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This blog is part of a monthly series titled “Unco Junto” (after the discussion clubs founded by Benjamin Franklin) in which I offer an introductory topic essay and a handful of commenters are invited to respond in any way they see fit. The goal is to provide a forum for long-form—and hopefully provocative—analysis in a media often dominated by superficial sound bites.
The Nature and Appeal of Authenticity
Some have described authenticity (or lack thereof) as an important element in the current presidential race, and a characteristic that divides Donald Trump from Hillary Clinton.
The New York Times noted that “Trump… has polled as one of the most authentic candidates in this election, despite statements and behavior that might also be called brazenly inconsistent. In fact, his authenticity problem looks like the opposite of Clinton’s: Nervous Republican politicians have been trying to suggest that what they themselves call his ‘racist’ invective is merely for show. In other words, Trump’s establishment supporters seem to be hoping that his authenticity is the expedient work of a conniving opportunist. The words ‘authentic’ and ‘authenticity’ derive from the Greek ‘authentes,’ a word that can denote ‘one who acts with authority’ or ‘made by one’s own hand’…. For a long time, Americans decided that the most authentic politicians were the most likable ones. This method of appraisal wasn’t entirely frivolous. Samuel L. Popkin, the author of The Candidate, says that the interest in the personal qualities of politicians stems from legitimate concerns in a diverse democracy: ‘Are you real or not? Because you’re not like me.’ Officeholders end up having to make decisions in unforeseen situations, so we gauge their judgment based on how much we like and trust them.”
Another Times piece quoted a comment Mr. Trump made in July on Fox News, during a similar conversation: “I want to be myself. You know, it got me here.” It goes on to note that “His natural shtick may fly in the face of all conventional wisdom about political speechifying, but it’s taken him far further than any of the purveyors of that wisdom ever thought it would. More important, he’s used his erratic and self-evidently impromptu speaking style to support the central thrust of his campaign, which is an attack, not just on the substantive track record of the establishment, but on its discredited way of speaking – the instrumentality and the focus-grouping, the suppression of honesty and real emotion in favor of boilerplate, slipperiness and downright lies. It may feel like a new phenomenon in contemporary American politics, but the ‘I just want to tell it like it is’ maneuver is a familiar one in the annals of rhetoric. It’s what Mark Antony is up to when he says to the Roman crowd in Julius Caesar, ‘I am no orator, as Brutus is; / But, as you know me all, a plain, blunt man,’ in the midst of his ‘Friends, Romans and countrymen’ speech, one of the most cunning displays of technical rhetoric, not only in Shakespeare, but in the English language.”
Melania Trump, when asked in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper about her husband’s recent comments to Billy Bush about his penchant for sexually groping women without consent, said that when she heard it “I was surprised, because that is not the man that I know.” That is, she acknowledged that the offensive statements were correctly attributed to Donald Trump, but insisted that they did not accurately reflect his true personality or worldview. They were dismissed as insincere “locker room talk” or sexual boasting.
Authenticity is sought far beyond politics, of course. When rap star Eminem was up and coming, a friend of mine encouraged me to check out his music: it was fresh, funny–and, my liberal friend noted, refreshingly authentic in an often overpolished, overproduced music world: The rapper spoke his mind, spoke from the heart and didn’t give a shit what other thought. That was clearly part of his appeal, and I understood it. Yet a few years later some of Eminem’s lyrics caused controversy, especially ones appearing to bash homosexuals and violent lyrics about his ex-wife.
I delicately pointed this out to my friend, who dismissed it as just Eminem playing a role–that, in other words, at least some of the lyrics that I’d previously been told were great and powerful because they were from his heart and authentic were in fact not from his heart and inauthentic–didn’t really reflect what he felt about gays, women, and so on.
Indeed, Eminem said as much in an interview with Entertainment Weekly where the rapper defended his use of gay slurs: “It was more like calling someone a bitch or a punk or a-hole. So that word was just thrown around so freely back then. It goes back to that battle, back and forth in my head, of wanting to feel free to say what I want to say, and then [worrying about] what may or may not affect people. And, not saying it’s wrong or it’s right, but at this point in my career-man, I say so much s- that’s tongue-in-cheek. I poke fun at other people, myself. But the real me sitting here right now talking to you has no issues with gay, straight, transgender, at all. I’m glad we live in a time where it’s really starting to feel like people can live their lives and express themselves.”
