Saturday, June 2, 2012

Gnaw Thyself

A while back, Masked Mom reviewed the movie, Catfish. So intrigued was I that I immediately reserved it at the library. I won't go into the details of the movie, you'll just have to watch it, but at it's heart, it's about who we are versus how we represent ourselves. It also explores the idea of online socializing, online personae and how these things can become tricky. This is part one of the worm that has been gnawing at the back of my brain.

A while back I had a discussion with a fellow blogger in which I tried to explain that because of the nature of blogging, there is a potentially wide gulf for misunderstanding between blogger and reader. My writing style tends to be somewhat intense and lends a feeling of intimacy with the reader. I have been accused of being manipulative and duplicitous because of this, but that is not ever the intention. I mostly write pictures of things, I paint a thought I want to explore, I want to draw the reader into that thought and swim around in it for a while. People write for a number of reasons, in infinitely different styles. This style just happens to be mine. I like the interior view and I'm not a very good storyteller, so there you have it. This is part two of the worm. Chomp chomp.

I'm reading Jonathan Lethem's Ecstasy of Influence right now. The book explores the relationship of the writer to his own writing, to the writing of others, to the art, music, and presence of others, to the writer's world, both interior and exterior and how all of these things influence each other almost inexplicably. One of the most fascinating ideas that keeps recurring throughout the book is the notion of what Lethem calls his "public avatar". He writes novels, essays, and articles, many of which contain personal information about him, about his childhood, about his life. One could conceivably sit down and piece together a timeline of his life based on his published work. One could also know how intensely he felt about different events and people throughout that timeline. He does interviews on television, on the radio, and in print. In many of these interviews he answers personal questions about himself. All of this lends fans the idea that they "know" Lethem. His reaction to compiling this public/private information about himself, from himself, is interesting. It is a separate Lethem. It is the Lethem that readers know. It is not the man himself. This is the end of that brain worm that is now crapping out this halting essay.

Where, exactly, in this whole mess is the Self? How often do we presume knowledge of another person based on scant evidence? What if the evidence is copious but not complete? Would the evidence ever be complete? I can confidently say that my husband knows me better than anyone else. One of the things that I have adored about him from the start is that I can be fully "myself" around him. I have maybe two or three other friends with whom I feel the same. I have plenty of friends with whom I feel comfortable and amiable, but I spare them the full disclosure. I have someone I consider a dear friend, whom I have never actually met in person. I am completely open and candid on a variety of subjects in our written communication, but there again, is it complete? Is it possible to know someone without having ever spent time in their physical presence? There are people in my life with whom I spent way too much time in person, but never really got to know who they were. There are several men that I've dated that never, ever even had the tiniest idea who I was. All of these people, however, see me in different lights. Their assessments of my characteristics would overlap to some degree, but would each paint slightly skewed pictures. If this makes me duplicitous and manipulative, then so be it. But I don't think I would be alone in wearing those descriptors.

Perhaps the Self is the person we, and we alone, know? Fair enough. But do you know anyone who seems to be completely deluded about their Self? A talkative person who says "I'm shy." An intense and tightly wound person who tells you that they are easy going? Who has made the errant perception? You or your friend? Are they perhaps privy to interior information to which you have no access? On the other hand, I have known several people throughout my lifetime who spent a great deal of time and energy telling people how wonderful they were. This is a behavior I find off-putting and strange, but in almost every case, people believed them. "Oh, So-and-So? She's wonderful." I have nearly bitten off my tongue to keep from asking "Why?" Is it just that this sort of person is better at PR? Or are they really as wonderful as they tell everyone they are and I just can't see it? Maybe it's just me, but I find the greater the dissonance between my perception of a person and what they say they are, the less I like them. In these types of situations, is it I or they who don't know that Self?

Is this whole concept of Self further muddied by our assorted profiles and online accounts? Blogging is a relatively new means of communication. It's less personal than an email, longer than a status update, and virtually limitless in its reach and subject matter. We post the pictures on Facebook of the days when everyone's smiling. We list the preferences and hobbies that we want. We expose only the dirty secrets that we feel like exposing, some not at all. We use screen names, acronyms, nicknames, pseudonyms. We tell stories, divulge information, give the impression of intimacy, but there's a difference, isn't there? For one, I think it would be pretty boring to look in on people's every move. "Going to the can now, probably should bring a magazine." We paint with broad brushstrokes the pictures we want others to see: for some it's a constant string of dramas, a litany of woes; for others it's the opposite - everything's great, the children are adorable and I never sweat. For most of us, it's something in between. Does all of this add another layer to the Self that didn't exist ten years ago? Or is it just a digitized facet of something that was already there?

