The biggest self of self is indeed self

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Gov. Mark Sanford, back in pocket, explained himself (from the NYT transcript of his statement):

I'm here because if you were to look at God's laws, they're in every instance designed to protect people from themselves. I think that that is the bottom line of God's law, that it's not a moral, rigid list of do's and don'ts just for the heck of do's and don'ts. It is indeed to protect us from ourselves. And the biggest self of self is, indeed, self; that sin is, in fact, grounded in this notion of what is it that I want as opposed to somebody else?

The assertion that "the biggest self of self is indeed self" makes a poetic sort of psychological and theological sense, I think, though I'm not quite sure how.

I thought this might be a (perhaps garbled) quotation or allusion of some sort. But I doubt that the governor is familiar with Gerard Manley Hopkins' unfinished fragment On the Portrait of Two Beautiful Young People:

21   There's none but good can bé good, both for you
22   And what sways with you, maybe this sweet maid;
23   None good but God—a warning wavèd to
24   One once that was found wanting when Good weighed.

25   Man lives that list, that leaning in the will
26   No wisdom can forecast by gauge or guess,
27   The selfless self of self, most strange, most still,
28   Fast furled and all foredrawn to No or Yes.

29   Your feast of; that most in you earnest eye
30   May but call on your banes to more carouse.
31   Worst will the best. What worm was here, we cry,
32   To have havoc-pocked so, see, the hung-heavenward boughs?

33   Enough: corruption was the world's first woe.
34   What need I strain my heart beyond my ken?
35   O but I bear my burning witness though
36   Against the wild and wanton work of men.

Bill Poser suggests that "the biggest self of self is self" might be a bad translation of some Sanskrit scripture; but if so, I haven't been able to locate the original. And in any case, that seems even further from Sanford's style than Hopkins is.

The audio for the whole passage is here:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Here's a more careful transcript:

But I'm- I'm- I'm here
because if you were to look at God's laws
uh they're in every instance designed to protect people from themselves
um I think that that is the bottom line of God's law
that it's not a- a- a- a moral r- rigid list of dos and don'ts just for the heck of dos and donts
it is indeed to protect us
from ourselves and the biggest
self of self is
is- is in- indeed self
that sin is in fact grounded in this notion
of what is it that I want
as opposed to somebody else

I see only one problem with the NYT transcript: the question mark at the end is inappropriate, since the what-clause, despite the subject-aux inversion, is not a direct question, but rather the complement of notion of.

But a lot is left out of a transcript. In this case, the performance of the phrase "the biggest self of self is indeed self" — especially the internal pausing — is consistent with the idea that the governor had something less poetic in mind, for example "the biggest danger to self is indeed self", or "the biggest danger to ourselves is indeed ourselves". Or maybe "We have met the enemy, and he is us".

The cited phrase by itself is here:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

[Update -- following a discussion with misterfricative in the comments below, I suggest that Gov. Sanford had in mind a phrase like "the biggest source of sin is indeed self", and then performed a rare double-anticipation speech error. ]

My vote for the best comment on the whole Sanford saga goes to the lolcat version offered by John Scalzi:

[But then, maybe the poem contributed by Salient at Crooked Timber is even better:

The biggest self of self is self:
A part that parts its part to be a whole,
The screw that once held stud to shelf
When loose, is held to have a sovereign soul
(and, so far as shear-stress will permit, gov’rnance of the whole.)
Rust to dust: but living flesh to coal,
which in its value must give of itself,
return to air what verdant Nature stole
(this too in bondage, each atom volatile while sole.)

]

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29 Comments »

  1. Joel said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 1:19 am

    This reminds me of something a friend and I used to do — create analogies involving water which refer to the blandness/plainness of something (e.g., "lettuce is the water of vegetables," "Collective Soul is the water of grunge bands"). Eventually we hit upon the ultimate statement of plainness: "Water is the water of water." What could be more water than water? What could be more self than self?

  2. rone said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 1:44 am

    What about the strange apostrophication of "do's and don'ts"? The plural of don't requires no apostrophe because it already has one?

  3. RDS said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 1:53 am

    I suspect this is a simple case of poor memory spoiling an attempted allusion to Kierkegaard. The passage he obviously meant to recite was: "The self is a relation that relates itself unto itself or is the relation's relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but the relation's relating itself to itself" (The Sickness unto Death).

