“The Mark Twain Anthology” Part Two: Mark Twain in the Cold War and After

Historically this is but a part of that larger conflict between older, dominant groups of white Americans, especially the Anglo-Saxons, on the one hand, and the newer white and non-white groups on the other, over the major group’s attempt to impose its ideals upon the rest, insisting that its exclusive image be accepted as the image of the American. This conflict should not, however, be misunderstood. For despite the impact of the American idea upon the world, the “American” himself has not (fortunately for the United States, its minorities, and perhaps for the world) been finally defined. So that far from being socially undesirable this struggle between Americans as to what the American is to be is part of that democratic process throughout which the nation works to achieve itself. Out of this conflict the ideal American character—a type truly great enough to possess the greatness of the land, a delicately posed unity of divergences—is slowly being born. Ralph Ellison, pp. 254–255

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison

This will be my final post about Mark Twain, unless the Library of America decides to publish his autobiography or 1601 or some of the other “forgotten” works. The Mark Twain Anthology is a collection of articles, reviews, and analyses of Mark Twain and his works from a diverse group of writers, many non-Americans. In my last post, I looked at the first half of this collection where I found writers attempting to come to terms with first the rise of Twain’s unique voice and then confronting his overwhelming cultural power. I discussed how some saw him as the first unreflective American writer (that is American by nature, not as part of a rebellion against European writers and culture). Many non-American writers were interested in Twain as for his anti-colonial stance. In the later 20th century, writers started to impose on Mark Twain a variety of different political perspectives. Identity politics is reflected in much of the commentary on Twain, as was the Cold War.

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I noticed three competing narratives about Mark Twain during the Cold War. The first is pursed largely in the United States and concerned identity politics and the quest to define America at a time when the global stakes were high. At times, it was simply a matter of imposing on Twain one particular group perspective, such as in Leslie Fiedler’s attempt in “Come Back to the Raft, Ag’in, Huck Honey” to suggest that Huckleberry Finn was part of a common trend in American literature to idealize same sex love. Fiedler wants to look to how children would have read these relationships. He goes so far as to call it a mythos in American literature. For T. S. Eliot, Huckleberry Finn, through the use of the River, provides a broader understanding of the American. He sees “no wisdom” in Twain’s later cynicism and pessimism, but sees hope for American unity in the relationship between Huck and Jim. Ralph Ellison suggests that “the Negro body” is the symbol of man in American literature, providing its moral center and the foundation for some cultural unity. “It is not accidental that the disappearance of the human Negro from our fiction conincides with the disappearance of deep-probing doubt and a sense of evil.” (263) In the context of the Cold War and the struggle for civil equality, Ellison suggests this is a necessity.

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A second trend is reflected in W. H. Auden’s essay comparing Huck Finn and Oliver Twist. Auden, an English poet, like many others was struggling with the definition of “Western Civilization,” emerging in the context of the Cold War. Like writers knew, the political alliance between England and the United States betrayed significant cultural divisions running through “Western Civilization.” Auden points out a different view of nature. Americans see nature is a savage other to be endured, while in England nature is a cozy and caring mother, subdued and conquered. He also noticed a different human nature. For Americans human nature’s perfection has not been reached, hence stories like Huckleberry Finn look toward moral progress. He also looks at money. While the English see money as power, Americans saw money as “something you extract in your battle with the dragon of nature, represents a proof of your manhood.” (250)

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Taking the same question to the Pacific we have a wonderful article by Kenaburo Oe, who read Huckleberry Finn as a child when Americans bombs were dropping on Japanese cities. For him, Huck Finn represented an image of personal freedom, self worth, and moral heroism at a time when Japanese youth were taught to kill themselves at the emperor’s command. Oe is still troubled by the fact that American imperial violence in Vietnam shared little in common with what he saw of American in its literature.

This does not concern the superficial amusement of finding the heirs of Huckleberry in hippies and calling all other average Americans, all together, squares, along with Tom Sawyer. Rather, in my clear and extensive impression I might even call classical, I felt, in today’s America, for example on Fifth Avenue, in New York, the existence of Americans with their destitute hearts listening to the calls of nighthawks and the barks of dogs in the depths of forests. I think I will think about it anew as one way the Americans who are the descendants of the Oscar Handlin’s so-called “uprooted” can exist in the great forest of ultra-modern civilization.

