No One’s Real Anymore

Disorganized thoughts on the idea.

So many movies and so much literature portray characters as lacking the self-doubt fundamental to post-90s-level self-awareness, cynicism, and irony. Good examples are the characters from There Will Be Blood and anything written by Ernest Hemingway. Contrast these characters with a few stereotypes of non-impoverished Americans today — the aspiring artist who unwittingly spends most of her energy on trying to get other people to call her an artist (via social networking behavior) and mimicking the behavior of more powerful artists so as to better judge to what extent she feels like/ is The Artist, rather than just being The Artist; the fashionable Man who seeks his identity by tacitly receiving information from advertising and pop culture outlets, purchases it at department stores, and stands in front of a mirror and judges to what extent he feels like/ is a Man, rather than just being a Man; maybe you get the idea.

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One of the most rallied-around critiques of our generation is that we’re full of shit. A related idea is that there’s a pervasive desire among members of our generation to become certain kinds of people who don’t exist anymore. This idea seen through a pessimistic lens includes something about recent generations of Americans becoming progressively more infantile. A realist might just say that there is a very frightened tendency that the comfortable share, and it’s to avoid doing anything new, anything new at all. Another related idea is something like this: People who’ve lived lives of steadily increasing comfort are likely to become very upset when faced with the prospect of losing any of that comfort, whether or not that comfort is totally excessive or a privilege of non-earned status, or whatever. This might have something to do with entitlement mentality.

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There Will Be Blood is an adaptation of a novel called Oil! by Upton Sinclair. The main character of the movie is an entrepreneur called Daniel Plainview. After unexpectedly striking oil while mining for silver in isolation somewhere in the American Southwest at the turn of the 20th century, the film follows Plainview dedicating his existence to his oil venture and swallowing up competitors as they come. It may or may not be obvious by now that this article is more self-analysis than cultural analysis, and if it’s valid cultural analysis, its ideas have probably been articulated much better a thousand times over by writers much more legit than me, probably ~10 years ago. Plainview conducts his oil prospecting ruthlessly and with unwavering purpose; everything falls by the wayside in the face of his goal and there is never a moment of self-doubt, maybe even self-reflection. The viewer admires Plainview for how plain his view is. An aspect so far insignificant to the theme of this article but which will be stated to maintain authority is that Daniel Plainview is also a terrible monster.

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Life Is Not Like The Movies, except for some of them, like documentaries, but even those can be edited into traditional narrative arcs and skewed by a director’s bias. Some of the types of people that Americans typically want to be are Stable And Satisfied In A Stable Relationship, Talented, Driven, Sexy, Cultured, Intelligent, Alpha, Young And Successful, Winning, and more. The types of people the vast majority of Americans are are Trying To Be Stable And Satisfied In A Satisfied Relationship, Trying To Be Talented, Trying To Be Driven, Trying To Be Sexy, Trying To Be Cultured, Trying To Be Intelligent, Trying To Be Alpha, Trying To Be Young And Successful, Trying To Be Winning, and Trying to be more. The movie character Daniel Plainview is more real of a person than I will ever be. It is thought that having an awareness of self at the level of consciously knowing you’re Trying To Be [Identity] brings with it a level of self-doubt and self-monitoring that will, ironically, indefinitely, prevent you from earnestly ever becoming [Identity]. It is thought that having an awareness of self at the level of consciously knowing you’re Trying To Be [Identity] will forever mutilate the Meaning that Authentic People allegedly use to perpetuate their authenticity into ‘merely’ an experience of pride or shame stemming from the judgement that you have successfully or unsuccessfully been a desired [Identity] (rather than an experience of uninhibited meaning an [Identity] allegedly feels).

