Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Rumpole on identity and wellbeing

In the middle of an email conversation with Laura about wellbeing, I heard the end of an radio adaptation of a Rumpole of the Bailey story. Rumpole’s son, Nick, a sociology lecturer has been rather sniffy about his father’s work, or his particular approach to it, and voiced his qualms to his mother, who is normally presented as rather unsympathetic to Rumpole’s whole way of being herself. Not, it turns outs, on this occasion.

‘You know what else Nick said?’ I asked her.
‘So far as I can understand, Nick talked a lot of nonsense.’ She went into a spurt of high-speed knitting.
‘He said you didn’t know exactly who I am.’
‘Of course I do. You’re Rumpole!’ She stopped knitting then and looked at me, only a little puzzled. ‘Aren’t you?’
Well, yes. I’m Horace Rumpole. What was Nick talking about? Everyone down the Bailey knows me. I’m an amiable eccentric who drops ash down his waistcoat and tells the time with a gold hunter and calls Judges old sweethearts. Also I recite Wordsworth in the loo.
That’s who I am, isn’t it?

In this dialogue, Rumpole links what might be thought of as a conception of wellbeing with his identity. There is no need to ask him why he smokes small cigars despite the ash drop, uses a hunter watch and recites Wordsworth. Or rather, if one does, his answer blocks the question rather than giving a substantive answer and suggests that this is where, in Wittgenstein’s phrase, one’s spade is turned. He does these things because of who he is. To be Rumpole is to act like this.

There’s no need to take a view on whether existence precedes essence or vice versa. The connection between what he does and who he is could have equal priority: the two could develop together. In fact, assigning priority seems implausible. It is hard to imagine how a conception of an identity or character could be filled out which then causally determined just those practices. Equally, if what one does fixes character it would be hard to know how one might act out of character.

The passage suggests a middle ground between high level, universal conceptions of wellbeing and a meaningless agglomeration of happy events. There is a person-specific view of Rumpole’s wellbeing tailored to his identity. But even this imposes some constraints. Rumpole’s habits are broadly consistent and they must be. Of course, he can’t call Judges old sweethearts while he recites Wordsworth in the loo. But both broad projects or habits could be part of a consistent life which hangs rationally together.