A Case for Authenticity in the Fake News Pandemic

Justin Townes Earle

Authenticity is the absence of any difference between persona, the way we project ourselves, and our internal state of mind. It has to do with not just how we project ourselves but in how much our projections are reflected back to us from others. When that is achieved, you have a perfect example of success.

On the surface, authenticity seems to place a person at a far distance from the ten personality disorders identified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

In any event, authenticity seems like a worthy pursuit[1]Kernis, Michael H., and Brian M. Goldman. “A Multicomponent Conceptualization of Authenticity: Theory and Research.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38:283–357. Elsevier, 2006. … Continue reading:

In his work Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle emphasized the importance of actions. Aristotle viewed ethics in terms of people’s pursuit of the ‘‘higher good.’’ Specifically, he proposed that the highest good is ‘‘activity of the soul in accordance with the best and most complete virtue in a complete life’’. Such pursuits are intimately tied with people’s well‐being (eudaemonia) which is attained by performing activities that reflect one’s true calling (self-realization).

Artists and writers eagerly strive for authenticity as an essential and unavoidable part of their craft. It is probably true—to riff on the bard—that if you were not born with authenticity, you have to achieve authenticity, and, if you cannot achieve authenticity you had better hope it is thrust upon you.

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

William Shakespeare

In the case of any kind of artist, a writer, a poet, a potter, or a a glass blower, you want all of them: to be born authentic, to achieve more of it, and to have it thrust upon you (to riff on Joseph Heller). Yet, teachers, lawyers and mothers are artists too. All of us are artists in our own way. Authenticity is always in short supply.

In the case of avowed artists, we find many fine examples having to do with “putting yourself out there”.

Lou Reed is an artist I admire for pursuing authenticity with extreme angst, costs be damned. He kept on remaking himself with almost every album he produced, paranoid that popularity was death to his art[2]DeCurtis, Anthony, and Hachette Book Group. Lou Reed: A Life. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2017.. To be a “sell-out” is the rock star’s favorite damnation.

If you are a country music aficionado, you know there is an evergreen sub-genre dedicated to the defense of “real” country. It is legitimately an industry obsession. Country My Ass is Dale Watson Jr.’s lament with a not-too-subtle dig reserved for Taylor Swift. In Dark Bar and Juke Box, J.B. Beverley & The Wayward Drifters, protests that “you won’t find no country on country radio”. This time the digs on Toby Keith:

Give me a dark bar and a jukebox over that radio.
Yeah, Toby just don't cut it, give me Haggard, give me Coe.
And i'm tired of watching Nashville and it's washed up fashion show
Cause you won't find no country on country radio

I muse a lot lately about Justin Townes Earle and his utterly professional demeanor on stage for a performance, handling two hecklers while continuing to tune his guitar and preparing for his next number[3]Justin Townes Earle – Silencing Heckler – Slippin’ and Slidin’, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXD-Qwt11PQ.. It is a master class in authenticity for a guy who is stoned out of his mind. He was utterly and completely “putting himself out there”, spilling his guts on his checkered history with drug addiction. Check it out on Youtube and the comments that follow, speculating whether there are two guitars playing on stage or just one. It is just one, Justin’s. It is his technique that makes it sound like two.

A dear friend turned me on to Steve Hely’s novel, How I Became a Famous Novelist, a case of “imagining the future you want for yourself” if every there was[4]Hely, Steve. How I Became a Famous Novelist. 1st ed. New York : [Berkeley, Calf.]: Black Cat ; Distributed by Publishers Group West, 2009.. Every line in it will make you bust a stitch until you’re in an ambulance on a gurney on your way to the ER where you will get new stitches just so you can go home and keep reading. It is that hilarious.

The other funny thing about How I Became a Famous Novelist is its relentless skewering of the million and one ways authors go about being not wantonly inauthentic but rather ever… so… slyly… inauthentic.

The protagonist, Pete Tarslow, is more of the wanton kind. He is trying to make the jump from one fraudulent career, penning college admission essays for foreign students as a meretricious ghost writer, to a tonier and ideally more lucrative form of fraudulence: writing novels for fame. His motives are pure; among them, he wants to humiliate the gal who jilted him at her wedding.

