Although Socrates —who was the main character in most of Plato ‘s dialogues—was a genuine historical figure, it is commonly understood that in later dialogues Plato used the character of Socrates to give voice to his own philosophical views. The Socratic problem refers to the difficulty or inability of determining what in Plato’s writings is an accurate portrayal of Socrates ‘ thought and what is the thought of Plato with Socrates as a literary device.
A man will die, a writer, the instrument of creation: but what he has created will never die! And to be able to to live for ever you don’t need to have extraordinary gifts or be able to do miracles. Who was Sancho Panza? Who was Prospero? But they will live for ever because – living seeds – they had the luck to find a fruitful soil, an imagination which knew how to grow them and feed them, so that they will live for ever.” (from Six Characters in Search of an Author , 1921)
COSI È (SE VI PARE) (Right You Are – If You Think You Are), published in 1918, marked Pirandello’s interest in the examination of the relativity of truth. The story was about a woman whose identity remains hidden and who could be one of the two very different people. SEI PERSONAGGI IN CERCA D’AUTORE (1921,
Six Chracters in Search of An Author) asked the question, can fictional characters be more authentic than real persons, and what is the relationship between imaginary characters and the writer, who has created them.
Six Characters in Search of an Author consists of roles-within-roles. In rehearsal preparations of a theatrical company are interrupted by the Father and his family who explain that they are characters from an unfinished dramatic works. They want to interpret again crucial moments of their lives, claiming that they are “truer” than the “real” characters. “How can we understand each other if the words I use have the sense and the value I expect them to have, but whoever is listening to me inevitably thinks that those same words have a different sense and value, because of the private world he has inside himself too. We think we understand each other: but we never do,” says the Father. He tells that he has helped his wife to start a new life with her lover and the three illegitimate children born to them. The Wife claims that he forced her into the arms of another man. The Stepdaughter accuses the Father for her shame – they met before in Mme Pace’s infamous house, and he did not recognize her. She was forced to turn to prostitution to support the family. The Son refuses to acknowledge his family and runs into the garden. He shots himself and the actors argue about whether the boy is dead or not. The Father insists that the events are real. The Producer says: “Make-believe?! Reality?! Oh, go to hell the lot of you! Lights! Lights! Lights!” and The Stepdaughter escapes into the audience laughing maniacally.
ENRICO IV (1922, Henry IV, known in the United States as The Living Mask), premiered in Milan, received much better reception. The play told about a man who has fallen from his horse during a masquerade and starts to believe he is the German emperor Henry IV. To accommodate his illness his wealthy sister has placed him in a medieval castle surrounded by actors dressed as eleventh-century courtiers. The nameless hero regains his sanity after twelve years, but decides to pretend he is mad.
With the trilogy Six Characters in Search of An Author , in which the characters of the title are called into existence by a writer, CIASCUNO A SUO MODO (1924) and QUESTA SERA SI RECITA A SOGGETO (1930), Pirandello revolutionized the modern theatrical techniques. A second trilogy, LA NUOVA COLONIA (1928), LAZZARRO (1929), and I GIGANTI DELLA MONTAGNA (1934, The Mountain Giants) moved from the limits of truth-telling to the reality outside of art. The Mountain Giants was left unfinished. It portrayed a magician, who lives in an abandoned villa. A theatrical company decides to perform at a celebration given by the ‘Giants of the Mountain’. The barbaric audience tears two of the actors to pieces and kills one of the directors of the company.
Pirandello’s central themes, the problem of identity, the ambiguity of truth and reality, has been compared to explorations of Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg , but he also anticipated Beckett and Ionesco. One of the earliest formulations of his relativist position Pirandello presented in the essay ‘Art and Consciousness Today’ (1893), in which he argued that the old norms have crumbled and the idea of relativity deprives “almost altogether of the faculty for judgment.” A central concepts in his work is “naked mask”, referring our social roles and on the stage the dialectic relationship between the actor and the character portrayed. In Six Characters the father points out, that a fictional figure has a permanence that comes from an unchanging text, but a real-life person may well be “a nobody”. Pirandello did not only restrict his ideas to theatre acting, but noted in his novel SI GIRA (1915), that the film actor “feels as if in exile – exiled not only from the stage, but also from himself.”
Pirandello is always preoccupied with the problem of identity. The self exists to him only in relation to others; it consists of changing facets that hide an inscrutable abyss. In a play like Cosí é (se vi pare) (1918) [Right You Are (If You Think You Are) ], two people hold contradictory notions about the identity of a third person. The protagonist in Vestire gli ignudi (1923) [To Clothe the Naked ] tries to establish her individuality by assuming various identities, which are successively stripped from her; she gradually realizes her true position in the social order and in the end dies «naked», without a social mask, in both her own and her friends’ eyes. Similarly in Enrico IV (1922) [Henry IV ] a man supposedly mad imagines that he is a medieval emperor, and his imagination and reality are strangely confused. The conflict between illusion and reality is central in La vita che ti diedi (1924) [The Life I Gave You ] in which Anna’s long-lost son returns home and contradicts her mental conception of him. However, his death resolves Anna’s conflict; she clings to illusion rather than to reality. The analysis and dissolution of a unified self are carried to an extreme in Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore (1921) [Six Characters in Search of An Author ] where the stage itself, the symbol of appearance versus reality, becomes the setting of the play.
The attitudes expressed in L’Umorismo [Humour ], an early essay (1908), are fundamental to all of Pirandello’s plays. His characters attempt to fulfil their self-seeking roles and are defeated by life itself which, always changing, enables them to see their perversity. This is Pirandello’s humour, an irony which arises from the contradictions inherent in life.
Turning one’s eye inward toward one’s own consciousness means seeing with horror the threat of disintegration, of dis-aggregation of the self. In 1900, Pirandello had already read the short essay by Alfred Binet , Les altérations de la personnalité (1892) on the alterations of the personality. He cited several excerpts in his article Scienza e Critica Estetica . The experimental observations of Binet had apparently scientifically demonstrated the extreme lability of the personality: a set of psychic elements in temporary coordination which can easily collapse, giving way to many different personalities equally furnished with will and intelligence cohabiting within the same individual. In Binet’s “proofs”, Pirandello found scientific support for the surprising intuitions of much German romanticism on which he had probably meditated during his years spent in Germany. Steffens, Shubert and others who had concerned themselves with dreams were the first to discovery the existence of the subconscious. Steffens already spoke of a “consciousness which sinks into the night” and, in Jean Paul, there are already present the ideas of terror of disintegration and the chilling sensation of seeing oneself live. Pirandello shares the view that the self is not unitary. That which seemed like an irreducible and monolithic nucleus multiplies as in a prism; the exterior self does not have the same face as the secret self; it is only a mask that man unconsciously assumes in order to adapt himself to the social context in which he finds himself, each one in a different manner, in a game of mobile perspectives.
Compelled only by an interior sense of necessity, furnished with different instruments and aiming at other prospects, Pirandello ventures on his own initiative into territory which will later on end up in Freudian psychoanalysis and the analytic psychology of Carl Jung . Jung published his work The Self and the Unconscious in 1928. In that work, he attempts to scientifically investigate the relationship between the individual and the collective psyche, between the being that appears and the profound being. Jung called the self that appears a persona saying that “…the term is truly appropriate because originally persona was the mask that actors wore and also indicated the part that he played.” The persona is “that which one appears”, a facade behind which is hidden the true individual being.
I present myself to you in a form suitable to the relationship I wish to achieve with you.
Nature uses human imagination to lift her work of creation to even higher levels.
Personally, I don’t give a rap for documents; for the truth in my eyes is not in them but in the mind.
LUIGI PIRANDELLO, It Is So! (If You Think So
We’re like so many puppets hung on the wall, waiting for someone to come and move us or make us talk.
LUIGI PIRANDELLO, Henry IV
Shake yourself free from the manikin you create out of a false interpretation of what you do and what you feel, and you’ll at once see that the manikin you make yourself is nothing at all like what you really are or what you really can be!
LUIGI PIRANDELLO, Each in His Own Way
You should show some respect for what other people see and feel, even though it be the exact opposite of what you see and feel.
LUIGI PIRANDELLO, It Is So! (If You Think So)
Buffoons, buffoons! One can play any tune on them!
LUIGI PIRANDELLO, Henry IV
The more arms and legs [children] we have, the richer we are.
LUIGI PIRANDELLO, Liolà
The man, the writer, the instrument of the creation will die, but his creation does not die.
LUIGI PIRANDELLO, Six Characters in Search of an Author
see also Catlyn Jenner
According to Eliot Weinberger , an American writer, essayist , editor and translator , Kosiński was not the author of The Painted Bird . Weinberger alleged in his 2000 book Karmic Traces that Kosiński was not fluent in English at the time of its writing.
In a review of Jerzy Kosiński: A Biography by James Park Sloan, D. G. Myers, Associate Professor of English at Texas A&M University wrote “For years Kosinski passed off The Painted Bird as the true story of his own experience during the Holocaust. Long before writing it he regaled friends and dinner parties with macabre tales of a childhood spent in hiding among the Polish peasantry. Among those who were fascinated was Dorothy de Santillana, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin , to whom Kosinski confided that he had a manuscript based on his experiences. Upon accepting the book for publication Santillana said, “It is my understanding that, fictional as the material may sound, it is straight autobiography.” Although he backed away from this claim, Kosinski never wholly disavowed it.” 17
M. A. Orthofer addressed Weinberger’s assertion by saying: “Kosinski was, in many respects, a fake – possibly near as genuine a one as Weinberger could want.
Kosinski famously liked to pretend he was someone he wasn’t (as do many of the characters in his books), he occasionally published under a pseudonym, and, apparently, he plagiarized and forged left and right.” 18
Kosiński himself addressed these claims in the introduction to the 1976 reissue of The Painted Bird , saying that “Well-intentioned writers critics, and readers sought facts to back up their claims that the novel was autobiographical. They wanted to cast me in the role of spokesman for my generation, especially for those who had survived the war; but for me survival was an individual action that earned the survivor the right to speak only for himself. Facts about my life and my origins, I felt, should not be used to test the book’s authenticity, any more than they should be used to encourage readers to read The Painted Bird . Furthermore, I felt then, as I do now, that fiction and autobiography are very different modes.” 19
The Painted Bird is a fictional account that depicts the personal experiences of a boy of unknown religious and ethnic background who wanders around unidentified areas of Eastern Europe during World War II and taking refuge among a series of people, many of whom are brutally cruel and abusive, either to him or to others.
