“I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;

My friends forsake me like a memory lost:

I am the self-consumer of my woes—

They rise and vanish in oblivious host,

Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes

And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed”

This is the opening stanza of John Clare’s rather crushing nineteenth century song of the self, which I read, animatedly, as part of a ‘Speech and Drama’ examination when I was about fourteen years old. I’ve never forgotten it, in particular that first line: “I am—yet what I am, none cares nor knows”. Somehow the tension in meaning between the two lonely auxiliaries of “I am” and “what I am” has never ceased to bother me. I have this preoccupation with the idea that you can “be” without really knowing what you “are” and that life is sort of a daily exercise in trying to reconcile this disjunction. It’s as if there is two slightly mismatched layers to existence: the ill fitting, liable to unravel, granny-knitted jumper (“what I am”) bunched over the undeniable, organic, pulsating body (the immutable “I am”).

Let me try and hash this out into some semblance of sense. Most of us will have had, with some degree of frequency, a breed of the following thoughts: “I don’t want to be the kind of person who…” or “I don’t think that’s very ‘me’…” or “God, I hate it when I…” What do we mean when we say these things? It sounds a bit contrived, having this ‘idea’ of yourself that you set store by, despite the fact it doesn’t always match up with the way you act.

I’m not trying to be fatuous. Of course it makes sense that most people set themselves goals with their self-professions – “I am a kind person, I would never be disloyal, I like to be spontaneous” – and then only fulfil them inconsistently, when and how they can. What interests me is the measure of the gap between the “me” that I am in principle and the “me” that I act out every day, or that others would describe. It seems increasingly like life is a sort of stand off between what you believe about yourself and the reality, a fight to the death (literally) between ideology and the pitfalls of the daily grind. It is human nature, certainly, to get up each morning and say, “I am” and then try and match the confidence of that assertion by just “being” successfully.

Consequently, the celebrated art we produce often seems preoccupied with characters erring or swerving from the self that they, or others, thought they were stuck with, or holding onto it no matter what. The film and television that dominated the Emmys, BAFTAs and Academy Awards this year – think Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Homeland, Dallas Buyers Club, Twelve Years A Slave – explore this experience of challenging, undermining or remoulding these definitively unliveable ideas we have of ourselves, which have no material substance but huge impetus.

But the querulous voice at the heart of the problem asks: how do you make your mind up what you are, in order to know how to be? Clare’s uncertainty sounds a lot like what we now call depression. Looking inward and feeling yourself to be the “self-consumer” of endless woes, an unhappiness made of “shadows” you can’t pin down because they’re just what life is made of. Clare speaks from a sort of existential delirium, a “living sea of waking dreams, / Where there is neither sense of life or joys,” and this is a man who spent time in an asylum and has been posthumously diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and even chronic syphilis.

Part of the reason I was recently reminded of Clare and my love for this ragged, heartfelt poem was the death of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman had his own sporadically documented battles with mental health and one of the great artifacts of his artistic legacy, to my mind, will be the eminently self-conscious film Synecdoche, New York. In the film, director Caden Cotard (Hoffman) is morbidly obsessed by the disintegration of his body, his physical self, and seems dissatisfied with the abstract self he has projected outwards to create the fabric of his life. When he receives a Macarthur Fellowship, described as “an investment in a person’s originality, insight and potential,” he begins work on a play that ends up as the ultimate attempt, and failure, to reintegrate the self. What begins as a homage to reality, in which actors improvise carefully constructed lives in a warehouse-sized set, ends up a chaotic mirage of mismatched doppelgangers, false guises and miscommunication.


The film was written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, the man behind the words in other cinematic pillars of self-making Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. As so often with Kaufman’s work, the most bizarre aspects of Synecdoche, New York are also those that resonate most astonishingly with my experience of life. I am uncomfortably familiar with the sensation that even as you try to tally up the parts of your life that are real, solid and valuable they fall apart and you are left wondering whether fakery is the only true experience available. Yet Cotard’s attempt to create a touchstone of reality outside himself, which would in turn define him as his professional tour de force, ends up destroying what little sense of ‘self’ he had by taking it out of his hands. By investing in pretence as the key to truth, he ends his life cut off from a relationship with his real daughter, acting out another person’s life under the instruction of a new director and dying in someone else’s mother’s arms. Like John Clare, he is left to perish in “the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems.”

If Cotard is a projection of the bombastic urge for self-creation, Hoffman was a man just struggling to exist in the here and now. In analysing his own neuroses Hoffman listed, “Is there something else I’m supposed to be doing? Have I made something of this? Is this what I’m supposed to make up?” There’s this recurring feeling that you have to ‘make up’ a self in order to live. Unlike Cotard, we can’t (and most wouldn’t want to) create a to-scale model as we go, so we’re left wondering. And, if the reported lives of Clare and Hoffman are anything to go by, perpetual wondering can be the porthole to permanent dissolution: into madness, addiction and death.

But in recent years Hoffman claimed to have found a degree of relief from the need to know who he was. He defined it as the realization that he could “reinvent,” that “this isn’t everything, there will be another film, there will be another relationship, or I’ll die and then I’ll be dead. But if I’m alive I know life is going to keep throwing things at me.” [1. Guardian, Simon Hattenstone, 28 Oct 2011] Interestingly, this feels very similar to the subjectivity espoused by Kaufman, who in interviews and talks is always resistant to any idea of a finished selfhood.

In a lecture he delivered on screenwriting for BAFTA, Kaufman says that the one thing he knows about the thing you are certain about is that you are wrong. “Thinking past any conclusion you’ve drawn will reward you with a more complex insight and a more compassionate worldview… Allow yourself the freedom to change as you discover… Do not simplify.” This isn’t a lesson on how to ease or relieve the uncertainty about who you are, in fact it’s a suggestion to relinquish your hold on the second ‘I am’ and “wait with that emptiness” instead of needing to be complete.

Embracing emptiness sounds frightening. Didn’t Clare pine “for scenes where man hath never trod” and Hoffman’s addiction mean, to quote Russell Brand, the “unrelenting echo of an unfulfillable void”? [2. Guardian, 6 Feb, 2014] I don’t think Kaufman means we should be empty but that emptiness should be accepted as part of the combination. One of my all-time favourite film quotes comes from Adaptation, written by Kaufman, and is spoken (in a manner I will leave unexplained, for effect) by Nicholas Cage, to Nicholas Cage: “You are what you love, not what loves you.” The idea of being loved and understood for what you are, to me defines the pipe dream of the projected self. To love without expectation of certainty or fulfillment, is more like real life.