It’s a terrible illness — and it can strike at any time.
Some say it’s a millennial disease. Some say it’s the curse of middle-aged men. It’s more common than short-sightedness, and it’s a greater plague than back pain. It’s contagious. There’s no known cure. And anyone can see its symptoms — except the person suffering from it.
I’m talking about ‘I’ trouble.
You know how it sounds: “I did this, I said that…”
The friend who won’t stop talking about their problems — they’ve got ‘I’ trouble. So has the friend who drops unsubtle hints of their success. ‘I’ trouble is the neighbour who won’t let you pass by without hearing stories of her holiday, and it’s the glossy magazine with pages headed ‘you you you’.
It’s a bad habit as seductive as the last chocolate in the box. But like all things over-sweet, talking too much leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
Twentieth-century schoolgirls kept autograph books for friends to sign with bits of witty verse. One rhyme cropped up until at least the 1960s:
“5 things keep meekly hid: myself, and I, and me, and my, and what I said and did.”
It’s not part of British culture to talk about yourself. While our American cousins see the value of self-promotion, we Brits are a little wary of an over-whitened smile. We like privacy, modesty and understatement, with a backbone of humour as bleak as the weather. No one wants to hear about your successes — or your failures — unless you make them laugh.
As a child, I remember a teacher who corrected me ferociously: ‘Don’t say “Me and Emma”, say “Emma and me.” Always remember you’re the least important person in the sentence.’ Memory is a muddy thing, and my seven year old brain somehow registered this as ‘the least important person in the room.’
Scandinavia has a concept called Janteloven, a set of ten satirical rules underlined by ‘You’re not to think you’re anything special’. It’s the antithesis of ‘I’ trouble; it paints success and self-pity as equally gauche. There’s a touch of Janteloven in British culture, in our collective reluctance to stick our heads above the parapet. I know a man who, whenever he hears ‘I did it for myself’, will quip back fast as lightning: ‘And was yourself impressed?’
But when we lay aside the faux pas, there’s a real yearning for ‘I’ trouble out there. The Kardashians’ family-spanning career is built on the illusion of intimacy with the public: tears and tantrums, the insides of makeup bags, nude selfies on Instagram. Reality television has us up close and personal with strangers — a little too close, in the case of Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies — but with the safe separation of a screen, like the glass before the tiger at the zoo. Many of us know more intimate details of Liz Jones’ life than we do of our own neighbours. Maybe that’s wrong.
Britain has been crowned the loneliness capital of Europe. The elderly and young adults 18–34 are most affected. When we have no contact with our neighbours and don’t speak to our housemates, we turn to the television or the internet as a band-aid. Like any other instant gratification, it’s a game of diminishing returns. When we read the Daily Mail for ‘Holly Golightly confesses lip fillers and Botox’, it’s a faux-connection that asks nothing of us and gives nothing back. The linguist Jennifer Coates says that self-disclosure is part of rapport talk, but there can be no rapport if the self-disclosure is one-way.
We sneer at modern pop culture for its narcissism, but literature has ‘I’ trouble too — it just expresses it more prettily. Self-discovery is one of literature’s oldest themes. Joan Didion owns up to her ‘I’ trouble in her stunning essay ‘On Keeping a Notebook’: the tacit purpose of writing, she says, is always ‘remember what it was to be me’.
In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes reveals the photograph as intrinsically morbid: it memorialises a person before they’re dead. It is the same with writing. All over the world, we still buy volumes of the letters and journals of Sylvia Plath, Susan Sontag, Franz Kafka; we still pore over the searing confessional poetry of Anne Sexton, “the woman without skin.”
Well, people also bought the autobiography of Joey Essex.
But there’s something in that, in scraping the people out of the letters. After a loved one dies, it is a great comfort to find notes pencilled in the margins of their books; their breath stays in the pages.
We read literature in a kind of cultural narcissism. In the mirror of the printed page, we seek our own inner lives reflected back in better words than our own. The books that most resonate with us are often the ones that we read at a certain time of our lives. Books that show us, as Kurt Vonnegut said, ‘I feel and think much as you do’. Reading is a solitary pursuit, but perhaps it’s also a solipsistic pursuit. When we read well, and actively, we’re in conversation with the author, but we’re also in conversation with ourselves.
Your relationship with yourself is the longest relationship you’ll ever have.
Maybe a little bit of ‘I’ trouble is no trouble at all.
Previously published in the UKCCWS Illustrated Anthology Vol. 4 (2017) with the accompanying illustration.
Jennifer Ayers has just finished a degree in Comparative Literature and Linguistics and is currently working in corporate events. She is interested in embodiment, semiotics and other things people don't want to hear about at parties. To read more of her writing, visit http://medium.com/@theinkling.