A Lifetime for Creating Yourself
A forensically dissected divorce, the era of living in public, and what we could learn from it. A few thoughts on the infamous Agnes Callard essay.
The New Yorker published an essay about philosopher Agnes Callard's extremely introspective and extraordinarily public divorce. It lays out the process of her falling in love “for the first time” with a younger grad student leading to an unconventional agreement with her ex-husband. He lives with her, their two children, and her new husband and baby and seems quite open to forensically dissecting the details of their divorce for the good of philosophy.
I cringed the first time I read fragments of this essay. It was almost like watching an arsonist gently, contemplatively but surely setting fire to her own house - with her children in it.
In the essay, Agnes asks: “How has it come to pass,” (...) “that we take ourselves to have any inkling at all about how to live?” Her ex-husband, also a philosopher, remarks this about her: “I think to an unusual degree Agnes sort of lives what she thinks and thinks what she lives.”
The most radical aspect of this whole affair is not even the - apparently stable - philosophical love triangle but the acts of self-creation and self-justification as a burning necessity. Agnes and also Ben, her ex-husband, seem to feel the pull of needing alignment with patterns they’ve created, with the values they’ve crystallized and concretized through their work in philosophy. The result is something jarringly explicit and honest, but at the same time, always coming from one perspective and one priority: the self, bending life to concepts about life.
There is something very appealing and clearly meaningful in the “We Are Not Human Beings, We Are Human Becomings” ethos. We’ve fallen in love with the idea that everything is invented, that social norms and expectations are just a generational form of learned helplessness, and that we could step aside at any moment and use reason to craft more worthy alternatives. And in Agnes’ case, it may be closer to reality than for most. She is a very particular kind of person, an eccentric, and as the article mentions, she also has been diagnosed with autism. She is obviously someone who is a so-called high-decoupler. She has made it her mission to uncover and explain hidden aspects of life through living. “If you’re a real philosopher,” she once tweeted, “you don’t need privacy because you’re a living embodiment of your theory at every moment, even in your sleep, even in your dreams.”
It is not the first time in history that the odd members of an intellectual elite practiced alternative lifestyles. It is the first time, though, that these practices were overlaid with the confessional incentives set by social media and living publicly on a mass scale - as a profession. Agnes has made this meticulous accounting her life’s work, and she seems suited to it, but it is definitely not a phenomenon contained in philosophy departments. The confessional essay has become a lifestyle.
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