Opinion //

Against authenticity: The Novel as a Reflection of Consciousness

Honi Soit Writing Competition 2020 non-fiction shortlist.

Place yourself in a room of young university students who have spent the semester confidently criticising the great books they are studying, until they read David Foster Wallace’s Good Old Neon. A shift in atmosphere is palpable. Students speak as they might feel about for an object they cannot see; with a blind hesitance, ready to snatch back tentative comments if they touch on something offensive. They are appropriately sensitive to their classmates; the protagonist of the story, Neal, commits suicide, and a ‘trigger warning’ mentality heightens awareness of potentially exposed nerves.[1] Extraordinarily, however, they are also sensitive to Good Old Neon itself. Wallace’s chosen subject matter seemed to lift his story beyond criticism; it was as though no one wished to deny Neal’s experience by engaging with the story as a work of literature.[2] A connection between Neal and Wallace was made almost immediately; critiquing Wallace’s writing was critiquing the feelings which led him to suicide. “We have to read this as Wallace’s cry for help,” one student claimed. “He was writing this and feeling the same way.”

I posit that Neal provoked this response while the other characters the students had studied did not, because Neal is read as being ‘authentic.’ Here, I am referring to the mode of thought which claims – erroneously, in my opinion – that there is one version of yourself which is more authentic than other ways of being. This way of thinking is hugely popular; we need only step into our local bookstore and browse the extensive self-help section to see this. One of Dymock’s most popular self-help books, Gloria Steinem’s The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off!, declares that, “many are looking for the right person. Too few are looking to be the right person.”[3] If one can be the right (read: authentic) person, it follows one can also be the wrong (read: inauthentic) person.

This example suggests that a person’s most authentic version of themselves is their best version.[4] I would argue that the opposite is also true; that inner turmoil and unhappiness are also read as authentic, particularly in characters. Toni Morrison said that “evil has a blockbuster audience… [and] grief, melancholy, missed chances for personal happiness, often seem to be contemporary literature’s concept of evil.”[5] If we read Neal’s tumultuous inner life as being Morrison’s “evil,” then I argue it has its “blockbuster audience” because we read “grief, melancholy, missed chances for personal happiness” as being as authentic as the ‘best self’ touted by self-help books.

We can demonstrate this by turning our attention from literature to visual art. The Abstract Expressionists painted the sublime; but rather than the landscapes of the nineteenth century Romantics or the theophany of the High Renaissance, here the sublime was the self, specifically, the inner turmoil of the (almost always male) Artist with a capital A. In his essay, ‘The Sublime is Now,’ Barnett Newman claimed that artists were creating “cathedrals” from their emotions.[6] Jackson Pollock’s The Guardians of the Secret (1943) crams dabs, squiggles and skeins of paint together with much indecision and hesitation, giving the viewer a sense of Pollock’s being tongue-tied in the face of his extreme emotions, as if before the towering might of Yosemite. The works of Pollock, Newman and the other Abstract Expressionists were heralded by some of the most absurdly bombastic effusions in the history of American art; the tormented mind was not only authentic, it was “heroic” to the point of becoming transcendent.[7]

Just as Pollock rummages for some authentic sense of self, so too does Neal.[8] I suggest that this parallel can tell us why those students were so eager to treat Neal with a sensitivity usually reserved for living people. The authentic self touted by self-help books sets us up to feel inauthentic, and this prompts us to attempt to relate to characters like Neal, whose tumultuous struggle with self-identity validates our own. By our desire to ‘relate’ to Neal I do not mean our desire to have ‘empathy’ for him. Empathy places the emphasis on the other; it is the ability to imagine what it might be like to experience the world from their perspective. I argue that relatability places the emphasis on the self; we form a connection with the other so as to understand and validate our own experiences, holding them up as a mirror in order to see, in them, a reflection of a part of ourselves.

If we imagine Neal as a reflection, we might describe ourselves leaning over Good Old Neon as being like Narcissus leaning over a pond, so enamoured by the reflection that he will languish and die. Importantly, Narcissus does not realise that he is in love with his own reflection; in this way, the self becomes the other. Like Narcissus, we believe that the beautiful youth we can see in the pool of words – in our case, a tormented mind grappling with a beleaguered sense of self – is not our reflection. Instead, we treat Neal as a reflection of Wallace, circumventing the complication of Neal’s factiousness. By relating to Neal’s inner turmoil, we can authenticate our own.

