The No-Selfie Doctrine: A Theological New Year’s Resolution

In an interview in the current issue of The Paris Review, James Wood asks Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard if he has ever experienced religious ecstasy.

“No,” Knausgaard replies, “but they say one of the main things about religious ecstasy is a feeling of selflessness—that you yourself disappear. I feel that when I read Dostoyevsky.”

I am less familiar with religious ecstasy than I am with the dark night of the soul. As my own Grand Inquisitor, I spend a lot of time berating myself; mine is a sort of auto-auto-da-fé. The accusatory voice in my head is cleverer than I am—a skilled practitioner of the critical, deconstructive arts—and he delights in unmasking me, making me feel deficient.

To wish to vanish, to hide, is characteristic of shame, but this presumably is not what Knausgaard has in mind. In the quasi-mystical sense in which he seems to mean it, to disappear is not to be diminished—reduced to something less—but to become transparent; to no longer be the object of one’s own attention.

Paradoxically, it is when the self is eclipsed by the world that one comes closest to something like authenticity. In such a state, other things and people swim into focus. The awkwardness vanishes; the implied scare-quotes drop from around one’s words; the voice of self-reproach is silenced. I am finally myself.

This invisibility of the self to the self—those days when the pool is so limpid that even Narcissus wouldn’t notice his own reflection — might well be what we call happiness. Is it a state that can actively be sought? I think not. Sometimes, when one is doing things that matter, it just supervenes. And even then, it is usually recognizable only in retrospect. Unlike unhappiness, which announces itself loudly on arrival, happiness slips in through an open window.

But even if happiness can’t be bidden, one can leave the window open. Attention can be cultivated; we can read Dostoyevsky, or Knausgaard. The Buddha is said to have taught that the self is illusory, and perhaps there’s a deeper truth in that direction, but my resolution for the coming year is simply to stop photobombing my occasional moments of transcendence. Call it the no-selfie doctrine.