I Am I


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 I am I 


Anthem is a story told entirely from the voice of its protagonist. It is his diary, made public manifesto. He lives in a time beyond our time. Ours is the age of electricity. His native community is descended from ours, though they have lost knowledge of electricity and all our modern technological marvels. They speak English. They all have moralistic, political names like Equality 7-2521 and Fraternity 2-5503. Such abstractions are not in the discourse of the characters and not in the private thoughts of our hero. Their thoughts and English, like their lives, are simple. 


Our hero seeks secrets of the earth, he seeks the earth’s highest meaning, and he seeks some word and concept he senses has been lost from his society. The reader of Anthem will notice that folk of that society are missing the personal pronouns I and me and the possessives my and mine. Each refers to himself or herself by proper name or as we and refers to another individual by proper name or as they. The word individual does not appear in Anthem, but the discovery of the nature and importance of man the individual, as against the collective, is contour and point of the story.


“Then they pointed to themselves, and they said: ‘This one, alone and only . . .’ then they pointed to us and finished ‘. . . love that one, alone, and only’” (A 115). The notions of I and the singular you are subterranean in their society, and because the notion I would become subversive of the organizing ideals of that society, speaking that word, were one to learn of it and grasp it, is there punishable by death.


Theirs is a society of agrarian communes, in which people reproduce without love relationships, without family, and in which mating, education, work, and consumption, indeed every aspect of life, is directed by the state. Advance of human knowledge is at a snail’s pace, accomplished through consensus among scholars state-selected to be scholars under the constraint that the boat not get rocked by any independent thought.


Equality 7-2521 makes secret individual investigations of nature, aided by ruins he has discovered from our own era. His actions are illegal. His assigned profession is street sweeper. Through the course of his story with nature and his fellows, he comes to realize that all love and joy and thought belong to individuals, only to individuals. With the help of books he finds left by us, he learns the missing word I.


The individual human ego is what Rand sets up as the highest meaning of the earth. Our hero discovers fully his individual self and aims to bring the individual self back to men. He learns the story of Prometheus, who brought men fire, and he takes the name Prometheus for himself. Rand’s Prometheus of Anthem is no overman, or superman. “Ich lehre euch den Übermenschen,” spoke Nietzsche. By contrast Rand 1938 is not teaching something beyond human, higher than human. Rather, she is teaching the human restored to wholeness.


In our own culture, unlike the mythical one of Anthem, one discovers one’s autonomous self in childhood. Like us, Equality is a thinker and investigator, and like us too, he is a meaning maker. His dark difference with us is from the difference of the fantasy society that was his cradle.


There were no mirrors in Equality’s native society. Were we to bring a mirror into that society, Equality and his fellows would spontaneously be able to look in the mirror and bring their hands to touch body parts they see, just as Equality does later in the story, seeing his face in water. That is an ability we have before age two. Further, Equality would be able to pass the rouge test by two years of age, just like you or I. When two we began to use the personal pronouns I, me, and mine.[1] Equality and his fellows are instead trained to deflect awareness from the self and direct attention to the group by saying we where we should say I.


Recognizing oneself in mirrors and knowing one’s proper name and knowing how to use first-person pronouns does not yet include realization of the deep fact I am I (or I am an I or I am me).[2] Similarly it is in the journey of Equality; he has not yet roundly and profoundly grasped I and I am I when first seeing his reflected face. 


At two one can construct scenarios with dolls or other figures representing individual persons. One can make up dialogues, not only participate in them. The ability to converse with oneself as if between two characters is a plausible step necessary for coming to the insight I am I, where the first I is self as patient, actor, and controller, and the second I is self as in contrast to any other self.[3] Thinking I am I importantly includes thinking the identity of those two characters. Rand’s Equality accomplishes the same recognition as part of the thought expressed by his newly found word I, whose meaning is explicated as his unique and uniquely possessed body, shrine of his unique spirit, and explicated by his triplet I am, I think, I will.