With these two articles, we see that in the Cold War, there was a search for understanding among allies and Huck Finn was not uncommonly at the center of those musings. Notice also, that while in the early twentieth century, Mark Twain was being seen as the American ambassador to the world. But by the 1950s and 1960s that role had been taken over by Huckleberry Finn.

A third trend during the Cold War musings on Mark Twain was the voices coming out of the Communist world. While Americans and their allies explored questions of identity, Russians and Chinese were using Mark Twain to remind the world of the moral failings of the United States. They gravitated toward the more pessimistic Twain who wrote on the faults of American capitalism, slavery, and the horrors of empire. Lao She hits all of these points in his 1960 speech “Mark Twain: Exposer of the ‘Dollar Empire.’” These themes get picked up in some of the post-Cold War writings on Mark Twain by Americans, when questioning America’s empire and its place in the world became more common.

I do not think it is a bad thing that we find people all around the world using Twain to ask questions that shape their lives. He was the sort of undogmatic writer who is sometimes difficult to pin down. Like Richard Wagner, who wrote each opera with a unique theme and sound, Twain’s novels are distinct. Even individual works often contain several motifs. In A Tramp Abroad we get descriptions of German university life alongside retelling of American folklore. As this blog is attempting to get at the anarchist heart of the American literary tradition, the fact that a giant like Mark Twain is so hard to nail down is significant. One thing that almost everyone agreed on, however, was that the moment when Huck Finn chose the struggle for freedom over the values of community is the heart of Twain’s moral vision. If that is in truth the central moment in American literature, it may be enough to make my case.

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Philip K. Dick, “Now Wait for Last Year” (1966): Commitment, Marriage, and Politics

Philip K. Dick’s Now Wait for Last Year puts in an Earth stuck involved in a Cold War like conflict between two superpowers. In this setting, however, the Earth is not one of the major powers. Instead the Earth is a vassal state of one of the major belligerents. This is, of course, the place millions of humans found themselves in between 1945 and 1990, forced to chose between two odious alternatives. Through this position, Dick explores the consequences and obligations of commitment at the geopolitical stage and in personal relationships.

Our hero is a surgeon named Eric Sweetscent. who constructs artificial organs and transplants them into patients, often old and rich people who can afford this expensive procedure. He works for Virgil Ackerman, the boss of the Tijuana Fur and Dye Company, which used to make consumer goods through a replication process using microorganisms that tend to copy nearby objects. The company has been recruited into serving the needs of the war. For, Earth has been recruited by the ‘Starman in their war against the non-humanoid reegs. The ‘Starmen, although fully authoritarian, seemed a better ally because they looked human. Eric’s estranged wife is a likely adulterer and certainly uses drugs. Her job is to create replicas of earlier times by collecting antiques. Consumerism has merged with nostalgia and Katherine Sweetscent is an expert.

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Soon, Eric is asked to work for the Secretary General of the United Nations, Gino Molinari (The Mole). His job is to keep him barely alive. The Mole is a laughable figure. Politically savvy enough to become the leader of humanity, but he presents himself as chronically ill and a fool. In fact, The Mole is an ideal figure to navigate the horrible position the Earth is in. The ‘Starmen want to fight to the last man and the Mole attempts to save as many lives as possible. In one humorous meeting, Molinari dies at a critical moment at a negotiation in order to avoid committing 1.5 million humans to almost certain death in the war effort. The context is horrific, but the only resistance is through absurdity. Perhaps there is some truth to this dilemma. We often try to resist our bosses and overlords but forget Melville’s lesson. “Now, as you well know, it is not seldom the case in this conventional world of ours- watery or otherwise; that when a person placed in command over his fellow-men finds one of them to be very significantly his superior in general pride of manhood, straightway against that man he conceives an unconquerable dislike and bitterness; and if he had a chance he will pull down and pulverize that subaltern’s tower, and make a little heap of dust of it.” Like the slave feigning ignorance, Molinari evades human being made into a little heap of dust.