Soon after the book was published in the US, Kosiński was accused by the then-Communist Polish government of being anti-Polish , especially following the regime’s 1968 anti-Semitic campaign . 8 The book was banned in Poland from its initial publication until the fall of the Communist government in 1989. When it was finally printed, thousands of Poles in Warsaw lined up for as long as eight hours to purchase copies of the work autographed by Kosiński. 8
Polish literary critic and University of Warsaw professor Paweł Dudziak remarked that “in spite of the unclear role of its author,The Painted Bird is an achievement in English literature.” He stressed that since the book is a work of fiction and does not document real-world events, accusations of anti-Polish sentiment may result only from taking it too literally. 9
The book received recommendations from Elie Wiesel who wrote in The New York Times Book Review that it was “one of the best… Written with deep sincerity and sensitivity.” Richard Kluger , reviewing it for Harper’s Magazine wrote: “Extraordinary… literally staggering … one of the most powerful books I have ever read.” Jonathon Yardley , reviewing it for The Miami Herald , wrote: “Of all the remarkable fiction that emerged from World War II, nothing stands higher than Jerzy Kosiński’s The Painted Bird . A magnificent work of art, and a celebration of the individual will. No one who reads it will forget it; no one who reads it will be unmoved by it.” 10
However, reception of the book was not uniformly positive. After being translated into Polish, it was read by the people with whom the Lewinkopf family lived during the war. They recognized names of Jewish children sheltered by them (who also survived the war), depicted in the novel as victims of abuse by characters based on them. 11
Also, according to Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski , The Painted Bird was Kosiński’s most successful attempt at profiteering from the Holocaust by maintaining an aura of a chronicle. 11 In addition, several claims that Kosiński committed plagiarism in writing The Painted Bird were leveled against him. (See ‘Criticism’ section, below.)
In June 1982, a Village Voice report by Geoffrey Stokes and Eliot Fremont-Smith accused Kosiński of plagiarism , claiming that much of his work was derivative of prewar books unfamiliar to English readers, and that Being There was a plagiarism of Kariera Nikodema Dyzmy — The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma — a 1932 Polish bestseller by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz . They also alleged Kosiński wrote The Painted Bird in Polish, and had it secretly translated into English. The report claimed that Kosiński’s books had actually been ghost-written by “assistant editors”, finding stylistic differences among Kosiński’s novels. Kosiński, according to them, had depended upon his free-lance editors for “the sort of composition that we usually call writing.”
American biographer James Sloan notes that New York poet, publisher and translator, George Reavey , claimed to have written The Painted Bird for Kosiński. 20
George Reavey (1 May 1907 – 11 August 1976) was a Russian-born Irish surrealist poet, publisher, translator and art collector. He was also Samuel Beckett’s first literary agent. In addition to his own poetry, Reavey’s translations and critical prose helped introduce 20th century Russian poetry to an English-speaking audience. He was also the first publisher to bring out a collection of English translations of the French surrealist poet Paul Éluard.
Perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of Reavey’s literary career was his claim, made to the New York press and to British editor and publisher, Alan Clodd, that he had written The Painted Bird for Jerzy Kosiński.1
The article found a more realistic picture of Kosiński’s life during the Holocaust — a view which was supported by biographers Joanna Siedlecka and Sloan. The article asserted that The Painted Bird, assumed by some to be semi-autobiographical , was largely a work of fiction. The information showed that rather than wandering the Polish countryside, as his fictional character did, Kosiński spent the war years in hiding with a Polish Catholic family.
Terence Blacker , a profitable English publisher (who helped publish Kosiński’s books) and author of children’s books and mysteries for adults, wrote in his article published in The Independent in 2002:
“The significant point about Jerzy Kosiński was that … his books … had a vision and a voice consistent with one another and with the man himself. The problem was perhaps that he was a successful, worldly author who played polo, moved in fashionable circles and even appeared as an actor in Warren Beatty’s Reds . He seemed to have had an adventurous and rather kinky sexuality which, to many, made him all the more suspect. All in all, he was a perfect candidate for the snarling pack of literary hangers-on to turn on. There is something about a storyteller becoming rich and having a reasonably full private life that has a powerful potential to irritate so that, when things go wrong, it causes a very special kind of joy.” 21
D.G. Myers responded to Blacker’s assertions in his review of Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography by James Park Sloan:
“This theory explains much: the reckless driving, the abuse of small dogs, the thirst for fame, the fabrication of personal experience, the secretiveness about how he wrote, the denial of his Jewish identity. ‘There was a hollow space at the center of Kosinski that had resulted from denying his past,’ Sloan writes, ‘and his whole life had become a race to fill in that hollow space before it caused him to implode, collapsing inward upon
himself like a burnt-out star.’ On this theory, Kosinski emerges as a classic borderline personality, frantically defending himself against… all-out psychosis. 17
Journalist John Corry , wrote a 6,000-word feature article in The New York Times in November 1982, responding and defending Kosiński, which appeared on the front page of the Arts and Leisure section. Among other things, Corry alleged that reports claiming that “Kosinski was a plagiarist in the pay of the C.I.A. were the product of a Polish Communist disinformation campaign.” 22
Kosiński himself responded that he had never maintained that the book was autobiographical, even though years earlier he confided to Houghton Mifflin editor Santillana that his manuscript “draws upon a childhood spent, by the casual chances of war, in the remotest villages of Eastern Europe .” 17 In 1988, he wrote The Hermit of 69th Street , in which he sought to demonstrate the absurdity of investigating prior work by inserting footnotes for practically every term in the book. 23
“Ironically,” wrote theatre critic Lucy Komisar, “possibly his only true book… about a successful author who is shown to be a fraud.” 23
Despite repudiation of the Village Voice allegations in detailed articles in The New York Times , The Los Angeles Times , and other publications, Kosiński remained tainted. “I think it contributed to his death,” said Zbigniew Brzezinski , a friend and fellow Polish exile. 3
Kosiński was also friends with Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Folger . He introduced the couple.
In 1984, Polanski denied Kosinski’s story in his autobiography. Journalist John Taylor of New York Magazine believes Polanski was mistaken. “Although it was a single sentence in a 461-page book, reviewers focused on it. But the accusation was untrue: Jerzy and Kiki had been invited to stay with Tate the night of the Manson murders, and they missed being killed as well only because they stopped in New York en route from Paris because their luggage had been misdirected.” The reason why Taylor believes this, is that “a friend of Kosinski’s wrote a letter to the Times , which was published in the Book Review , describing the detailed plans he and Jerzy had made to meet that weekend at Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive. Few people saw the letter.” The NYM article does not contain the name of this friend, nor the particular issue of the Book Review in which this letter is supposed to have been published, nor names of the ‘few’ who may have read the letter. 3
Volume II, Issue 1 — February, 2001
Facts and Fakes
Considering Eliot Weinberger’s Genuine Fakes
Eliot Weinberger’s short piece, Genuine Fakes, most recently published in his collection Karmic Traces (New Directions, 2000), begins:
About ten years after it was published, an energetic young man retyped Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 prize-winning novel, The Painted Bird, gave the manuscript a new title, and submitted it to a dozen American publishers. None of them, including Kosinski’s own publisher, recognized the book, and all of them rejected it.
“It was good joke,” Weinberger adds, “and a telling comment on how books get published, but the story does not end there.” Indeed not. But the story also begins elsewhere.
In his piece Weinberger offers a simplified account of the joke: a nameless energetic young man, an unidentified new title, faceless publishers. He even begins with an approximation: “About ten years after it was published …..” The anecdote — the point — perhaps does not require more.
The facts have been well-documented elsewhere. Time magazine brought a little piece on it in 1979. Chuck Ross — the perpetrator — published an account of it in New West magazine. And James Park Sloan describes it in his biography of Kosinski (Dutton, 1996). What actually occurred was: in 1975 Chuck Ross typed up some 20 pages of Kosinski’s novel and submitted them as a sample chapter to four publishers, including Houghton Mifflin, who were Kosinski’s publishers at that time. Rejected by all of them, Ross repeated the experiment in 1978-9, this time submitting the entire manuscript to 14 publishers and 13 literary agents. Again, all of them turned it down, and apparently none of them recognized it.
Only one aspect of the joke is more precisely identified by Weinberger in his brief summary: the book in question. Weinberger states that it was “Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 prize-winning novel, The Painted Bird”. Unfortunately this is also the one piece of information that Weinberger got wrong. The novel in question — the one Chuck Ross submitted — was not Kosinski’s 1965 novel, The Painted Bird, but his 1968, National Book Award-winning novel, Steps.
Genuine Fakes was originally a book-review, published in The L.A. Weekly in 1983. It was rewritten for a 1995 issue of Artes de México on forgery. It was then published in Weinberger’s collection of “poetics politics polemics”, Written Reaction (Marsilio, 1996). It was then published again in Weinberger’s collection, Karmic Traces (New Directions, 2000).
Chuck Ross’ stunt may be “a telling comment on how books get published”, but Weinberger’s misstep is also a telling comment on the state of publishing, editing, — and reading.
Four times over the incorrect information was published. Weinberger did not catch it. No editor caught it. And, sadly, no reader seems to have caught it — or, if one did, to have made the effort to inform the powers that be. Again and again and again the error was repeated.
Genuine Fakes is a clever, thoughtful little piece. It is no wonder Weinberger chooses to reprint it. In only a few pages he manages to address many of the significant aspects of forgery, and he does so entertainingly and well. He finds the proper balance between his facts and conclusions, where in his other pieces one or the other often dominates too strongly. He concludes that the forger may be “the purest artist (…) who believes only in the work itself and the age to which it is attributed.”
The Kosinski-anecdote is only one of a number of different forgeries Weinberger cites. One reason he uses it is because he can continue the trail of fakery, noting that Kosinski was accused of not really having written The Painted Bird. Claims range from Kosinski having written it in Polish and having gotten someone else to translate it, to his having written only an outline which someone else then puffed up into the novel, to his having based it on an actual Polish manuscript penned by someone else — to him simply having straight-out plagiarized it.
Kosinski was, in many respects, a fake — possibly near as genuine a one as Weinberger could want. (One aspect of the best fakes is the lingering doubt that, possibly, there is some authenticity behind them — as is the case with Kosinski.) Kosinski famously liked to pretend he was someone he wasn’t (as do many of the characters in his books), he occasionally published under a pseudonym, and, apparently, he plagiarized and forged left and right.
Weinberger’s mistake would appear to be a simple, harmless one. The Painted Bird instead of Steps — what difference does it make ? Surely, the point remains the same, the anecdote just as illuminating.
In fact, Weinberger’s slip is a significant and disturbing one. First: the point is no longer quite the same. Second: Ross’ ruse would never have worked with The Painted Bird, completely undermining Weinberger’s argument — but readers, fooled by Weinberger’s unsound presumption, are none the wiser. Third: Weinberger — an author who fills his pieces with clever (but generally undocumented) facts, spinning neat conclusions from them — undermines his own trustworthiness. If he gets this wrong (and it is more than just getting the title of the book wrong) how can one trust his other contentions and citations ?