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The original idea for this article was to write an Insightful piece on the state of American identity, but after coming to the conclusion that Intelligent People probably figured out whatever I was planning on writing years ago (the publishing of which would have indicated that I wasn’t an Intelligent Person), along with swimming in a sea of “WTF am I trying to say” for about an hour caused me to give up writing the article a Successful Young Writer would write, and instead attempt to opt for a more abstract target of Talent, one whose authenticity is easier to fake and mistake, one that — because I couldn’t figure out a way to present my thoughts at the caliber of a Successful Young Writer — allowed me to just write down a bunch of unorganized ideas, separate them with line breaks, and legitimately claim control over it by engaging in a kind of doublethink that the article’s sufficiently organized under the theme of disorganization. It’s also hard to discern if I care about imparting whatever useful information is in this article to an audience, or if I’m just trying to maintain an identity.

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An ironic worldview is a self-aware one from which there may be no escape. Personally, I have worries about this belief. David Foster Wallace wrote of irony, “Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone. Once everybody knows that equality of opportunity is bunk and Mike Brady’s bunk and Just Say No is bunk, now what do we do? All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.”

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It is as-yet unknown if Authenticity is an illusion. It is also unknown if it is desirable in the way this article conceives it. It is now worth considering that Successful Daniel Plainview was a terrible monster. It is now worth considering that Talented Writer Ernest Hemingway was an egotistical dick who probably wouldn’t have been your friend. It is also worth considering that Genius Steve Jobs could have (arguably) saved himself, that Talented Magic Johnson slept with like 300 women a year when he was in the NBA (Google it), that Legend Jerry Sandusky is an alleged child molester who allegedly helped facilitate a child pimping ring, that Successful Writer Bret Easton Ellis’ personality seems pretty much insufferable, that Alpha Tom Cruise is a scientologist, that Deep And Depressed Robert Smith is now old, fat and the caricature of someone you might see at Denny’s drinking coffee at 3 a.m. on a weeknight, that Talented Morrissey is, arguably, in the same boat. I’ve spent a good amount of energy trying to make this paragraph a certain length, rather than contain specific information. Irony is maybe the logical product of realizing the bullshit of cliches. It’s easy to roll your eyes at banal sincerity. It is so easy to ridicule those who aren’t afraid to show that they actually give a shit.

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What’s really bothering me is this pervasive feeling of not giving a shit in combination with the pressure to actually give a shit. The modern Intelligent Person or the Person Who’s Trying To Be Intelligent sees that there’s a ceiling of meaning to everything, and by that I mean that I’m presented with way too much choice. That was actually sort of rhetorical — what I mean to say is that it’s hard for me not to eventually experience everything I dedicate time to as essentially futile; that it’s hard for me not to eventually experience the meaning I posit everything I dedicate my time to as a construct of the pressure to feel positive, to feel significant in some way. Such feelings make it easy to be juvenile and find the one inevitable thing that’s stupid about everything. Fortunate for my tendency to feel most comfortable when having absolutely no one or nothing to which to answer, seeing the stupid aspect of everything allows me to avoid doing anything new, anything new at all. This is an unfortunate reality for the part of my personality that constantly pressures me into seeking new levels of significance. Irony is the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage. TC mark

More From Thought Catalog

  • http://twitter.com/kaimcn Kai

    Without reading the article, as soon as I read this head the pop punk cover of JLo and Ja Rule’s song “I’m Real” got stuck in my head. Damn you Brandon!

  • http://twitter.com/fayerfayter Fire

    Great article. Reminds me of how I get lost in my own train of thought which sometimes seems to loop back to the beginning but in a new state, ultimately finishing with a different thought altogether. Also enjoyed the use of the “Very Dark” tag.

  • Audrey

    Considering many of the articles on Thought Catalog are saturated with “post modern irony”, “cynicism” and pseudo-insight , do you as The Editor feel like a fraud for spreading and allowing this trend? Or do you just correct  grammar?

    • Audrey

      Wait-I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be an ass. I enjoyed reading this article and agree with your views on a generation of concocted  frauds. I hope you write more articles/brainstorms/ideas.