At the same time, Katherine become addicted to a new drug called JJ-180, which has the interesting effect of moving the user along the timeline, but often in parallel universes. It gives the user some predictive powers. Molinari uses it to help see the consequences of his political decisions as he tries to either get the Earth out of the war or switch sides without facing the wrath of the ‘Starmen. This drug is highly addictive and leaves its victims in a debilitated state with significant brain damage. Eric uses these to locate a cure for the addiction (which exists in the future) and gain information on the war effort. All of these political machinations fail, however. At the end of the novel, the ‘Starmen invade to prevent Earth from defecting to the reegs and the war changes to a struggle against occupation (although this long struggle is only foreshadowed).

The core of the novel is the struggle over two promises. Earth’s promise to the ‘Starmen and Eric’s promise to Katherine. Dick seems to think that one of these is illegitimate and the other is absolutely essential. The ‘Starmen acquired the help of the humans through some physiological manipulation and maintained their authority through brute power. They looked on humans as simple fodder for their war and were willing to use or break Earth law to get their way. In their view Molinari’s purpose was simply to stamp their policies on behalf of the humans, who are all but slaves. Dick argues that this type of relationship must be resisted. The promises made under these conditions are illegitimate. Eric’s embrace of the resistance against the invading ‘Starmen symbolizes Dicks support for opposition to authoritarian power and slavery.

Eric and Katherine’s relationship seems at first glance no less exploitive. Katherine makes more money than her husband but still overspend, depending on this salary. Katherine uses her sexuality to make her husband jealous. She uses drugs, breaks the law, and torments her husband at work. She is the typical PKD succubus. Yet, by the end of the novel, Katherine is completely dependent on Eric for basic survival. Eric resists an affair (again we see his insistence on serial monogamy) and almost kills himself. In the final, touching scene, Eric discusses his situation with an automotive cab. The cab (a robot) suggests he stay with his wife because “life is composed of reality configurations so constituted. To abandon her would be to say, I can’t endure reality as such. I have to have uniquely special easier conditions.”

However, we can ask, how is the relationship that different. Did Eric choose to be tormented by a psychological abusive woman, a wastrel for a wife? In the same way, Earth did not know they were entering in on the losing side of a war. Like Eric, they entered the abyss without all the information. Could not robot’s same logic apply to Earth? Yes, you want to switch side in this war now that the going is rough. By what right do you have to change reality to suit your needs? You should remain committed to your choices?

In truth, I am not satisfied that there is a huge difference here. But in the subtlety exists a thin but deep divided between these two situations. It is imprecise, but it makes all the difference. Eric’s commitment to his wife at the end has less to do with the vows he shared years before. Instead it is about the basic necessity of human solidarity. At the end, the cab does not call Eric a “good and loyal husband,” he calls him a “good man” for sacrificing himself for another person.

“The Zap Gun” and Technology

Philip K. Dick’s story “Autofac,” published in Galaxy in 1955, describes a post-war world in which the entire population is dependent on an automatic factory for its consumer goods, including synthetic milk (real milk had disappeared from the world along with cattle). The human survivors of the cataclysmic conflict developed a desire for independence, mostly because the automatic factories rapidly consumed the earth’s resources in preparation for war. The Autofacs were originally established by humans to provide the labor for the war effort. As in wartime, most of the resources remained applied to the military. Most troubling, the original programmers, created the automatic factories to continue the war effort, and the consumption of resources, without direct human oversight, in an effort to ensure victory even in the face of ultimate destruction. As the plot unfolds, survivors try using complaints and final sabotage to destroy the Autofac and salvage a hope for human survival. Unfortunately, the automatic factories were also programmed to be self-repairing. Human dependency on the robots is ensured, as is the consumption of every last natural resource, and the annihilation of the remainder of humanity. In this story, Dick sums up his central fear of technology, that once created it has the power to control the lives of its creators.