The point is no longer quite the same. Weinberger writes: “The Painted Bird is a classic case of how authorship determines reception”, its importance greatest when Kosinski-as-war-victim is the authentic author and then diminishing as it is seen as translated, plagiarized, and finally merely retyped. If the situation were as Weinberger describes it — if Ross had actually retyped The Painted Bird (rather than Steps) — his point would be much stronger. The facts suggest that the text does play a more significant role in reception than Weinberger allows:
Steps is a different beast from The Painted Bird. It won the National Book Award — controversially, one might add, with many considering it a make-up prize for the previously overlooked The Painted Bird — and it sold well. It may be of literary merit, it may have won a prestigious prize, many people may have bought it and a considerable number might even have read it, but it made no impression. It is not a bad book, but it is entirely unremarkable. A book the world has remained oblivious to. Fairly, rightly so. It has been reduced to a curious aside, an occasional footnote, a bibliographic entry. It is already among the most-forgotten books of recent years, and it will fade further. And Chuck Ross’ clever success rests on this particular quality of the book — rests entirely on it, one could argue.
The Painted Bird belongs in another category entirely. It was more widely discussed, and far better known. It made Kosinski’s reputation, and it remains the most significant of his texts. A number of his works are still in print, but this is the big one. The magnum opus, the one that’s cited when he is mentioned.
Ross’ ruse would never have worked had he submitted The Painted Bird, retyped, in his experiment. Fake or real, it is a unique text. It made its mark. It was widely read, well received. It is a familiar, known novel. It stands out, in whatever guise it exists. Arguably even those that have not read the original would recognize it were it submitted under a different title and a different author’s name. Not necessarily as The Painted Bird, but as as an element of our common literary and humanistic experience, a fact which would be remarked upon and followed through until the connection with the original novel was made.
In part this is due to the subject-matter, but The Painted Bird is also an accomplished and distinctive literary text (as none of Kosinski’s other novels are — though a number are quite interesting). The question of how Kosinski accomplished this — whether he wrote it himself, had help, or simple stole someone else’s book — is interesting but not central. The Painted Bird continues to exist as a literary text, apart from the many questions about its authorship. As such it seems to weigh against Weinberger’s thesis; certainly it can not be said that it “is a classic case of how authorship determines reception”.
Weinberger begins his piece with a wishy-washy account of the facts:
About ten years after it was published, an energetic young man retyped (…) The Painted Bird, gave the manuscript a new title, and submitted it to a dozen American publishers.
Beside the title “a dozen” is the most precision he offers here — and he seems to use it to mean “a handful” rather than specifically twelve. Readers are told the young man is energetic, but not what his name was. The time frame is approximate (“about ten years after” a date which itself is not disclosed).
Certainly, the point of the anecdote is what counts: nobody recognized the retyped work. The details are not that important (except the one that is given — which is the one that is wrong — the title of the original book), and many readers will have a vague memory of the episode anyway.
Weinberger seems, in fact, to be providing just the right level of detail. Gloss over the irrelevant fine points (did Ross submit the manuscript to four publishers, and then ten, or was it four and then fourteen ? in 1977 or 1979 ? etc.), and get to the main point. The passage on Ross’ joke resembles much of Weinberger’s writing in his entertaining essays: lots of facts plucked from here and there, without too much fussy detail (or too many citations). It is, arguably, one of the greatest strengths of his writing as he cuts to the quick and makes clever connexions.
With writing such as Weinberger’s it is impossible to hunt down every fact and check to see if he got it right. Readers — a trusting, often gullible lot (if it’s printed it’s got to be true) — have little choice here; if they want to read Weinberger they have to take his word for it. It all sounds plausible enough — but what happens when, as here, it turns out not to be accurate. What to do then when he gets a fairly basic (yet consequential) fact wrong ? Doesn’t it call everything into question ?
Is this much ado about nothing ? Perhaps. Certainly no one seems to much care; public indifference manifests itself in the fact that no one ever seems to have pointed out the mistake (or done anything about it). (No question: literary culture is dead as a doornail.)
It is hard to get all the facts right in a collection so rich in references as Karmic Traces or Written Reactions, possibly impossible. Some mistakes do not matter much. In the piece Panama: A Palindrome (in Written Reactions), Weinberger writes of George Bush, describing him as “serving for short terms in sensitive or troubled government agencies (the CIA, the UN, the Embassy in China).” When Bush was appointed in 1974 it was to head the U.S. Liaison Office in Peking. Diplomatic relations were not full-fledged yet; there was no American Embassy. But here Weinberger is close enough to the mark.
Not so in confusing The Painted Bird and Steps in the way he does. He builds an argument — possibly a valid one — on this false foundation, and he also calls into question the way he works with and presents facts elsewhere in his writing. That seems far too high a price to pay.
The literary world, when it preens in its intellectual and essayistic (as opposed to fictional or poetic) guise, though long toppled, ever-shrinking, falling, fading, can not afford such a cavalier attitude towards facts. It must remain true to its strengths if it is to assert itself as worthy of any continuing rôle in society — and truth is its final and fundamental strength.
Ours is no longer the age of reason or of belief, it is an age of opinion. Granting this we must at least demand from those expressing opinion to found them in fact. It is the only glimmer of hope.
Postscript – cri de coeur
Are there really no editors out there ?
No fact-checkers ?
No one who cares ?
- Return to top of the page –
• Eliot Weinberger’s books under review at the complete review
◦ Karmic Traces
◦ Written Reaction
◦ Outside Stories
◦ Works on Paper
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The Painted Bird
The Painted Bird describes the experiences of a boy (of unknown religious and ethnic background) wandering about a surreal Central or Eastern Europe countryside and hiding among cruel peasants. The novel is presumably a metaphor for the human condition: alienation in a dehumanized, hostile, and thoroughly evil world.
It was “described by Arthur Miller and Elie Wiesel as one of the most important books in the so-called Holocaust literature.”2 Wiesel wrote in a New York Times Book Review that it was: “One of the best… Written with deep sincerity and sensitivity”; Richard Kluger, reviewing it for Harper’s Magazine wrote: “Extraordinary… literally staggering … one of the most powerful books I have ever read,” and John Yardley, reviewing it for The Miami Herald, wrote: “Of all the remarkable fiction that emerged from World War II, nothing stands higher than Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird. A magnificent work of art, and a celebration of the individual will. No one who reads it will forget it; no one who reads it will be unmoved by it. The Painted Bird enriches our literature and our lives.”3
Soon after the book was published in the US, Kosinski was accused of being anti-Polish, “particularly after 1968 when the authorities undertook an anti-Semitic campaign that forced many Jews to leave Poland.”4 The book was banned in Poland from its initial publication until 1989; when it was finally allowed to be printed, thousands of Poles in Warsaw lined up for as much as eight hours to purchase copies of the work autographed by Kosinski.4 Polish literary critic and University of Warsaw professor, Paweł Dudziak, noted that the Painted Bird is a “great, even if a controversial” piece. He stressed that since the book is surreal—a fictional tale—and does not present, nor claims to present real-world events—accusation of anti-Polish sentiment are nothing but misunderstanding of the book by those who take it too literally.5
However, reception of the book was not uniformly positive. “When Kosinski’s Painted Bird was translated into Polish, wrote Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski, it was read by the people with whom the Lewinkopf family lived during the war. They were scandalized by the tales of abuse that never happened. They recognized names of Jewish children sheltered by them during the war—children who survived thanks to them, now painted as victims of their abuse. They were bitter and offended by Jerzy’s ingratitude and obsession to slander them.” According to Pogonowski, The Painted Bird—due to its “pornographic content”—became Kosinski’s most successful attempt at profiteering from the Holocaust.6
It is argued that The Painted Bird is a misinterpretation of the metaphoric nature of the novel. In newer editions Kosinski explained that his characters’ nationality and ethnicity had intentionally been left ambiguous in order to prevent that very interpretation.
According to Eliot Weinberger, an American writer, essayist, editor and translator, Kosinski was not the author of The Painted Bird. Weinberger alleged in his 2000 book Karmic Traces that Kosinski was not fluent in English at the time of its writing.10
In a review of Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography by James Park Sloan, D. G. Myers, Associate Professor of English at Texas A&M University wrote “For years Kosinski passed off The Painted Bird as the true story of his own experience during the Holocaust. Long before writing it he regaled friends and dinner parties with macabre tales of a childhood spent in hiding among the Polish peasantry. Among those who were fascinated was Dorothy de Santillana, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, to whom Kosinski confided that he had a manuscript based on his experiences. Upon accepting the book for publication Santillana said, “It is my understanding that, fictional as the material may sound, it is straight autobiography.” Although he backed away from this claim, Kosinski never wholly disavowed it.”11
M.A. Orthofer addressed Weinberger’s assertion by saying: “Kosinski was, in many respects, a fake – possibly near as genuine a one as Weinberger could want. (One aspect of the best fakes is the lingering doubt that, possibly, there is some authenticity behind them – as is the case with Kosinski.) Kosinski famously liked to pretend he was someone he wasn’t (as do many of the characters in his books), he occasionally published under a pseudonym, and, apparently, he plagiarized and forged left and right.”12
Village Voice article: claims of plagiarism
In June 1982, a Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes and Eliot Fremont-Smith accused Kosinski of plagiarism, claiming much of his work was derivative of Polish sources unfamiliar to English readers. (Being There bears a strong resemblance to Kariera Nikodema Dyzmy—The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma—a 1932 Polish bestseller by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz). They also alleged that Kosinski wrote The Painted Bird in Polish, and had it secretly translated into English. The article also claimed that Kosinski’s books had actually been ghost-written by his “assistant editors,” pointing to stylistic differences among Kosinski’s novels, depending upon his free-lance editors for “the sort of composition that we usually call writing.” New York poet, publisher and translator, George Reavey, who in American biographer James Sloan’s opinion was embittered by his own lack of literary success, claimed to have written The Painted Bird for Kosinski. Reavey’s assertions were ignored by the press.13
The article presented a different picture of Kosinski’s life during the Holocaust—a view which was later supported by a Polish biographer, Joanna Siedlecka, and Sloan. The article asserted that The Painted Bird, assumed by some to be semi-autobiographical, was a work of fiction. The article maintained that rather than wandering the Polish countryside, Kosiński had spent the war years in hiding with a Polish Catholic family and had never been appreciably mistreated.
