Composite or Whole

Recently, in preparation for class, I read a section of poems from Percival Everett’s re: f(gesture) called Logic. As we were discussing these poems in small groups, I found myself drawn to one particular line that states, “Are you a composite? Or are you a whole, your name, all of you at once, a simple element?” I drew the attention of my group to this section of the poem and one member, Claire raised the question: If two people were to meet as children and then become separated so that they do not meet again until much older, perhaps they hadn’t seen each other in thirty years, are they still meeting the same person? My initial response to the question was yes. Although thirty years is a long time, my initial thought was surely at the core people remain the same. However, a few of my group members disagreed. Thirty years is such a large portion of a person’s life inevitably a person’s relationships, access to higher education/professional training, and social life will greatly impact who they become. It is nearly impossible to remain completely the same and not be impacted by the thousands of life experiences that one encounters. So, the question remains, are we a composite or a whole?

Claire pointed out that her question essentially brought us back to the ship of Theseus which we had discussed at length earlier in the semester. This myth is explained in Ashley Kupiec’s October 15th post “The Ship” (and Not Sidney?) are Not Themselves Today. To summarize, Theseus’ ship slowly has parts replaced in order to maintain and keep it functioning. Eventually after every part of the ship has been replaced the question of debate becomes, as Ms. Kupiec states, “is the ship the same ship it was at the beginning even though it does not contain the original parts, or is it an entirely new ship at the end? Then, if it is a new ship, when does it cease to be the old ship and when does it start to be the new one?”

When we had previously discussed the ship, I had supported the idea that after every plank was replaced it was no longer the original, but a model, of Theseus’ ship. However, in the human example that Claire posed I believed that even after thirty years the individual was still the same person. It reminded me of a story my mother recently shared at our Thanksgiving table. She had been in a crowded grocery store and lost track of her mother, my grandmother. She feared that if she shouted “mom” in the store every mother in the place would turn to her, so she decided to shout “Susie” instead (a shortened version of my grandmother’s name Susanna). The purpose of her telling this story was that, she had realized recently, that as a mother she would always be able to recognize and distinguish her child’s voice. However, this is the bond between a mother and a child, a stranger who had not seen a person for thirty years would not have this connection. This led me to conclude that perhaps people are a combination of composite and whole. While a mother will always recognize her child, a stranger may not because of all the life changes a person may undergo.

As I continued to compare Claire’s initial question to the ship of Theseus, I realized that although, in theory they were the same question it is impossible to compare a living human to an inanimate ship. A model or replica could be made to replace a ship and could be done so with accuracy and detail. A human can not truly be remodeled because another living being can not be produced that is exactly the same. Therefore, I no longer saw the ship of Theseus as a good comparison, but the question did draw me back to a question I had posed earlier in the semester when reading I am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett. I had asked at what point do you separate Not Sidney from the real Sidney Poitier? Although Not Sidney is a different person, throughout the book his life takes him through many of the roles that Sidney Poitier played. Additionally, many of the characters he encounters assert that he is growing up to look very much like Sidney Poitier. Is Not Sidney a composite of Sidney Poitier’s life and work or is he a wholly separate and distinct person?

Ultimately as I have pondered these questions it brought me to the ending of, I am Not Sidney Poitier and the speech that doubles as one of our course epigraphs. Not Sidney is accepting an award meant for the real Sidney Poitier and states “I came back to this place to find something, to connect with something lost, to reunite if not with my whole self, then with a piece of it.” Essentially, Not Sidney is addressing the same questions as those posed in re: f(gesture) in that he is not sure if he will connect with his whole self or simply a piece of himself. I think what I have found is that as people we change so frequently and are impacted by so many uncontrollable forces that we are a composite of experiences. Ultimately however, all those composite pieces make up the whole of the person that we become. Perhaps, the question misleads, and a person is both a composite and a whole.

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