      • Anonymous

        hey audrey. i didn’t think you were being an ass. in the article i meant to express how a term like ‘concocted fraud’ is an inaccurate one-dimensional way of looking at things. i think the truth of some people’s identity is much more layered and difficult to pin down. i didn’t mean to imply i thought this generation was one of concocted frauds. i empathize with people who are Trying To Be Talented, or whatever. i completely understand that plight. in the article i meant to express how difficult it feels to seek authenticity and be authentic in america, as a person born in the early 80s. 

        re being a tc editor, no i don’t feel like a fraud in that sense. i didn’t mean to condemn irony. i feel connected to people who are aware that they feel trapped by irony. i didn’t mean to negatively judge anyone who uses irony. and i think a lot of stuff on TC is super eye-roll genuine. and apart from all of that, i am happy to publish people who have worldviews that differ from mine.

  • Parokya_rob

    Could you please define authenticity?

    • Heather Inc

      No.

  • Anonymous

    Damn that was boring

  • Anonymous

    ta.gg/5jo

  • http://twitter.com/sarasuebeedoo Sara Hankins

    “The only true knowledge exists in knowing, that you know nothing.”
    Socrates

  • LS

    dangerous thought processes began after i read this article which forced me to get on the exercise bike for 30 mins until the bad voices went away; so thank you bsg, i am now a little bit more fit.

  • http://loveisaliveandwell.tumblr.com Andri Alexandrou

    The prisoner comes to love his cage because he allows himself to be defined by it, through criticism in this case or irony. Take away the cage, and the prisoner has no identity.

    Is that what it gets at?

    And I *love* this article. Some thoughts are not meant to be structured, because that would imply conclusiveness, answers, organization, or an overarching truth. There is not.

  • aa

    Damn this is really good. Love you.

  • http://kylelamar.com/ Kyle LaMar

    I couldn’t get more behind people coming to the self realization that they are full of shit. 

  • Anonymous

    phlpn.es/7x9vmd

  • Anonymous

    what a relief. finally BSG returns with a bang. 

    this is very interesting and i relate to you and feel less alienated

    . please write more man! i encourage you to write a book, or a big ass essay. something I can just dive into for awhile. don’t be afraid to be sincere and say things even if you feel they’ve probably been said before in the past. 

    art is only selfish if it isn’t shared.. so share more!!! B-)

  • megan

    Good.

  • Autumn

    “People who’ve lived lives of steadily increasing comfort are likely to become very upset when faced with the prospect of losing any of that comfort”
    I think I read this part about five times. 

  • Heather Inc

    This is great. Thank you for the long DFW quote. Please keep exploring these ideas in your writing!

  • Carolineabrennan

    Are you really talking about motivation and peer pressure in the mind of a perfectionist? One whose ego hungers for god like adoration? Because that kind of pressure makes you afraid of making mistakes. The fear goes-if errors are read and the work is non genius it might ruin ones chances of acheiving god like status?
    In which case the early point about self-dought could do with further
    exploration-does a higher level of self-dought equal higher sucess?
    I think so because I see some of the people you mentioned ‘living the dream’ on social media-and I reckon they have little self dought otherwise they wouldn’t make sucess claims without the kind of real tangible proof a person with self-dought would require before a boast!
    Thanks for the article, it ment something to me :)

  • Rayan Khayat

    This was really great! But I’m concerned about one thing that also crossed my mind sometime in my life. It seems like you’re still focusing too much on these fictional or famous characters you don’t really know, personas who aren’t “real.” And perhaps it eschews ones idea on what a real person is. Someone who does things that go against what our well-meaning self-aware generation believes in. Just because these people follow their base instincts doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Then you become selfish and an asshole. I think the focus should be being a good, selfless person.

    The article’s really great though. It’s funny how thought catalog went from articles on arts and politics and became a self help discussion forum.

    • Jeff

      You should watch up to at least 1:38 in this video: http://youtu.be/8sFqfbrsZbw and consider readjusting your belief that reality and fiction are two separate spheres. Though I think you already know this. After all, you seem to be referring celebrities as “famous characters.”