  4. Noetica said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 2:08 am

    What about the strange apostrophication of "do's and don'ts"?

    There are style guides that advocate exactly such a pluralisation, Joel. I seem to recall that very example being used. It is not just that don't already has an apostrophe, so that don't's would look awkward; it is also that dos doesn't look much like a plural. Other ways:

    does and don'ts
    dos and don'ts

    The resources of punctuation (and text styling) are simply not sufficient to provide logically and aesthetically satisfying solutions for every case.

  5. Simon Cauchi said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 2:12 am

    But "dos and don'ts" is correct. The final s in both words is the plural marker, not the genitive 's. Thus more than one style guide and spelling dictionary (which, however, I'm citing from memory).

  6. Noetica said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 2:12 am

    Hell's bells: Rone, I meant. Not Joel. (I wish I had the excuse of jet lag after a good time in Buenos Aires.)

  7. Simon Cauchi said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 2:14 am

    Thanks for the quotation from Kierkegaard. One to treasure.

  8. Noetica said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 2:20 am

    But "dos and don'ts" is correct.

    Correct, you say? Cute! Weighty style guides disagree among themselves. What is "correct"?

    I too prefer to avoid such apostrophes of pluralisation. But I don't claim that I am "right" to do so. As it happens, dos and don'ts works well enough for most people, I think; because dos does not stand enigmatically by itself.

  9. Simon Cauchi said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 2:43 am

    OK, I meant "perfectly acceptable", not "correct".

  10. Noetica said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 3:02 am

    Perfectly acceptable? That's better. I can cite at least five style guides that give full or partial support to alternatives.

  11. Lee Morgan said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 3:58 am

    The use of the apostrophe in "do's" strikes me as essentially the same as sometimes occurs with the past tense and adjectival -d suffix when one tries to, for example, describe the state of being in pajamas ("pajama'd"), or having looked something up on wikipedia ("wikipedia'd it"). These cases are admittedly rare, but when all else fails, the apostrophe will leave its usual posts and provide the glue with which idiosyncratically-ending words can be attached to one-letter affixes. It also seems similar to the function the hyphen sometimes serves with longer affixes.

  12. misterfricative said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 4:57 am

    Re the OP: My guess is that this is a simple production error for the rather poetic formulation 'the biggest sin of self is indeed self'. Which would make it a sort of second order Freudian slip because there's no unintended or repressed revelation here. On the contrary, he's just about to enlarge upon the relationship between sin and self; he just gets a bit ahead of himself. This may also explain why he didn't notice the [presumed] error and made no attempt to correct it.

  13. marie-lucie said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 7:16 am

    I agree with misterfricative.

  14. Mark Liberman said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 7:34 am

    misterfricative: My guess is that this is a simple production error for the rather poetic formulation 'the biggest sin of self is indeed self'.

    This seems plausible: sin has the right phonological and syntactic characteristics to be a substitution target, and self is highly activated and ready to jump in.

    But the idea that self is a sin of self is almost as poetically mystical as the idea that self is a self of self. And "sin of self is self" doesn't seem to exist on the web; nor does any relevant instance of "biggest sin of self"; and "sin of self" is dominated by sins of self-abuse, self-pollution, self-love, self-righteousness, etc. And Gov. Sanford doesn't strike me as someone who invents his own theological aphorisms.

    There are other formulas out there: for example, "The sin of pride is the sin of sins", featured on an "All About God" page whose banner reads "Sin of Pride – Sin of Self", and includes passages like this one:

    The sin of pride is a preoccupation with self. It is thus very fitting that the middle letter in the word is "i." Pride is all about "me, myself, and I." So even as the word "pride" is centered upon an "i," the sin itself is also centered upon "I." We read of Lucifer's fall, "How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How you are cut down to the ground, you who weakened the nations! For you have said in your heart: 'I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation on the farthest sides of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.' Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, to the lowest depths of the Pit.

    This seems like the sort of thing that Gov. Sanford might have read and discussed with the C Street group. The only drawback is that the original formulation would have to be something like "the biggest sin is the sin of pride, which is indeed preoccupation with self; so that sin is, in fact, grounded in this notion of what it is that I want as opposed to somebody else."

    I guess that he might have elided part of this to get "the biggest sin is the sin of … preoccupation with self", and then "the biggest sin is the sin of … self"; and then garbled this to "the biggest sin of self is self"; and then finally substituted another self for sin.