Reaction to article
Terence Blacker, an English publisher (who published Kosinski’s books) and author of children’s books and mysteries for adults, wrote in response to the article’s accusations in his article published in The Independent in 2002:
“The significant point about Jerzy Kosinski was that … his books … had a vision and a voice consistent with one another and with the man himself. The problem was perhaps that he was a successful, worldly author who played polo, moved in fashionable circles and even appeared as an actor in Warren Beatty’s Reds. He seemed to have had an adventurous and rather kinky sexuality which, to many, made him all the more suspect. All in all, he was a perfect candidate for the snarling pack of literary hangers-on to turn on. There is something about a storyteller becoming rich and having a reasonably full private life that has a powerful potential to irritate so that, when things go wrong, it causes a very special kind of joy.”14
D.G. Myers responded to Blacker’s assertions in his review of Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography by James Park Sloan:
“This theory explains much: the reckless driving, the abuse of small dogs, the thirst for fame, the fabrication of personal experience, the secretiveness about how he wrote, the denial of his Jewish identity. ‘There was a hollow space at the center of Kosinski that had resulted from denying his past,’ Sloan writes, ‘and his whole life had become a race to fill in that hollow space before it caused him to implode, collapsing inward upon himself like a burnt-out star.’ On this theory, Kosinski emerges as a classic borderline personality, frantically defending himself against… all-out psychosis.11
John Corry, a controversial figure himself15 wrote a 6,000-word feature article in The New York Times in November 1982, responding and defending Kosinski, which appeared on the front page of the Arts and Leisure section. Among other things, Corry alleged that reports claiming that “Kosinski was a plagiarist in the pay of the C.I.A. were the product of a Polish Communist disinformation campaign.”16
Kosinski’s defenders also assert that these accusations ignore the stylistic differences apparent in the work of almost any artist over a period of more than a few years.
Kosinski himself responded that he had never maintained that the book was autobiographical, even though years earlier he confided to Dorothy de Santillana, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, that his manuscript “draws upon a childhood spent, by the casual chances of war, in the remotest villages of Eastern Europe.”11 In 1988 he wrote The Hermit of 69th Street, in which he sought to demonstrate the absurdity of investigating prior work by inserting footnotes for practically every term in the book.17 “Ironically – wrote theatre critic Lucy Komisar – possibly his only true book… about a successful author who is shown to be a fraud.”17
In 1979, Kosinski told a reporter: “I’m not a suicide freak, but I want to be free. If I ever have a terminal disease that would affect my mind or my body, I would end it.”18
By the time he reached his late 50’s, Kosinski was suffering from irregular heart beat as well as severe physical and nervous exhaustion. Kosinski committed suicide on May 3, 1991, by taking a fatal dose of barbiturates and his usual rum-and-Coke, twisting a plastic shopping bag around his head and (allegedly) taping it shut around his neck (a method of suicide suggested by the Hemlock Society), and lying down to die in water in the bathtub in his West 57th Street New York apartment.19
His parting suicide note read: “I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call the time Eternity.” (Newsweek, May 13 1991).
Kosinski was a popular, if not important writer. His Painted Bird was considered an important contribution to understanding theHolocaust by figures such as Arthur Miller and Elie Wiesel. His novels sold well, and Being There was made into a popular film starring Peter Sellers.
Kosinski was himself a popular figure with the media, appearing 12 times on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson during 1971-73 andThe Dick Cavett Show in 1974. He was a guest on the talk radio show of Long John Nebel, posed half-naked for a cover photograph byAnnie Leibovitz for the New York Times Magazine in 1982, and presented the Oscar for screenwriting in 1982.
He also played the role of Bolshevik revolutionary and Politburo member Grigory Zinoviev in Warren Beatty’s film Reds. The Time magazine critic wrote: “As Reed’s Soviet nemesis, novelist Jerzy Kosinski acquits himself nicely–a tundra of ice against Reed’s all-American fire.” Newsweek complimented Kosinski’s “delightfully abrasive” performance.
f you had plans to pick up Belgian writer Misha Defonseca’s book, “Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years,” be aware that it’s a harrowing tale of how, as a Jewish child, she lived with a pack of wolves in the woods during the Holocaust. The book, which has been made into a feature film in France …
… is also something else: a complete crock.
The author has since acknowledged that her story wasn’t autobiographical, and that she didn’t trek 1,900 miles across Europe with a pack of wolves in search of her deported parents during World War II.
In fact, this phony Holocaust survivor isn’t even Jewish! Defonseca said her parents were arrested by the Nazis for their role in the resistance movement, and shabby treatment by her adopted family made her “feel Jewish.” Oy vey!
Defonseca’s story brings to mind another writer, the late Jerzy Kosinski, who caused a sensation in the 1960s with his book “The Painted Bird,” about a young Jewish boy separated from his parents during the Second World II, who wanders the Polish countryside, where he witnesses — and experiences — brutal treatment by the medieval-minded Polish peasants.
Then came Eliot Weinberger, an American writer and translator, who charged that Kosinski wasn’t the book’s author, since Kosinski wasn’t even fluent in English at the time it was written. Another author, M. A. Orthofer, later charged, “Kosinski was, in many respects, a fake –possibly near as genuine a one as Weinberger could want.”
Then in June 1982, an article in The Village Voice by Geoffrey Stokes and Eliot Fremont-Smith accused Kosinski of plagiarism. They charged that his books, including “Painted Bird,” had ripped off Polish stories that were unfamiliar to English readers. But at least Kosinski actually was Jewish. Still, the controversies are believed to have contributed to Kosinski’s eventual suicide in May 1991.
Another beauty in the fake memoirs category was James Frey, whose book “A Million Little Pieces” did so well it made the Oprah Book Club. Too bad poor Oprah had egg on her face when Frey had to admit that his saga of drug abuse was a whole lot of hooey. Oprah even had him on her show, to diss him for abusing her readers.
The question that arises from all this is — why? Why go to such great lengths to create a fake memoir, when all it takes is a relative or friend who knows you well — and knows the memoir is all baloney –to tip off the media? How can the risks not be sky high these days, especially when you begin that book tour and end up on TV, bringing on the weepies as you describe the agonizes you’ve endured?
Money, I guess, is one reason. Maybe if James Frey had written a genuine memoir, it would have been dull and pedantic. On the other hand, Defonseca sounds like she had a fairly interesting childhood. Why not just stick with the real thing? Why the wolves? Was she reading “Tarzan” when she started the book?
I think the problem isn’t so much with these dimwit authors, but rather with our culture. We may be operating under the assumption that an ordinary life just isn’t very interesting, so if our lives are boring, we need to jazz it up with juicer details.
I actually disagree with that notion. I think an interesting writer can take an ordinary life and make it seem funny, touching, nostalgic and dramatic. But that may be the problem: maybe Frey and Defonseca simply weren’t talented enough to make us care about what they really experienced.
In this era of reality shows, there’s no question that audiences love the real thing as much as the scripted dramas — if not more so. In fact, with the shutdown in production of dramas and sitcoms in 2008 because of the Hollywood writer’s strike, new episodes of reality TV were for a while all we were getting: sensible nannies, wife swapping, big weight losses, you’re fired, etc.
University of Columbia graduated in and worked like reader in Yale, Princeton and other universities. In 1965 obtained the American citizenship.
with married in 1962 Mary Hayward Weir, that passed away in 1968 due to cerebral Cancer . Later, one became to marry with Katherina von Fraunhofer.
The novels of Kosinski appeared habitually in the book list more sold of New York Times .They have been translated to more than 30 languages, and the total of sales was considered in about 70 million unit in 1991 .
the Painted Bird
the Painted Bird relates the experience of a boy (of unknown religion and ethnic group, although of Jewish and gypsy appearance) who rambles before abandoned by the zones farmers of Eastern Poland and during World War II . His periplo without course through a cruel, ignorant and superstitious world, becomes a metaphor of the human condition.
Novel, in that they have been wanted to see autobiographical reminiscences (although Kosinski it has denied that are one Autobiography in the strict sense), was considered byArthur Miller, Elie Wiesel and others like one of the most important works of Literature of Holocausto . Thus, Weisel, for example, wrote in New York Times Book Review that was ” one of the best ones… written with deep sincerity and sensibilidad”.
After the publication of the book in the United States, Kosinski was accused in its native country of unpatriotic due to its implacable description of Polish rural means. The accusations intensified in 1968, with the antiJewish campaign that started up the Polish authorities, that forced many Jews to leave the country.
The book was prohibited in Poland and other countries of Eastern Europe, and the author received personal threats, that even arrived at an attempt of aggression in their own house on the part of two Polish immigrants who remembered much the farmers to him who knew in their childhood. Kosinski hurt of which the Poles hated their book and its personwithout at least to have had the occasion to read it.
Finally, in could be published in Poland 1989 . In Warsaw thousands of unit in just a short time were sold and people made tails of several hours to buy books autografiados by the author. The literary critic and professor of Universidad of Warsaw, Paweł Dudziak, described the Painted Bird as a great work and emphasized its symbolic slope, arguing that the accusations of unpatriotic did not have sense since the descriptions of atmospheres and the characters that appeared in the book did not have to be taken literally.
Nevertheless, the reception of the book was not uniformly positive. ” When Painted Bird of Kosinski was translated the Pole – wrote Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski – read the people with whom the Lewinkopf family had lived during the war. They were scandalized by historiesof abuses that never had happened. They recognized the names of some Jewish children to whom they helped during the war, children which they survived thanks to them, now represented like victims of its abuse. They were in favor furious of the ingratitud of Jerzy”.
In later reediciones, Kosinski it explained that the nationality as much as the race of its personages had been hidden to prevent bad interpretations, and insisted on that the novel was not an autobiography, but a metaphor of the confrontation between the human beingin its defenseless state (a boy) and the society in its crueler state (the war).
The life and work of Kosinski are so full of dark zones as its works, until the point of which the own Kosinski seems a fiction personage sometimes.
According to the writer, essay writer, publisher and North American translator Eliot Weinberger, Kosinski could not be the author of the Painted Bird because it sufficiently did not dominate the English language at the time of its publication (it only took to six years inthe United States ). Orthofer clarifies the affirmation of Weinberger saying that the same Kosinski was a falsification in some aspects, because pretended to be somebody that was not in fact (like many of the personages of its books). The best falsifications are those than they seed doubts about what it leaves from them is true and what it starts off is not it.
In Jerzy Kosinski: To Biography, of James Park Sloan, D. Myers argues that the factsrelated in the Painted Bird are fictitious and they were made happen through autobiographical through advice of the publishers.
The article of Stokes
In June of 1982, an article published in Village Voice and signed by Geoffrey Stokes and Eliot Fremont-Smith, directly accused Kosinski of plagiarism. They assured that great part of its work was taken from Polish sources, that were inaccessible to the western readers. They mentioned, for example, that From the garden had a great similarity with Kariera Nikodema Dyzmy – a well-known Polish novel of 1932 written by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz . Also they indicated that Kosinski had written the Painted Bird in Pole, and who soon hadcaused that was translated privily to the English for its publication. Another serious accusation, based on the stylistic differences and of score between novels and others, maintained that Kosinski and its publishers at that time used writers without crediting to write up their works. The poet and New York translator George Reavey assured to have written the Painted Bird for Kosinski, although much attention was not lent to him.
The article also presented/displayed a vision different from the life of Kosinski duringWorld War II, supported later by the Polish biographer Joanna Siedlecka and by Sloan. Thearticle assured that the Painted Bird seemed to be semi-autobiographical, but that it was united of pure fiction, since Kosinski had passed all the hidden war with a catholic familyand who it had not been mistreated.