So the author, Hely, in his bid for novelistic fame, invents a protagonist, Tarslow, who in his bid for novelistic fame, goes about it by filching tricks of the trade from already famous novelists. Meta enough for you?

Tarslow studies with keen desire the whole pantheon of published authors in search for clues to their success, every time turning up fraud. He zeroes in on “Preston Brooks”, a John Irving doppelgänger, novelist, director of a creative writing program, and author of Kindness to Birds (don’t you love it?). Of the novel Kindness, Tarslow observes:

One could spend hours parsing that intricate latticework of literary sewage: the cartoon bayou dialect, the touches of “realist” detail, the labored folksy imagery, the vague notes of spirituality and transcendence muddled together to make it palatable to anyone.

Tarslow excerpts Kindness which I repeat here so you can see what he’s talking about:

“Is they chickory in that coffee?” she bellowed, in a tired voice that still shook like a thunderclap, a calling-hounds voice.

Need I go on? Okay, I will:

“No, ma’am,” Gabriel hollered back, steadying himself against the buckboard of the Tidecraft Firebird, swaing in the swamp water that swelled and fell like the breast of a mother asleep. “No chickory, but you sure a Cajun woman asking for chickory coffee when you stuck on a patch-tar roof and more water coming up, they sayin. Now reach out your hand Mez Deveroux.”

It would be wrong were Hely not to acknowledge the self-mythological prowess of some successful authors (Hemingway and Kerouac come to mind). He doesn’t disappoint. Again the understudy, Tarslow provides an example from his mentor Preston, who has his obligatory “birth of a writer story” in the can:

Then one morning I woke up in an alley in Minot, North Dakota in the snow. I rooted around in a trash can, hoping to find an old jacket. And I found a tattered copy of Of Mice and Men. Maybe from an angel’s hand. Maybe just a lazy schoolboy. But I read it. And John Steinbeck showed me there was stronger stuff than whiskey.

Once you start to read How I Became a Successful Novelist as satire or as a lightly veiled critique of the United States Creative Writing Industry, Hely’s book reveals how—even if you look like an author, swim like an author, walk like an author, and quack like an author—underneath it all, you’re still very probably just a duck. His book freaks you out by showing you the very subtle ways we can undermine an otherwise genuine mission to achieve authenticity.

If I taught writing, I would start my class with Steve Hely’s book. I would encourage the class to write parody, heaps and heaps of it, so my students could learn what it feels like to be even every so slightly inauthentic.

For Hemingway, they might write:

A goose, separated from the flock, damn-near skimming the flat mirror surface of the lake, flew low and straight and true, in a line so straight it might make an arrow quiver.

The hope would be that, if they did enough of these, they would learn to avoid inauthenticity like COVID-19.

References

References
1 Kernis, Michael H., and Brian M. Goldman. “A Multicomponent Conceptualization of Authenticity: Theory and Research.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38:283–357. Elsevier, 2006. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(06)38006-9.
2 DeCurtis, Anthony, and Hachette Book Group. Lou Reed: A Life. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2017.
3 Justin Townes Earle – Silencing Heckler – Slippin’ and Slidin’, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXD-Qwt11PQ.
4 Hely, Steve. How I Became a Famous Novelist. 1st ed. New York : [Berkeley, Calf.]: Black Cat ; Distributed by Publishers Group West, 2009.

When you see God, Run for Cover

At least, that’s what Adam did in a moment which we could reasonably call without melodrama the birth of consciousness and self-awareness. It was a brief instant thereafter when God said to Adam (in the greatest rhetorical question of all time)

Who told you you were naked? ~ God

A question that begs another rhetorical question.

Who, indeed? ~ John Poplett

Right away we see that in the very beginning, the very first story in the very first book of Scripture, the Book of Genesis, has Adam—and all of us by proxy— start to look inward, study ourselves and wonder what “makes us tick.” At least, any second now, Adam—conscious of his brand-new conscience—will formulate the question, “What compelled me to cover my private parts with a fig leaf?”.

Beyond question that is a fine opening for a book about the creation of the universe, man, and the rest of God’s creatures.