I could understand both sides to the issue, but there was clearly a contradiction somewhere. An artist, writer, or musician must be allowed to adopt different identities and express points of view that are not their own in their work. At the same time, surely those people do indeed express their own true feelings and heartfelt sentiments at times–and there’s no convenient warning label on each song or book parsing out which is which.
Gangster rap promoter Jerry Heller, in his 2006 memoir Ruthless: A Memoir, wrote about the fact this his supergroup N.W.A. was composed of rappers pretending to be killers and thugs. Their lyrics–including first-person accounts of shootings, murders, and robberies–were not autobiographical despite braggadocio to the contrary: “Cube, Dre, Eazy-they were all dreamers. They weren’t thugs. They were like the actor Robert Young:
‘I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.’ They played at thug life. We all laughed when Dre came out with The Chronic and tried to put up a thug front. Mild-mannered Andre Young! Clark Kent trying to convince you he was Lex Luthor… Dre was about as much of a thug as Marcus Welby, M.D.” Heller notes that “Ice Cube made one of the most trenchant comments anyone ever said about hip-hop. ‘Rap music is funny,’ he said to me once. ‘But it’s not funny if you don’t get the joke, then it’s scary.’ I got the joke. I knew Dre didn’t really smoke chronic (marijuana) yet and Cube was a mama’s boy and Eazy came from a stable two-parent household. None of them had ever shot anyone in their lives. They were auto-documentarians, playing gangstas, playing bad guys. These were stories they were telling, narratives.” They were all “studio gangsters,” musicians and artists playing roles, not the hardcore criminals they portrayed to the press and fans. Whether their fans knew–or would have cared–about this lack of authenticity isn’t clear; after all, they too sang along to the gangster rap songs and vicariously enjoyed the inner city murder and mayhem.
It is certainly true that people can and do say things that they do not genuinely and sincerely mean, or that reflect only a momentary flash of anger, frustration, elation, surprise or the like. (Similarly, of course, a person may say things while sleepy or intoxicated that they don’t really mean. Despite the common idea that people are more likely to reveal their unguarded true feelings when drunk, alcohol lowers inhibitions but is not a de facto truth serum; anything said while drunk has merely passed through a coarser filter than usual and is not necessarily any more likely to reflect the person’s inner feelings or character.)
Actors, musicians, comedians, and many others often say things they don’t literally mean as part of their work. When Bob Dylan sings “She’s a brown-skin woman, but I love her just the same” in his 1965 song “Outlaw Blues,” Dylan is not confessing his racism; he’s telling a story. No one assumes he’s expressing his sincere beliefs about his reluctant love for a woman despite the color of her skin–and especially given his marriage to Carolyn Dennis.
Roger Waters, in the DVD extras commentary for “The Wall Live in Berlin” (1990) discussed his lyrics as Pink in Pink Floyd’s classic The Wall: “…Are there any queers in the theater tonight?… that one looks Jewish! And that one’s a coon!” When asked about these potentially offensive lyrics Waters replied, “I never had a problem singing those lyrics in Germany or anywhere else. The lyrics are kind of obnoxious in some of the songs but clearly everybody understands that it’s satire and so I get forgiven for all that stuff about coons and Jews and things. People just seem accept that it’s okay because they know I’m not racist, that I don’t mean it, I’m playing a part, and that it’s okay as part of the play. You can’t write rock and roll without offending somebody.”
Context (including past history) is important to determining whether a person’s words are sincere or not. Trump’s combination of politician and blustering self-promoting pitchman makes it more difficult to determine the sincerity of his words; he has made countless factually false statements about a wide variety of topics. In the case of Trump’s self-stated predilection for nonconsensual groping, his statements have been independently confirmed by at least a half dozen women.
Donald Trump has of course also been accused of racism; soon after he referred to Mexicans as “rapists,” comedian Amy Schumer was criticized for doing the same thing, using Hispanic men as the punchline in a rape joke: “I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual.”
