Lord If I’m Nobody, Who Are You?

ben franklinI am currently teaching Introduction to Creative Writing. Coming down the home stretch of the semester, we’re on nonfiction, and for it I am using, for the first time, David Starkey’s Four Genres in Brief.

In it, Brian Doyle speaks of the challenge of wresting an essay free from “the stench of ego.” Philip Lopate says personal essays thrive on littleness, especially “self-belittlement.” From what I’ve found, students are often pre-accustomed to belittling themselves, but their ready criticism has not proven a gesture that frees their text, opens it to others, widens their perspective.

There is a joke Lewis Hyde tells in his essay “Liberty to Communicate,” published in Kenyon Review, Summer 2010: A rabbi happens by a synagogue and is moved to fall to his knees, crying “Lord, I’m nobody! I’m nobody!” Stunned by his humility, the cantor too assumes this position and calls out: “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!” Before long the janitor rounds a corner and joins them, on his knees, calling “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!” Upon which the rabbi elbows the cantor and scoffs, “Look who thinks he’s nobody!”

The arrogance that condemns is still the ego. Effortful humility is ambitious. So what am I teaching them? When I asked how to escape this paradigm as writers a student suggested we pay attention to what our writing wants. Beginner’s mind is not only a Zen phenomena.

Hyde traces that freedom from the self he calls “local,” using the early collaborators on the Constitution as a model. In Benjamin Franklin’s words, the formula is that “to have the Advantage of [this Assembly’s] joint Wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those Men all their Prejudices, their Passions, their Errors of Opinion, their local Interests, and their selfish Views.” I need not remind us of the bias of gender. The personal has long been clipped and buried, but there may be another way to reveal a text than measured erasure of the personal.

hyde common as airThere is no self-made virtue, Hyde says. Private interest is communal if directed. Rather than attempting to transcend it—and I am grossly shortening Hyde’s accretive text, which I recommend reading in full version—one finds a middle path, not of freedom from the self, but freedom to “be somebody in a commonwealth of art and ideas.”


Note: Hyde’s essay also appears in Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership, an NY Times review of which appears here.