Allegory of the Matryoshka

As a child, I loved them but I didn’t know what they were called, so I gave them a name of my own: “Open People”. Later on I learned that they carry various titles, including Matryoshka dolls, nesting dolls, stacking dolls, and Russian dolls, and I’ve accumulated a very small collection that I’d love to enlarge if I had a budget and small gallery dedicated to that end. I’m not sure why I’ve always been fascinated by them, considering their structural simplicity, but I think I’m beginning to understand.

Matryoshka dolls provide a facile metaphor, that of one generation of parents giving rise to another and another after that, and there are many other interpretations and iterations of the doll as a symbol, or so the internet tells me. In the spirit of layers upon layers, I’m having another idea: imagine that every person is like a Matryoshka doll. Within each of our identities we carry other versions of ourselves, postures from the past that date back to that moment of birth represented by the innermost doll, the one usually painted to look like a baby. This is the only doll that cannot be opened, and it’s traditionally hewn from a single piece of wood; it’s the only version of self that has no cracks. I do not believe that a human baby comes into this world with inborn sin, afflicted by the misdeeds of any human who has existed before. We are born innocent, fully intact in our purity, free of prejudice and bereft of belief. We are unbroken, wholly equipped with nothing but genetic material and instinct as directives. We are honest, faultless, guileless and real. If anyone can ever be considered perfect, this is the hour when that term can apply. Never are we more divine than in the moment we first breathe air.

From there, our child selves build upon each other like layers of pearl forming over that initial granule of sand, one after the other, eventually becoming adult selves, each containing every one that came before. All of these former selves coexist, even though they’re not necessarily perceptible to those around us, insomuch as they contribute to who our present selves have come to be. Without all of those other selves, our current selves could not be what they are; former selves are essential to the formation of present identities.

This is why face value is sometimes so approximate, why what’s inside a book should never be estimated by its cover. There’s implicit multiplicity within every personality, and the form in which we each walk through this world today is built upon an aggregation of every yesterday. Sometimes I imagine myself as a Matryoshka doll, each layer opened and laid out among the others, all unpacked, each edition of identity twisted at the waist, pulled apart. and set next to the rest. It helps, this image. We are never quantifiable by a singular identifier or a sole role in this life. Sometimes when I imagine my personal past this way, it’s as if so many former versions of myself are all sitting around a table, each carrying its own perspective, together trying to synthesize a deeper understanding of what it means to be this particular person. It’s a fraught conversation at times, but once in a while they agree to borrow parts from each other, try on each other’s bottoms or tops, twist around and see how it feels to live like the other half. And then, afterwards, I imagine them all reassembling, tucking back inside the largest shell, each folded against the contours of both the one that came before it and the one that came to be because of it, the most current self closing the others quietly in.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that the reality we see laid out before us isn’t the only point of reference we have. So many moments have paved the way for now, and the paths we have yet to walk await us. I try to keep in mind that when I make my way along those paths, all of my selves are in accompaniment, sometimes offering a reminder or a observation from their perspective. It’s a comfort to know that who I’ll be down the road will be grateful to have the person I am today–with all of my faults and uncertainties and weaknesses and things I have yet to learn–along for the ride. I’ll remind her to never forget that allegorical line that encircles her midriff, an emblem of the Matryoshka doll of selfhood, and to remember that we all are Open People.

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