I don’t know whether either Trump or Schumer genuinely think that Mexican or Hispanic men are rapists, but whether they do or not, they have both stated as much. The “I was only joking” defense can validly extend beyond professional comics, of course: Anyone can joke about anything, and indeed Trump has deflected criticism of his comments by saying he was joking or engaging in hyperbole.
After making an anti-Trump joke during an October show, Schumer told Vanity Fair that “We have always depended on comedians to make us laugh and tell the truth. I am proud to continue that tradition.” It’s certainly true that comedians and entertainers have traditionally played the role of truth-teller, but jokes like this muddy the waters since presumably Schumer was not, in fact, telling the “truth” about Hispanic men; in other words she was saying it not because she meant it, but for entertainment or effect–just as Trump did.
Indeed, many have credited Trump’s presidential win in part to his apparent authenticity. One article dissecting the post-election voter turnout noted that “It appears that many women weren’t concerned with Trump’s comments about women. The official Women for Trump” website doesn’t overlook it –the site… acknowledges Trump’s sexist comments and rationalizes that they make him authentic: ‘That’s because he’s not working off a TelePrompTer or a script fine-tuned by a consultant and focus groups,’ the Women for Trump site stated. ‘We look at his actions, not his words.'” In other words at least some of the women who voted for Trump (as did 53% of White women, according to CNN exit polls) saw his candid admission as a sign of his trustworthiness, honesty, and authenticity. Any unease they might feel with the nature of his sexist comments was (apparently) trumped by the reassurance that at least they’re hearing what he’s really like, a refreshing departure from the traditional artifice of presidential candidacy.
What is behind the public’s search for authenticity in its politicians, musicians, and celebrities? Is it a fool’s errand? People are notoriously complex and contradictory creatures who cannot be distilled into a single snapshot or description of authenticity. How much “truth” can or should we expect from others in terms of aligning their words with their true feelings? Saying one thing but meaning another–even in minor issues such as polite flattery–is part of the human condition and social lubrication. Perhaps there is no such thing as genuine authenticity in a given person and the best we can do is hope for self-awareness and honesty about it. What do you think?
The idea of “authenticity” is important in much of modern existentialism. Existentialists recognize humans as being self-constructed. Unlike the objects that surround us, the special ability and burden of being human is in having access to the tools of creating ourselves. Existence precedes essence, and it is up to us to construct our essence. This freedom, for Sartre, entails our moral responsibilities and is the source of some horror. The unbound possibility that our freedom entails means we are free mostly to fail, to create ourselves in what he calls “bad faith.” We are in bad faith, which is close to what we might call “inauthentic” when society pressures us to adopt false values and set aside out own innate freedom. When we are play-acting, we are in bad faith. His examples include a waiter’s over-politeness or the theater involved among two people on a first date.
When we use the term “authentic” in modern, non-philosophical parlance, we also mean something like “being true to oneself.” The appeal to many of Trump appears to be that he is true to himself, unafraid of the judgment of society, and willing to say exactly what he thinks. Only we are capable of knowing ourselves, presumably. Clearly, what others experience of us is not our “innermost” selves. We play-act all the time. We must. In interacting with others we must abide by certain social
conventions, modes of behavior condoned by various levels of society. The way we are at home is not how we are at work, or when bowling with our friends. How we ought to be cannot be imposed upon us by some external morality or institution, but must be guided by our own, totally free choices. This is why our state of utter freedom is fraught with such responsibility. We cannot authentically blame others for our own choices.
There is a heavy moral duty involved with being authentic. When we are true to ourselves, in order to avoid bad faith we must use our freedom to make moral choices, choices that reflect the freedoms and burdens of others.
“Bad faith, a kind of self-deception, involves believing or taking oneself to be an X while all along one is (and knows oneself to be) actually a Y. The most familiar form of bad faith is acting as if one were a mere thing–solely facticity–and thereby denying one’s own freedom to make oneself into something very different.” — Authenticity, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
If we act in ways that deny others their freedom, that respects the nature and responsibility of our own freedom, we are also in bad faith. We are inauthentic. So the notion that one could be authentic and a horrible person is incoherent for Sartre and other existentialists. To become a “true” person, to be authentic and not in and faith, we must not only embrace our freedom and all it entails, but respect that condition for others.