The writer and British publisher Terence Blacker responded in 2002 to this article, indicating that the books of Kosinski had a vision and a consistent voice among them, and that the true problem of its author was that it had waked up many envies by its style of life (conventional and little abundant in excesses) and his éxito.
John Corry, a controversial personage by itself, defended to Kosinski in an articlepublished in New York Times in 1982 . Among others things, Corry alleged that the theory that Kosinski was a falsifier and a plagiarist, and who was on salary of company, was spread by the Polish communist government to discredit to him.
Another argument of the defenders of Kosinski was that, when being based on the stylistic differences between their different works to support the theory of the plagiarism, theirdetractors seemed to forget that those same differences exist in almost all authors if a period of sufficiently long time is considered.
Same Kosinski responded that he never had said that their books were autobiographical. In 1988, wrote You Hermit of 68th Street, where it demonstrated the absurd thing that the investigations were on their previous work inserting notes on foot of page in practically all the words of the book.
In a review of Jerzy Kosiński: A Biography by James Park Sloan, D. G. Myers, Associate Professor of English at Texas A&M University wrote “For years Kosinski passed off The Painted Bird as the true story of his own experience during the Holocaust. Long before writing it he regaled friends and dinner parties with macabre tales of a childhood spent in hiding among the Polish peasantry. Among those who were fascinated was Dorothy de Santillana, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, to whom Kosinski confided that he had a manuscript based on his experiences. Upon accepting the book for publication Santillana said, “It is my understanding that, fictional as the material may sound, it is straight autobiography.” Although he backed away from this claim, Kosinski never wholly disavowed it.”
M. A. Orthofer addressed Weinberger’s assertion by saying: “Kosinski was, in many respects, a fake – possibly near as genuine a one as Weinberger could want. (One aspect of the best fakes is the lingering doubt that, possibly, there is some authenticity behind them – as is the case with Kosinski.) Kosinski famously liked to pretend he was someone he wasn’t (as do many of the characters in his books), he occasionally published under a pseudonym, and, apparently, he plagiarized and forged left and right.”
Kosiński himself addressed these claims in the introduction to the 1976 reissue of The Painted Bird, saying that “Well-intentioned writers critics, and readers sought facts to back up their claims that the novel was autobiographical. They wanted to cast me in the role of spokesman for my generation, especially for those who had survived the war; but for me survival was an individual action that earned the survivor the right to speak only for himself. Facts about my life and my origins, I felt, should not be used to test the book’s authenticity, any more than they should be used to encourage readers to read The Painted Bird. Furthermore, I felt then, as I do now, that fiction and autobiography are very different modes.”
In June 1982, a Village Voice report by Geoffrey Stokes and Eliot Fremont-Smith accused Kosiński of plagiarism, claiming that much of his work was derivative of prewar books unfamiliar to English readers, and that Being There was a plagiarism of Kariera Nikodema Dyzmy — The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma — a 1932 Polish bestseller by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz. They also alleged Kosiński wrote The Painted Bird in Polish, and had it secretly translated into English. The report claimed that Kosiński’s books had actually been ghost-written by “assistant editors”, finding stylistic differences among Kosiński’s novels. Kosiński, according to them, had depended upon his free-lance editors for “the sort of composition that we usually call writing.” American biographer James Sloan notes that New York poet, publisher and translator, George Reavey, claimed to have written The Painted Bird for Kosiński.
The article found a more realistic picture of Kosiński’s life during the Holocaust — a view which was supported by biographers Joanna Siedlecka and Sloan. The article asserted that The Painted Bird, assumed by some to be semi-autobiographical, was largely a work of fiction. The information showed that rather than wandering the Polish countryside, as his fictional character did, Kosiński spent the war years in hiding with a Polish Catholic family.
Terence Blacker, a profitable English publisher (who helped publish Kosiński’s books) and author of children’s books and mysteries for adults, wrote in his article published in The Independent in 2002:
“The significant point about Jerzy Kosiński was that … his books … had a vision and a voice consistent with one another and with the man himself. The problem was perhaps that he was a successful, worldly author who played polo, moved in fashionable circles and even appeared as an actor in Warren Beatty’s Reds. He seemed to have had an adventurous and rather kinky sexuality which, to many, made him all the more suspect. All in all, he was a perfect candidate for the snarling pack of literary hangers-on to turn on. There is something about a storyteller becoming rich and having a reasonably full private life that has a powerful potential to irritate so that, when things go wrong, it causes a very special kind of joy.”
D.G. Myers responded to Blacker’s assertions in his review of Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography by James Park Sloan:
“This theory explains much: the reckless driving, the abuse of small dogs, the thirst for fame, the fabrication of personal experience, the secretiveness about how he wrote, the denial of his Jewish identity. ‘There was a hollow space at the center of Kosinski that had resulted from denying his past,’ Sloan writes, ‘and his whole life had become a race to fill in that hollow space before it caused him to implode, collapsing inward upon himself like a burnt-out star.’ On this theory, Kosinski emerges as a classic borderline personality, frantically defending himself against… all-out psychosis.
Journalist John Corry, wrote a 6,000-word feature article in The New York Times in November 1982, responding and defending Kosiński, which appeared on the front page of the Arts and Leisure section. Among other things, Corry alleged that reports claiming that “Kosinski was a plagiarist in the pay of the C.I.A. were the product of a Polish Communist disinformation campaign.”
Kosiński himself responded that he had never maintained that the book was autobiographical, even though years earlier he confided to the Houghton Mifflin editor Santillana that his manuscript “draws upon a childhood spent, by the casual chances of war, in the remotest villages of Eastern Europe.” In 1988 he wrote The Hermit of 69th Street, in which he sought to demonstrate the absurdity of investigating prior work by inserting footnotes for practically every term in the book. “Ironically,” wrote theatre critic Lucy Komisar, “possibly his only true book… about a successful author who is shown to be a fraud.” (ibid.)
Despite repudiation of the Village Voice allegations in detailed articles in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications, Kosiński remained tainted. “I think it contributed to his death,” said Zbigniew Brzezinski, a friend and fellow Polish exile.
A novelist has a specific poetic license which also applies to his own life.
A trait which differentiated New York from European cities was the incredible freedom and ease in which life, including sexual life, could be carried on, on many levels.
And really the purpose of art – for me, fiction – is to alert, to indicate to stop, to say: Make certain that when you rush through you will not miss the moment which you might have had, or might still have.
As I go to sleep I remember what my father said-that one can never be sure if one will awake. The way my health is now, this is becoming more and more real.
Banks introduced the installment plan. The disappearance of cash and the coming of the credit card changed the shape of life in the United States.
Gatherings and, simultaneously, loneliness are the conditions of a writer’s life.
Going around under an umbrella interferes with one’s looking up at the sky.
Homelessness is a part of our American system. There should be nothing wrong with this condition as long as the individual is not sentenced to unnecessary suffering and punishment.
I am inspired by human sexuality. The act itself is mechanical and holds little interest to me.
I can create countries just as I can create the actions of my characters. That is why a lot of travel seems to me a waste of time.
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I collect human relationships very much the way others collect fine art.
I do like to live in other people’s homes. I enjoy being a guest. I am an inexpensive guest. When one lives in another’s home he can enter into the psychic kingdom of that person.
I do not gather things, I prefer to rent them rather than to possess them.
I don’t fret over lost time – I can always use the situations in a novel.
I look back into past history, the stored experiences or products of the imagination. I look no further forward than the evening.
I write for a certain sphere of readers in the United States who on average watch seven and a half hours of multichannel television per day.
If we reduce social life to the smallest possible unit we will find that there is no social life in the company of one.
In London, the weather would affect me negatively. I react strongly to light. If it is cloudy and raining, there are clouds and rain in my soul.
In my photographs it is apparent that there was no posing at the moment I released the shutter.
It is not sex by itself that interests me, but its particular role in American consciousness, and in my own life.
Read more: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/j/jerzykosinski.html#ixzz1iDE6ShSE
It is possible to stand around with a cocktail in one’s hand and talk with everyone, which means with no one.
Persons who have been homeless carry within them a certain philosophy of life which makes them apprehensive about ownership.
Physical comfort has nothing to do with any other comfort.
Take a look at the books other people have in their homes.
The planned sit-down reception is an artificial forum where one is presented with a limited number of persons with whom he can hold a conversation.
The principle of art is to pause, not bypass.
The principles of true art is not to portray, but to evoke.
The things I write are for those who are willing to accept a new relationship between the reader and the author.
There are many types of participation. One can observe so intensely that one becomes part of the action, but without being an active participant.
There must be no worse punishment to a totalitarian nation than the withdrawal of capital.
Travel gives me the opportunity to walk through the sectors of cities where one can clearly see the passage of time.
by John O’Sullivan
On the politics of identity
In his New Yorker review of the recent biography of Philip Larkin, Martin Amis gave a strong defense of Larkin against the charges of sexism, racism, moral squalor, and so on, then making the literary rounds. Much of this defense was built around the idea that Larkin had grown up and lived at a time when racism, as now defined, was so common as not to invite censure, and when sexism did not exist as a category of sin into which one could fall. But, perhaps feeling that he needed to guard Larkin against the secondary charge of making no effort at all to move when the times did, indeed of resisting any such movement with determination, Mr. Amis embarked on the following philosophical exercise:
Larkin the man is separated from us, historically, by changes in the self. For his generation, you were what you were, and that was that. It made you unswervable and adamantine. My father has this quality. I don’t. None of us do. There are too many forces at work on us. There area too many fronts to cover. In the age of self-improvement, the self is inexorably self-conscious… . Larkin couldn’t change the cards he was dealt.
Mr. Amis here is making an important point and two minor mistakes. The first minor mistake is of thinking of his father, Kingsley Amis, as some kind of typical spokesman for his generation. That must be one of the stranger effects bred by familiarity.
The second mistake is the familiar one of generational parochialism. We all have the illusion that the world in which we grew up was a much more stable one than that in which we make our adult way. And because life itself is a training in psychology, we naturally see ourselves and our friends as more complex, variable, and interesting than the simple manly men and womanly women whom we met around our parents’ dinner table. This illusion led Mr. Amis to get his dates wrong. The concept of the self, or of personal identity, as something changeable, uncertain, and shaped and continually reshaped by external pressures goes back at least to David Hume and, as we shall see, has been a staple of modern literature and psychology for about a century.
Mr. Amis’s important insight, however, was that this concept of identity has developed so radically—the self being now seen as almost infinitely malleable—and has been so widely popularized, moving from the philosophy lecture room to the cinema, that it is now challenging a much older religious and social concept of identity, built around such ideas as conscience and the soul. This modern theory of identity has broken out of the laboratory and, as in a 1950s science-fiction movie, is stalking through the town, inserting itself into the heads of regular citizens, and transforming them into other-directed aliens. And since how we think of ourselves determines so much, from the upbringing of children to the treatment of criminals, the conflict between these two theories is of literally human proportions.
