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Never before, it seems, has it been so clear that the likeable and the righteous quite possibly shan’t inherit anything, with literature perhaps the least of our worries. In the real world, a politician charged with egotism, egoism, narcissism, and sociopathy threatens to destroy pluralism, freedom, and democracy, his words spun into stories to evoke sublime terror—and hate. In the real world, an egotist is dangerous, in part because he makes a dramatic, high-stakes story. And in books?
George Orwell, a self-professed egotist, blow-hard, and coward, believed “all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy,” driven by “sheer egoism.” The most compelling characters are often the most difficult, complicated, and self-obsessed. I liked hanging around Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It was a thrill, and, sure, a little bit reckless, carrying on with someone who “reports” LSD-informed events without the hassle and constriction of notes or recordings. Wolfe is the road trip to Dave Eggers’ settling down. To write his bestseller What is the What?, Eggers spent four years immersed in the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee from the Sudanese Civil War. He then spent another year writing. Then he showed what he’d written to “ten or 12 friends, having them all edit it as brutally as possible to make sure that nothing, not even one adjective choice, sounded like me.” “I wanted to disappear completely,” he said. When his work was done, Eggers sold his book—hailed as “an extraordinary work of witness and art” by Francine Prose—as a novel, a sort of tactical 180 from, say . . . James Frey, who allegedly sold A Million Little Pieces as a memoir after his novel manuscript was rejected a half-dozen times.
Some years ago, as I’ve written before, I picked up Ryszard Kapuściński’s The Soccer Wars and Imperium for the same reason I’d picked up Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Kapuściński was also a reporter who’d written “literature,” and I was trying to do that, too. Kapuściński, John Updike once said, wrote “with a magical elegance that . . . achieves poetry and aphorism.”
Though he has his defenders and admirers, and his prose is elegant and electric, Kapuściński was no Orwell, it appeared quickly clear. Kapuściński, born in 1932, spent decades reporting abroad, in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. In his books, wrote Artur Domoslawski, Kapuściński’s friend in Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life, Kapuściński was “always the hero.” In real life, he was volatile and “reacted to all critical comments with fits of rage, distress, or grief . . . ” Kapuściński “wanted to be loved and admired,” but toward his subjects he has been accused of disregard, disrespect, and dishonesty. When PEN America invited him to New York City in 2005, author Binyavanga Wainaina called for a boycott, writing an open letter to the organization. Kapuscinski, he wrote, “is a fraud. A liar. And a profound and dangerous racist.”
“There is, I admit, a certain egoism in what I write,” Kapuściński once said, as reported by Carolyn Forché. “[T]he author is always present.” Kapuściński liked to call his work “literature by foot.”
This is where the trouble starts.
From racist or egotist to likable and sincere, every writer is unique in ego, Latin and Greek for “I,” distinct from the world and others. The role of his or her narrating ego as medium, however, is not. Every writer meets, ignores, or collides with others at the intersection between the real and textual worlds, a space represented by the term “persona”—also sometimes called voice, the narrator, the speaker, rhetorical identity, or the protagonist. Personae in texts are not the same as the people who created them, even if writers claim that they and their personae are one and the same. You might even say that the most successful personae don’t appear visibly constructed at all; if we could see that they were, we probably wouldn’t believe them. In the best cases, the writer’s self rises from the page to meet the reader as if by magic, or grace, or poetic madness, or “sacramental imagination,” or Aristotelian “possession,” as in a dream. But even then the text is still a simulacrum, the author’s persona a construct built for public view—a representation drawn directly from the elusive, multitudinous, foundational stuff of self. A representation that others, if all goes well, will see.
Depending on what’s popularly called “size”—its depth and force of curiosity, observation, and empathy—persona has the power to elevate or contaminate the story at hand, to create intimacy or cut off any hope of human connection. And this is why persona is worth considering from an egoic stance, to borrow from Oxford, of “conscious thinking subject . . . responsible for reality testing.” Because, right now, the reality is there’s still an awful lot of important talk about who is writing worlds with a blind eye toward anyone but themselves and who is not.
If a writer cannot be understood or recognized on the page, he or she is, in literary terms, “unreliable.” But what if readers perceive the writer himself to be unreliable? What if we don’t like walking in his shoes? What if we don’t like him and his shoes at all, and don’t want him anywhere near our shoes, because we perceive him to be conjuring “truth” for self-serving or self-aggrandizing purposes? When does egoism— “a term . . . perhaps best left to ethicists, for whom it denotes a view or theory of moral behavior in which self-interest is the root of moral conduct”—shift to egotism— “an excessive sense of self-importance, too-frequent use of the word ‘I,’ and general arrogance”—or more extreme, to narcissism—“extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration”—and beyond?
