Every human being wants to be understood, accepted and valued but most of all they want to be recognised. The word ‘recognised’ comes from the Latin ‘recognoscere’, meaning to ‘know again, recall to mind’; perhaps the innate longing for recognition is therefore a desire to be ‘known’ as we were when we were children. Since even those who weren’t ‘known’ as children (which would happen in cases of abuse or neglect) seem to possess this yearning (perhaps even more so), then the desire may be innate. Which begs the question, what is being ‘re-seen’, ‘learnt’ or ‘known’ exactly; what, essentially, are we? What is the essence that we wish others to know? I guess a proportion of the time we want people to know a persona we present, not perhaps our authentic essence (if such a thing exists). However, the human yearning for at least meaningful ‘knowing’, meeting and exchange of essential information about ourselves with another (one of the Biblical meaning of ‘knowing’ is, of course, sexual congress) seems endemic. Do humans raised by animals feel such a desire? Perhaps the bond created by the animal group/pack fills the void that would otherwise provoke yearning.

     Being recognised may be more important than being loved and maybe someone cannot truly love you if they don't know, or recognise you, because they don't understand you. Everyone wants to be understood, even if they have given up on love. A psychopath wants to be understood. If he didn't want to be understood he would have ceased to function as a sentient human being, he would have become a mystic, the only being that does not care for his or her identity at all, is not goaded into action by the motivation of pain or desire - pain and desire being subjectively determined by our individual identities - and hence takes no action to shore that identity up. The only other type of person who does not care about being understood and has absolutely no reference to others and outside action, is someone who is insane.

    Every one of us, whether we realise it or not, are moment by moment trying to create ourselves, by each tiny choice we make, by all the minute things we think and say - and think are meaningless but are in fact sourced and have their motivation in others. It isn't surprising, then, that to exist in complete psychic isolation is the worst punishment that can be inflicted on a human being (and on more intelligent animals) and losing that creation - losing our selves - is the hardest thing we can experience. That is why people kill themselves from loneliness all the time but do not kill themselves because they are hated; being hated means you are recognised (though not perhaps understood). Not being recognised at all is worse than being mis-recognised and misunderstood and all three are more difficult to deal with than lack of love. Being extremely lonely means you are invisible - and if, as is the case for most of us - our sense of worth is constituted only by external sources, then that is impossible to live with. Most people never have their entire identity taken away from them so they don't know what this is like. But some do, and I expect most of them don't survive it. Some people will not be conscious of this because they already are recognised and understood and perhaps always have been, or are recognised in a sufficiently high degree for it not to be something they have ever really thought about. Some want to be recognised badly because they never have been, or been only in small amounts.

    I don't know if there is yet a sort of writing in which the desire to be understood or find oneself does not enter, but Rachel Cusk’s recent auto fictional trilogy comes close. Usually in literary fiction the ego is present. In fact in literary fiction the writer's ego comes into play very strongly compared to other forms of art, perhaps because words are the medium and words encourage the cognitive mind to be more active than music or visual images. Ego likes to divide and exclude; that’s how recognition of 'me', as distinct from 'you' comes into play. The real challenge is to be inclusive. If there is no place for recognition in personal life or society, a person will very often create a self for themselves, consciously or unconsciously, through art. It this too is unrecognised or misunderstood or ridiculed then an acute desperation ensues, because by this time they may have sacrificed more or less everything else for it. Then some kill themselves because their work has become more themselves than they themselves are.

     Any loss, be it of a person, work, possession or position, is only a loss of identity. In that loss there is potentially a freedom, if the challenge, once identity is lost, to keep identity open and not identify with anything at all, is taken up. But this is so difficult. The impulse reasserts itself insidiously and words are a large part of that - even if they are not written or spoken; a large part of explaining to the self what is happening; who it is now; and now; and now.

    When the need for words themselves has subsided, then something profound has happened: the self has identified with nothing in particular and the need for recognition is rendered irrelevant. There has been great loss, and if it can remain unverbalised so much the better. There has been great loss, but not of anything real, only of a construct, multiple external reflections, a hall of mirrors that constitute each of our individual identities. It must be a wonderful thing to be happy to be unseen, to be unrecognised, to be no ‘one’ - only all or many.

    Note 23:



stories and things



leaving the text alone

Beckett and mysticism

why real directors are writers

Dr Seuss and Tom McCarthy

why the novelist's job is harder than God's

the thing about autobiographical fiction

how to write a successful novel

George Herbert and Judith McPherson

the value of not doing

thoughts on TLOD

don't judge a book

things I was thinking when writing TLOD

time, words, are the enemy

the master's voice


why I didn't want to write anymore

the value of not knowing

when do you give up on a book?


what makes a book great

divine fancy


time, identity and fiction

I talk about something similar in an article about identity that appeared in the online magazine 'Boundless'. Clicking the image below takes you to the page.