Of course, both theories start out with a great deal in common: namely, that an individual identity is put together from three elements, or three sets of elements. The first is that set of psychological abilities which seem to be innate to all human beings and which become evident in the early years of childhood. These are consciousness, memory, and the moral sense.
Consciousness makes us aware of our existence separate from others. Memory extends that awareness backward through time. And the moral sense tells us the terms on which we should deal with those others. Consciousness, memory, and the moral sense together generate that aspect of identity we call the conscience. This is more than just a voice telling us not to take wrong actions in the here and now. It forces us to feel moral responsibility for past actions, and so helps to establish identity as something that exists through time.
Let me illustrate the point. It is sometimes said of a vicious criminal who has undergone a moral transformation in prison and performed great charitable or scholarly works, that he should be released because he is clearly “no longer the man who committed the crimes.” But would the criminal himself agree with this? Ian Brady, the Moors murderer who tortured and killed several children, became a Christian in prison. He is on record as saying that someone who has committed such crimes has indefinitely forfeited any right of release. Another such criminal might, of course, wish to be released, but almost certainly on the grounds that he had purged his offenses. If so, that too would be an admission of a continuing moral responsibility and so, in effect, a claim of identity extending through time. Indeed, the great likelihood is that criminals like the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” who seemed to experience a moral transformation, performed their good works precisely because they felt they were the same men who had committed the monstrous crimes and they wanted to build up an equally impressive list of services on the opposite side of the moral ledger. They wanted to atone.
Conscience is, of course, common to all human beings except psychopaths and editors. Memory, consciousness, and the moral sense are, however, only the first building blocks of identity. They make us aware of our individuality, but they do not alone constitute it. The second set of qualities making up identity is our genetic inheritance from our particular parents. It is this inheritance that sets us on the road to being individuals by laying down our potential abilities, tastes, and temperaments. Psychologists seem to have established that this inheritance is extraordinarily rich and influential. We are, it seems, predisposed by our individual genes to have a particular level of IQ, to enter particular occupations, to attend particular churches, to marry a particular kind of spouse, to be law-abiding or criminal, sane or mad, healthy or sick, friendly or suspicious, party animal or wallflower, long- or short-lived, and even, as W. S. Gilbert foretold, “either a little Liberal, or else a little Conservative.”
Every school class has a class hero, a class clown, a class swot (or nerd), a class bully, a class victim, and a class athlete. These identities cling. His fellows come to expect certain kinds of behavior from him; he learns to provide or modify them as popularity dictates.
Which brings us to the third element in identity: the influence of environment. In Ira Levin’s thriller, The Boys from Brazil, Dr. Josef Mengele, contrives the birth of several clones of Hitler, genetically identical to the führer, quite literally “little Hitlers.” But even a dedicated Nazi like Mengele recognizes that blood is not enough. A genetic clone of Hitler, brought up in different circumstances, might become almost anything and anyone: perhaps a terrorist leader, improbably a charismatic benefactor of mankind, very likely a mediocre architect. So he arranges for the adoption of his charges by families that fit the description of Hitler’s parents: a middle-aged civil servant married to a younger woman. And he completes the environmental conditioning by having the husbands murdered at the same age as Hitler’s father had died.
We are left in suspense at the end of the novel as to how Mengele’s plot will turn out; but it seemed to me to contain one obvious flaw. These infant Hitlers were deposited in several countries: capitalist America, social-democratic Sweden, and pre-Thatcher Britain, as well as modern Germany. There must at least be the possibility, perverse from Mengele’s standpoint, of Germany’s being conquered and forced to adopt a regime of politically-correct social democracy by a ruthless Swedish dictator suffering from an especially neurotic case of cognitive dissonance.
For many of the most important components of identity arise from our being born in a particular family, in a particular place, at a particular time in history, and therefore into a particular set of traditions and customs. To take the most intimate example, the first language we learn is an accident of birth. Our religious identity is something we embrace long before we can grasp its importance or implications. Our sexuality is probably determined in the main genetically, but how we regard it is at least strongly influenced by upbringing and social custom. We pick up the manners of our social class, assuming them to be universal laws of good behavior. We have a natural tendency to emulate our parents, whether they are loving, decent, dutiful people, or selfish, neglectful, and drunken layabouts. We obtain automatic and apparently indefeasible membership in our nation or ethnic group, together with a legacy of accompanying songs, myths, and stories. And all of these things, though external and pre-existing, are absorbed by our fledgling identity and become as much a part of us as our temperament, our IQs, or our digestion. Some of the most important elements of our identity are external, accidental, and above all social.
From the point of view of the traditional theory of identity, that poses little or no problem. “Art is man’s nature,” said Burke, and man is a social animal who draws upon social materials in building his identity. Does this constitute an unnatural imposition by society upon the individual identity? Not at all. Without the influence of society, a person’s identity would be like Hobbes’s description of natural society: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (and, one might add, speechless.) The social elements in identity are the means whereby someone’s natural gifts and disposition are made manifest to the rest of the world.
And as we grow older, we also grow increasingly discriminating in the use we make of the social elements of our identity. We reflect upon our condition and circumstances—which is why, incidentally, we cannot be successfully conditioned. We may quietly reject some of the things our parents hold dear. We may change our religion. Or take a more detached view of our country, even changing our citizenship. Or learn a new set of manners, whether as conscious social climbing or simply through frequent exposure to a different class.
As William Letwin wrote in Policy Review, reviewing a book by one Professor Green: “‘the environment’ is not an objective fact which can be assessed accurately by an objective observer. Instead, each individual largely shapes his own environment by emphasizing some of its aspects while ignoring others, by interpreting its manifestations according to his own beliefs, and by directly acting upon it.” Or, as Shirley Letwin wrote in The Anatomy of Thatcherism: “A human being in possession of his faculties is never merely potter’s clay. He is himself both potter and clay because he necessarily decides what to make of whatever happens to him.”
What, however, is the “person” who does this shaping and choosing? What is the entity that draws upon the different materials in “the environment” and combines them with consciousness, memory, moral sense, and genetic endowment to shape—and perhaps, as time goes by, to reshape—a particular individual identity?
The religious answer to this question is the soul—a soul which is implicated in both the psychological dispositions of identity and the physical movements of the body. Not that the soul controls identity in a manipulative way, as a driver controls a train, but it is at the core of identity. Around it consciousness, memory, genetic endowment, language, nationality, and all the rest form, so to speak, concentric trenches, inhabited by simultaneous translators, theologians, lawyers, strategists, games-players, and, above all, public relations advisers through whom the soul deals with external reality. The result is an identity which, seen from outside, may have many facets, but which is nonetheless built around a central core.
For practical purposes, it makes little difference whether one calls this entity a soul or gives it some secular explanation such as the Freudian trio of id, ego, and superego. What matters is that both describe a central core of identity.
Of course, one cannot demonstrate such an entity, and I am aware that this account contradicts much of the current wisdom of philosophy and psychology. But it is also in accord with a psychological conviction that most people, including even skeptical philosophers, seem to hold intuitively. So, one must ask skeptics some questions: If the psychological reality of identity includes consciousness, memory, moral reasoning, practical and prudential calculation, a feeling of free will and of moral responsibility for the actions of the person (including even those actions which cannot be wholly remembered as, for instance, actions performed when drunk), how does this differ from a soul? And, furthermore, if abandoning the supposed illusion of a soul leads to dangerous practical consequences, as I shall argue, should we not pause to consider those consequences before we throw out the psyche with the psychobabble?
For it is this concept of a natural core of identity that the modern theories of identity reject—and there are a variety of identities nominated to replace the traditional one. They all, however, begin by attempting to discredit the notion of a central core of identity as possessing a reality separate from its experiences. Hume gave classic expression to this skeptical position:
For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist… . I may venture to assert of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity and are in a perpetual flux and movement… . The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different; whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity.
If there is no there there, however, how can we account for the illusion of one? Quite simply, that it is a false identity put there by other people: your parents, your neighbors, your countrymen, and, if you are a child of seven or under, the Jesuits. This false identity consists not only of the digested influences of class, nation, locality, sex, and so on, but also of the moral consciousness we feel to exist at the center of our being. So even if there is some kind of instinctual moral sense, as James Q. Wilson argues, the moral rules through which it expresses itself have been put there by other people —respectable society, your parents, the church. For one school of theorists, notably Marxism, liberation consists precisely of freeing yourself from this kind of false consciousness.
According to the more radical philosophers, however, the man who liberates himself from this primitive prison of false identity does not thereby achieve autonomy. No such luck. He stumbles out onto a crowded stage, and he is there handed a variety of masks which he assumes in response to the hints, shouts, murmurs, and prompts from other actors in a play jointly co-authored by Hume and the Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello. Here is Laudisi, a character in Pirandello’s It Is So If You Think So, explaining the theory to Signora Sirelli:
LAUDISI: Now, you have touched me, have you not? And you see me? And you are absolutely sure about me, are you not? Well now, madam, I beg of you; do not tell your husband, nor my sister, nor my niece, nor Signora Cini here, what you think of me; because, if you were to do that, they would all tell you that you are completely wrong. But, you see, you are completely right: because I am really what you take me to be; though, my dear madam, that does not prevent me also being really what your husband, my sister, my niece, and Signora Cini take me to be— because they too are absolutely right! SIGNORA SIRELLI: In other words you are a different person for each of us.
Here is a world in which identities are created by situations. What holds a personality together really is a set of skills for coping with external reality. Identities are mere roles or masks we use to deal with other people. In which case, of course, our identities are in effect created by others in a much more radical sense than in the theories of Freud or Marx. In the primitive notions of false consciousness, the villains plant their ideas in our heads and then depart, leaving us with our personal neuroses and reactionary social ideas. But in the more radical versions, other people are constantly rewiring the insides of our heads.
These ideas have spread widely in philosophy, sociology, psychology, and dinner-table conversation, so that people as different as psychologist Robert J. Lifton, with his notion of the Protean self, or David Riesman, with his idea of the “other-directed man,” may be thought to be expressing variations on them. It is, however, Woody Allen who has produced the reductio ad absurdum of this theory in his film Zelig—the story of a man so responsive to the expectations of others and the influences of social environment that he becomes in succession a radical Communist, a Hooverite conservative, an orthodox Jew, and a Nazi. And, of course, he is able to assume these various identities convincingly because he is conscious of an inner emptiness —the lack of an authentic identity of his own.
Here then is the existential choice offered to us by the modern theories of identity: we can be either the puppets of other people, dummies surrounded by ventriloquists, or we can be the landlords of a vacant lot.