Simone de Beauvoir explains in her essay “The Humanism of Existentialism” that the extension of Sartre’s notion of freedom as a process of engagement requires that we be constantly engaged in the freedom of others. So what then of those who act badly towards others, disregarding the freedom and dignity that Sartre and Beauvoir see as necessary for authenticity and to avoid bad faith?
The existentialist position is not just a description of our current state, that of being utterly and rather nauseatingly free, but also a statement about what this requires of us. In creating ourselves, authentically free from the constraints of society and history, we need to be especially careful to avoid the errors of both, and to make choices that coincide with what is consistent with the state of existential freedom. Finally it is nearly impossible to not be in bad faith, according to both Sartre and Beauvoir.
There is much that our instincts tell us about authenticity that makes the existential viewpoints of Sartre and Beauvoir appealing. Acknowledging our freedom seems to be insufficient for forging a manner in which we can live authentically, especially if we are unaware of or unconcerned with the baggage we carry from societal, familiar, or other relations. I think it is the latter problem that makes the very notion of authenticity rather difficult to parse, and more or less impossible to gauge.
Who are you, really? None of us stands in isolation from others. It is our other-directed selves that are most in the world, making impacts on the world in ways in which our “hidden” selves are incapable. It is our public selves that people know, and likely also that self, the one we create and play-act as most of the time that defines for ourselves who we are. The colloquial distinction between ourselves and our authentic selves seems misplaced. When we admire someone like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump for appearing to be authentic, for now displaying what we consider to be the artifice of public expectations, we are likewise observing a construction, with no access to the self behind that construction. In my opinion, none of us has very good access to the self behind our public selves, and so to what extent can we judge the authenticity of others?
Besides outright lies which we may tell with full knowledge of their being lies, our public selves are acts of artifice, of construction which maybe well be carefully measured, pragmatically conceived to be suitable for a public life. Since our childhood we are guided in our behaviors to fit into society. If my 2 year old son doesn’t, for instance, overcome his tendency to grab toys from other kids, he will be shunned and eventually jailed. Is he “authentic” because of his acting in accordance with his base instincts? Would a 70-year-old man acting in the same way be lauded for being authentic because he fails to filter his basest instincts?
This is why the Sartrean/Beauvoirian view is appealing, because is a theory of authenticity that imposes impressive duties to construct ourselves authentically, not merely to describe our unguided modes of being as somehow laudably “authentic.” To be “true to ourselves” we must first put ourselves in the context of other selves, and act in ways that are true to our position among others, with dignity and respect for the authenticity of others.
David Koepsell is Director of Education for CFI. He was executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism from 2003-2008 and has been a co-instructor with the CFI Institute since 2012. He holds a law degree (1995) and PhD in Philosophy (1997) from the University at Buffalo, and has authored and edited numerous books, as well as popular and scholarly articles, and has spoken to audiences worldwide on issues relating to civil rights, secularism, science and technology, ethics, humanism, and ontology.
Verisimilitude in Poetry: Achieving the Appearance of Authenticity through Artifice
“Verisimilitude in a work of fiction is not without its attendant dangers, the chief of which is that the responses it stimulates in the reader may be those appropriate not so much to an imaginative production as to an historical one or to a piece of reporting. History and reporting are, of course, honorable in themselves, but if we react to a poet as though he were an historian or a reporter, we do him somewhat less than justice.”
–E. Talbot Donaldson, “Chaucer the Pilgrim”
Last month, the editors of The New Oxford Shakespeare Complete Works announced that their new edition would be the first to credit the three Henry VI plays to William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. More accurately,1 Henry VI is attributed to “Marlowe, [Thomas] Nashe, and Anonymous, adapted by Shakespeare,” while 2 and 3 Henry VI are attributed to “Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Anonymous; revised by Shakespeare.” This announcement garnered an unusual amount of attention in the press, especially considering that way back in 1986, the previous Oxford Shakespeare had attributed eight plays to Shakespeare and various collaborators. What makes the Shakespeare/Marlowe/et al. collaborations so different from Pericles (Shakespeare and George Wilkins), Henry VIII and Two Noble Kinsmen (Shakespeare and John Fletcher), or Macbeth (Shakespeare, adapted by John Middleton)? For that matter, why didn’t poor Thomas Nashe get credit for his contribution to 1 Henry VI in any of the news stories about the collaborations?
