving them into a coherent narrative, making ourselves the protagonists and assigning some supporting roles, and many extras. We make sense of who we are by telling this story to ourselves: our sense of self emerges – or so says French philosopher and literary critic Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) in his 1992 book Oneself as Another. Among other things, it would mean that who we are, our identity, is not already given: we are not already essentially determined as being this or that person, as if our identity were a substantial core fully formed at (or before) birth that remained the same as we change through our lives in more superficial ways. Instead, it means that who we are is a continuous work of self-interpretation, which we both make and discover through these stories. This work of becoming is ongoing through our self-story-telling.

The question that immediately arises, for me, anyway, is: What happens when we’re not reliable narrators of our own lives? – which I would argue is quite often (at least). There are many times we amplify our role in events, or omit some aspects of what we did, either because we remember it that way or because we want to present ourselves in a certain light, even to ourselves. And we have a limited perspective: on the one hand, we see everything in a first-person way and so we are always centre stage (though we may sometimes share the spotlight), but in a vaster sense, we are not transparent to ourselves, and many times we wouldn’t want to be. We are not even aware of many of the undercurrents to our behaviours, responses and emotions. How many times have we surprised ourselves with the strength of our reaction to something? How many times have we slapped our foreheads months after some emotional turmoil, when we realise ‘That’s what was going on with me!’?

If we accept the narrative identity proposal, what happens to the self in these situations of self-delusion or self-opacity? If who we are is formed through our stories, but our stories are not always accurate, or maybe even believable, are we still who we say we are in them? Am I still the person I narrate myself to be even in cases where it is blatant that I could not be that person?

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Cesare Detti

Don Quixote’s Fantastic Self-Narrative

There are many fictional examples of faulty self-narratives. Don Quixote (1605) by Miguel de Cervantes provides a great one. The main character, an aristocratically-minded old man of little means, is so captivated by old books of knighthood and chivalry that he decides to become a knight himself. Finding himself in a Spain where there were no longer any knights in armour, and where those old tales were perhaps already as quaint and romantic as Quixote’s own is to us now, Quixote adorns himself with improvised homemade armour and helmet. He mounts his skinny horse, and, accompanied with his servant Sancho Panza, rides off looking for giants and other foes to combat by sword. He introduces himself everywhere he goes as a knight, and speaks of his mission as being to conquer adversity and seek adventure, and to woo the heart of his (quickly chosen and named) Dulcinea.

Don Quixote presents himself as someone improbable. So, in the theory of narrative identity, is Don Quixote who he claims to be? Here we are talking about the reality of personal identity: how can we determine the truth about someone – if we even can?

Ricoeur defends his theory by saying that truth in narrative self-identity is not when a narrative description corresponds to a state of affairs. Our identity, at least in the personal identity sense of ‘being someone in particular’, is not something that’s there static and waiting, which we can verify or confirm, and then profess some final judgement over: “Yes, it is her!” or “No, it isn’t her!” To speak truly of who I am is not the same as saying “This is red”, or “The cat is on the mat”. Rather, who we are is continuously developing, always forming. We reinterpret ourselves as we understand our self under new lights, in new events and situations. And so the truth about ourselves is also open to change.

Moreover, the stories we tell are always told to others, whether our interlocutors are real or imagined. Therefore (projected) others are always an intrinsic part of the constitution of one’s own self. Others – whether they appear as part of ourselves or as actual other people – are instrumental in the truth of ourselves because when we tell a story about who we are it has to be credible: not only concerning what I say, but how I say it, and what I say by it. When I tell you I am honest, or hardworking, or faithful, or even just that I am a philosophy researcher, it’s my actions that will make this account credible or not. Further, when I attest to who I am, I’m not just saying it, I am committing to it: when I say that I’m faithful, I am telling you not only that this is who I have been, I’m also tacitly promising that this is who I will be. Narratives about oneself are both testimonies and promises.

That our self-narratives are promises is an important part of the particular selves that we are. According to narrative identity theory, personal identity is assured not just by the coherence of my stories and the persistence of my character over time, but also by what Ricoeur calls ‘constancy’. This means that I maintain myself as I’ve said I am, or that I will take responsibility when I commit actions in which I no longer recognise myself. The kind of identity which requires both action and responsibility is specific to selves.

Thinking back to Don Quixote now: he doesn’t just claim to be a knight, he acts like one. He fights valiantly, shows courage, protects the weak in his path, and defends his honour. If his declaration of his knighthood was a promise, he kept it. Also, at the end of the story, Quixote takes responsibility for his actions even when he no longer recognises himself in them and is embarrassed. In this sense, he ‘maintains himself’ in terms of his story of himself. So, although we can certainly take issue with some of Quixote’s delusional accounts of the world around him, those aspects that are most questionable in his narrative are not the most essential; they don’t change in any important way who he is.

It is an interesting dimension of this idea of identity that it requires the trust and belief of others. It’s a theory of personal identity built on fragility and error.

Judith Butler makes this point eloquently as she proposes an ethics based on the limits of self-knowing in Giving an Account of Oneself (2005). She reminds us that we’re only able to give second-hand accounts of parts of our story, such as our birth or the first years of our lives. There are others we will not be able to narrate at all, such as our death. But there are also many conflicting accounts, even by our own voice, even for the stretch of life in which we’ve been relatively awake and conscious. We are always trying to make sense of ourselves; always revising and editing our story.

Retell Your Own Story

All of us are entangled in narratives by which we try, over and over, to make sense of ourselves. We use the cultural narratives available to us, the narratives of others, and the fictional accounts we come across, to invent and try out who we might be. In this way, finding ourselves through make-believe stories, and pretending to be someone while being or learning to be that person all the while, we are not so different from Don Quixote. The lies we tell about ourselves to ourselves or others, through these make-believe or want-to-believe stories, these characters we create for ourselves, do not sit in opposition to what could be the truth about who we are. Instead, the lies exist on our way to the truth.

Another way in which we are all not so different from Don Quixote is in sharing the desire to give one final answer about who we are: to say “I am the kind of person who is like this”, where ‘this’ is a final, completed way of being. We present ourselves as ‘an academic’, ‘a parent’, ‘a busy professional’, ‘a sports aficionado’, and so on, and we do so as if these facets wholly defined us. We like presenting ourselves as finished and polished, decided, ready for printing – a completed character. As we do so, all the other parts of ourselves – all that we are and have been – just sit oddly in the corner, waiting for the chance to make a mess of our tidy narrative. In short, we seem to want to deny ourselves our own selfhood, to deny the kind of identity that makes us not just a thing that can be defined by a list of qualities, but a unique kind of being which is continuously made in its own self-discovery. To be a self is to be in search of ourselves, and it is in this very telling and retelling of this discovery that we are who we are, that we make and find ourselves. To understand this for ourselves is also to recognise it for others; to understand that every person is also making sense of their own stories and will not have a full and final answer to who they are. So our recognition of others can be made via the readability and reliability of their accounts, but also via an empathic acceptance of the limitations and possible revisions of their own story. To claim one’s identity shouldn’t mean having to meet standards of certainty and irreversibility. We should be allowed changes and revision notes, and allow for them in others, too.

© Inês Pereira Rodrigues 2024

Inês Pereira Rodrigues is a Philosophy researcher at Praxis – Centre of Philosophy, Politics and Culture (University of Beira Interior), and at the Centre of Philosophy and Gender (Portugal).

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