The discovery of I by Equality is an episode of exhilarating liberation and profound fulfillment, though also overwhelming sorrow for mankind in its state of not knowing I. Each reader of Anthem had already come to know the full reality and concept I before reading the book. Anthem rings a bell. Any of its readers, however repressive their own native communities, had already discovered for themselves I am I. In American Amish communities, one is told that each is as a grain that must be ground up to make the whole loaf of bread that is their rigid community. But each Amish infant grows to child who knows I am I, notwithstanding lectures tying the goodness of bread to the goodness of self-abnegation.[4]


My husband has a memory of the moment he reached the insight of how the hands of a clock show the time. I do not remember such a moment, though I did get the knowledge somewhere along the way. There is another insight, sometimes won in an intense moment and retained in episodic memory, a moment in which individuals become conscious of themselves in a new way, a moment of realizing their being an individual person, a moment of realizing I am I or realizing some major aspect of that. Some people have memories of such moments. I do not. Dolph Kohnstamm’s I am I – Sudden Flashes of Self-Awareness in Childhood (2007), is a compilation of such recollections from our contemporaries. 


He quotes also such a recollection of the early Romantic German novelist Johann Friedrich Richter (1763–1825), who wrote under the name Jean Paul:

I shall never forget what I have never revealed to anyone, the phenomenon which accompanied the birth of my consciousness of self (Selbstbewussein) and of which I can specify both the place and the time. One morning, as a very young child, I was standing in our front door and was looking over to the wood pile on the left, when suddenly the inner vision I am a me (Ich bin ein Ich) shot down before me like a flash of lightning from the sky and ever since it has remained with me luminously: at that moment my ego (Ich) had seen itself for the first time, and for ever. One can hardly conceive of deceptions of memory in this case, since no one else’s reporting could mix additions with such an occurrence, which happened merely in the curtained holy of holies of man and whose novelty alone had lent permanence to such everyday concomitants. (29)


Kohnstamm is Dutch. In newspapers, radio, and the magazine Psychologie Heute, he related some of the few records he had found of persons who remembered their sudden realization I am I. He asked people who had such memories to share them with him. He received about 250 replies, mostly from Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. By far, most were from women, and the reason for that remains unknown. Ninety-two of the replies are contained in Kohnstamm’s book, and I want to share a few here.


A six-year old recalls realizing, while at the dinner table, that there had been a time when she had not existed.

We were sitting at the table: my father, my mother, my two brothers and I. My little sister, who was only six months old, was lying in her cradle. We ate and talked—about what, I don’t remember. Suddenly I became aware that I hadn’t always been alive. I hadn’t always been somebody with a father, a mother, and two brothers. This realization was a shock to me. Up to this moment, it had always just been a given. Suddenly, it was different. I must have had a beginning somewhere at some time, must have come from somewhere. (122–23)

One who wrote to Kohnstamm recalls a scene, at about age four, in which he learns from the adults that he too would die someday. He was pretty down about that (144–45).


Others recall:

I had celebrated my ninth birthday just a few days before and was in the playground where I would often hang out when all of a sudden I felt, I am I, entirely for myself, only for myself, separated from the others and ultimately without any connection to them. I wrote my name in the sand—a scene which is still clear in my mind—and I looked at it and felt myself as being entirely my own. I was looking at myself. It was like a brief, terrific high, an extremely intense feeling of independence, without any fear; rather I was filled with pride and security. At this moment, the other children didn’t matter at all. I was I, though I felt no animosity towards them. (152)


One summer morning, I was playing in my parent’s garden. I must have been four or five years old, because my three older siblings were in school. Before me there was a shoebox padded with fresh lettuce leaves where I had placed several small snails. As I observed the snails and wondered what they would do next, it became clear to me that in my life I would never be able to know what it’s like to be a snail. And at the same time, I had an amazing sense of my own self, my own body, of being alive, all the sensory impressions, my light dress on my body, the wind, the sand on my hands, the sun on my back. An astonishing feeling of happiness flowed through me: I am me; I feel, I make my own decisions, I am inside and outside, I am one. (80)


