Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Who Are You?

"Blake and Wordsworth wanted identity without personality; but personality is ultimate western reality."

-Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Neftertiti to Emily Dickenson

I am no longer fascinated by insanity, the build up of a persona based on impulsiveness and reckless abandon. The buildup of any personality, really, no longer seems interesting to me. Those people you see, the ones who seem so extreme in their look and have integrity, a sort of til-the-death idea about who they are and what that should look like to the rest of the world? They are the emptiest shells, the least sure of themselves. The more "personality" a person has, the less you're seeing of his or her "identity."

But personality is ultimate western reality. The western idea of who you are is what you look like to other people. According to Gestalt psychology, you cannot know yourself completely without the knowledge of what other people think of you. It's all part and parcel of a whole. We define ourselves by where we shop, where we live, who we know, what we listen to. We don't just take pure pleasure in these things--we need for them to define us. We need for other people to know that we enjoy these things, which actually deteriorates our ability to enjoy them. If part of my enjoyment of something stems from your ability to appreciate and admire my enjoyment of that thing, I can't be fully free to enjoy it until I've received the validation for the enjoyment. That's the trap of personality.

That's why we create our personal brands.

Personality and identity are not interchangeable. Having a personality is inescapable unless you choose to move to nowhere and live completely alone. There are aspects of who you are that are visible, and these will always be captured by others and turned into your personality. But the molding of a personality, the shaping of a specific image that you want others to see in place of any real identity--this is what does not fascinate me.

I remember sophomore English. We were discussing Shakespeare, and my teacher informed us that when the schism between a person's persona and his or her actual identity is too great, that person is more likely than anyone else to commit suicide. I remember that this stuck with me; it scared me. It made me wonder if I was going to commit suicide, partially because I felt like I had plenty of identity but that everyone else had it wrong on my personality. I knew that personality was how others saw me. So I set out to create a specific personality.

When it was all said and done, I think I'd created five.

I remember reading my father's aunt Mayhew's yearbook profile. When asked to describe Mayhew, someone said, "Still waters run deep." This stuck with me because I always figured nobody noticed the still waters or, at the very least, didn't think them exciting enough to be interesting. I know it's a stock phrase, but what struck me was that someone recognized her through her quiet exterior. They must've believed there was something there beyond a lack of discernable personality. She must've had identity. Adventurers don't go still-water-rafting. They go rafting on the churning and somewhat dangerous white water. This is excitement. Excitement is interesting. If you live an intense internal life and have difficulty translating that to your external life, or are bored by the idea of even trying, is there any room for you in social discourse? Do you count? Will anybody notice you and, if nobody notices you, will they be able to love you?

People who are less-than-loud often admire the loudest in the room, thinking the loud ones have something they lack. People who are not crazy admire crazy people because they seem so fun, so vivacious, so willing to throw off the shackles of convention. I remember being the loudest in the room, an image I'd cultivated for myself after growing up so completely alone. What is so funny is that the very thing that was supposed to help me feel less alone made me feel even more alone. I wandered through situations feeling frustrated by a lack of understanding--a lack I'd created because I presented nothing I wanted understood. The more personality I cultivated, the less identity I seemed to have. A few people saw me anyway. These people saved my life.

Recently a friend told me about an advice column he'd read. The person seeking advice wanted to know why her insane artist friend seemed like such a bore since she'd given up drugs and gotten sober. The person seeking advice wasn't the type to do drugs; she was a "normal" person. What she doesn't realize is that what looks so interesting really isn't. It is interesting to explore the nature of reality. It is interesting to constantly try to get to the bottom of things, see what they look like, explore the possibility of living them as they really are. I have a much greater admiration for people who can see themselves clearly and live that comfortably than I do for anyone who can run away from that into extremes. Doing drugs and being "interesting" is easy. Real life is much more difficult to understand, define and live.

I am no longer fascinated by people who destroy themselves, but this is probably because I understand them.

I've never liked fantasy fiction. At certain times I've considered this a personal failing, a sign of a lack of imagination. But I find them uninteresting for the exact same reasons I find people's personalities so uninteresting. We don't understand the nature of reality. In fantasy fiction, even as the realities seem so foreign to us, the creator understands every bit of the nature of that reality and can meter out that information to us as he or she sees fit. Pages upon pages of detail describing how gravity may work, what the plants might look like, how people speak and what they wear. All of it perfectly in order, even if gravity works backward or the sky is hot pink. There is nothing about the nature of a fantasy world that cannot be understood. How can that be interesting? What is there to explore there? It's a stilted and static situation, an escape route for people who cannot handle the ambiguity of identity in the mysterious world of reality. And personality is a fantasy land we create around ourselves, everything in perfect working order, even if that working order doesn't match up with the reality in which it is operating. Personality comes with hard-and-fast rules. All things are this way. No things are that way. I always do this and I never do that. They're easy enough rules to live by except when you can feel the pulsing of identity underneath the skin of your personality. Identity is nothing hard-and-fast. It is all ways and no ways all at once, a mingling of these things that brings us in touch with our surroundings and somehow creates reality.

I can remember moments thinking, "I wish I could escape this person I've created, but no one would believe me if I showed up any different." This is the trick of personality. What is at first meant to make my ego more comfortable eventually becomes a place of disease and discomfort. It becomes a point of misery because, deep in the night, the personality is left alone, and alone it becomes obsolete. In the moment I love myself when I am charming because I see my success reflected back at me from others, but afterward I always feel it is myself who has been fooled.

It is said that "the measure of a man's real character is what he would do if he knew he never would be found out." There is no room for character in the world of personality. Nothing happens there that isn't seen by others. No action is taken by the personality that isn't a performance for others. Even if no one was there, the personality must recount for all the harrowing adventure or the angelic decision. But the personality can keep secrets as well. It doesn't want to mar its own appearance by admitting to wrongdoing, whatever wrongdoing might mean in the constructed world of that specific personality.

And "this is the disease of western love." Paglia talks about the "susceptibility to the glamour of charismatic personality." "But the person invested with so much hieratic energy is coldly discarded when he or she proves humanly frail." There is a crack in everything God has made. Everything that man has made is plastically perfect and a complete falsehood. Here comes the caveat to my original statement. Everything that man has made is a complete falsehood, but this falsehood can be fun. It can be fun right up until the moment it is mistaken for identity.

It can be fun right up until the moment we become so consumed with being the falsehood that we believe it is true.

But Narcissus looked into the pool and fell so in love with his own reflection he drowned in it, and so many people fall so in love with the idea of themselves and become so enamored with the personalities of others that they wake up alone, whether in a room with another or not, and find that the night is most black when one has betrayed who one is.

"All my lies are always wishes. I know I would die if I could come back new."

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