I have no definitive answers to any of these questions, in case you were wondering. They've just been composting back in the waste heap of my brain and I throw the worms on when they come up and they gnaw away, turning it over and over, hopefully into something more viable. If I had to hazard a guess, I would suppose that the true Self lies somewhere in the middle of the perception gap. That if we took all of these varying accounts and lay them one over the other like overheads on a projector (remember those) that the picture that emerged would probably surprise us all. Maybe most of all, my Self.


This was written for GBE2's topic this week: Self

35 comments:

  1. What a thoughtful post! So much on which to reflect and comment. I will say that I know I am an expert at wearing masks. I am a very private person and there are very few people with whom I share the whole self that is me - maybe no one. Maybe b/c I don't understand the Self that is me so how can I share it? confusing.
    I remember when MM posted this review - thanks for reminding me - it might be exactly the ticket for this evening! I am in a thoughtful mood - (as if I am NEVER in a thoughtful mood?) -
    I know I modulate my FB stuff - very rarely do I post anything that is in any way dark or negative. I actually post very little original comment - except an occasional comment or response on someone else's wall. I mostly put up quotes or links to books or video clips that I found engaging. For the blogging world, I am more transparent but still put up a mask - most of the time. complicated

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    1. I, too, am a private person. I think that may be why a lot of this online business rankles so.

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  2. Worms. I read blogs on weekends ;-)

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    1. That's because you're very special.

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  3. I think about this sometimes, too. Someone can read one blog of mine and take it as a comprehensive representation of my whole, rather than the one piece of me it actually represents. I think of blogs as like polaroids. Snapshots of a day. Even by the hundreds, they still don't make a complete picture. So yes, someone might read one paragraph or sentence and mistake whatever is expressed there for the actual me. I don't think there's anything to do about it, and it doesn't bother me too much. I try not to do it to others. I.e, if a blogger says something that makes me twitchy, I try to ignore it and come back another day.

    I heart you.

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    1. It doesn't really bother me that much, either. It just kind of fascinates me. Sometimes that mistaken paragraph or sentence is the actual me, but just a fleeting thought that got stuck like a mosquito in amber because I wrote it down, but it's not really terribly important to who I am or to my everyday life. I just think perception is all very interesting. I like the idea of Polaroids.

      Do I write things that make you twitchy? Probably. I'm pretty twitchy, myself.

      I heart you, too.

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    2. God no, Lou. I don't think you ever could and if you ever do, don't worry about it, it'll be my own fault for taking things personally. One blogger who I love once wrote something about how feminism isn't necessary that made me very twitchy. I kept reading her blog anyway because I loved the rest of her. Years later she apologized for saying what she did and recanted. The only things likely to make me very angry are misogynistic, religiously judgmental, or otherwise bigoted statements. I might be wrong, but I just don't have you (or any other bloggers I follow) pegged as that type.

      Anyway, I know I assign too much meaning to other's single paragraphs and posts. I try not to, but I think to an extent, we can't help it.

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    3. I was just kind of teasing you about the twitchy. I don't think one can write very effectively and worry about who might get twitchy.

      I absolutely love when people assign personal (to them) meaning to my writing, it means I struck a chord.

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    4. (I'm eavesdropping on you both of course...) chiming in enough to say that I have been the twitchy one in a conversation, and I have been guilty of making people twitchy, lots of possible good stuff, lots of possible bad stuff, but in a best-case scenario there is a lot to learn in those twitchy moments. At least so far, that's been my experience. xoxo

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  4. There is an extensive culture of masks in some tribes, they accept that humans have to create masks and wear them... for their own safety and survival. The problem arises, I think, when we start believing the masks are our real selves

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    1. Welcome! I agree with you about the masks. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if in our culture we actually donned masks. Would it make things easier? That would be a whole lot of accessories, but it would help remind us that we are not the masks.