I suppose Marlowe is rather better known than Nashe, Wilkins, Fletcher, and Middleton, and he had a colorful life (though Wilkins was an interesting and shady character as well). On top of that, Marlowe is one of the top three contenders for the title of “Poet who really wrote Shakespeare,” along with Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Legitimate academic authorship studies have collided with the fringe “Authorship Controversy.” Like Shakespeare and unlike Bacon and Oxford, Marlowe was a professional playwright and poet. Unfortunately, he died in 1593, right at the beginning of Shakespeare’s career. Even more unfortunately for Marlowe proponents who suggest he faked his death, the report of the coroner’s inquest into Marlowe’s death survives and was discovered in 1925 by Leslie Hotson. Marlowe’s collaboration with Shakespeare, should the claims withstand scholarly scrutiny, suggests that the two writers had distinct styles, even at a time when S
hakespeare was clearly influenced by Marlowe. How then could Marlowe be Shakespeare?
And why are some people determined to prove that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare? According to James Shapiro, author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? a misguided notion of authenticity, shared by literary scholars as well as those who deny Shakespeare’s authorship, is largely responsible: “For a long time after Shakespeare’s death in 1616, anyone curious about his life had to depend on unreliable and often contradictory anecdotes, most of them supplied by people who had never met him. No one thought to interview his family, friends, or fellow actors until it was too late to do so, and it wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that biographers began combing through documents preserved in Stratford-upon-Avon and London. All this time interest in Shakespeare never abated; it was centered, however, on his plays rather than his personality” (Shapiro 17).
By the end of the eighteenth century, though, memoirs and lives of great men had become popular, and scholars and antiquarians began looking for documentation of Shakespeare’s life. By then, the last of his direct-line descendants had died, and all the property he had owned had been sold. Documents were found, but these were primarily legal and business documents–precisely the kind of official documents one would expect to survive.
People were disappointed. They wanted evidence for the great mind and fine soul who had created Hamlet and Lear. What they got was someone who was interested in business, money, and a coat of arms. Shakespeare scholars and Shakespeare readers have continued to be irked by this lack of information about Shakespeare’s intimate and inner life. Those who deny Shakespeare’s authorship point to the known facts of Shakespeare’s life to show that they don’t fit with the author of the plays and poems. But, of course, this is all a bit silly. Even a great artist may prefer not to be a starving artist.
The desire for documents related to Shakespeare’s life was so great that a number of forgers were happy to make up for the deficiency; however, these hoaxes were exposed, and no authentic documents appeared that revealed the key to Shakespeare the man. Consequently, people began looking for him in a new place: his poetry. According to Shapiro, this trend began with Edmond Malone’s 1790 edition of Shakespeare’s works. This was the first edition to attempt to place the works in chronological order and the first to include the sonnets, which, until that time, had not been particularly popular. Another change was the way Malone treated Shakespeare’s biography: “Where earlier eighteenth-century editors…had prefaced the plays with a brief and anecdotal ‘Life,’ Malone chose to fuse life and works through extended notes that appeared at the bottom of each page of text” (Shapiro 40). In blurring Shakespeare’s life and works, Malone formed “the presumption that Shakespeare could only write about what he had felt or done rather than heard about, read about, borrowed from other writers, or imagined” (Shapiro 45).
Malone opened the floodgates: “In his own day, and for more than a century and a half after his death, nobody treated Shakespeare’s works as autobiographical. But after Malone did so a mad dash was on, and by the 1830s it seemed as if nearly everyone was busy searching for clues to Shakespeare’s life in the works” (Shapiro 51). This tendency to look for the poet in the works also fed into the belief that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. Disappointed by the facts of his life and convinced that so mundane a man could not have written such great plays and poems, Shakespeare deniers searched the works for clues of the author’s real identity.