It happened one morning when I was in the fifth grade. My best friend was in the hospital, and it was feared that she would die. I went to a Catholic school, and on this morning, in class, I prayed for the first time. I never did this otherwise. In our home, we weren’t religious. In our classroom, a porcelain angel was hanging on the wall, and I directed my gaze at it. The teacher had already begun the lesson. Suddenly I was seized with a profound feeling. Little by little I sensed that I was going ever farther into myself and I thought, I am I, I am Liesbeth and this will always be. It was a bit frightening, because I had been determined for all time and would never be able to become somebody else. But it was also beautiful that I would be able to experience everything and that I would be able to perceive it. I was I. When I repeated this later to myself, I would have this feeling again of descending, layer by layer, deeper inside of myself; it is still like that today.


As a child, I was very closed in on myself and never spoke to my parents about this experience. Sometimes I also felt rather lonely, but from this moment on I had myself! (46)


Brushes with I am I in childhood occur also in noticing autonomy in one’s body. One woman recalls the moment, at age three, of stepping down a stairway noticing along the way that, inadvertently, she had not been holding onto the railing. “Then and there a feeling of unbelievable happiness flowed through me, because I had accomplished this, I could move freely without help from others, using my own strength” (50). At age twelve, with wider horizons, another woman recounts:

It had been a hot day. After a loud thunderstorm, I ran to a small park in the neighbourhood. It was nearly dark as I ran barefoot through the grass. Suddenly, I looked at my arms and legs and thought, These here are mine; this here is my body, I can do what I want with it. This was an astonishing thought that made me very happy. (54)


Kohnstamm’s chapter next to last is “Scientific Perspectives on the Development of Self-Awareness.” He includes past thought of psychologists concerning development of the grasp I am I, beginning early in the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth. Contemporary work discussed includes that of Michael Lewis,* that of Katherine Nelson,* and that of William Damon and Daniel Hart.* He brings these models of the development of self-awareness into confrontation with the I-am-I remembered episodes he received. Supplementary to Kohnstamm’s book I Am I, I should mention the 2004 paper “Early Memory, Early Self, and the Emergence of Autobiographical Memory” by Mark L. Howe.*


How one reacts to realizing one is an individual person—separate, different, and autonomous—varies somewhat between individuals, according to the reports compiled by Kohnstamm. The accompanying mood may be matter-of-fact or defiant or exhilarating with a feeling of strength and pride or fearful with a feeling of vulnerability and isolation. The individual profile of those moods people recalled in their individual epiphany I am I was influenced occasionally by recent events with family members or friends. I suggest responses are contoured somewhat by individual temperament.[5] Not everyone is so like Equality, who finds always an inviting plenitude and completeness in solitude.

Given the spontaneous, untutored character of the I-am-I episodes in real persons displayed by Kohnstamm, one might wonder whether the absence of the pronoun I in the fictional native society of Equality really possible. Probably not, though it is a neat ploy to Rand’s purpose of showing the importance, the preciousness of man the individual, as against the collective. I suggest that, actually, we in the indoctrinated sense of a joint singular life and will and thought of the collective can only have meaning to one who has gotten I am I.



[1] Kagan 2013, 83.

[2] Kohnstamm 2007, 48, 58–62, 162; see also, Anscombe 1975, 158–59.

in other collectivist societies poorer and more ignorant than Amish communities; Kohnstamm 2007, 175–79.I am I[3] But consider

[4] Kohnstamm 2007, 164, 174.

[5] Kagan 2010.

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Well, that came out with such neat formatting, I better not touch it. One strange thing to be corrected: Note [3] should read "But consider I am I in other collectivist societies poorer and more ignorant than Amish communities; Kohnstamm 2007, 175–79." Also, I left off:


Anscombe, G. E. M. 1975. The First Person. In Cassam 1994.

Cassam, Q., editor, 1994. Self-Knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kagan, J. 2010. The Temperamental Thread. New York: Dana Press.

——. 2013. The Human Spark – The Science of Human Development. New York: Basic Books.

Kohnstamm, D. 2007. I am I – Sudden Flashes of Self-Awareness in Childhood. T. Raleigh, translator. London: Athena Press.

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