Masks, personas, floating operas, and the limits of authenticity

by on Dec.10, 2012

It’s true I prefer not to identify myself and I’ve been amused by the diversity of ways I’ve been judged and classified.

— Michel Foucault

I’ve been reading Public Enemies, a book by Bernard-Henri Lévy and Michel Houellebecq that consists of a series of letters they wrote to one another a few years ago. The topics are wide-ranging, moving from religion, to politics (Houellebecq interestingly describing himself as a “political atheist”), to art (they both love Baudelaire, Lévy having written a book about the poet and Houellebecq seeing Baudelaire as his central model for how to be a writer). I know some people are always saying to other people that we should not read Houellebecq, he’s a shocking human being, etc., but that kind of moralizing only makes it more likely I’ll pick up a book, and when I picked up The Elementary Particles, I actually found it surprisingly good, with an odd, weirdly contemporary melancholy I’ve seen in few other places. Wong Kar-wai’s early films, for example.

One of the things that strikes me about the Lévy/Houellebecq book is how curious they are about the world around them, even Houellebecq with his perpetual miserablism. In one paragraph, they’ll make a nuanced argument about Spinoza, or Pascal, and in the very next one discuss Irish tax policy (Houellebecq lived in Ireland for many years). Films, politics, high art, low art, God, sex, war, alcohol, drugs, insomnia, self-loathing, delusions of self-grandeur, the elegance of certain metaphysical axioms, reasons to write and reasons to not write: it all gets in the mix.

I bring up the book because of a quote from Lévy that relates to my recent post on hate. He writes to Houellebecq (who started their correspondence with a faux-attack on Lévy): “Why is there so much hatred? Where does it come from? And why, when the targets are writers, is it so extreme in its tone and virulence? Look at yourself. Look at me. And there are other, more serious cases: Sartre, who was spat on by his contemporaries; Cocteau, who could never watch a film to the end because there was always someone waiting to take a crack at him; Pound in his cage; Camus in his box; Baudelaire describing in a tremendous letter how the ‘human race’ is in league against him. And the list goes on. Indeed, we would need to look at the whole history of literature. And perhaps we would also need to try and explore writers’ own desire. Which is? The desire to displease, to be repudiated. The giddiness and pleasure of disgrace.”


Years ago, I used to work at a bookstore in Evanston, Illinois, and I would occasionally thumb through one of the many self-help books we had in the store during slow points in the day. A surprising number of them talked of a kind of writing therapy. Keep a journal to become the person you truly are and reach your real self.

I have to admit, I can’t think of a less exciting reason to write. In contrast to the self-obsessed “write to become yourself’ school, Susan Sontag once said in an interview that if writing was no more than “self-expression,” she’d throw her typewriter out the window. (Her journals weren’t written for herself. They were written for herself and the eyes of God, as all interesting journals are. As were Camus’ journals, despite the fact he was an atheist. Camus wrote for himself and the eyes of a God he didn’t believe in.) And there’s Foucault, who said he didn’t write to find himself, but to become somebody different, somebody who did not exist when he first began to work on a particular project.

And Proust, one of my favorite writers: with him, the “I” isn’t stable, but an element of Bergsonian dynamism and experimentation. The self becomes an ever-shifting symphony, not a foundation to discover or to become. In the madeleine scene, it’s clear that memory is not truth, but sensation, or, to put is somewhat more abstractly, what Barthes’ called “an empire of signs.”

I prefer Lévy’s description of writing here — writing to displease, to be repudiated — to the model of authenticity and foundationalism (the two being joined at the spine) that still lingers over a surprising amount of writing in the U.S.

And instead of writing to find ourselves, there is always Kafka’s bracing idea that writing is an axe we use to break up the frozen water inside of us.


Personas, floating operas, scrims hanging in condemned theaters, black velvet paintings, Gilgamesh and Enkidu as Laurel and Hardy, or two Francis Bacon wrestlers, or the Usher siblings, the fictionalized account, the way all accounts are fictionalized accounts, the mask behind the face, Hegel’s night behind the human eye, a night without breadth or depth, without ground or sky, morality as aesthetics and aesthetics as morality, Caravaggio’s saints with dirt on the bottom of their feet, Caravaggio’s Bacchus leaning back on a filthy 16th century pillow: that’s what interests me more than any claim for an authentic voice, more than any search for the so-called truth.

Appearances and not soul. The way writing or saying “I” turns us into other people and turns us out of ourselves. The way “I” turns us into a crowd.

Hume on the utter fucking indifference the world has to our moralities, our principles, our ideals: You cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’

Denis Lavant as an elderly woman. Denis Lavant as an assassin. Denis Lavant as the most fiendish and exact of guttersnipes. All in one day.

Ben from Blue Velvet already knowing the whole story. He’s already a thousand years old, like Pater’s Mona Lisa. He’s already with Poe, dozing in the House of Usher as the roof cracks over their heads.

The bright pointless clarity of objects and surfaces. The face reflected in the train window you don’t recognize as your own.

Beckett’s anonymous voices and Proust’s symphonic selves instead of the private property of “my story.”

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