The idea that authors must reveal themselves in their work is still very much with us. We still tend to think that poems in particular must be an authentic reflection of the poet. In some cases, they may well be. Since the Romantic era, authors as well as readers have valued and exploited emotion, individualism, and direct experience, but this is a comparatively recent notion, and it is anachronistic to apply it to earlier ages. Even when poets overtly place themselves in their poems, it is dangerous to assume that this portrayal is authentic, that the persona and the poet are the same. Geoffrey Chaucer inserted a version of himself in many of his poems. According to E. Talbot Donaldson, that portrayal led to a school of Chaucerian criticism “that pictured a single Chaucer under the guise of a wide-eyed, jolly, roly-poly little man who, on fine Spring mornings, used to get up early, while the dew was still on the grass, and go look at daisies.” This Chaucer was not only naive, but a hilariously bad poet, so bad that The Canterbury Tales’ master of ceremonies Harry Bailey interrupts Chaucer’s inept tail-rhyme romance Sir Thopas and dismisses it as “nat worth a toord [turd]!” (Fragment VII 930 [B2 2120]). While Chaucer’s self-portrait is appealing and seems convincing, it represents what Stephen Greenblatt calls “self-fashioning,” although Greenblatt himself views self-fashioning as an idea that arose in the 16th century.
Since Malone’s time, many Shakespeare scholars and readers have looked for and found autobiographical elements in the plays. Most of these readers have looked for autobiographical information about Shakespeare, but a sizeable minority have searched for evidence of another author’s life. The sonnets, however, have proven to be even more fertile ground for finding autobiographical fruit. They are written in first person, and they seem personal, intimate, authentic. Sonnets 135 and 136 pun unsubtly on the name “Will.” Sonnet 135 ends “Let no unkind no fair beseechers kill; Think all but one, and me in that one Will.” The final couplet of Sonnet 136 is even more direct: “Make but my name thy love, and love that still, / And then thou lov’st me for my name is Will.” It’s easy to see “Will” as William Shakespeare telling us intimate details of his life and loves. There have been numerous attempts over the years to identify sonnet characters such as the Dark Lady, the young man, and the rival poet despite the fact that we have no idea if these characters actually existed at all.
We have no way of knowing if the sonnets are in any way autobiographical. It may be as much of a mistake to conflate the sonnets’ Will and William Shakespeare as it is to conflate Chaucer-the-Pilgrim with Chaucer-the-really-quite-clever-poet. Shakespeare was working with some very well-worn traditions and tropes in his sonnets. Some were so well worn that he subverted them. This subversion is particularly notable in the “anti-Petrarchan” Sonnet 130, in which the speaker uses a series of similes to explain what his lady is not like (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; /…/ If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun”). He ends by saying, “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare.” This sounds nice, but the lady is as rare as but not rarer than a bunch of women other poets have lied about.
Even when we know a sonnet sequence has some authentic autobiographical underpinnings, it still generally has many of the same trappings as a long line of courtly love poems and Petrarchan sonnet sequences in both Italian and English. The first sonnet sequence in English is Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (Star-lover in Greek and Star in Latin). For a long time, scholars have assumed that the sequence was inspired by Penelope, Lady Rich. When she was in her early teens, her father expressed his desire that she marry Sidney. Although they may have been engaged at one time, she ended up unhappily married to Robert Rich. No one knows if Sidney and Lady Rich had a romantic relationship or if Sidney was genuinely in love with her, but he does place himself in the poem: the second syllable of “Astrophil” suggests his first name, and “sidus” is another Latin word meaning “star.” He declares his genuine love in
the first sonnet:
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That She, dear She, might take some pleasure of my pain;
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburned brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite.
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write!”