However, it is possible to read Good Old Neon as a reflection of Wallace’s inner turmoil, as though it were a Pollock all-over painting, only if one does not pay attention to the story. Neal’s first words to us are, “My whole life I’ve been a fraud. I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is to try to create a certain impression of me in other people.”[9] It is tempting to read Neal’s honesty about his dishonesty as being proof of his authenticity, for it validates our own feelings of fraudulence. However, Neal is leading us “around by the nose” by “acting all open and candid,” just as he does with Dr Gustafson, his psychoanalyst.[10] Neal admits his supposed honesty is designed to manipulate; we are fools if we believe that his supposed honesty with us has a different intended effect.

While the students reveal how desirable it is to see in Neal a reflection of ourselves, I argue that it is in Dr Gustafson that Wallace reflects the reader. Dr Gustafson has “almost nothing to do with the big doughy repressed guy sitting back against his chair’s beads” because he has more to do with the reader.[11] But we can reject this reflection. If we accept that a sense of inauthenticity arises from the concept of there being one authentic self, whether it is the best self or the troubled self, we can choose to abandon that idea in favour of the idea of self as multi-faceted, constantly evolving, and never either authentic or inauthentic. If we can be conscious of this Narcissian tendency to search for a sense of self in characters, we can use it as a way to explore this multi-faceted self by using characters as mirrors not to validate, but to understand. This seems to me to come far closer to being able to express the vastness that is our consciousness.

[1] I do not suggest that this attitude is inherently negative. A student who is heedless to the damage their remarks might inflict is as unconducive to rigorous debate as a student who errs too far on the side of caution. However, it is worthwhile to point out that the increasing prevalence of ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings,’ especially at universities, may have the opposite of their intended effect. See Jonathon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’, The Atlantic, 2015. for a detailed analysis of how avoiding ‘triggering’ situations makes people more, not less, sensitive.

[2] The expression ‘to deny someone’s experience’ has recently been upgraded to ‘deny someone’s existence.’ This expression is symptomatic of a form of emotional reasoning wherein if I feel it, it is true. This reasoning requires that if I say that I feel offended, I am not merely expressing my own subjective feeling of being offended. Rather, I am publicly charging the person who has offended me with an objective wrong; my feeling is the evidence of that charge. Haidt and Lukianoff.

[3] Gloria Steinem, The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off! (Sydney: Murdoch Books, 2019).

[4] Once you reach this impossibly high standard, you will be so happy and fulfilled your relationship with yourself can even take the place of meaningful relationships with others; listen to Lizzo’s ‘Soulmate.’

[5] Morrison in a talk at Harvard Divinity School in 2012, first published in: Toni Morrison, ‘Goodness: Altruism and the Literary Imagination’, The New York Times, 2019.

[6] Barnett Newman, ‘The Sublime Is Now’, in The Ides of Art: Six Opinions on What Is Sublime in Art? (New York: Tiger’s Eye, 1948). 53.

[7] It should be noted that Pollock made no metaphysical claims about his own artwork, but other artists were not so restrained. Clyfford Still, who possessed neither Pollock’s ability to marry scrupulous scrutiny with the grandeur of the total effect, nor Mark Rothko’s strong sense of subtle colour relationships, claimed that with a single stroke of paint, he cold “restore to man the freedom lost in twenty centuries of apology and devices for subjugation.” John P. O’Neill, Clyfford Still (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc, 1979). 47.

Robert Rosenburg, when praising Newman’s “zip” motif (a vertical band of paint splitting a field of colour asunder) wrote that the zip was “recognised by Newman as his Sign; it stood for him as his transcendental self… the divided rectangle took on the multiplicity of an actual existence – and a heroic one.” Robert Rosenburg, ‘The Abstract Sublime’, ARTnews, 1961. 3.

[8] After Pollock’s death, his wife, Lee Krasner, herself an artist, revealed that the process of creating Pollock’s famed ‘all-over’ paintings was heavily controlled, and that Pollock often laboured on one painting for months.

[9] David Foster Wallace, ‘Good Old Neon’, in Oblivion Stories (London: Abacus, 2004). 141.

[10] Foster Wallace. 143.

[11] Foster Wallace. 152.