Certainly, as Gish Jen notes in her book Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, “[I]ndividualism has . . . contributed critically to the security and leisure that enable people to imagine lives where they can elect to focus on the relational and contextual and unextraordinary.” But, she continues, “We need both the interdependent and the independent self” —“two poles of human experience that cannot be disengaged!”
Kapuściński’s death, in 2006, and Orwell’s longer absence—he died in 1951—make speculative psychologizing both less fraught, because neither is alive to defend themselves, and also more, for the same reason. But still, I wonder. Who was Kapuściński? Did Kapuściński’s defensiveness and angry outbursts against those who challenged him stem from insecurity? Despite the praise of Rushdie, Updike, and García Márquez, despite comparisons with Conrad, Orwell, and Camus, Kapuściński had little faith in his abilities. Judging himself against a poet friend, he once said, “You are a poet in the Polish Writer’s Union . . . but I’m just a journalist.” Or, perhaps, from what Domoslawski described as a troubled childhood? “[I]t is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations,” James Baldwin believed. Did it matter that, as Domoslawski wrote, “no one in Poland ever touched his writing with a single critical word”?
In his essay “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character,” Phillip Lopate unpacks character, George Orwell’s in particular. Building one’s persona “is not just a question of sensibility,” Lopate writes. “There are hard choices to be made when a person is put under pressure. And it’s in having made the wrong choice, curiously enough, that we are made all the more aware of our freedom and potential for humanity.”
“The job,” Orwell himself once explained, “is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us. It is not easy. It raises problems of construction and of language, and it raises in a new way the problem of truthfulness.”
Part of me didn’t want to love Orwell as much as I did in Homage to Catalonia, his 1938 account of fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Arrogant, entitled, cocksure from the first page. I’d have called him a blowhard, but then I wanted to pour a scotch and pull up a chair. “I saw an Italian militiaman,” he began. “Something in his face deeply moved me. It was the face of a man who would commit murder and throw away his life for a friend—the kind of face you would expect in an Anarchist, though as likely as not he was a Communist. There were both candor and ferocity in it; also the pathetic reverence that illiterate people have for their supposed superiors . . . ”
All this in a face? Illiteracy, homicide, anarchy. In the first 15 lines? Some cajones.
In his first three sentences of his Homage, Orwell’s persona, while outsize and entitled, admits insecurity—“I hoped he liked me as well as I liked him”—and curiosity—“Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger!” Later, he self-deprecatingly confesses, hangdog, “I hate mountains, even from a spectacular view.” In another passage, he’s a coward: “ . . . a bullet shot past my ear with a vicious crack . . . Alas! I ducked.” In pieces and completely, Orwell comes undone, running headlong into vulnerability, a flawed and exposed humanity. No longer judgmental and thirsting for heroics, his view turns “depressing.” “No one I met at this time,” he writes, “ . . . failed to assure me that a man who is hit through the neck and survives it is the luckiest creature alive. I could not help thinking that it would be luckier not to be hit at all.” In the end, Orwell turns tail and retreats to the safety of his homeland, leaving his comrades behind.
Orwell’s closing paragraphs read in sharp contrast to the hotshot first few: “ . . . beware of my partisanship,” he warns, “my mistakes of fact and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events.”
If Kapuściński had copped like Orwell—whose work endures in high regard—rather than writing himself, in Domoslawski’s words, as “always the hero,” or if he had been, as British author Michela Wrong speculated, “more . . . modest,” would his books be more widely read today? What if he had, in Baldwin’s words, stepped toward the “great pain and terror” Baldwin believed we find when “one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one’s point of view,” when “one enters into battle with that historical creation, oneself . . . ” What if he’d yelled less? In Crossing the Border, Kapuściński wrote, “What is it like, on the other side? It must certainly be—different. But what does ‘different’ mean? What does it look like? What does it resemble? Maybe it resembles nothing I know, and thus is inconceivable, unimaginable?” What if he’d imagined more? What might have been found, or lost?
In 2001, six years before he died, Kapuściński co-presented a workshop in Mexico City with his friend Gabriel García Márquez. Kapuściński had not read the manuscripts of his workshop participants, and they weren’t terribly happy. Several took him to task for his books’ inaccuracies and dishonesty. He became angry and defensive. Eventually, he stormed out of the room, leaving his students alone. What if he’d stayed? Who can say? Who, some might ask, cares?
