André Aciman, professor at the Graduate Center of City University of New York, and author of best-selling novel Call Me by Your Name, among many other notable works, describes a concept of what he refers to as “Jews of discretion,” which he believes is a term susceptible to critique but which has never been designated so. It is a term that signifies, substantiates, and enlightens the Jewish identity. It is a term with no bounds, while concurrently constraining such subjects to a journey of seeking an identity that is so ambiguous as to be infinite—an identity that itself is hiding. When an individual hides themself, they begin down a path of becoming someone they are not, as in when Jewish people—practicing Judaism or not—feel compelled to shelter their identity in this regard. Especially in the current state of the world, perhaps this compulsion to hide is more easily understood by those who have not experienced it themselves.
On November 5, 2023, at our own Old Cabell Hall, I had the ineffable honor of meeting Dr. Aciman personally. He discussed many things in his lecture, and given the context of this column, my self-imposed philosophy of purpose suggests that I must apply his wisdom more universally, as it logically does, in my mind, such that identity is no longer an opaque object from an unknown conceptual realm that we deem agreeable, but rather the spirit of constraint and realistic discontinuity which we unknowingly pursue. Here, identity is opposing identity. With a label must follow a perceived necessity to hide from enemies of the label, and with hiding must follow dissociation from oneself, until one does not know who they are. But merely striking away our labels, who are we? Dr. Aciman perhaps does not claim to know, and neither do I, of course, but either of us can assert, with no conviction whatsoever, that there simply must be some answer to this most meditative inquiry.
Nationality is one facet of individuality that most anyone can align with—conceivably with dome divergence—yet a question of whether nationality serves any purpose of ours, or oppositely if we serve our nationality, is primarily a contemplation that dictates the course of political affairs, among others such as one’s affiliation regarding political issues, thereby engendering subsequent labels. By seeking comprehensive truth, in lieu of subjective interpretation, might it be so that everyone must renounce their political—and therefore national—identity? Not necessarily in any persistent manner, but yes, perhaps transiently. By ordinary expectation, identity becomes but a caricature—the self is stored strictly amid a vast pool of buzzwords that, because they are so commonplace, mean virtually nothing.
What, then, is the available alternative, if not to classify ourselves? We can hide from all notions of self-concept, but then Dr. Aciman’s theory becomes actionable, and we inevitably will degrade, regressing into a shell of ourselves, which is to say an empty identity, and the term itself is given meaning once more, creating a seemingly insurmountable dilemma. However, upon extensive consideration of this topic, I believe that the solution lies where identity and intention become one, while maneuvering about the unideal constraints of definition. Who we are is not something to be reduced to the simplicity of words—nuance is lost, affinity is extinct, and there remains nowhere at which a deposit of a different tale of self can be carried out. Labels do not do us justice, yet they are practical and useful in many instances, as in when they assist us in fulfilling our intentions of expressing ourselves in a particular way. And such labels are not always defined characteristically, but also circumstantially, emotionally, truthfully, though they can never be earnestly truthful, at least wholeheartedly, as they may or may not pertain to us as whole people.
The space in which I have since found myself, by means of speaking with Dr. Aciman and solitarily pondering what it means to identify, is one that seems almost lackluster in its complexity. It is a space in which I will state, as a matter of some degree of importance, that labels serve identity only when they distinctly serve our needs of expression, and identity serves itself when it is nonrestrictive, which is seldom the situation, but perhaps the reason no one is a flawless individual is because of their own allotment of constraints that are the results of who they fundamentally are and cannot change. I am inclined to assume that we are all driven to the brink of insanity by any semblance of lacking knowledge of ourselves, and to this I reply that our own comfortability, once it has transcended its superficial form, is a proponent of a mysterious ambiguity by which to be fascinated and to exist.