In The Zap Gun, this technological problematic is studied after a solution of sorts is worked out.  The overproduction of military weaponry, the need for consumer goods for social control, and Cold War anxieties intersect in this novel.  It is not one of his major works.  Philip K. Dick called it “totally unintelligible” and a “turkey.”  He completely ignores it in his Exegesis.  So in The Zap Gun, the Cold War has died down.  Neither side is really interested in destroying the other anymore.  Both agree that would be catastrophic.  However, the facade of the conflict remains politically powerful at home for both sides.  One character even mentions Orwell when pondering how unnecessary is real war.  Both sides still maintain their secret police and espionage apparatus, of course.   Weapon systems of mass destruction are created.  Entire bands of scientists are devoted to the trouble of how to create the most destructive weapon.  However, these weapons are never really produced, except as goods for the consumer economy.  (One wonders if this is what happened to Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.)  The planned obsolescence of military technology is morphed into the planned obsolescence of consumer goods.  This creates less potential and real destruction of the economy, keeps up the facade of the Cold war, allows citizens to participate in that war as consumers of toy weapons, and gives an important job to the technocracy.  Here, however, the technocracy is really working at a strange psychic level pulling their ideas from popular culture.  This makes the weapons that are developed very science-fictiony.  Quite an elegant solution to the problem faced by the late Soviet Union that was over-investing in weapons of war and failing to meet the consumer needs of the citizens but only possible once both sides agree on the futility of war and the arms race.

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Many of the weapons are quite imaginative.  Dick seems to have predicted drone strikes.  “And needle-eyeification was the fundemtnal direction which weapons had been taking for a near-half-century.  It meant, simply, weapons with the mos precise effect conceivable.  In theory, it was possible to imagine a weapon–as yet inbuilt, probably untranced of by Mr. Lars himself, still–that would slay one given individual at a given instant at a given intersection in one particular given city in Peep-East, Wes-bloc; what difference did it make?  The important thing would be the existence of the weapon itself.  The perfect weapon.”

In the world of The Zap Gun, technology is the solution to any possible problem.  Although here, technology exists almost exclusively as toys.  “I was Klug’s contention that the world needs toys.  This was his answer to whatever riddle the serious members of society confronted themselves with: poverty, deranged sex-crimes, senility, altered genes from over-exposure to radiation. . . you name the problem and Klug opened his enormous sample-case and hauled out the solution.  Lars had heard the toymaker expound on this on several occasions: life itself was unendurable and hence had to be ameliorated.  As a thing-in-itself it could not actually be lived.  There has to be some way out.  Mental, moral, and physical hygiene demanded it.”  This is not a bad idea.  I am not convinced Klug is wrong here. Even rejecting the postscarcity prediction that all labor will be eventually play, we can see that more work is not the solution to many of our social problems.  The work ethic has been tried for centuries and our dilemma is only growing.  Perhaps a greater focus on play and more toys is what we need.

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The world is unprepared for an alien invasion, lacking any functional weapons.  And, the main character seems miserable since his work (weapons development) is without meaning.  As far as dystopias go, this one is not bad.  The worst people face is some inane consumerism, but that has been shown in many of Dick’s short stories to be not nearly as bad as technology invested in war (“Sales Pitch,” “Nanny,” “Foster, Your Dead,” and “Service Call”).

Philip K. Dick, “Time Out of Joint” (1959)

Time Out of Joint, published in 1959, extends many of the themes Philip K. Dick explored in Cosmic PuppetsThe settings are comparable.  In both, we find ourselves in a small town of the 1950s.  In both novels, the world that the characters see for themselves is an artificial facade, covering up the reality.  Time Out of Joint is certainty more mature. Here, the powers that a constructing the reality are human.  In a sense, it evolves out of Cold War anxieties of secrete government agencies, the continual threat of devastating war, and the uncertain loyalties of even close friends and neighbors.  In The Comic Puppets, there were supernatural forces that constructed the false reality as part of a cosmic battle.  This makes TOOJ a more politically relevant work and more of a window into the world that we live in.

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Plot
Like most of Dick’s early novels, TOOJ has a rather straight-forward plot.  Early in the novel we are introduced to Ragle Gumm, an unemployed man who makes his money as champion of a newspaper contest, “Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?”  The contest involves simply choosing from a matrix of squares.  There are clues provided, but these seem to have little impact on the answer.  Nevertheless, Gumm is able to guess correctly continually by observing patterns and maintaining careful records.  As the novel unfolds, Gumm notices strange changes to his world.  He misremember things, such as if the bathroom had a cord-activated light or the newer light swtich.  He also sees small pieces of papers with the name of the thing that should be there.  Eventually, be becomes convinced that the world around him is a sham and that he is the target of a deception.  This turns out to be true.  It is not 1959, it is 1998 and humans are involved in a Civil War between the Earthlings who have restricted expansion abroad and the “lunatics” (denizens of the Moon) committed to interstellar expansion.  Gumm sided with the people of the Moon, but can predict where they will attack next.  Before his defection he worked for the Earthlings making these predictions.  To sustain this role he was placed into this artificial world of his youth.  The newspaper contest is the means by which he will continue to predict where the nuclear attacks will strike.  He, like many of us today, is the unwilling supporter of institutions outside of our control.

