Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Other I

Disguises offer an undeniable sense of security through blissful anonymity. These could come in the forms of masks, cloaks, and costumes, but the most telling yet indistinct of forms is the Alter Ego. Artists have used alter egos for a variety of purposes, including literary devices, as Joseph Conrad used Marlow in order to introduce his personal convictions into his works and to delve in any direction he or his character desired. Fernando Pessoa used his various heteronyms – the literary concept that refers to characters created by the author who possess different physical forms, styles, and biographies – to explore writing under as many lenses as possible. In most cases, such as Conrad’s and Pessoa’s, the artist is very much aware that he has invented an alter ego and is using it/him/her for a specific purpose. In the case of Jorge Luis Borges and Otis Jackson Jr., alter egos constitute a reality that is its own; not quite parallel, for the two worlds intertwine, and certainly not one and the same.

Borges’ essay/short story "Borges and I" is the skeleton key of alter egos. “The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.” With this first sentence, the reader is quickly extricated from the comfortable confines of merely reading to the realm of metaphysics. If the other one is Borges, then who is writing the essay? After all, isn’t the author Jorge Luis Borges? Is my hair being pulled with a wink and a smile? Or am I just not smart enough to understand this? The following sentence begins with an all too telling subjective personal pronoun: “I”. The issue that is being put forth, just by the first two sentences, is that there is a distinct difference between Borges and the “I”. The writer continues by stating that Borges is the well-known author, the one who is included in biographical dictionaries. The difference then becomes fairly evident: Borges is the published author, strictly and exclusively, and “I” is Borges’ personal identity, in other words, the self.

Because a writer cannot exist out of the immaterial, a physical body is necessary; this is the way the “I” feels his identity is being used by Borges. His interests become Borges’ interests, but as soon as they are published, they are his no longer. It is not surprising to encounter morbid humor in this line of thought, for even without the “I”, Borges the author will always exist. This a case of immortality by means of mortality. “I” states that, “I am destined to perish”, and so he has (in Geneva, June 1986 due to liver cancer), but Borges will never perish. The irony is that “…those pages cannot save me…” Faced with this stark and absurd reality, “I” states that “Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.”

Whereas Borges the author seems to be completely unaware of the “I”, Otis Jackson Jr. maintains a dialogue – no, a mutually eager partnership – with his alter ego
Quasimoto. Most people know of Jackson by nom de plumes. He is better known as Madlib, DJ, producer, and MC extraordinaire, in that order according to him. To jazz heads he is known as that rap guy that got unlimited access to the Blue Note vault to create his sound collages that resulted in the fascinating Shades of Blue, the only hip-hop album released by the most famous of jazz labels. In addition, he fabricated a jazz quintet called Yesterdays New Quintet, that is musically comprised entirely of himself, yet the “members” have different names. Since the above examples refer to Jackson’s different names, or pseudonyms, it is time we consider his other identity, or alter ego/heteronym, known as Quasimoto.

Critics, notably Oliver Wang writing in his May 2005 review of Quasimoto’s second album, The Further Adventures of Lord Quas, in URB magazine, have argued that Quasimoto is Madlib’s id allowed to run wild and uncontrolled, jonesing for weed, booty, and violence. As gratifying and conclusive as it might be to psychoanalyze Madlib, the pleasure principle does not address issues such as authorship and creative daring. Madlib’s first album released under the identity of Quasimoto was 2000’s The Unseen. Unseen indeed – unlike the hidden section of an imposing iceberg, but like the artist himself: a cartoon character that isn’t human and speaks and raps in a voice akin to rushing wind passing through a tight doorjamb in a storm. Unseen because he exists in sound and not in explicit image.

In this first album, Quasimoto and Madlib form a partnership that is not unusual in the hip-hop and rap worlds: the MC and his DJ. Not like Eric B. & Rakim, where Eric B. solely cut and God MC blew the world away with his monotone cadence. But something more like Pete Rock & CL Smooth, where Pete Rock is indeed the DJ and producer, but also raps and underscores his partner’s rhymes. Madlib even performs the ceremonial duty of telling his MC to drop that thing and show ‘em how it’s done. Even in “Return of the Loop Digga”, there is a mid-song skit that dramatizes a DJ’s worst nightmare. He goes to a record store, looking for some Stanley Cowell, Grant Green, or Chick Corea, but the store attendant asks if those artists had “any hits.” Additionally, the store doesn’t have any good breaks or reggae, prompting Madlib to say, “I’m out, buddy.” However, this partnership isn’t called Madlib & Lord Quas – it’s Quasimoto, pure and simple because, in this case, Quasimoto is the physical (we know his shape and voice) yet unseen alter ego of his partner.

As in the case of Borges and "I," Quasimoto and Madlib are distinct entities. On the one hand, with "Borges and I," the “I” knows that he exists within Borges, and if it were not for him, Borges would not be able to live and to write and thus achieve immortality. On the other hand, Quasimoto and Madlib are presented as absolutely distinct beings. In this case, we have an advantage. Quasimoto and Madlib have their separate forms in image, one a cartoon creature and the other a human being. Even on record, where we cannot rely on images, we know who is who because they have different voices. Quasimoto is Madlib’s external and internal creation.

Many non-artists also have external and internal creations. Sometimes those creations power our other selves entirely, as in the case of "Borges and I." Human beings and the roles we are given and choose to undertake predetermine certain identities. For example, a father might also be a husband might also be a man with a name. It is clear that every one of these identities are separate and dissimilar from the previous ones. But when we get to the source, the question remains: who is I? This question is even more pressing in the age of cyberspace. It is possible to create an identity and have that be a secondary or even primary one, and exist through that identity by means of the internet. The age of online chatting and blogging has created the anonymous digital identity where people are free to create themselves in any manner they fashion; in effect, hopping between online reality – as the chatter or blogger – and, well, any other reality they desire. Like Borges and Madlib and their respective alter egos, the realities of the online person and the “real” person are certainly not identical, but they overlap and interlace. Is the “I” the person who is created and presented in cyberspace or the person behind the computer? To the other people experiencing that specific “I” through the internet, that person is a solid, unmovable identity. But is it the real one? Moreover, is the person behind the computer the real “I”? The truth is that the real “I” is in danger of diluting itself to the point of evaporation.

I do not know which of us has written this page.

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