Monday, October 06, 2014

Michael Phelps, meet Michael Phelps

It is sad to see a swimmer sink so fast.

Michael Phelps, who already has been forced to give up his once prominent (and lucrative) position on the cover of Kellog's cereal boxes, was arrested last week on a DUI charge. He is now handling shame in the way we now handle it: He admitted he did a bad thing, and then announced that he was going into rehab, treating what is clearly a moral problem as if it were physiological condition.

But Phelps' problem may run deeper. Unfortunately it is a problem everyone seems to have these days: multiple personalities.

I cannot find an incident earlier than that of Hamlet of someone talking to himself. This is just not something that anyone did until historically modern times. These days we keep diaries, we "journal" (another pernicious case of a noun turned into a verb), and we write memoirs and autobiographies.

I heard the other day that Kafka, when told by an acquaintance that, despite the fact that he was a Jew, he did not have very much in common with Jews, responded, "Well for that matter I don't have very much in common with myself."

And then there was Dostoevski's story, "The Double," in which the protagonist is so alienated from himself that he comes to work one day and finds that he has already arrived and is sitting at his desk and has to introduce himself to himself.

We're all about ourselves. We think about ourselves and talk about ourselves. There's us and ourself. And we are one big unhappy individual person.

It was so much easier back in the day when we were just us, before Freud broke us up into an ego, an id, and a superego. Being youeself was a rather small affair, involving only one identity. This was before the "soul" was replaced by the "self."

Notice that no one ever talked about "multiple souls."

But now the inside of your head a rather crowded place.

So when Phelps says, after once again being caught doing a bad thing, "I am extremely disappointed with myself," I am reminded once again of the number of personalities we all are expected to keep up these days.

Phelps' multiple personalities have apparently become rather estranged of late: "I'm going to take some time away," he said this weekend, "to attend a program that will provide the help I need to better understand myself."

Michael Phelps, meet Michael Phelps.

If only the two could get back on the same page, Michael Phelps (the second one) wouldn't have smoked that weed and had those drinks before driving, something Michael Phelps (the first one) would never have done.

I wonder if Dr. Jeckyl wore the same size bathing suit as Mr. Hyde?

I'm trying to think of how such a program would work. Who would be the best person to go to to get to know yourself? Who would know yourself better than you do? After all, you've spent more time with yourself than anybody else, haven't you?

Undoubtedly psychologists will be involved. But weren't they partly responsible for creating these different selves in the first place? In fact, it is an interesting cultural phenomenon that psychology now almost implies a disbelief in the—despite the fact that the word "psychology" literally means "the study of the soul" in Greek.

It used to be that when you did something wrong, you confessed to your priest, and did penance. It was so much easier then (sigh). Doing that now, of course, would be a much more complex procedure, since you would have to make several trips to the confessional—one for each self.


Lee said...

One caveat: there is so much money to be made in handing out DWIs, many jurisdictions have been lowering the threshold of intoxication. In my state, Virginia, it has been lowered from 0.1% to 0.08%. I'm sure 0.08% is impaired relative to stone sober, but I also think it could be legitimately questioned. Be that as it may, I say this only to point out that not all DWIs are necessarily a moral failing on the driver's part. Sometimes the legislature may be at fault.

If I know anything about government, incentives, and human nature, the threshold will be lowered again. And again.

Your point, though, about whether drunkenness is a "disease" or a character issue is on target. It reminds me of Mitch Hedberg's wisecrack: "Alcoholism is the only disease you can be yelled at for having. Dammit, Joe, you're an alcoholic. Dammit, Joe, you've got lupus. One of these sentences doesn't make sense."

Anonymous said...

The lowering of the threshold from 0.10 to 0.08 was a federal mandate. States that didn't lower the legal limit were subject to having their federal highway funds cut off. Yet another case of federal government blackmail from the people who brought you a nationwide seat belt law, a legal drinking age of 21, and so forth and so on.