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Stein Time

David Cowles

Sep 8, 2022

“That’s why Tom Brady can’t retire!”

One of Gertrude Stein’s signature revelations came early. “We are all to ourselves, always young men and young women.” She noticed something that anyone could have noticed…but didn’t: although our bodies (including our minds) go through incredible transformations from infancy through infirmity, we ourselves never change. Identity is conserved over time. To ourselves, we neither grow nor wither: we are always young men and young women.

Stein understood the phenomenology of being human. She realized that most children want to be older than they are. ‘I can’t wait to grow up’ means ‘I can’t wait for what I am (my mind/body) to catch up to who I am (my identity)’. Most adults, on the other hand, wish to be younger than they are. They move heaven and earth in a series of futile attempts to keep what they are from diverging any further from who they are (in their own minds).

Much of the angst we associate with childhood and old age is the result of our insistence on always being something we’re not, i.e., young men and young women. There is a disconnect between how we see ourselves and how society sees us. That’s why Tom Brady can’t retire. On the other hand, much of the alienation we experience is the result of society’s devaluation and mistreatment of its younger and older members.

We have been spending time in TWS and ATM with the Piraha, a small tribe in the Amazon Rainforest. Among their many unusual cultural traits, the Piraha have no concept of childhood or seniority. Neither are considered superior or inferior to any other stage of life. Of course, they understand that younger members of society need more care and that older members have a greater inventory of experiences, but that’s as far as it goes.

The elderly are expected to hunt and gather just like everyone else; if they are unable to do so, they might get a free meal here or there, but for the most part, they’re left to their own devices, whatever the consequences. On the plus side, children are almost never punished, no matter how outrageous their behavior, and the corporal punishment of children at any age for any offense is a serious social faux pas, roughly equivalent to spanking your eight-year-old in the middle of the Mall of America today…with a belt.

For all our recent liberal pretensions, we are not the Piraha! And we pay a price for that. Of all the tribes in Amazonia, the Piraha have proven to be one of the most resistant to cultural imperialism. With only 300 native speakers and a language that bears no resemblance to any other language, living or dead, Piraha is still not on the list of languages in danger of extinction. The Piraha experience no alienation; therefore, they see no reason to change. They are happy; they see nothing in our culture worth emulating.

Stein was a keen observer of the human experience, but it took a philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, to carry her insight (and/or his own) to its logical conclusion. Who are we? Well, we are not what we are, and we are what we are not. So, we must be nothing, precisely nothing. We’re not 8 or 80 or anything in between. We’re ‘nothing,’ and being Le Neant, we are fundamentally ageless. In fact, we are outside of time entirely. (See TWS 9/6/22.)

You, for example, are eight-years-old, but not so in your own mind. I, on the other hand, might be 80, but again, in my own mind, I’m a lot younger. It’s not that we don’t realize that we are our respective ages – of course we do. It’s just that we don’t feel our respective ages. Test it out. Watch a football game with a tween grandchild. If you’re both honest, you’ll admit that there are moments when both of you see yourselves making tackles, throwing blocks, catching passes, or running to daylight…even though there’s no one on the field younger than 20 or older than 40 (except Tom Brady).

So, who are we? We are not who we think we are, nor are we what society thinks of us. In fact, we are not anything, Sartre labeled it, “Le Neant,” nothingness. We are literally nothing. That’s our precious ‘identity.’ Is this supposed to be a good thing? You bet it is! Because it is only by shedding our attachment to spatiotemporal pseudo-identities (e.g., age) that we can embrace our true eternal identity.


Image: Gertrude Stein, 1934. Photographer: Carl Van Vechten


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