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  5. I've been around the internet almost since the outset (yes, I'm old *grin*) and the way people behave online is so often completely opposed to the way they are in real life. It never fails to amaze, and often amuse, at these wide gulfs between real and fantasy. As a writer, I feel honesty is the basis of everything I write - be it stories or the occasional real life blog - and I stick to that even when it is painful. So many people use online personae as an escape from who they are, but to my mind, it's simply lying to yourself. Eventually, the real you always escapes *wink*

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    1. Thanks for stopping by!
      I agree, these gulfs exist. Sometimes they exist within a person. I am with you on the honesty in writing - even fiction, maybe especially fiction? But the honesty is, I believe, an honesty about the human condition, the emotions present in characters or in a piece. Not necessarily "sticking to the facts". If that makes sense? In creative non-fiction, that becomes infinitely trickier. An essay based on real-life experience that speaks to a certain universal thing often must, for the writing's sake, leave things out, shift things around, emphasize things that weren't necessarily the focus in "real life". Does that make it dishonest? I think this depends on the "truth" you are trying to tell.

      My mom always has said "You can't hide who you really are." Both liberating and terrifying.

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  6. Maybe we're like poetry.. we mean something and are someone different to every person. We are what they need to see, or find. We are what they need us to be. To some we'll be listeners because that's what they need us to be, to some we'll be someone they hate because they need to dump their hate somewhere. I suppose we can only control what we are to ourselves, and do our best to be the good that others need, but that's up to them to see. It's also up to us to see that good in others. What do you think?

    I'm constantly surprised at how different people in different places that have met me view me. I'm a thousand different people, a thousand different pieces, coming together to form me. I think I like that.

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    1. Beautiful and very possibly the truth of it. We certainly DO function as different things to different people, perhaps especially women do this. This doesn't make us duplicitous, only versatile. Excellent point.

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    2. This is beautifully put. I think it's a great analogy. The words of the poem don't change, the intent of the poet remains intact, but people take from it what they see, what they need, based on who they are.

      I just love your imagery in this.

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    3. Larissa, you articulated beautifully what I was thinking, but struggled to put into words. You so perfectly expressed it that all I need to say is "Ditto."

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    4. (: Thank you ... reading Periphery does that to people ..

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  7. I heard somewhere that it's a very bad idea to compare yourself to others, as the only part of their movie that you will likely see is the highlight reel. I imagine the same can be said of reading a person's blog. The only person we can ever truly know is ourselves, and even then, we can surprise ourselves. The "self" changes over time and situationally... Just because we are different with different people, does that make us less ourselves?

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    1. Love this! I recently heard a similar thing... don't compare your behind-the-scenes to her best-of. xoxo

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    2. I love that. I think sometimes what a lot of people see is my blooper reel!

      Comparing oneself to others is an exercise in futility and disappointment.

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  8. Larissa has a great point- we may be who others need us to be. But, then, I had a 'friend' who wasn't at all what or who he represented himself to be. It was hurtful when the facade finally came down. I'm sure I didn't need whatever he was. I guess Shakespeare had it right- to thine own self be true.

    (You're not a good storyteller? What. Ever.)

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    1. I should qualify the storytelling thing - I'm not very good at inventing stories whole cloth, nor am I very good with straightforward, traditional storytelling.

      I think instances like your "friend" are interesting. Having known a few people like that, I wonder what compels them to present a completely false person to parade around for others.

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  9. What I wonder most about is what happens to the Self when the body dies? Where do the memories of your experiences and the essence of your being go? Does the Self turn into some kind of energy that dissipates back into the universe to be recycled and used by the next in line Self?

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    1. These are all very interesting, meaty questions.

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  10. Chomp chomp. Yay for all sorts of composting!! You raise some excellent questions here, probably timeless ones (ID, EGO, SUPEREGO, Shakespeare, etc) but some that are made far more interesting in the context of modern inventions like blogging, FB, etc.

    Let me say that accusing you (or any other blogger) of duplicity is kinda shortsighted, or maybe vain on that person's part, or just plain mean. We are all constantly evolving. We are all far deeper than even we understand. And it is perfectly appropriate that our online personas are only fragments of our full nature. After all, reading and writing are only two of a million ways to interpret this incredible universe. Instagram makes up for the rest, I think.

    Thanks for the excellent food for thought, And thanks for adding another book to my list!! xoxo Chomp chomp.

