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Fr. 484

January 20, 2014

Observations on the figurative proximity between selves and islands in a river’s shallows. From the moment of their birth, these islands come and hold together as a matter of chance. They begin as an accretion of materials, ground, wood, stone, and plantlife, the precise configuration of which is liable to change over time. Old materials may be washed away while new wash up and join those that remain. An island’s precise shape may alter with the years as its head may become the body and the body the tail. Its position may change as erosion moves the collection of ground and stone farther upstream or down, the growth of plantlife ensuring its expansion in this direction or that.

It is a matter of luck what comes to wash up on its shores, what catches in the submerged roots of plants on the banks, what animals come to make their homes at the water’s edge or farther inland. Barring its sudden disappearance with flood, the island will continue being this island, even were its beginning components to be replaced entirely at a given time in its existence. For an island is temporally extended.

In this way, an island in the shallows recalls the self. There can be no knowing its future materials or shape until such a time as they have come, no telling which influences, people and events will leave indelible traces on the formation. Above all, the self is an accretion of disparate materials that nonetheless hold together.

Yet this is not all that is to be found in the self, as this is to consider self merely as passive element at the mercy of outside influences and chance. The self proves, however, to be more than this insofar as it also comprises an active agent, that of the will, which enables it to orient itself in life. Were we to maintain this parable of the island in the shallows, we would have to alter certain key details to account for this.

Namely, the island would have some control over which elements find their way onto its shores or into the upstream stretches of the river in the first place, as the will can reject, request or seek out things. Secondly, the island would seem to be able either to move about in its river, upstream or down, from one bank to another, or to change rivers entirely, much as the will does when the agent moves from one community to another by her own volition. This itself proves, however, an illusion in turn, for the agent and will never entirely leave behind the elements or materials comprising it. Rather, some materials are left, displaced or washed away as others are lost to sight but still present in the underlying layers or strata of the accreted formation. For this reason, perhaps it is a question of rivers running together and merging, rather than of changing rivers entirely.

Wherefore the qualified similarity between selves and islands in a river’s shallows.

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