The image of a snake shedding its skin seems a useful way of framing different notions of the self.
The common, everyday notion of the self (the notion implicit in the casual use of “I”) implicitly posits the self as standing slightly outside momentary experience, an observer of events, including the event of itself observing its own participation in that momentary experience. This implicit (and more-or-less unconscious) notion underlies a more ‘essentialist’ concept of the self: the ‘real me’ that ties that not-quite-endless stream of momentary experiences together into a continuous life. (Not-quite-endless because it has a starting point, however fuzzy, and an apparent end point, also more than a little fuzzy.)
A similar view invokes an architectural image: Over the course of my life, I tinker with the expression of my ‘essential’ self. It may start as a simple structure — Thoreau’s one-room cabin at Walden Pond. I add a room, build an entire wing, remodel what I have built, redecorate, furnish the rooms to serve my current activities, dispose of furnishings for which I no longer have a use — or which are no longer to my taste. But always somewhere within that elaborated structure there remains the ghost of that original cabin. The additions are just accretions around it. Just as somewhere within ‘me’ there is a self that decides what ‘I’ will be now or next.
The snake as it grows simply sloughs off and leaves behind its outermost self — although its core continues on its way (larger and potentially with the marks of its experience etched more deeply into its flesh).
My own skin, that apparent boundary between my physical ‘self’ and the outer world, is constantly being lost — so imperceptibly that it is seldom noticed. The more visible, but no more permanent, boundary is something I construct (or purchase) — the clothes, the costume, the ‘drag’ I ‘put on’ before venturing out into the world. (And I assume a costume even when I venture no farther than my own living room, with no company other than my own thoughts.)
My personality, too, is a mask (persona) that I put on to present an appropriate face to others — or to myself when I look in the mirror. (Not all mirrors are on the wall. My mind’s eye, gazing upon itself, is an ever-present mirror. The field of vision does not encompass the eye itself, but still the eye ‘sees’ itself.).Costume seems a better image of the personality than a mask. A sweater (or a pair of jeans or a suit and tie) is more ordinary, more casual, more an everyday image of the person I want others to see — and how I want to see myself in my mind’s eye.
The trouble began when I started to hold on to each sweater, each shirt, each costume as truly being the person I am — here, now, always. I become attached to my old clothes. The sweaters pile up. Unlike the snake which slithers off, leaving its old skin behind, I layer one sweater over another … over another … over another … and haul about with me wherever I go an accretion of ‘characters’ whose times have come and most certainly have passed.
My closet overflows.