Strangers to Ourselves

For reasons that I probably do not myself fully understand, I am endlessly intrigued by discussions of the ever elusive state of being we call authenticity. At least part of the intrigue lies in how a discussion of authenticity can ensnare within itself philosophical, sociological, technological, and even religious considerations. It makes for lively and stimulating discussion in other words. Authenticity talk is intriguing as well because it may be under its guise that the ancient debate about what constitutes a good life and the venerable quest to “know thyself” survive today.

Both of these considerations also suggest a serious difficulty presented by authenticity talk: the word authenticity, as it is commonly used, masks a complex and diverse set of concepts. This complexity and diversity threatens to introduce a slippery equivocation into what might otherwise be well-intended conversations and debates. At least this has been my experience. But then again, discussing what exactly authenticity is is part of what makes such discussions lively and interesting.

My own thinking about authenticity is sporadic and owes more to serendipity than to any conscientious scholarly endeavor. For example, most recently, from no particular quarter, the following question formulated itself in my mind: What is the problem to which authenticity is the answer?

There is nothing particularly insightful about this question, but it did get me thinking about the whole set of ideas from a different angle. The meandering mental path that subsequently unfolded led me to identify this problem as some sort of psychic rupture or dissonance. We don’t think  of authenticity at all unless we think of it as a problem, and it presents itself as a problem at the very time it enters our conscious awareness. It is a problem tied to our awareness of ourselves as selves.

There are many interesting paths that unfold from that point, but I want to offer this one subsequent stab at defining what we (sometimes) mean by authenticity: Authenticity is a seamless continuity between the self, time, and place. It is a sense of complete at-homeness in the world. For this reason, then, we might see nostalgia as another manifestation of the problem of authenticity. Nostalgia — first in its literal sense as longing for spatial home, and then its more contemporary form as longing for a home in time — is a symptom of the rupture in the continuity between self, time, and place that generates an awareness of the self as a problem to be solved, an awareness that constitutes the problem of authenticity.

Framing the discussion as matter of at-homeness (or a lack thereof) recalled to my mind the work of the medical doctor turned novelist cum philosopher, Walker Percy. Percy went from being a diagnostician of physical maladies to one of existential maladies. With his acute Pascalian eye, Percy made a literary career of diagnosing the modern self’s inability to understand itself. This was the theme of his send-off of the self-help genre, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.

Percy chose the following passage from Nietzsche as an epigraph for Lost in the Cosmos:

“We are unknown, we knowers, to ourselves … Of necessity we remain strangers to ourselves, we understand ourselves not, in our selves we are bound to be mistaken, for each of us holds good to all eternity the motto, ‘Each is the farthest away from himself’—as far as ourselves are concerned we are not knowers.”

A little further on, in his inventory of possible “selfs” (or should that be “sevles”), Percy offered this description of the lost self:

“With the passing of the cosmological myths and the fading of Christianity as a guarantor of the identity of the self, the self becomes dislocated, … is both cut loose and imprisoned by its own freedom, yet imprisoned by a curious and paradoxical bondage like a Chinese handcuff, so that the very attempts to free itself, e.g., by ever more refined techniques for the pursuit of happiness, only tighten the bondage and distance the self ever farther from the very world it wishes to inhabit as its homeland …. Every advance in an objective understanding of the Cosmos and in its technological control further distances the self from the Cosmos precisely in the degree of the advance—so that in the end the self becomes a space-bound ghost which roams the very Cosmos it understands perfectly.”

Percy was writing in 1983. Centuries earlier, St. Augustine wrote, “I have been made a question to myself.” The problem of authenticity is much older than we sometimes realize. Perhaps we might say that it is a perpetually possible problem that is more or less actualized given certain historical or psychological conditions. Perhaps the problem of authenticity is not a problem at all, but as C.S. Lewis once wrote of nostalgia, the “truest index of our real situation.”

Freedom From Authenticity

Last night I listened to a recording of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address.  I know, I know. Wallace is one of these people around whom personality cults form, and its hard to take those people seriously. If it helps, there’s this one guy who is really ticked at Wallace for what must have been some horrible thing Wallace did to him, like having had the temerity to be alive at the same time as he. I also know that Wallace could at times be a rather nasty human being, or so some have reported. That said, the man said some really important and true things which need to be heard again and again.

These things as it turns out, or as I hear them now, in this particular frame of mind that I am in, have everything to do with authenticity. This is not because Wallace is talking directly about authenticity and its discontents, but because he understands, intimately it seems, what it feels like to be the sort of person for whom authenticity is likely to become a problem, and without intending to propose a solution to this problem of authenticity, he does.

Authenticity becomes a problem the second it becomes a question. As William Deresiewicz put it, “the search for authenticity is futile. If you have to look for it, you’re not going to find it.” Authenticity, like happiness and love and probably everything that is truly significant in life partakes of this dynamic whereby the sought after thing can be attained only by not consciously seeking after it. Think of it, and now it is a problem; seek it, and you will not find it; focus on it, and it becomes elusive.

So authenticity is the sort of thing that vanishes the moment you become conscious of it. It’s what you have only when you’re not thinking of it. And what you’re not thinking of when you have it is yourself. Authenticity is a crisis of self invoked by a hyper-selfawareness that makes it impossible not think of oneself. And I don’t think this is a matter of being a horribly selfish or arrogant person. No, in fact, I think this kind of hype-rselfawareness is more often than not burdened with insecurity and fear and anxiety. It’s a voice most people want to shut up and hence the self-defeating quest for authenticity.

What does Wallace have to say about any of this? Well, first, there’s this: “Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive.”

