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Illeism and Julius Caesar. Conrad Brunstrom writes about Talking about Oneself in the Third Person

August 13, 2015


Re-reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Conrad is confirmed in his long-standing opinion that the reason why the dictator was stabbed (a lot) was because he kept referring to himself in the third person.  Shakespeare makes Caesar say things like this…


The gods do this in shame of cowardice:

Caesar should be a beast without a heart,

If he should stay at home to-day for fear.

No, Caesar shall not: danger knows full well

That Caesar is more dangerous than he:

We are two lions litter’d in one day,

And I the elder and more terrible:

And Caesar shall go forth.

One of the assassins, Decius Brutus, has been despatched to Caesar’s house to make sure that Caesar really does show up to the senate.  At least Decius Brutus’ resolve must have been strengthened by having to hear speeches like this.  Stab him.  Stab him now.

But “Illeism” – the tendency to refer to oneself in the third person – is more complex than I’d thought.  More ambiguous and polyvalent than you might think.   When Caesar goes all illeist, it’s because his superego is so over-developed it’s become an abstraction of demi-divine origin, thus illustrating just how urgently he needs to be stabbed a lot.

But de-personalised illeism need not entail self inflation – it can be used to deflate the self as in Full Metal Jacket‘s

“Sir! the private has been instructed but does not know, Sir!”

Matthew Modine’s character refers to himself in the third person because he’s objectifying himself – acknowledging himself as a work in process rather than a complex agent.

Then again,illeism can denote a degree of idiocy – an inability to tackle certain grammatical categories and a conceptual inability to divide the world up into “mes” “yous” and “thems”.  Who can forget the sublime pathos to be found in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974)

“Mongo not know.  Mongo but pawn in game of life.”

(An exquisite confession of lack of agency and a rare case of illeist reflexivity.)

In all forms of illeism, one suspects a degree of ego weakness and a loss of agency. Closer to Julius Caesar is this bit of dialogue from Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995)

Mitchell puts his hand on Dick's shoulder.

	Get off that.  That leads nowhere.
	You should offer condolences to the
	families of those kids.

	Sure, I'd like to offer condolences.

He shrugs off Mitchell's hand and walks down the deck into
the shadows.

	But Nixon can't.

Anthony Hopkins plays a man who would like to offer condolence to the families of the Kent State students but is prevented from doing so by “Nixon” – a figure he has created and is now in thrall to.  Like Caesar, Nixon is contrained by “Nixon” to act in particular ways at all times.

A different kind of helpless ego weakness of offered by Gollum in Lord of the Rings.  Gollum rarely if ever calls himself “Gollum” but often calls himself “Smeagol” – an identity he may have forfeited and whose name is therefore over-evoked.  Sam and Frodo note a rare occasion in which Gollum/Smeagol uses the first person pronoun as an utterance of rare authenticity.

The confirmed “illeist” is rarely a happy person.  It’s not a condition of freedom but a form of constraint – whether internally or externally imposed.

It is notable of course that at the moment of his life’s end as utterance became choked with the compound effect of multiple stab woulds, Julius Caesar jettisoned the use of the Third Person and, if conflicting sources are to be believed – resorted to the second or the first.


“Et Tu Brute”


“Infamy, Infamy, they’ve all got it Infamy”.


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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    What with it being Ides of March today, thought I’d repost this…

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