This poem is about the composition of this poem. In the first and last lines, the speaker declares his authenticity: he loves in truth, and, ultimately, he looks in his heart to write. Everything in between reveals the poem’s artifice. The speaker admits that his intent isn’t simply to show his love; instead he hopes to obtain to his lady’s “grace.” He also describes his process: he searches for words–the best words–“to paint the blackest face of woe;” he looks for inspiration in others’ words, but “Invention” fails him. He likens himself to a self-flagellating pregnant woman. Finally, an imaginary being appears and tells him to write from the heart. He suggests that he can only write successfully when he writes authentically. Artifice, invention, and study fail. He can only be free of his burden when he lets his feelings flow naturally from his heart. But iambic hexameter doesn’t flow naturally from the heart, and muses don’t materialize in front of poets’ desks. Sidney’s authenticity is a carefully crafted sham. Whatever his relationship with Penelope Rich, his persona in Astrophil and Stella is as contrived as Chaucer’s.
It remains tempting to read autobiographical details into fictional works. In some cases, it can be illuminating to compare elements of an author’s life to his or her works. In some way, I suppose, fictional works are authentic reflections of their authors; however, they are not necessarily true or accurate reflections. Great writers are great writers because they know how to manipulate words to provoke a reaction in their readers. When we, as readers, attempt to anachronistically find autobiography in works of fiction, we are just making up our own stories.
Donaldson, E. Talbot. “Chaucer the Pilgrim.” PMLA 69 (1954): 928-36.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. U of Chicago P, 1980.
Shapiro, James. Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.
Eve Siebert taught college writing and literature for many years. She has a Ph.D. in English literature from Saint Louis University. Her primary area of study is Old and Middle English literature, with secondary concentrations in Old Norse and Shakespeare. Her dissertation focused on a group of medieval English poems in which a disembodied, damned soul rails at its dead body, complaining about its bad behavior in life and gloating over its impending putrefaction in the grave. She blogs at skeptic.com’s Insight and skepticalhumanities.com, contributes to the Skepticality podcast, and is a panelist on the Virtual Skeptics webcast.
United States of Capgras
In the aftermath of this truly colossal monstrosity of an election, I’ve had a hard time coming to grips with the reality of things. When the outcome I had expected and longed for failed to materialize, I realized that my world was not what I thought it was. Everything is exactly where it was last week, I see the same people every day as I did before the election, and yet I feel disoriented. It’s not pleasant.
One of the things that I try to impress upon my students is how deceptive the brain can be, and that this is especially bothersome since our brains are responsible turning all our perceptions into the story of our lives. I try to show them how the brain can be fooled and that when you knock out one part of the brain, that the downstream results can be bizarre in interesting, predictable ways. When we talk about near-death experiences, they learn that the notion that you are “in” your body is a very convenient and useful construction of your brain. They learn that the feeling that you are “separate” from the outside world is a feeling so fundamental to feeling like a “self” that you don’t realize it’s there until it is dampened by drugs and you perceive yourself to be “one with the universe.”
A strange condition called Capgras delusion reveals another one of these basic assumptions, a feeling that undergirds one’s sense of what is real. It can be caused by either physical trauma or neurodegenerative disease or it can be a symptom of paranoid schizophrenia. A person with Capgras delusion will look at a relative, friend, partner, or pet and see them clearly, but will perceive them as an impostor or doppelganger. In every respect the person in front of them is identical to their actual loved one, but seeing them for some reason does not trigger recognition. This is disturbing, of course, and the troubled mind may well invent a fiction that accommodates the strangeness.
That’s how I feel this week. This sure looks like my country, but I don’t recognize it.
Bob Blaskiewicz is Assistant Professor of Critical Thinking and First Year Studies at Stockton University, where he specializes in and teaches about World War II veterans’ writings, science and pseudoscience, extraordinary/paranormal claims and conspiracy theory. He is the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry’s “Conspiracy Guy” web columnist, a blogger at skepticalhumanities.com, a regular panelist on the live weekly web show The Virtual Skeptics (Wed 8PM Eastern), and contributes a monthly essay to the Skepticality podcast.
I’d like to thank the writers who offered their insightful thoughts, comments, and reactions on this topic. Obviously we could have additional responses to these responses (and so on), but the format isn’t really conducive such recursion. I hope you found the pieces as interesting as I did, and readers are of course welcome to continue the… conversation. Check back next month for a new topic!