This is what he calls our default setting. Our default setting is to think about the world as if we were its center, to process every situation through the grid of our own experience, to assume “that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.” This is our default setting in part because from the perspective of our own experience, the only perspective to which we have immediate access, we are literally the center of the universe.

Wallace also issued this warning: “Worship power you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

So then, worship authenticity and … 

But, Wallace also tells us, it doesn’t have to be this way. The point of a liberal arts education — this is a commencement address after all — is to teach us how to exercise choice over what we think and what we pay attention to. And Wallace urges us to pay attention to something other than the monologue inside our head. Getting out of our own heads, what Wallace called our “skull-sized kingdoms” — this is the only answer to the question of authenticity.

And so this makes me think again of the possibility that certain kinds of practices that help us do just this. They can so focus our attention on themselves, that we stop, for a time, paying attention to ourselves. Serendipitously, I stumbled on this video about glass-blowing in which a glass-blower is talking about his craft when he says this: “When you’re blowing glass, there really isn’t time to have your mind elsewhere – you have to be 100% engaged.” There it is.

Now, I know, we can’t all run off and take up glass blowing. That would be silly and potentially dangerous. The point is that this practice has the magical side effect of taking a person out of their own head by acutely focusing our attention. The leap I want to make now is to say that this skill is transferable. Learn the mental discipline of so focusing your attention in one particular context and you will be better able to deploy it in other circumstances.

It’s like the ascetic practice of fasting. The point is not that food is bad or that denying yourself food is somehow virtuous or meritorious. Its about training the will and learning how to temper desire so as to direct and deploy it toward more noble ends. You train your will with food so that you can exercise it meaningfully in other, more serious contexts.

In any case, Wallace is right. It’s hard work not yielding to our default self-centeredness. “The really important kind of freedom,” Wallace explained, “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” I know I’ve cited that line before and not that long ago, but the point it makes is crucial.

Freedom is not about being able to do whatever we want, when we want. It has nothing to do with listening to our heart or following our dreams or whatever else we put on greeting cards and bumper stickers. Real freedom comes from learning to get out of our “skull-sized kingdoms” long enough to pay attention to the human being next us so that we might treat them with decency and kindness and respect. Then perhaps we’ll have our authenticity, but we’ll have it because we’ve stopped caring about it.


A transcript of Wallace’s address is available here.

The Question Regarding Authenticity

Since writing Friday’s post and benefiting from the subsequent exchange with Nathan Jurgenson I’ve come across a handful of items that have kept me thinking about identity and authenticity.

I’m still thinking, but I thought I’d gather some of these items here and, in Linda Richman fashion, invite you to “discuss among yourselves.”

In a blog post at The American Scholar, William Deresiewicz makes a number of an interesting observations:

“Genuinevintageauthentic: these are the words that signify spiritual value now for us, and constitute the tokens of our status competition. We hunger for the real to fill us up, and by the real we mean the old or the traditional: anything that isn’t us. The highest praise we can give that lamp or sideboard is that it looks like the kind of thing that’s been in someone’s family for generations, and that’s exactly the illusion that we pay for those objects to give us: the illusion of lineage, continuity, rootedness, memory. Modernity is constant movement, within lives and between generations, a constant shedding and forgetting. We value things that give us the sense of being embedded in space and time, even if we have to buy someone else’s memories, or visit other people’s histories, to get it.”

And …

“Buddy, if it’s a choice, it’s not an identity. Identity is not a suit of clothes you take on and off. It’s a skin; it sticks to you whether you like it or not. It’s what other people call you—people with the same identity, people with different ones—not what you decide to consider yourself. History gives it to you, not some kind of “search.” But identity now has become a matter not of belonging or community, both of which are gone, but of, precisely, authenticity.”

He concludes:

“So what’s the answer? Just assent to your life. You’re middle class? You’re white? You’re Western? So what? That’s just as real as anything else. ‘We seek other conditions,’ Montaigne said, ‘because we do not understand the use of our own.'”

Regarding community and tradition, consider the following observation by W. H. Auden:

“The old pre-industrial community and culture are gone and cannot be brought back. Nor is it desirable that they should be. They were too unjust, too squalid, and too custom-bound. Virtues which were once nursed unconsciously by the forces of nature must now be recovered and fostered by a deliberate effort of the will and the intelligence. In the future, societies will not grow of themselves. They will be either made consciously or decay.”

Is the question of authenticity correlated to the “deliberate effort” and conscious making Auden calls for?

Thanks to Alan Jacobs for both of those. And thanks to Rob Horning for the following from Simon Reynolds:

“You don’t have to be an antiquated Romantic or old-fashioned early 20th-century-style Modernist to find this input/output version of creativity unappealing. Surely the artist or writer is more than just a switch for the relay of information flows, the cross-referencing of sources and coordinates? What is missed out in the recreativity model is the body: the artist as a physical being, someone whose life and personal history has left them marked with a singular set of desires and aversions. There is also the little matter of will: bubbling up from within, that profoundly inegalitarian drive to stand out, to assert oneself in the face of anonymity and death. It’s this aspect of embodiment and ego that gets downgraded in digital culture, which tends to reduce us to the textual: a receiver/transmitter of data, a node in the network.”

Is the question of authenticity the revenge of the supposedly de-centered self?

Speaking of Romantics, or their near kin, here is Emerson:

“A boy is in the parlour what the pit is in the playhouse; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome.  He cumbers himself never about consequences, about  interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict.  You must court him: he does not court you.  But the man is, as it were, clapped into jail by his consciousness. As soon as he has once acted or spoken with eclat, he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this.”

Is authenticity just another word for the lost innocence of childhood?