Of course there’s no prescription or formula for art, or for living. We can imagine and dream, but we can’t force another to see a world through different eyes, to choose to step into another’s shoes. What we can change is ourselves. We can, as Francine Prose recently suggested, think harder before “choosing the right to ignore real inequities that exist.” As James Baldwin wrote, “Let us say then, that truth, as used here, is meant to imply a devotion to the human being.” He continued, “You have to strip yourself of all your disguises. Some of which you didn’t know you had.”
In an illuminating passage in his craft book, The Made-Up Self, Carl Klaus remarks on Baldwin’s use of both first- and third-person in his essay “Stranger in a Village.” Klaus observes that Baldwin’s use of “I” and “they”—what he calls “’I’ vis-à-vis ‘They’”—is “a significant pattern that distinguishes Baldwin’s essay from traditional pieces in which the persona typically develops through a concentration upon itself.” “Baldwin’s ‘I,’” he writes, “is so preoccupied with ‘They’ as to suggest at first that his persona is in a sense inseparable from the villagers—one might even say in thrall to them, given his obsessive concern with their perception and treatment of him.” Klaus concludes, “Baldwin’s ‘I’ subsequently engages in such a thoughtful analysis of the interplay that his persona ultimately comes across as a compelling interpreter.”
Francine Prose, too, in her recent New York Review of Books essay, “The Trouble with Sombreros”: “We fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats—including sombreros,” Lionel Shriver said to her audience in Australia. “We may agree, at first,” Prose wrote in reply. “But on reflection, we might hope that fiction writers and the rest of us will think harder—about racism, stereotypes, history, immigration and social justice—before, as Shriver ultimately did during her speech, donning that wide-brimmed Mexican hat.”
We might hope that politicians will think harder, too, and then some, hope alone too politic, given the stakes. As Dan P. McAdams, a psychology professor at Northwestern University and author of George W. Bush and the Redemptive Dream: A Psychological Portrait and The Art and Science of Personality Development, wrote in a recent Atlantic story, “The Mind of Donald Trump,” “I can discern little more than narcissistic motivations and a complementary personal narrative about winning at any cost. It is as if Trump has invested so much of himself in developing and refining his socially dominant role that he has nothing left over to create a meaningful story for his life, or for the nation. It is always Donald Trump playing Donald Trump, fighting to win, but never knowing why.”
On the matter of ego, Orwell prescribed “discipline.” “It is humbug to pretend [sheer egoism] is not a motive, and a strong one.” But, “It is [the writer’s] job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage.” Sheer egoism is a motive, and a strong one, but that doesn’t mean a writer need be stuck there forever, like a child, all self and no other. Gish Jen is sanguine about the worlds of possibility found where self and other meet: “[T]o have an interdependent self,” she writes, “is not to have no self. It is to have a different self, the possession of which is a joy; the loss of which is disabling; and the restoration of which can be a joy, too.”
In his groundbreaking 2014 essay, “The 12 Fundamentals of Writing Self (and Other),” author Daniel José Older proposes that writers ask themselves a series of ego-tripping questions. “We are always writing the other,” he begins, “we are always writing the self. We bump into this basic, impossible riddle every time we tell stories.” Older believes that failing to deeply engage in the questions of other is a failure of craft, a failure of imagination, whether you’re a novelist, essayist, or memoirist. “We talk about these issues like they are a moral/political issue alone,” he writes, “but stereotypes are clichés . . . It’s boring and you can do better.” During a phone conversation, Older elaborated. “We talk a lot about conflict in plot,” he said. “But the conversation seems to always stop there. What we need to talk about is power.”
In her essay “Speaking in Tongues,” adapted from a lecture she gave at the New York Public Library, essayist and novelist Zadie Smith describes her experience of finding narrating self, her voice, particularly in relation to others. “My little theory sketches four developmental phases,” she writes. But there’s nothing small about it.
1. “In this first stage, the voice, through no fault of its own, finds itself trapped between two poles, two competing belief systems.”
2. “[T]he voice learns to be flexible between these two fixed points, even to the point of equivocation.”
3. “This native flexibility leads to a sense of being able to ‘see a thing from both sides.’”
4. “[T]he voice relinquishes ownership of itself, develops a creative sense of disassociation in which the claims that are particular to it seem no stronger than anyone else’s.”
This voice, “a certain kind of genius,” writes Smith, is free to speak simultaneous truths—a quality “we cherish in our artists [and] condemn in our politicians.”
This essay was adapted and updated from a longer article about constructing nonfiction personae, originally published in the pedagogy department of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.
Feature image: detail from Caravaggio’s Narcissus (1597-1599).