Know Thyself

Today’s guest post is by Michael Chaney, who’s short story, “Trolling for Easter Porn” will appear in The Quotable Issue 10: Space. You can find more of Michael’s writing at


Know Thyself. No thanks, Socrates. You can go on in your smug robe and dumb beard leading the youth along that cynical path, you pre-Nietzschean Santa Claus of glib wisdom borne from insights into the negative of things—as if What-You-Don’t-Know Avenue is the only rout to unproblematic knowledge! For intellectualizing, this road is a reliable highway. For writers or anyone else involved in imaginative or emotional forms of knowing, it’s a nettled foot trail, jagged and hardly blazed. A better adage would be “Lose Thyself—and everything else too while you’re at it—and then go looking for you (and everything else that’s lost) in fiction.

Other helpful variants: Forget Thyself, Suspend Thyself, Question Thyself, Misunderstand Thyself, and, of course, Put Thyself on a Shelf, in a Vial, with a Legible Descriptor Encapsulating Thyself Thoroughly in a Floridly Beautiful Script and then Blow Up Shelf.

Yet another painfully misunderstood piece of destructive common sense associated with this dictum is Be Yourself. Hmph! All the more better that you weren’t in my opinion. To be a better writer, you’re better served striving to be a grilled cheese sandwich. Instead of that ancient hemlockolic Gadfly, we should follow Keats. Yes, KEATS! Wanna fight about it? (I’m looking at you George Gordon Noel, Sixth Baron of Byron, who called the gorgeous sonneteer’s best work “piss-a-bed poetry”). It’s Keats who gave us the concept of negative capability—that ability to evacuate the self in order to make room for other subjective visitors, other entities whose experiences we might lay claim to and sing.

Following my own advice, let me now sing as lustily as the unrepentant mocking bird I aspire to be, and quote a line I wrote back in the late 1840s while crying in a tent by a river in Master Emerson’s backyard. In the book I would later call Walden, I said: “However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are.” I like the way there is an assumed, and refreshingly unexpected, split between you and your life in this admonition. Literature, good writing, meaningful fiction,–all are ultimately hostile to persons. It is the person in place that the very best art seeks to enshrine. The person in context is not just more believable but also so much more potentially available to me and to you. This person tied to a life is an entity we can visit, inhabit, someone to un-know ourselves with so that we might get to know life.

Wisdom does not lie in selves. If that were so, how easy writing would be, and everyday middle schoolers who mistake their algorithmically accounted for jeans purchases as expressions of SELF would be cranking out great American novels 140 characters at a time.

Photo Credit: bogenfreund via Compfight cc