      • Rayan Khayat

        I get it but he’s not exactly helpful. He seems too concerned with movies too. My advice is a lot better, just go outside and really deal with people to achieve good things for yourself and the people you love and learn from that. Very simple and it will work. Stop thinking you’re capable of escaping or finding a better way, shut off that ego cause you’re delusional (not directly to you Jeff) cause you’re just sitting in front of your computer watching these videos and movies that aren’t helping anyone, not even yourself.

      • Jeff

        Point taken. I was just trying to suggest that you, me and all the people out there are very influenced by what we get from the media, which is everywhere. So the distinction between real-fiction is a lot more complicated than people say.

        I don’t think we should ever stop thinking about escape or trying to find a better way. :D

  • http://www.facebook.com/black.moon.ghost.girl Moon Temple

    Here’s a fun one: I’m in a constant battle with myself trying to decide how obvious to make my *depression* look to other people outside of myself, as I want people to understand that I am, in fact, a *depressed* person but also don’t want to appear as though I want people to understand that I am, in fact, a *depressed* person.

    • http://www.facebook.com/black.moon.ghost.girl Moon Temple

      Also, I loved this. It’s pretty fucking relevant to, uh, everything

  • bones

    not to be nasty, but get your head out of your giant navel. after that, collect your thoughts and try to organise them into a coherant essay. could we have less angst and more insight….because some of what you say stopped me in my tracks. if only you were able to bring it down from random thoughts. but, please, keep writing.

    • http://midsummerhues.tumblr.com Anna

      But that’s the beauty of it, being “incoherent” and all. It makes you think.

  • http://theholylance.com Nick Cox

    Something interesting:

    Your two examples of the sort of unironic authenticity that our generation lacks—Daniel Plainview from *There Will Be Blood* and unspecified characters from Hemingway—have something else in common: they are both (literally) impotent. Plainview’s impotence, which began as a fan theory, has been corroborated by an unfilmed portion of the script in which Daniel tearfully tells Henry “He’s not my son, my cock doesn’t even work. How am I gonna make a kid?” And Jake Barnes, the protagonist of *The Sun Also Rises* and one of Hemingway’s most memorable characters, got shot in the penis during the war—the novel’s central tension is his inability to consummate his love with Lady Brett Ashley.

    What do you make of that?

    • Anonymous

      i didn’t know that about plainview, that’s interesting. i’ve never really understood why hemingway chose barnes’ war accident the way he did. i think it’s the subject of a lot of literary speculation. my idea about that is that his wound deepens his psychological pain such that he just gets to be more stoic than he already is. extreme stoicism is something hemingway obviously values. the wound also helps out the plot of that book a lot. anyways, i’m not really sure what it has to do with what i was saying in the article. i think i was trying to address the ‘impotence’ of typical ‘identities’ in the paragraph about famous people we know as ‘identities’ who behave in a way incongruous to our expectations for that ‘identity’. i don’t know what that incongruity is supposed to mean or what it can mean or how to progress past that without just giving up on the appeal of typical identities, which i think would be a complex thing to try and do.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=508371039 Rayan Khayat

        Again, focusing too much on these fictional characters. Stop for your own sake Gorrell! They’re not real! Try and find a real person you admire and emulate them.

  • Anonymous

    I feel like one of these days one of your articles might transcend self-consciousness to become  self-aware, kick-starting the singularity.

  • Anonymous

    phlpn.es/7x9vmd

  • http://midsummerhues.tumblr.com Anna

    I can relate so much to this article. The way I sometimes think of how others would react to what I say or do or what must I do to in a sense “please” them disgusts me sometimes. But I never stop doing these. Maybe because I’ve become more aware of how others see me or I’ve become more aware of how I want others to see me. And I’m afraid to just be “me” because I may not fit in. This has become a very vicious cycle! 

  • joyce nancy

    very enjoyable to read. thank you.

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