In a recent long, too long, much too long article in the London Review of Books (June 30, 2016), Andrew O’Hagan quoted John Lanchester paraphrasing dear old Edmund Wilson to the effect that poets feel differences among themselves as tantamount to lying, a sense that “if you were telling the truth you would be writing the same poems as me.” Obviously, these guys don’t know many poets (O’Hagan and Lanchester, I mean — Wilson I know should have known better). The mortifying thing, rather, is that if you were able to write the same poems as me, I’d have to think that my poems were untrue. In poetry, one suspects, only the unique can be true. In most realms we pursue agreement, but in some we may dread it. Why? Thinking about this quandary sent me back for a second look at a book I’d read about a year back; the connection might be easier to understand when you realize that the German word translated as “ego” in the title of Max Stirner’s The Ego and His Own really means “unique”: the title could be literally translated as The Unique One and His Own. It’s curious that the present edition is published by a leftist press; while The Ego and His Own might be considered a proto-anarchist text, there is better reason to read it as proto-libertarian (and in fact this translation was first issued in 1963 by the Libertarian Book Club, New York; an earlier English version had appeared in 1907). Basically, it’s a thorough and relentless preachment of the self and, in the author’s peculiar lingo, the “ownness” of the self. This “ownness,” Max Stirner insists, “is my whole being and existence, it is myself,” and brooks no external authority or commonality. Perhaps the self in Stirner’s sense is the poem of which one is to be the sole author. Stirner has a thousand ways of reiterating this idea, and it’s a timely one insofar as it touches not only poets but many other corners of our culture, notably the geekdom in which the devotees of bitcoin and blockchain (the subject of O’Hagan’s article) propagate. And yet I can’t help suspecting that Stirner couldn’t quite believe in his own idea. To him, being an “involuntary egoist” is not good enough. He wants to convince the reader to think and act differently. His work founders on the impossible task of deriving an ethics from a logic of the self, an ought from an is. But if the self were really “the unique one,” then wouldn’t it be unnecessary to convince another? The Ego and His Own should have been at best a reminder (to oneself) and a confirmation, not a polemic. And therefore it should have been set out in a prose that smiles — with a smile that, I imagine, might have resembled the one that in photographs often seems to play on the lips of Marcel Duchamp, who is said to have admired this book. Instead, this writing speaks through gritted teeth. Pretending to proselytize, Stirner must be writing to convince himself, against himself. Maybe these egoists all have fragile egos.
Max Stirner’s The Ego and His Own: The Case of the Individual Against Authority, originally published in German in 1844, is published by Verso (2014) and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.