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The Romantic Sense of Self

The New York Times ran an essay by a transgender woman named Meredith Talusan this morning. Talusan described a college reunion where a peer remarked that Talusan — who underwent sex-reassignment surgery in 2001 — looked “the same” as when the pair were undergraduates. After a decade of “estrogen had softened my features enough that I felt safe from people on the street calling me a man,” the peer’s remark sent Talusan headlong into an existential crisis:

Maybe my mind was protecting me from my male past, and I wondered to what degree the image in front of me [in the mirror] conformed to what was real. But I also reminded myself that there is no single, objective truth; that reality is so much more malleable than people make it out to be; that the first step in making something real is believing it could be real; that my very presence in front of this mirror, in this school, in the world, was itself proof of the power of belief in a reality that seemed entirely far-fetched.

Disenchanted with “idealized femininity,” Talusan resolved to “express my gender how I want to, regardless of society’s expectations” — a free-floating Self, unmoored from the strictures of tradition and truth itself.

Talusan’s story — at once anxious and indulgent — is a distillation of what Darel Paul called the “romantic sensibility of the self”: a Freudian conception of the self as “a unique and creative spirit whose reason for existence is its own expression.” Drawing on Philip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Paul writes that to preserve the “romantic sensibility of self,” the organs of “therapeutic culture” must constantly affirm those idiosyncratic “selves” whose behaviors or identities might be stifled by the mores of the collective:

The therapeutic demands authentic selves that are not only expressed but also socially recognized. Mental health professionals once counseled the development of pro-social interdictions that would enable an individual’s adaptation to social expectations. Under the therapeutic, they now advocate for the wholesale transformation of all of society in order to facilitate self-actualization. This is why simple tolerance is wholly inadequate, for without recognition, selves will internalize a sense of inferiority and thus fail to become authentic. Hence the commissioning of every institution into the work of bestowing recognition and liberating selves.

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