The Suburbs and Reality
Dick often places the false, bizarre, liquid, and artificial in the suburbs, the world he knew most well in over-developed suburban California.  The novel begins with an interesting conversation, suggesting that even political loyalties are merely functional in the suburbs.  “Anyhow I don’t think there’s going to be any depression; that’s just Democratic talk.  I’m so tired of those old Democrats trying to make out like the economy’ going to burst down of something.”  When someone mentions that the woman making this claim was a Democrat she replied, “Not any more.  Not since I moved up here. This is a Republican state, so I’m a Republican.” Urban areas are no less man-made than suburbs, but there seems to be a more organic feel to the development of cities.  Suburbs are planned, zoned, and manicured in bizarre formations.  The grass is imported from Germany.  Even the animals becomes domesticated and adapt to the constructed human world.  It is an ideal place for paranoia to set in.  Gumm is the subject of a mass conspiracy, but most of the novel explores his growing sense of displacement.  The realization of the truth is simply an appendix to the story.  This is perhaps what makes The Matrix rather lazy; it jumps immediately to the “really real.”

Dick introduces the idea that the celebrities and heroes of our world are constructed.  I suspect this was a more profound realization in 1959 than it is now, but it is worth pointing out.  “In Consumer’s Digest they’re always telling you to watch out for frauds and misleading advertising; you know, short weight and that sort of thing. Maybe this magazine, this publicity about this Marilyn Monroe, is all just a big bunch of hot air.  They’re trying to build up some trivial starlet, pretend everybody has heard of her, so when people hear about her for the first time they’ll say.  Oh yes, that famous actress.  Personally I don’t think she’s much more than a glandular case.”

Philip K. Dick, looking all Suburban

Philip K. Dick, looking all Suburban

Exploration
This is not the first Dick novel to explore the conflict between the human spirit’s desire for exploration and new frontiers and the desire of the state to restrict expansion.  In The World Jones Made, the effort to restrain expansion to other systems is a major theme.  In The Crack in Space, the solution to the Malthusian crisis was human expansion but it was never seen as politically non-controversial.  In many of his works, the human settlement on other planets are tools of institutional oppression (Clans of the Alphane Moon) or consciously made crappy (Martian Time Slip).  A lot of energy was put into making expansion undesirable.

At this point, it is good to recall Frederick Jackson Turner.  As a Westerner for most of his life, Dick lived the end of the frontier.  I have no doubt that the transformation of the American frontier into suburban desolation influenced his view of extraterrestrial settlement.  I have a feeling that he is a follower of Turner in at least one area.  He seems to think human freedom requires the physical relocation outside of our comfort zone.  In the historian Turner’s view, the frontier was the crucible of American democracy.  For Dick, the decadence of Earth will lead to authoritarianism unless we can freely settle into new areas.  This tension plays its self out in many of his works but is rarely spoken of.  I will point it out in future posts.

“You’re a goon, Mister Loon,
One World you’ll never sunder.
A buffoon, Mister Loon,
Oh what a dreadful blunder.
The sky you find to cosy;
The future tinted rosy;
But Uncle’s gonna spank you-you wait!
So hands ina sky, hands ina sky,
Before it is too late.”

 

Algis Budrys, “Who?” (1958)

Continuing with the Library of America‘s survey of the “golden age of science fiction,” (collected in two volumes) I read Algis Budry’s Who?  I am struck, after looking at a few of these, how short most of these novels are.  Yes, there are a handful of longer novels from this genre, but the 150-200 page standard seems to dominate.  The vast majority of Philip K. Dicks novels are around 150-200 pages, and contain 12-15 chapters.  I guess this is due to the genre’s connection to magazines or the assumed juvenile audience.  In any case, we should not let this distract us from the brilliance contained in some of these works.  They are short, and yes they often fail to fully develop the ideas they introduce, but they nevertheless have messages for us.  Most of these messages and questions remain useful to us.  Who? asked three major questions.  How does technology shape who we are?  How does technology (and technocracy) undermine our human relations?  And, how – in the modern era – do institutions take the role in defining us, undermining our capacity for self-identification?

