“We live in a uniform civilization, within well-defined cultural models: furnishings, decorative elements, blankets, record player have been chosen among a certain number of given possibilities. What can they reveal to you about what she is really like?” — Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler
It’s hard to figure out how to understand what a person is like, sometimes.
As Calvino considers here, there’s only so much you can glean from a look around my apartment. Many of my possessions are not things that I have any kind of profound connection with. They’re more like things I searched haphazardly for on Amazon (“throw blanket;” “hand soap dispenser”), eventually becoming dismayed by what felt an insufficient array of choices. I can hardly be expected to find a lamp that resonates with my soul if I’m only given thirty-seven options. Instead I’m left with a sort of lukewarm resignation with the various detritus of my living space.
It gets perhaps a bit more interesting when one considers possessions less universal. It is true, I suppose, that one can begin to develop some kind of idea of “what I am like” upon observing that I have a record player. But even this is hard to distinguish from Calvino’s “well-defined cultural models:” do I have a record player because there is something about me that entails having a record player, or do I have a record player because I am trying to be the kind of person who has made the effort to have a record player? The record collection itself is, one might reasonably argue, a cornucopia of artifacts collected for the purpose of actualizing into a carefully considered and curated version of one of these cultural models.
Every representation we employ for the sake of trying to project something outward, something to the world, about Who We Truly Are, is contrived by its very nature. And as a result, it is actually surprisingly difficult to communicate anything authentic, I am starting to think. At best, one can show others some disproportioned caricature of self. But when I describe myself on Tinder with the sentence “Likes reading, playing guitar, drinking coffee, listening to indie music and talking about philosophy/sociology,” it is hard to imagine that a stranger is actually able to understand anything about my quiddity, my Andrew-ness. All I’m doing is describing which of the latest models I most closely resemble.
I dwell sometimes on the idea that in ways very real, I was not able to come to know this or that former relationship partner. I can’t decide whether or not this helps.
On the one hand, if you can spend two years of your life sharing experiences with another person and, at the end of it, still feel in some unbridgeable distant way as if you don’t really know them — then what in the hell is the point?
On the other hand, maybe that is just how it goes. Maybe as we go through life locked into only the one consciousness, bouncing zanily off of other identities, the best we can hope for is to get some tenuous sense of what another person is like, through all the unhelpful miasma of what they are presenting as that is not really them the person. And maybe there’s some weird inexplicable charm in that.
Or maybe I’m just mad and lazy because I’m single and it’s hard to start to get to know someone even when you have things in common and similar taste in books and music and et cetera. You know. Whichever.