LI 576 21st Century American Fiction

Notes: The Self (consciousness, awareness, self-reflectivity) and the Human Condition


Who are we, and what are we doing in this novel?

Fichte (German philosopher) on the self:"The self posits itself, and by virtue of this mere self-assertion it exists; and conversely, the self exists and posits its own existence by virtue of merely existing. It is at once the agent and the product of action; the active, and what the activity brings about; action and deed are one and the same. What was I, then, before I came to consciousness? The natural reply is: I did not exist at all: for I was not a self. The self exists only insofar as it is conscious of itself."

            And Fichte also argued that the self would have no occasion to reflect back on itself, and thus it could never even be a self if it did not also take itself to be finite and partly determined by a "not-self" outside of it. He went on to assert that the not-self, without which the self could not even be a self, must ultimately be understood as another free self, a kind of second self.


Theorist Paul Smith: We are three “selves”: The (true) Self, the Subject, and the Agent.


Slavoj Zizek: “Consciousness emerged in order to cope with practical instrumental problems of survival, how to interact with people, how to interact with nature. . . . the so-called progress of humanity emerged through people asking themselves impossible questions, like what is the meaning of life? What is the structure of the universe?  . . . From a strict evolutionary standpoint, consciousness is a kind of mistake—a malfunction of evolution—and that out of this mistake a miracle emerged.  Consciousness originates with something going terribly wrong . . . For example, when do we become aware of something, fully aware? Precisely at the point when something no longer functions properly.”


Multiple selves, masks, personas—why do/must we create or support multiple selves?

Or, Is consciousness a fair trade for instincts?



An important theme in Motherless Brooklyn is the mystery of consciousness.

Tourette's is one way of getting at the mystery of consciousness because it represents in such a dramatic fashion the dualism of the mind, the dualism Essrog alludes to when he talks about his "Tourette's brain" as if it were a separate character. "You're speaking without thinking" another character tells Lionel, calling attention to the gap between the subconscious and the conscious and the verbal. Lionel's ticcing connects the layers of the repressed, the thought, and the expressed. In this way, Tourette's comes to be a metaphor for the human condition—the dualism that exists for all of us between our exterior and interior lives, what Frank Minna calls the "wheels within wheels" of our minds. For the Buddhists in the novel, the achievement of "One Mind" is an overcoming duality of consciousness.


Steve Buscemi reads Motherless Brooklyn.  For a sample of how Lionel Essrog might sound, go the Salon’s website at