Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What we do or what others think we are?

There's a nice passage in Philip Kerr's Field Grey where Bernie Gunther - a man with a mixed past, vehemently anti-Nazi but with blood on his hands - that discusses his position in the world as he sees it. Basically, it asks us to think about our identity - are we the sum of what we do, or is it more important how others view us, regardless of what we do? And how does that shape our psychology and how we act in the world?

'A man doesn't work for his enemies unless he has little choice in the matter. Or no choice at all. I'm just a cheap paperknife. People pick me up when they need to open an envelope and then they put me down again. I don't have any say in the matter. As far back as I can remember that's all I've been when I thought I was more than that. The truth is that we're just what we've done and what we do, and not what we ever want to be.'

'You're wrong,' she said. 'It doesn't matter what we've done or what we do. What matters is what others think we are. If you're looking for meaning then here it is. Let me supply that to you. You'll always be a good man, Gunther. In my brown eyes you'll always be the man who was there for me, when I needed someone to be there. Maybe that's all any of us need.'

So - Are we what we've done and what we do? Or does what matter what others think we are?


Anonymous said...

Rob - Fascinating question! I think perception is critical. There's a lot of research, for instance, on the self-fulfilling prophecy (i.e. children who get certain messages about themselves live up to (or down to) those expectations). That said, though, we are also, I think, shaped by what we do. Those actions affect us.

Karen Russell said...

Ooooh, good question. I teach public relations and we frequently discuss corporate identity (what the organization thinks it is) vs. corporate image (what outsiders think of it) -- but I'd never considered it at the individual level. But now that you've made me think about it, I'd say they necessarily influence each other.

Steve Anderson said...

Great passage. Sounds like the Philip Kerr I want to see after being disappointed by If the Dead Rise Not. This context of actions and perception also touches on the oft-debated German postwar identity issue, of course, though I doubt Kerr was meaning to get too deep. Looking forward to this finally reaching the US -- strange, that it's taking so long.