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    1. Ha! I'm not even sure what Instagram is, but I do believe it may take over the universe.

      As far as the "duplicity" allegation, it amuses me. Are not all writers (bloggers or otherwise) in some way duplicitous? You write with your particular voice, you tell the stories, share the thoughts that you can. It is impossible to write everything down, even if you were going for some kind of blow-by-blow non-fiction. And good grief, even if you could write down everything exactly as it happened, how boring would that be to read?!

      I mostly find it interesting that as readers we gain a kind of proprietary interest in the writers we read. With blogging, I think it's a little trickier, feels more intimate because it is immediate and we are just amateurs, publishing our own stuff. Somehow, if we read something between the covers of a book, we understand to some extent the divide between reader and writer; less so with blogging, even though such a divide still exists.

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    2. Oh I think a lot about the differences between "writing" and "blogging..." another day? xo Great topic!

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  11. I did read this when you posted it, but I have been ruminating on ever since then–while throwing a birthday party and building a chicken enclosure anyway. It made me think and think. I feel like I am more real as a writer than I am as any other kind of representation of myself. I plumb my organs and slop it all up onto the internet. This may or may not be a good idea, I suppose. I am much more measured, careful, shy and false in person.

    And I started thinking–if I met a person known to me only in writing and that person sucked their teeth, chewed their hair and was given to suddenly interrupting, would those facts be more a representation of their "true" self than the traits I came to know in writing? Or would the freedom of the written word–the freedom to delete, to edit, to make sure that they said exactly what they meant–be, in fact, MORE a measure of their true self? I cannot say. The reality, I think, is that there is no "true" self. We are one person in one setting, with one friend, another at work, another on Facebook, another on our blog. We have selves like a chameleon has skin, but I think we are never one true color. We are always up against some background.

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    1. I love this too! The background does have a lot to do with color perception, and so our personal context must have so much to do with how we are perceived.

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    2. I would agree to some extent about writing being a more visceral kind of disclosure. I certainly write about things that I don't just walk around talking about to strangers. I think that's part of the appeal.

      I have found social media very helpful in some ways to cut through the small-talk nonsense of real-life. Facebook is nothing if not a whole lot of small talk. So then you can have a starting point when you actually talk to someone in real life that you wouldn't have had otherwise. Ditto with email and blogs, maybe more so.

      Is the measured, careful person the false person? Or just a facet of the same. This is what's interesting to me. It is part of who you are to be able to feel more comfortable expressing yourself in writing, versus in person. Does that make on truer than the other? Or are they both just two parts of the same truth.

      If I ever meet you in person, I think you will be slightly appalled by my corporeal presence. I don't suck my teeth, though. Ick. But I think fewer of those visual kinds of cues we use to make judgments would be necessary having laid interior groundwork.

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    3. I read this on the weekend! And actually made the time to come back and comment because this one stuck with me and has been gnawing away at me since I first read it. Success!

      "Is the measured, careful person the false person? Or just a facet of the same. This is what's interesting to me. It is part of who you are to be able to feel more comfortable expressing yourself in writing, versus in person. Does that make on truer than the other? Or are they both just two parts of the same truth." I think you answered your own questions beautifully, and I agree.

      This was a great, thought-provoking post. Thank you!

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  12. This is one of those topics that's endlessly fascinating to me. When I can manage to form an opinion one way or another, I tend to think our truest selves do lie in that gap. They are perhaps more known to us than to others, but maybe not known completely to us either.

    This whole discussion--particularly the gap between the "I" of the page/screen and the "I" of the "real" world maybe me think of an article I read earlier this year about John Jeremiah Sullivan. It's kind of off to the side of what you're talking about here--on the periphery, you could say (heh), but I thought you might find it interesting.

    http://www2.macleans.ca/2012/02/24/shifting-from-first-to-third/

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    1. That's a fascinating article. Thank you for sending it my way. I thought of you, actually, while I was writing this. I seem to recall some sort of comment exchange months ago along these lines. I am fascinated by that gap as well.

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  13. Self in the periphery. I like that idea!

    You have to spend a lot of time looking hard at a person to see the whole them (be it on line or in person). There is only one person that knows me that well and it is my other half too ;-)

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Thanks for reading and taking the time to say hello!