The next thing that comes to mind whenever I brood on the curse of self-awareness is a complicitous curse, like two dogs who form a pack to kill a squirrel or a chipmunk, that the human animal is complex. I am complex, you are complex, and everybody else I have ever known is also similarly complex with the exception of brain-damaged children who—by some providential accident—were spared their loss of innocence and—despite the stigma of their affliction—possess talents of charm and wonderment that the rest of us tortured souls might have the good sense to envy.

The idea that human most often have conflicting or paradoxical motives simultaneously active and influencing our behavior is exactly what I believe the Roman Catholic religious philosopher Blaise Pascal intended when he wrote:

If he exalt himself, I humble him; if he humble himself, I exalt him; and I always contradict him, till he understands that he is an incomprehensible monster. ~ Blaise Pascal, Pensée #420

It was part of his long meditation on how man can be both simultaneously God-like and a “monster” (in French, Pascal uses the word bête, more like “beast” in English) at the same time. These conflicting, active impulses are what make him “incomprehensible”.

I brood on this so often that I have formed a rule-of-thumb which goes like this:

Do not settle for any explanation of your behavior unless you can come up with five simultaneous motives for that behavior.

By extension, this rule also applies to things you are thinking of doing but have yet to do. It applies to the behavior of strangers and enemies, too. Only recently did it occur to me to put my fancy rule into practice. Yes, I’m that stupid. I thought about it for one or two eternities before I came up with the boffo idea of actually trying it.

In practice, there’s every reason to believe that this rule can pry open a view into your behavior, your spouse’s behavior, or your enemy’s behavior and make that person more real, more dimensional, a person who, by dint of this exercise, is now less of a cardboard cut-out, somebody you might see in a new light with compassion.

For example, as a teenager, I carried a mock coffin, a symbol which represented “our boys coming back in boxes”, in a local protest of the Vietnam war, a gesture that was captured by a television crew and broadcast on a local news station that same evening.

My motives in that moment included at least the following:

  • moral: register my opposition to a war that defied the admonition “Thou Shalt Not Kill”
  • adolescent: get a girl
  • social: look “cool”
  • self-preservation: end the war before I was inducted

Okay, four out of five just one shy of my arbitrary dictum. Not bad. All of those I am sure were active when I acted as a faux pall bearer in a bit of street theater. In hindsight, I could add a fifth, which was probably somehow astir in my mind even back then:

  • civic: exercise my right to freedom of speech as guaranteed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Right now I am preparing for a nine hundred mile bike ride around Lake Michigan. Since that is one heckuva trek, I deem it prudent to identify my motives and expose them to you (whoever you are and whatever brought you to this page) if nothing else as a mild form of entertainment (emphasis on mild).

Here goes. On this ride, I intend to:

  • test my mettle
  • raise money for charities to benefit people who are suffering on the west side of Chicago and the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota
  • promote the idea of a different kind of U.S. Corporation, a “virtue-forward corporation”, which is aggressively kinder and aggressively more patriotic than corporations are typically today in America (say, for example, Monsanto, Google, BP, and Nike)
  • demonstrate that Black Lives Matters does not necessarily involve Marxism or violence or even “blacks”
  • assert a vital connection between black lives matters, blue lives matters, teachers lives matters, Scotch-Irish lives matter, First nation lives matter, etc.
  • make a pitch for unity and an end of this era of crippling divisiveness
  • signal my virtue
  • discover things about myself I currently don’t know
  • assert the primacy of action over protest
  • grieve
  • manage my fear of sitting home alone in a responsible way
  • find a path to reconcile with friends, among them my dearest, whom—in this era of division and the “fog of protest” which still shrouds the BLM movement—I injured or insulted

That’s twelve and still counting; any one of which is motivation enough in itself! Well, subtract virtue signaling and that’s still nine out of ten.

Nine hundred miles is a long way. I made a similar trek twelve years ago. For that trek, I raised $20,000 for a local mental health agency. Only on that occasion, I was extremely fit and only logged a scant six hundred miles. My left foot was pristine and had not been operated on three times. I was taller and had brighter teeth.

Can I make it? I honestly don’t know. Today a minor drop in daytime temperature and gusty winds made me feel a micro-fracture in my resolve. At least we know, I have motivation. At least we know, I’ll be making my attempt under open skies, right there, as my father used to say, “in front of God and everybody”.