This is, of course, an intolerable choice. But it comes accompanied by an attractive escape hatch: if other people can insert a false identity into the empty space in my head, can I perhaps insert an authentic self there in its place? Authentic because it is rationally chosen and consciously shaped by myself rather than being simply a psychological “given” that I gradually discover in childhood and adolescence. And the principle upon which this new identity can be selected is the best bonus of all. That principle has been laid down by the greatest living American psychologist, Tom Wolfe, in his essay “The Me Decade.” It began life as an advertising slogan for a shampoo: “If I have only one life to live, let me live it as a blonde.” The charm of this principle for constructing a new identity is that it is almost infinitely accommodating. It enables us to say to ourselves: If I have only one life to live, let me live it as … (fill in the blank)—as a Noble Proletarian, as an Irishman (provided, of course, that I don’t start out as Irish), as a woman (if, similarly, I don’t happen to be a woman), as a European (from no particular European nation, naturally), or as a proud member of the community of the deaf. (Some of these options will become clearer in due course.)
To the old question, Is there a ghost in the machine? we can now answer: No, but there is a consumer.
The consumer selects his new identity from the vast range of moral possibilities that the modern world throws up. In its simplest form, the new identity is constructed by selecting one facet of someone’s real given identity, and elevating it to the whole, or at least to a dominant part, of the personality. George Orwell forecast this process of reification in a 1948 review of Sartre’s Portrait of an Anti-Semite:
“The” anti-Semite, he seems to imply all through the book, is always the same kind of a person, recognizable at a glance and, so to speak, in action the whole time. Actually one has only to use a little observation to see that anti-Semitism … in any but the worst cases, is intermittent. But this would not square with Monsieur Sartre’s atomized view of society. There is, he comes near to saying, no such thing as a human being, there are only different categories of men, such as “the” worker, and “the” bourgeois, all classifiable in much the same way as insects.
A recent example of this kind of identity-building is the gay identity. For a gay is not simply a homosexual; he is someone who has made homosexuality the basis of an entire personality and outlook—morals, politics, and social relations. This will tend to make him, or her, hostile to societies traditionally organized to favor heterosexuality and the family, and persuade him to advocate policies that seek not tolerance but the transformation of popular or traditional attitudes toward homosexuality.
Needless to say, this kind of response is by no means universal among homosexuals. Even today when pressures such as “outing” seek to enforce a gay identity on all homosexuals, many of them take the view that homosexuality is just one facet of their identity—whether an advantage, or a curse, or simply a slightly awkward fact about themselves—which has little bearing on the rest of their lives outside the bedroom. Their support for sexual reform will tend to go no further than social tolerance and the repeal of punitive laws. They may find the gay identity mysterious, alien, too narrow to express their entire personality, and even repellent.
Here, in a passage from Noel Coward’s diary, is the response of one such homosexual (by no means a repressed one) to the gay milieu of Fire Island in New York:
I came back last night having spent Saturday and yesterday on Fire Island. I don’t think I shall ever go again. It is lovely from the point of view of beach and sun and wearing no clothes, but the atmosphere is sick-sick-sick. Never in my life have I seen such concentrated abandoned homosexuality. It is fantastic and difficult to believe. I wished really that I hadn’t gone. Thousands of queer young men of all shapes and sizes camping about blatantly and carrying on—in my opinion—appallingly. Then there were all the lesbians glowering at each other. Among this welter of brazen perversion wander a few “straights,” with children and dogs. I have always been of the opinion that a large group of queer men was unattractive. On Fire Island it is more than unattractive, it’s macabre, sinister, irritating, and somehow tragic.
Self-conscious identity-building is very different from the earlier argument of Bill and Shirley Letwin that traditional identity can be modified by reason’s deciding to emphasize some aspects of one’s environment at the expense of others. The difference is subtle but important and it has immense consequences. It is the difference between piecemeal self-improvement and the wholesale reconstruction of the personality. Someone attempting piecemeal reform will usually refer to what he is doing in modest terms—“I’m trying to be more punctual.” Someone engaged in ideological reconstruction of himself will, appropriately enough, see it in dramatic, even religious terms, as becoming a different sort of human being. He will be re-making himself in accordance with some revelation, either some new principle of reason outside himself, or some inner prompting of the personality, or even both—some impulse extracted from inside himself and expanded into a universal truth about human nature. Thus a lesbian, uncomfortable with femininity, will eventually be struck by the blinding revelation that all gender roles are socially constructed.
Such illumination is not confined to the Left. An example of this kind of self-conscious identity politics on the political Right is the ideological definition of American nationality—the claim that America is unlike other nations in that its nationality is neither ethnic nor cultural, but consists of embracing the principles of liberty and equality set out in the Declaration of Independence and embodied in the Constitution. To be sure, there is an ideological component in American nationality which the Declaration in particular dramatizes. (That is not, of course, unique to America; all nations which have played a part in world history as well as their own, notably the French, have furnished such ideological explanations of themselves.) But that ideology, important though it is, is merely the conscious political expression of a much more extensive national culture which is the result of a common language, history, institutions, and, overall, the shared experience of living together in the same territory.
An episode in the Second World War is instructive here. During the Battle of the Bulge, German commandos were roaming around in American uniforms, and GIs seeking to establish the true identity of other soldiers asked questions to test their Americanism. Did they ask their view of equality or rights of popular government? Of course not; mere ideas of that kind could be parroted—indeed, genuinely believed— by non-Americans. No, they asked them details of American life in the broadest cultural context—the winner of the previous World Series, radio advertising jingles, the capital of their home state, Mae West’s bust measurement. In short, the kinds of things that every American would know—but that a foreigner could not easily study. In his book The Blood-Dimmed Tide, Gerald Astor describes how two Allied generals coped:
General Omar Bradley said: “Three times I was ordered to prove my identity by cautious GIs. The first time by identifying Springfield as the capital of Illinois (my questioner held out for Chicago); the second time by locating the guard between the center and tackle on a line of scrimmage; the third time by naming the then-current spouse of a blonde called Betty Grable. Grable stopped me (the correct answer was bandleader Harry James) but the sentry did not. Pleased at having stopped me he … passed me on.”
General Montgomery … imperiously directed his driver to ignore the sentry. The guard shot out the tires of his car and held the British commander for several hours. When he heard of the incident, Eisenhower enjoyed one of his few laughs during the Bulge.
In short, what shapes Americans and American national identity is the richness of the entire culture, not merely its conscious political expression.
But cannot someone become an American? And if so, does that not establish the validity of the idea of American national identity as something to be chosen rather than merely accepted? That is certainly the view inherent in America’s civic religion of itself and regularly intoned by judges who, when swearing in new U.S. citizens, assure them that they are every bit as American as the descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers. It is, however, a pious fallacy. A new U.S. citizen may have as many legal rights as a native-born American, but he has not been as shaped by the American experience. And if he has really become an American out of sympathy for liberal principles, then his American identity ought to wax and wane in response to the course both of American history and of his own convictions. Suppose that America fails to live up to his political views? Or that he changes those views? Very likely a consistent philosopher would be feeling twinges of disloyalty at the end of the first week.
A truer version of becoming an American would be that it is a process that is only perceived in retrospect. A foreign resident who has married an American, brought up American children, lived an American life in all the everyday respects from school to supermarket, and worried through the nation’s crises, will one day wake up to find that he has become an American. He will find himself unselfconsciously using the pronoun “we” when referring to Americans. No decision was necessary; no decision could have worked this transformation. Becoming an American is the same process for an immigrant as for a native-born child: living in America. U.S. citizenship is merely a legal ratification of this psychological evolution.
Once identity becomes a matter of choice or conscious decision, however, a Rubicon has been crossed. For there are more radical ways of creating a new identity, whether sexual or national, than by overemphasizing a facet of one’s given identity or by accommodating oneself to some external vision. One can adopt another’s identity entirely. Thus transvestism is a half-way house of sexual identity politics; but transsexualism is the more radical assertion that one can choose not merely to ape another sexual identity, but even to embrace it in the fullest sense. This is a delusion, of course, since men who have transformed themselves into make-believe women are not genetically female and cannot perform central female roles such as, for instance, giving birth. Nonetheless, taking this delusion to its logical extent, Shulamith Firestone, a radical feminist, has advocated genetic engineering to allow men and women to choose which sexual role—impregnation or child-bearing—they wish to undertake. In reality, this would amount to the deliberate creation of freaks. But it signifies that even nature is no longer seen as a constraint upon identity because literally nothing is impossible for someone determined to become his own creator.
Given the spirit of the age, we could hardly expect such metaphysical ventures to be left to individual enterprise. And indeed American bureaucrats and the Ford Foundation have created an entire ethnic identity by a stroke of the pen. In 1973, in order to establish a rational structure for affirmative action quotas, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) promulgated Statistical Directive Number 13, as Michael Lind describes in The Next American Nation, dividing Americans into five ethnic groups, of which the most creative concoction is Hispanic. Now, Hispanics are not a national group; they include Cubans, Mexicans, Columbians, Chileans, even Spaniards. Nor are they a racial category—since they cover whites, blacks, and Amerindians. Nor—and this is a surprise—are they even a linguistic category, because they include people with Spanish surnames from families which have not spoken Spanish for generations, or as in the case of some Mexican Amerindians, from families which have never spoken Spanish at any time in history.
But since being Hispanic has certain practical advantages—for instance, being the beneficiary of the quota spoils system, or receiving money from the Ford Foundation to advance Hispanic interests—there are now a considerable number of Americans, generally in academia but not exclusively so, who think of themselves as possessing this Hispanic identity. Indeed, as Linda Chavez pointed out, it is quite difficult for anyone with a Spanish surname to escape being educated in Spanish in the public schools, even if they cannot speak the language. The bureaucrats insist that they must be brought up, for the sake of their authentic identity, in their own culture— even though it is not their culture and, indeed, insofar as it is a hybrid-Hispanic culture, may not be anyone’s culture, except possibility that of a Clinton cabinet appointee.
Can we see any common elements uniting these proliferating invented identities? Let me suggest three: first, they are stark and impoverished compared to “given” identities; second, they are self-conscious and precarious; and third as Kenneth Minogue has pointed out, they are the adversaries of traditional identities.
It goes almost without saying that an identity built upon one facet of a personality will be impoverished alongside the richness of an identity that reflects the full range of influences upon a life. The Marxist categories of proletarian and bourgeois are useless except as economic categories. An identity based upon the fact that you work for wages and are alienated from the product of your labor is no identity at all. If a young Marxist intellectual were to ask for advice on how to live a good proletarian life, what advice would we give him? It would almost certainly not include, say, the breeding of racing pigeons, or buying a garden allotment, though both are important components of a genuine working-class life in Northern England.
Compare, on the other hand, the richness of traditional social identities like that, for instance, of “the gentleman.” As Shirley Letwin demonstrates in her book The Gentlemen in Trollope, this is a subject yielding not only sharp and subtle social observations (and satires), but also a rich vein of moral criticism. One might say, in relation to our topic, that the gentleman in Letwin is the highest example of moral reason operating piecemeal to improve the personality from the material within it. False social identities, which tend to reconstruct the personality in accord with some ideal, inevitably produce a one-dimensional man —the Soviet proletarian, for instance, an examination of whose moral character can sustain nothing more complex than a cartoon or a socialist-realist painting (which is hard to distinguish from a cartoon).
