by Peter Brooks

Princeton University Press, $29.95, 226 pages

Somewhere near the end of this ellusive, fragmentary book, one line captures its essence: “That which is hidden, reveals itself when you know it must be there, when you have postulated its discovery as inevitable.” When what has been assumed to exist is something as ephemeral as identity, the modern search for self is indefatigable in constructing it.

Peter Brooks limns through a great swath of humanities, including works by Rousseau and Freud, analyses of the 4th Amendment and Shelock Holmes and discussions over masturbation and narrative in order to discover how identity works in modern life. It is, he believes, constructed through a nexus of cultural immanence and passionate desire for self-understanding: the self as an art project, constantly reinforced and undermined by the background worlds we inhabit.

Unfortunately, his chapters unfold as accumulations of interpretations that never cohesively mesh. The reader is treated to an educated mind, turning over provocative ideas, perhaps too provocative, since the elusiveness of identity forever escapes behind the very effort to make it known. Perhaps for the better, for as the author notes, “… the discovery of identity … brings only the wisdom of suffering.”

Neil Liss