This is what I thought: for the most banal even to become an adventure, you must (and this is enough) begin to recount it. This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story. But you have to choose: live or tell?”
-Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea
Who gets to tell your story? In everyday life it would seem to be you. You get up each day, make that cup of coffee, and you begin construction of a tale for that moment in time based on the past narratives that you have chosen to share or not share. Your story is going to be construed or misconstrued depending on how well you can spin the tale, or as noted in Sartre’s words, how well you can live it.
Recently in the news we have been presented with two people who have more than contemplated the narrative of self – Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner. Both have teetered on that fine line between living and telling the tale, and both have been exposed publicly enough to put pressure not only on how the tale is spun but inevitably perhaps on how it reaches resolution.
I am not looking to debate right or wrong in either case. My interest lies more in the construction of a life, how a person deliberately goes about building a mythos upon which others can view that life. And make no mistake – since both Dolezal and Jenner are public figures – these people knew and understood the ramifications of living in a spotlight that can be exceedingly cruel and, for the most part, unforgiving.
In the essay “Narratives of Self” by Kenneth J. Gergen and Mary M. Gergen, the writers explore the issue of identity and how one sees him or herself:
It may be argued that one’s view of self in a given moment is fundamentally nonsensical unless it can be linked in some fashion with his or her past. Suddenly and momentarily to see oneself as “fat,” “poetic,” or “male,” for example, might seem mere whimsy unless such concepts could be attached to a temporal context revealing their genesis.
In Dolezal’s case she has built upon a past that includes adopted black siblings in her life. As she grew into an adult her past met her present, and she had to at some point make a choice – one that seemed like not only the story she wanted to live but the one she wanted to tell. As she said in an appearance on the Today Show, “I identify as black.” Perhaps that is not good enough for everyone (especially biologically black people), but it is obviously good enough for her.
As for Caitlyn Jenner’s narrative truth, apparently it was long understood by the person formerly known as Bruce and kept quiet because, as it must have seemed to him as a boy, the story would not be accepted. He thus chose to keep the live and tell parts separate, with the world seeing what he chose to tell rather than how he wanted to live. Given the fact that he became famous, a successful Olympic athlete, and then went on to agree to appear in Keeping Up With The Kardashians, the reality series that seems to have nothing to do with reality, it boggles the mind as to how the subtextual narrative had to be kept under wraps for so long.
Jenner got me thinking about Ernest Hemingway, arguably one of the greatest American writers of the 20th (or any) century, who purposely blurred the lines of his narratives of self and the stories he wrote as fiction. One could say that from his earliest days Hemingway began spinning the tale and, by the time he got himself wounded during World War I, that the story lines had inextricably become blurred. How could he present himself to the world and also promote the fiction that boosted the myth of the life he lived?
In Hemingway, Kenneth S. Lynn’s remarkable biography of the writer, we get a portrait of a man who fought hard to become what was expected of him. His mother dressed him as a girl until he was four years old, and thus established the thrust for the mythos of the hard living, hard drinking, heroic figure that Hemingway wanted and needed to be. Lynn presents the case that Hemingway purposely went to war to get wounded to prove his masculinity to himself and, more importantly, to his mother, and it seems the tale spun out of control after that. Hemingway probably could not do anything more than live the tale he wanted to tell.
This brings us back to the concept of narrative of self which seems linked to what we learn in fiction. In Daniel Dennett’s essay “The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity” he explores the way a writer can construct a character to explore self:
Pick up Moby Dick and open it up to page one. It says, “Call me Ishmael.” Call whom Ishmael? Call Melville Ishmael? No. Call Ishmael Ishmael. Melville has created a fictional character named Ishmael. As you read the book you learn about Ishmael, about his life, about his beliefs and desires, his acts and attitudes. You learn a lot more about Ishmael than Melville ever explicitly tells you.
Is Dennett saying that Melville is Ishamel? No, just as Hemingway is not Jacob Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, although many parts of his life story coincide with what happens to Barnes in the novel. As a writer of fiction myself, I must admit that I can identify with all my characters, that there is a little piece of me in each one, and sometimes more or less depending on the story. I am not a world-famous person as Hemingway became; as his own story evolved his narrative of self had to meet the expectations of the tale he supposedly was living. That cannot be easy for anyone, even an apparently tough guy like Hemingway.
We can say the same things today about Dolezal and Jenner – that as public figures they have no choice but to expect scrutiny and intrusion on the personal life that interchanges with the public one. If this is the ugly part of living the tales that they want to tell, there must be choices made that will help them move forward to secure the life that they want to live.
Dolezal has resigned her post at the NAACP as of this writing, and what happens to her now is still part of the narrative she has created. Caitlyn Jenner has a different plan in place – a reality series based on her gender reassignment. This is more than Jenner saying, “Call me Caitlyn.” She is in reality saying, “I am Caitlyn!”
In a public person’s life there are different chances to tell his or her story. The obvious thing is for someone to write an autobiography, and many famous people have done this as an attempt to explain a personal narrative. A celebrity can also opt for an authorized biography written by a writer he or she trusts – that seems reliable for the celebrity because he or she has condoned it. Then there is also the unauthorized biography, one that can take turns and twists that the subject will be invariably not always pleased with. This is the lot of celebrities and their worst nightmare – the self-narrative taken out of their own hands and spun out of control.
If one views Edvard Munch’s famous autobiographic portrait, The Scream, it invites further exploration of the lines between living and telling. While this screaming figure looks nothing like the real artist, it can been visualized as he sees himself at that moment, as two dark figures in the background have obviously passed his way and caused or at least contributed to his unleashing of the horror through sound that perhaps shakes the night.
Can we say that all of Hemingway’s work was a similar “scream” to the world – this is who I am? Or is it more him showing the world what he wanted to be? Dolezal identifies as black; Jenner identifies as a woman – each has chosen a narrative and we have to consider it in relation to all that we know, but what the public sees is sort of their “scream” to reveal – whether we like it or not – “This is who I am!”
In our own lives we write the story of our days, months, and years as well, sometimes inadvertently, other times purposely. There are the truths we can admit to and the lies that we can accept as truths people want to hear. My father, a NYC cop who frequently worked undercover, used to say this of those he arrested: “The lies they tell are lies.” Perhaps that’s the case with all self narratives until something stops the story and demands the truth, and in the revelation there is bound to be unhappiness for someone out there.
So, as we all spin our own tales, what the world sees can be vastly different than what the world knows. This is not necessarily evil or wrong; it is part of the human need to reveal slowly or, if we so choose, not at all. In a world where the “selfie” is now king, how the world sees us is usually the way we want them to see us. Alas, celebrities are not that fortunate.
Most of us are conveniently far from famous, so the scrutiny level is nothing compared to what Dolezal, Jenner, Hemingway and all celebrities face. We can just be thankful about the fact that as we go about our days as far under the radar as we choose to be, deciding to live or tell the tale each day is a private matter. We can only hope it will always stay that way.
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