May 23, 2011

Creating "Self"

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What is the issue?

We like to believe that in reading, we can understand. More specifically, we can understand the person who has written it: what they are saying, why, how they have put this across. We contextualize and analyse, hoping that ultimately we will not only know the text, but also the author.

Some writers play on this idea. They do not only put themselves wholly into their creations, but also make creations of their very selves. Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron are prime examples of these types of authors, known by contemporaries for their social notoriety rather than their prose or poetry. Both suffered intense critical onslaught, and both (attempted) to shrug it off nonchalantly. Their final legacy became the force of their personality, not of their pen. In their own times, Wilde was known as one of the world’s premier self-plagiarists, lifting lines from one play into another, whilst Byron was mocked for transparently writing himself as the protagonist, over and over.

The terms ‘Byronic’ and ‘Wildean’ exemplify this: they often refer to traits associated more with their real selves than their textual style. Their greatest works of creation were the selves that they presented through the world, and it is for their personal characteristics they are remembered. Their traditional creative output becomes secondary, an auxiliary guide to the fascinating psyche they presented to the world. Indeed, the characters and personas in their writing are often quoted as if the words came straight from their own mouth, rather than from a fictional creation. No discussion of their respective works can be conducted without at least a reference to the authors’ biographical contexts. They made self-creation an art form, their personalities the canvas for the brushstroke of mannerism.

No text can be examined in a social vacuum. The underlying meaning of the work cries out for context, context, context! Yet all our analyses ignore that inconvenient truth: We can’t ever truly contextualise the intention of the piece, because the author’s thoughts are not what we are presented with.

Readers are presented with the words that the author wishes them to read. They are not necessarily the author’s opinion, conscious or subconscious. And yet, we continue to obsess over the idea that through the written word, we can understand the purpose, desires and opinions of the person behind the pen. Perhaps Wilde’s ostentation is an acute understanding of this. We take the information we are presented with and form an opinion. If an author is “known” to think or behave a certain way, it inevitably colours our judgement of his or her creation.

We think we understand Wilde because of the documentation of his behaviour and his public speech. What we really understand is the version of Wilde that he presented to the public – and even that understanding is tenuous. This is relevant not only in relation to the academic study of literature, but also in day-to-day interactions with other people. We react to what people say based on who has said it. We “understand” the tone of some people, not of others. This understanding is based solely on our own perception of how our friends, family and co-workers behave. The way we “read” people is highly subjective.

So, what about writing ourselves? Every day, our thoughts, words and actions conspire to create the way that others perceive us and influence the ways in which they understand us. We create “texts” through which we ask others to interpret us, and we hope that we do it well. We’ve all been misunderstood, and often can’t quite grasp why. It is because we can never really contextualise our feelings and thoughts to others, as they are so intensely personal, filtered through the prism of all our experiences combined. Each person has their own collection of life experience, different in innumerable ways.

Yet in order to exist and interact with the world, we must create ourselves. Indeed, we’re incessantly creating and re-creating, softly shaping ourselves to fit into the situation at hand. We can’t control how people interpret us, but we can’t stop ourselves from trying. Every minute, we reach into the silence and bring together letters, words, and sentences, continuously forging the way that others will read us. We build arguments, and feel them shatter beneath us. We move on, renewed.

Is it insincere to change, flexible to the pressure of an unfavourable reading? Or is it recognition of an inept writing of our self, a shift to attempt to elicit the reading we consider to be “correct”?

Perhaps neither of those. Rather, this constant recreation is the inevitable evidence of life, growth and experience.

‘Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities.’ – Oscar Wilde, a lapse into first person narration in The Picture of Dorian Gray. TC mark

Tasha Frost

Thus far, her most effective methods include writing and traveling. Occasional bouts of guilt persuade her to …

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