Interesting, said my father a long time ago, that English employs a capital letter, I, to denote the first person singular, whereas Hungarian uses lower case én for it and saves the upper case for "you": Te. Do you think it means anything?
No, I thought. The winds of history have blown us to a land of diffidence and reticence. Capital I is counter-intuitive. So, by the way, is the hand-kissing courtesy of Te.
But here I am sitting like Humpty Dumpty on a fine high wall with the king's soldiers waiting nearby in case I overbalance, and what Humpty says goes. Humpty says:
Now, take a good look at me! I'm one that has spoken to a King, I am: mayhap you'll never see such another: and to show you I'm not proud, you may shake hands with me!
And so, permission to shake the notable hand granted, he grins from ear to ear and leans forwards. Nor is he finished or ready to topple.
There you have me and my ego, the whole frail, handsome egg-like structure: the English capital I, master of my fate and captain of my soul, complete, like Humpty Dumpty, with cravat.
W.E. Henley, who wrote those masterful, captainish words about fate and soul, suffered from tuberculosis and had a leg amputated before he was twenty. He began in pieces. Nevertheless, in about 1888 he declared:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
Maybe, being as he was, he was entitled to brag a little, and to add:
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Bloody, but unbowed has been added to the common stock of English idioms, but the blood in his poem "Invictus" was there first. Something about frailty and frangibility haunts such declarations and it is hard to define ourselves, Humpty-wise, out of it.
It is interesting, I later meditated, remembering my father, that the High-Victorian, imperial world of Henley and Newbolt could lay claim to heroic acts of derring-do that we can only regard with a certain, cringing irony. The great collective ego once moved from cricket fields to broken military formations. Humpty I had the army of the royal we behind it, moving to a martial drum. And if Humpty fell all the queen's soldiers and all the queen's men were ready to put him together again. So maybe that English I was not quite so diffident or reticent then. It was, shall we say, more expansive.
One of La Rochefoucauld's maxims goes:
When a Man has travelled never so far, and discovered never so much in the World of Self-Love, yet still the Terra Incognita will take up a considerable part of the Map.
The map was red in Henley's time, of course, and all terra incognita was, potentially, red. Because ego thrives on action: it must ever be swelling or else it deflates. It's like a kind of tumescence really: a masculine thing. Women don't have egos, or if they do you never hear of them. They can have pride, vanity, ambition, even empire, but not ego. And egos are frail by nature, brittle as a blown egg. Ego suffers from lust, from impotence, from brewer's droop. Ego can be drunk and positively stupid.
Yet there is something to be said in defence of the ego. The action it engages in can be as much productive as destructive. The production is not always as spectacular as the destruction but it can, at times, be extraordinarily spectacular and it can also be quietly epoch-changing.