Friday, August 27, 2010

Against Authenticity

 When J. D. Salinger died early this year, the accounts of his life in places like the The New York Review of Books described a man desperate to live some kind of life he could believe in.  Reading about it you get the feeling that, like his protagonist Holden Caulfield, Salinger couldn't stand phoniness, and thus couldn't stand the possibility that he, himself, would be leading an inauthentic, fake sort of life.  In Salinger's case, this seemed to have manifested itself primarily through a rejection of the life of literary fame in literary circles in literary cities like New York, in favor of ordinary life in simple towns like Cornish, New Hamphsire.

I've always had a complicated relationship to The Catcher in the Rye, and reading about Salinger made it feel more complicated.  When I first read it as assigned reading in high school, I was indignant:  "What a BOY'S BOOK this is," I thought.  "So, at 14 years old I'm considered to young to see racy movies but I have to read a book about a guy visiting prostitutes??"  I'm no prude, and I wasn't one then, but it really bugged me that so few of Holden's problems or adventures seemed to carry over to my female adolescent experience.  As I got older I came to like the book a lot, perhaps because it's actually easier for the grown-up me to identify with Holden's problems than it was for the 14 year old me to do so.

In fact, as I got older, I began to enjoy all of Salinger's books.  But I was always bothered by something I felt I didn't understand.  These characters all seemed to be seeking something, wanting something, wanting life to be something other than what it was, and I could never tell whether the point was, Hey, These are intelligent, reflective people, reflecting on the meaning of life, or whether it was more like, Hey, These people are in the grip of a massive illusion, that reflection will tell them something about the meaning of life.

For whatever it's worth -- and probably not much -- Salinger's life details sure do suggest the former.  When I read about Salinger's attempt to escape his life of literary fame, and his attempt to live a kind of authentic life, it seemed to me he had immediately created for himself an impossible situation.  I mean, here's a guy who is a famous author. That is his actual reality.  But he's going to go live in Cornish and try to live the life of a guy who is not a famous author?  To try to live a more authentic life? It's almost by definition an inauthentic life.  How can you live as what you really are if you're always pretending to be something else?

The whole story just added to a feeling I've long had, the the problem in such cases isn't the "living as what you are not" as much as the "trying to be authentic."

People always talk about authenticity like it's such a great thing, but I think for all its appeal, it's got a dark side.  For one thing, the whole concept of authenticity implies a kind of essentialism.  If you're just becoming what your social world expects of you, obviously that doesn't count, so authenticity must mean instead something like being the way your really are inside.  But when you put it like that, it starts to seem weird.  I mean, we grow up with families in communities -- are their influnces somehow making us inauthentic? And if not, why would the social world of our adulthood be any different?

Furthermore, as Lynda Barry so memorably puts it, what if your real self is awful?  What do you do then? 

And what about change?  As you know if you're an adult, it's hard to change, even when you really want to.  Pascal, of course, tells us that if you want to change, the first step is to live as if the change has already happened:  if you want to believe in god, he says, go to church, hang around with believers, and do good deeds.  And it's true, if you want to change, just having different habits is the first step.  But obviously that would be forbidden if you were trying to be all "authentic" and non-phony all the time.  What Pascal recommends is like the essence of phoniness.

Anyway, I've got a theory about why people like authenticity, and it's this:  ironically, what people like about authenticity isn't the truth of authenticity but the appearance of authenticity -- even the artifice of authenticity will do. 

This comes up over and over whenever people have occasion to discuss other people's manners at length.  A lot of those occasions are in European novels of the past, where the ultimate praise for others' manners is for how "natural" they are -- and I take this to mean, the person does not seem to be pretending, does not seem to be nervous, does not seem to be acting out a set of etiquette rules, but rather has an simple and comfortable way that suggests confidence.

But it's not just a thing of the past.  We criticize people now for manner that seems not quite natural, not quite at ease, somehow seeking to create an effect.  But I don't think it's because care about people's true selves; I think it's for the same reason Jane Austen criticized these things:  such manners are unpleasant.

The manners of people living who they are can be very appealing.  The sort of characters we associate with authenticity ... they convey a kind of self-assurance that makes you think, Hm, I'd like to be like that.  But the moral of that isn't to try to become those characters; the moral of that is just that self-assurance is attractive, however you go about getting it.

This kind of authenticity is more like the courage of your convictions than it is about being true to one's self, or contrasting one's true self to one's social self.  We like that courage.  Even when it's faked.

If you want this kind of authenticity, you've got to either relentlessly say what you really believe, or you've got to be a really good actor, or some combination of the two.  But either way, it's got nothing to do with true selves, or with living an ordinary life, or with being "some guy in Cornish" rather than "a famous author."


chris said...

I like this post immensely. Maybe because I've thought some of these things myself. I've always chosen my friends for their good acting, I think.

But I want to say this: I like good acting. And part of being a good actor involves recognizes the right roles for one's self.

Picking one's role wisely partly has to do with matching one's temper, manner, style or whatever with the roles one attempts to fill. The acting has to come easy. And easy acting, like you say, is pleasant.

Have you ever liked an actor intensely in one film, but hated him in another? Have you ever thought that that role just didn't 'fit' the actor?

Life's a bit like that, I think. The right person in the right role is brilliant. The wrong person in the wrong role is awful, terribly awful.

I don't want to say what kind of person fits whatever role, or what roles there are or ought to be. I'm always wonderfully surprised by new roles, and new characters.

But I can spot bad acting from a mile away.

Patricia said...

Hi Chris, I'm with you, I think -- certainly about the appeal of a person on one role but not another. I remember being so caught up with Hillary Swank seeming so incredibly awesome in Boys Don't Cry ... but then in other contexts, um, not so much.

I should say, though, that while I am not hung up on authenticity I am kind of hung up on honesty -- so it's not duplicity I'm endorsing.

"He's a bad actor!" was a kind of standard negative comment among the women of my extended family at one time ... it sounds old-fashioned, but sometimes it is so apt.