Second, in addition to being thin, invented identities are also extremely precarious. The more natural our identity is, the more we take it for granted. Self-consciousness is the constant companion of uncertainty. We are self-conscious on entering the room at someone else’s party, conscious of other people’s needs and enjoyment when we give a party at home. A good example of self-consciousness as the attribute of an uncertain identity occurs in Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull. Krull, the hero, is travelling in a comfortable first-class train compartment, for all intents and purposes a young aristocrat. As a train attendant is leaving his compartment, Krull smiles at him—a smile, he says, “that assuredly confirmed him in his conservative principles to the point where he would gladly have fought and died for them.” The point, however is that Krull is not a young aristocrat; he is a confidence trickster. It is extremely doubtful that a real aristocrat would react in this way. He would simply be less conscious of his impact—flaunting his identity only when expected marks of deference were not paid to him. But the confidence man has to calculate such effects with precision, because his hold on an aristocratic identity is extremely precarious.
Hence the phenomenon of the marginal patriot—the outsider who seeks to demonstrate his commitment to, say, a national identity by being more nationalistic than thou. John Stephenson, a Paddington-born man of uncertain ancestry, thus became Sean MacStiofain, the chief of staff of the IRA in the 1970s. MacStiofain succeeded heroically, or rather anti-heroically, in his identity as an Irish patriot, going so far as to launch a hunger strike. Near death, however, he gave up the strike, at which point his IRA colleagues suddenly realized he had been an Englishman all along. His Irish identity had always been precarious; it depended upon his performing heroic feats.
Another instance is the eagerness with which many homosexuals greet any scientific work that suggests that homosexuality may be rooted in the genes. In theory, they need not worry about the tyranny of nature in relation to sexual identity. “Queer theory,” like feminist theory, is supposed to have established that gender is socially constructed. Yet they give an almost desperate endorsement to the authority of science and nature when that seems likely to support the naturalness and thus inevitability of the identity that appeals to them.
Third—and most significant—the invented identity is both parasitic and adversarial with respect to the real thing. An invented identity, as we saw above, will model itself on an existing one. Homosexual families mimic traditional families by copying the parental role and demanding such perquisites as pension rights for domestic partners. But they are unable to perform important aspects of the role, such as child-bearing, and they are often unwilling to accept its disciplines, such as sexual fidelity. Invented national identities similarly copy the outward shell of real nations. For instance the European Union is gradually acquiring a flag, an anthem, citizenship, and even an army without the prior substance of a single European people with a sense of community and allegiance.
But although they may be fraudulent, these imitations of identity naturally weaken the real identities, whether of family or of nation, by sucking the significance out of the customs and practices that traditionally bolster them. If, for instance, unofficial and transient relationships have their financial arrangements underpinned by the state, then the family derives no special significance from the fact that its own arrangements are similarly protected.
But the hostility of the invented identity goes beyond this parasitism. As Kenneth Minogue has pointed out in Alien Powers, the first impulse of someone who has thrown off his old identity and embraced a new one is an evangelical impulse. He wants to tell everyone that once he was blind, that now he sees, but that they are still blind. And what he sees is that his old identity was a fraud and an imposition, and that their current identity still is. Hence, new identities tend to attack and seek to replace their counterparts among existing identities. The gay or feminist identity will define itself by opposition to the traditional sexual identities of male and female. These it will decry as socially constructed and consequently false and oppressive—“Heterosexism” in the approved jargon.
In the case of national identities, the rivalry between ideological nationalisms— analyzed with such devastating irony by Elie Kedourie in his classic book Nationalism— and taken-for-granted, hand-me-down ethnocultural nationalisms can be especially vicious. For pre-existing loyalties are generally an obstacle to the new national identity that is striving to be born. And since ideological nationalists act upon Charles Stewart Parnell’s principle that “no man has the right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation,” the opposition may legitimately face extirpation. Sometimes, literally so—real people and real peoples were murdered in the campaign to create a new Soviet man.
At other times, ideological nationalism leads to polemics and the slow erosion of former loyalties rather than to Golgotha. Thus the Canadian nationalist identity—the officially fostered bilingual one, manufactured in Ottawa—defines itself by a hostility to the actual nationalisms of Quebec and English Canada, particularly the latter since it is the nationalism of the majority. It is also markedly hostile to the seductive English-speaking American identity next door; the first claim of a Canadian nationalist is that he is “not American.” Similarly, the Euro-nationalism of Brussels is constantly engaged in polemics against its rivals, the traditional patriotisms of France, Britain, and other European countries which it blames for past wars, racism, and all the fashionable vices.
And in the United States, the theory that America is a nation of immigrants held together only by allegiance to liberal political ideas is in a state of constant tension with the actual American historical identity. For it implies that America is the whole world in microcosm, that everyone is in principle an American, and that therefore America’s actual English-speaking culture is merely the property of an ethnic group or a temporary majority and does not deserve to be “privileged” as the culture of the whole society. (That America’s liberal constitutionalism has grown in this soil and might wither in any other is a problem that is only now forcing itself on our attention.) Hence, this deracinated philosophical Americanism is now the carrier of multiculturalism which holds that America is indeed a constitutional umbrella of liberal political ideas, but one sheltering not individuals but the ethnocultural identities of Anglos, Hispanics, blacks, etc. Ideological Americanism thereby helps to deconstruct America in the most literal sense by making it a loose federation of cultural identities. The parable of the Tower of Babel might have been invented to describe this progress from hubris to incoherence.
What does all this matter? One might suppose that a theory holding that identity is infinitely plastic—a succession of masks chosen in response to the applause of others as much as for the satisfaction of one’s (hypothetical) self—would tend to social peace. After all, have not conflicts until now been clashes between the hard and supposedly unyielding identities of nation, class, and ethnicity? Surely a widespread acceptance of the malleability of identity would lead to a tolerance of other identities as equally valid (or bogus) as one’s own. Perhaps it would even lead to the construction of a supra-identity of tolerance within which all these identity sub-cultures could comfortably co-exist—a kind of Austria-Hungary of moral visions in which the ruling power demands only the mildest of allegiances, one easily compatible with the identity’s integrity. Alas, it does not seem to be working out that way. Social conflict between different groups seems to be multiplying in lockstep with the increased popularity of the theory of malleable identity.
And we can imagine why. There are more identities around, to begin with. A plastic identity is, in principle, arbitrary and limitless. There is literally no group, however arbitrarily selected, which cannot conceive of itself as possessing one and thus forming a particular “community.” Indeed, the number of groups which claim some such basis for affiliation are multiplying rapidly. The late Aaron Wildavsky once calculated, tongue in cheek, that groups of this kind (including women, blacks, Eskimos, Hispanics and the disabled) added up to more than three-hundred percent of the American people.
Even the process of expansion can sometimes provoke conflict when some members of the group have no wish to share in the proferred identity, and the group as a whole seeks to bring them into line. The outing of private homosexuals by gay activists is just such a conflict which arises when identity is as much a cause as a given fact. Still more extravagant, some ideologues have argued that the deaf are a self-conscious community with their own language, culture, and identity. Spokesmen for their organization—the National Association for the Deaf—have at times denounced attempts to enable the deaf to hear as cultural genocide. They have even lobbied the Federal government to prevent parents of deaf children from relieving their deafness through an operation that surgically installs a hearing device in a child’s head and allows him to develop normal hearing and speech skills. (I should, in all honesty, add that the chairman of the study group that made this recommendation is not himself deaf.)
More significantly, identity is not just how we feel about ourselves; to be truly satisfying, our identity needs to be recognized by others. Yet imagine how difficult it must be for some of the groups now in existence to be treated as possessing true identities by the rest of society. For instance, there is the S&M community which meets in various clubs with names such as The Dungeon. This is a group of sadists and masochists who, according to a 1994 article in New York magazine, formed the Eulenspiegel Society, a “masochists’ rights” group in 1971. Sadists were admitted later— doubtless the first expression of the masochists’ rights the organization exists to protect. In an absolutely wonderful paradox, they complain that they are oppressed by society because they are forced to conceal their lifestyles.
Such forms of identity politics promise long-running cultural wars. There is little prospect that most people, even those privately attracted to these sexual practices, will ever be prepared to grant any sort of respectable social status, let alone official standing, to the Eulenspiegel Society and similar groups. But these groups will continue to push for recognition, legal and otherwise. An organization of pedophiles did manage to get itself recognized, first, as a non-governmental organization by the United Nations through its membership in a larger gay coalition, and subsequently as a tax-exempt educational group in its own right. These caused political rows, and its UN accreditation was later withdrawn. But we may expect the demand for recognition by this and similar groups to be renewed.
And when the demand is resisted, or even when it is conceded without enthusiasm, the disappointed group will seek to force a deeper acceptance from others. As the philosopher John Gray has pointed out, tolerance is no longer enough for such groups because it implies that the thing tolerated merits disapproval. And disapproval will seem especially insulting when a question of identity is at stake. If a practice someone performs or a belief he holds excites disapproval, he may be wounded or privately bitter. If his very identity excites disapproval, then he will become outraged and demand a more substantive surrender by his critics, perhaps even the repression of their objections (“hate speech”). In this context, you might say that the pedophiles want to make us cry uncle. They are a long way from success as yet. But the larger gay community has been quite successful in transforming the moral disapproval of its critics into a medical-cum-psychological disorder called “homophobia,” the main symptom of which is being accused of it.
What maximizes the likelihood of conflict is that this very refusal to extend approval may be implicit in some other identity. For instance, not even the most multicultural feminist can extend tolerance, let alone approval, to an Islamic identity because of its narrow concept of women’s education. Similarly, the Afrocentrist or Hispanic activist is likely to reject the political arrangements and electoral boundaries based upon a nonracial or monocultural concept of American identity and demand forms of political representation which treat ethnic groups as the building blocks of political society. Hence, the emergence of legal theories, in the writings of Lani Guinier and others, that would revive “fancy franchises” and “concurrent majorities” on the underlying assumption that minorities and majorities are not continually forming and reforming on different issues, but permanently frozen along ethnic and racial lines. Hence, in numberless ways, the multiplication of chosen identities leads to endless social conflict.
When modern psychologists and modernist writers began deconstructing what they thought was the prison of a rigid and unreflecting identity, they doubtless thought they were liberating the citizens to stroll about in free and equal relationships without bumping into the barriers of race, gender, ethnicity, and class. What they were in fact doing was laying the epistemological ground for a low-intensity civil war. Notes start here
- George Kelly
- Rachel Dolezal. Catlyn? Jenner and Jerzy Kosinski