On being oneself
“One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies. That’s all. They were coming in the goddam window.”—J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
A recent PBS American Masters documentary on the life and influence of J.D. Salinger reported that in the 1980s there were three assassinations or assassination attempts in which the assassins cited Catcher in the Rye during the trials by way of explaining why they had decided to take, or try to take, someone’s life. Mark David Chapman, the young man who shot and killed former Beatle John Lennon, reportedly said that he thought John Lennon was a phony. Chapman read some of the many quotes from Catcher in the Rye showing contempt for phonies. John Hinkley, Jr, the young man who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan reportedly had a copy of Catcher in the Rye in his hotel room and also cited passages from it at his trial. A third shooting in the late 1980s of a Hollywood actress also reportedly involved a shooter enamored of and perhaps motivated by the book.
Like many young people in the early 1960s, I was fascinated by J.D. Salinger’s writings and read almost everything he published before he stopped submitting his work for public scrutiny. Like most young people of all times, I went through a judgmental phase in my late adolescence and early adulthood, during which I was hypersensitive to people I regarded as phony. One time I made the fortunate mistake of denouncing some acquaintance as a phony in the presence of my mother. In her college years my mother had been active in campus theater productions, and throughout my elementary and high school education she had taken a keen interest in dramatic productions I was involved with at school. When she heard me denounce someone as a phony, she drew upon our shared interest in theater and reminded me that most people put a great deal of effort into creating a character that they wish to present to the world. Rather than denouncing them, she suggested, I might try admiring the results of the efforts to present a persona. Perhaps the character they are pretending to be is not really who they are, but it really is who they are sincerely trying to be, or at least sincerely trying to convince others that they are. A good performance by anyone is nothing to decry, and even a mediocre performance can be entertaining in its own way. A façade is no less who a person is than what is behind the façade. So sit back, my mother suggested, and enjoy the show.
My mother’s advice was one of those parental interventions that had the effect of immediately changing my attitude, and it turns out that the change in attitude has lasted for more than fifty years. What she said had the effect of making me look more deeply into the distinction between authenticity and phoniness. Like a good many distinctions, this one does not stand up very well under close scrutiny. Although human beings are often inclined to see some people as more authentic than others, it is not at all clear what the criteria are by which one can make an informed judgment as to which actions are sincere and which are not, or whose character is genuine and whose is not. It is not even clear what the point is in deciding who is authentic and who is not.
In Jungian psychology, the persona (or ego) is considered to be an archetype of the unconscious. To make that claim is to suggest that few of us are fully aware of all the times we are striving to present ourselves as being a particular kind of person; we do so unconsciously. The Jungian theory also suggests that the persona one is striving to be is only part of the totality of who one actually is. The persona is a selected subset of our entire psychological performance. It is but one character in a complex drama with a good many dramatic personae. When one acts in ways that the persona does not fully approve, the unapproved action is deemed “out of character” and the persona is quick to think “That was not really me.” Others may see what we do as being fully in character and quite predictable, while the persona remains quite sure that the disapproved action was a puzzling aberration and a deviation from one’s true self.
My mother loved to quote the line from Robert Burns’s poem “To a Louse”:
“O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”
Over the years I have often wondered how much of a gift it would really be to see myself as others see me. Perhaps I am not alone in having been surprised a number of times by how others have characterized me, and when other people’s characterizations take me by surprise, my tendency is regard the characterizations as inaccurate. Surely, I like to think, I am not as mean-spirited and misanthropic as some people seem to think, nor as kind-hearted and accepting as some others seem to think. The truth (if there is such a thing) is probably that I am sometimes mean-spirited and misanthropic and at other times a bit more kind and accepting, sometimes demanding and critical and sometimes permissive and lenient. Given enough time and varying circumstances, I am quite capable of being just about everywhere on the map at one time or another.
Are there any of the regions of that map that deserve to be called who I really am? Are there any areas on the map that when entered mark me as a phony? To both questions I am inclined to say I think not. But I am so often mistaken about so many things, that I could well be wrong about this as well.