    Or, perhaps more plausibly, he started with a theologically-sound formulation like "the biggest source of sin is indeed self", and then performed a double substitution, to get "the biggest self of self is indeed self".

  15. acilius said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 8:15 am

    @myl: "the biggest source of sin is indeed self"- I think that you must be right- that must have been what Governor Sanford intended to say. Let me add that I haven't gathered quite the same impression of the governor you have. I wouldn't be surprised if his response to a situation like this were to attempt an original theological aphorism.

  16. Mark Liberman said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 8:36 am

    acilius: I wouldn't be surprised if his response to a situation like this were to attempt an original theological aphorism.

    Well, "the biggest source of sin is concern for others" would caricature Randian theology nicely. And according to Sanford's statement, the "whole sparking thing" with his Argentinian friend started a couple of years ago because he and she "ended up in this incredibly serious conversation about why she ought to get back with her husband for the sake of her two boys; that not only was it part of God's law, but ultimately those two boys would be better off for it". But that particular inversion of values would be a bridge too far for Mr. Sanford, I think. His behavior may be idiosyncratic, but he's shown no signs of theological innovation.

  17. Toma said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 8:43 am

    Hey Joel, how about "Watermelon is the water of melons"?

  18. Sili said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 9:06 am

    Off topic-ish, but Something Positive has weighed in on teh subject of not-pologies.

  19. AJD said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 10:20 am

    "The biggest self of self is indeed self" is a nice example of iambic pentameter occurring in the wild.

  20. Bloix said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

    I believe that in the Kierkegaard we have a case of poor translation or at least obsolute word use obscuring meaning. To relate means to tell or recite, and a relation is a recitation or tellling, or tale:.

    So:

    The self is a tale that tells itself to itself, or is the tale's telling itself to itself in the telling; the self is not the tale but the tale's telling itself to itself.

  21. Karen said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 1:20 pm

    @ AJD: "The biggest self of self is indeed self" is a nice example of iambic pentameter occurring in the wild.

    Really? Because for me the stress on indeed is inDEED, which spoils the meter.

  22. Ian Preston said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

    Given what comes before, the most plausible intended formulation for me is "The biggest enemy of self is indeed self." The claim that the first enemy of self is our self can be found in a Presbyterian context here.

    You can find something very like this in the Bhagavad Gita (chapter 6, verses 5-6, tr. R.C.Zaehner): "Raise self by self, let not the self droop down; For self's friend is self indeed, so too is self self's enemy. Self is friend to the self of him whose self is by the self subdued; but for the man bereft of self self will act as an enemy indeed." Perhaps that is what Bill Poser had in mind.

  23. acilius said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

    myl:"a bridge too far for Mr. Sanford, I think. His behavior may be idiosyncratic, but he's shown no signs of theological innovation."

    I shouldn't belabor such a trivial point, but I can't resist pointing out that Governor Sanford has never found himself in quite this situation before. Since he clearly is a bright man with a bookish streak, it wouldn't be surprising if he responded to unfamiliar pressures with an attempt to come up with some impressive remark.

    As for Sanford and Ayn Rand, that seems to be a red herring, unless I've missed something. He may have mentioned her in passing a couple of times, but his major inspirations seem to come from other regions of the right.

  24. Bloix said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    Don't surround yourself with yourself
    Move on back two squares
    Send an instant karma to me
    Initial it with loving care, yourself.

  25. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

    Read differently, it's all just emo.

  26. Mark Sanford Has The Soul of A Poet | Gossip News said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

    [...] Language Log [UPenn] [...]

  27. Mark Sanford may be smarter than we thought, Penn professor says | Under the Button said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    [...] dug a little further and found that on Language Log, Liberman draws an interesting comparison between Sanford's statement that "the biggest [...]

  28. The Nation, 20 July 2009 « Panther Red said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 7:20 pm

    [...] I've been drawn into discussions about Governor Sanford at both Dykes to Watch Out For and Language Log; I'm glad I'm not the only person outside of the Republican Party who sees some good in [...]

  29. Tomer Perry said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

    I love it when people make their point not only by saying but also by manifesting it with the way they are saying it (it's usually better when done on purpose, but it can also be nice when done inadvertently). Check out the way the governor stammers over his own mistake: isn't this just a person who struggles against his own drawbacks? Isn't he just screaming for help – protect me from myself?

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