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Plot: The Cold War divided the world between the Western allies and the Soviet bloc.  Tensions lead to strictly maintained borders, spying, covert plans for weapons developments, and the incorporation of scientists into the state, war-making apparatus.  A scientist, Martino, is captured by the Soviets after an explosion in his lab.  He was working on a top-secret (and never fully defined) weapons system called K-88.  Martino is returned to the allies months later, with a bionic arm and a metal mask – all necessary to repair the damage caused by the explosion.  The allies task is to now discover if the “man” is Martino.  Actually there are three options.  (1) He is Martino and is capable of resuming work on K-88, without risk to the project.  (2)  He is Martino but brainwashed and therefore now a Soviet spy.  (3) Martino is dead or in Soviet control and this “Man” is an expert spy.  Experiments follow for months.  They are unable to determine with any clarity who the “Man” is, although he professes to be Martino.  Even attempts to follow him, observe his life, and make a psychological diagnosis fail, especially when it is learned that an old college roommate of his was a Soviet spy and the “Man” may very well be that old roommate, making use of all the knowledge about Martino he accumulated – including old girlfriends.  The government gives up and “Martino” retires to be a farmer.  An attempt is made to bring him out of retirement but “Martino” refuses and in the end announces that he is not Martino at all.  Whether this is a biological designation of a result of his changed lifestyle is not clearly stated.  Flashbacks to Martino’s previous life and his time in Soviet custody do not answer the novels’ central plot questions.  All three options are possible at the close of the novel.

Technology and Identity: The significant problem is that technology has separated Martino from the outside world and made it impossible for others to recognize, trust, or interact with him.  “Martino” makes his final claim to be someone else is true.  He is no longer a scientist.  He is isolated from his work and loved ones.  He has taken up a job as a farmer.  “I’m not a physicist.  I’m a farmer.  I can’t do that stuff any more!” (671)  This is a frighting and liberating realization.  As I explored before with the question of desertion in Melville’s work, we often look at our life and express fear at alternatives because they are unknown.  We prefer the slavery of a marriage, a mortgage, a job to autonomy.  To the degree we are our place in society, we fear any alternative.  Martino was forced to find an alternative, weeding crops and applying fertilizer.  His technological upgrades and shortened lifespan forced him into isolation.  In a way he is lucky.  Who would want to return to the shenanigans of Cold War science and weapon’s development?  Martino, when he was a scientist, could think of nothing better to do.  Technology, by defacing him, provided him an escape.  It is also important to note he did not become the technology.  So much cyberpunk and fears about cell-phones and Facebook rest on the assumption that the technology defines us.  This only worked partially for Martino.  Ironically, the mechanization of his body allowed him to become a low-tech farmer.

Technology and Human Relations:  Where technology did negatively affect “Martino” was in his inability to interact in the same way with former colleagues, lovers, friends.  If his identify changed, it was through the abolition of the human dimensions of his life.

The State and Self-Identification: When we identify ourselves and someone else says “Not so fast!” we come face to face with the horror of modernity.  “Martino” declared himself the scientist Martino but without independent verification his claims were a lie.  For the plot, this is just a reflection of Cold War paranoia, but I want to go farther with it.  Our value in society is derivative of our value to the state or capital.  By extension our self-identity matters less than what can be objectively proven and utilized.  “Martino” was only valuable as a scientist, of course.  The other matters of his life only came into view when they could be used to establish his identity.  We all experience this phenomenon during job interviews, border crossings, and banks.  In the not so distant past, Inquisitions simply could not accept ones proclamations as true.  The entire concept of the inquisition was the inability of individuals to be authentically Christian without external verification.  Nation-states do not allow individual identity.  No, identify for the nation-state is a product of education, shared folklore, common language, or a shared history.

Who? does much more than warn us about how technology can change who we are.   Budrys’ real concern is the phenomenon of other people defining us.  In the bipolar world where your values are a product of which side of a line you are on, it is made clear, but it happens to all of us in our working lives.  This is why our resumes tell us what other people should value in ourselves.  They are, of course, incapable of saying who we are.  And we fall into this trap every time someone asks us “What do you do?” and we reply with a job title.