The Cult of Authenticity

Ophelia Benson

The literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote in Sincerity and Authenticity: “The concerted effort of a culture or of a segment of a culture to achieve authenticity generates its own conventions, its generalities, its commonplaces, its maxims, what Sartre, taking the word from Heidegger, calls the ‘gabble.’” test

Trilling said that in 1970, but it hasn’t become less true in the half century since. If you Google “authentic self,” you get 360 million results, though most of them are pop psychology and self-help rather than literary criticism.

The idea of an “authentic self” has, oddly, become a theme of political discourse as well as Oprah-style uplift. We’re being told that people have a right to live as their authentic selves, which often means as opposed to their outward appearance, that mere physical dross. It’s a weirdly religious idea, reminiscent of the contemptus mundi of medieval monks, but it’s presented as political rather than religious. What I keep wondering is how it’s possible to make a sane politics out of the denial of material reality.

The irony is that what is meant by the authentic self in the current dialect is not a self that comports with the actual facts—with the biography, the history, the Curriculum Vitae, the parentage, the body—but a self that contradicts such dull literal realities, as if some absent-minded official had simply made a mistake in the paperwork. The authenticity in question is not the kind we mean when we talk of an authentic Vermeer or Patek Philippe; it’s a distinction between the social self and the private one, between the self that others perceive and the one that we alone know from the inside.

This idea of course rests on the assumption that self-knowledge is reliable, truthful, and immune to dispute by others. Sadly, for people who cherish their “authentic” counterfactual selves, self-knowledge is none of those things, as philosophers and psychologists have been explaining to us for years. (See, for instance, Mistakes Were Made [but Not by Me] by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson for some of the many ways we deceive ourselves about our own motivations.) Memory is incomplete and can be flat-out wrong, and there are all sorts of biases and distortions built into our thinking, such that in reality we don’t necessarily understand ourselves better than outside observers. We can perceive things they can’t, but then they can see things we can’t, too, and it’s not always clear that we know better. We are motivated to draw a flattering picture in a way that they are not, just for a start. That’s why there’s a thing called the fundamental attribution error: the tendency we all have to overemphasize personal characteristics and ignore situational factors in evaluating what other people do, while reversing the terms when we think about our own behavior. That jerk bumped into me because he’s a jerk, but I bumped into this other person because I’m in a hurry for very good reasons. It’s like the “irregular verbs” that were a running joke in the British comedy series Yes, Minister: “I’m independent-minded, you’re eccentric, she’s crazy.”

It’s obvious once it’s explained, isn’t it? I know my good intentions but not yours and hers and theirs, and you know yours but not all those others—we all get it wrong in the same way. We are all a black box to each other and even to ourselves, and it’s not necessarily true that our own inner knowledge of our authentic selves is more veridical than what other people can detect from the outside. It feels as if it is, but feelings can be illusory.

This is why one of the major justifications for claims of an authentic self that contradicts the facts, “lived experience,” is such a weak reed. Sure, it’s possible to have years of “lived experience” thinking of yourself as something you’re not—an elf, a visitor from another galaxy, a tiger, a reincarnation of Cleopatra—but that lived experience isn’t enough to change the local, prosaic facts.

In any case, who is to say the self we know from the inside is more authentic than the one everyone else perceives? It might be if we all occupied our own little universes, with no contact with other humans, but since we don’t … how do we know that our interactions with the world and the people in it are not in fact part of our “self,” even the authentic one? The reality surely is that selves—characters, personalities, autobiographies—are built up from their experiences, including relations with other selves. We help to create each other, and that doesn’t make us less than “authentic.”

Keats wrote of a much more generous idea of the self in a letter from October 1818:

As to the poetical Character itself (I mean that sort, of which, if I am anything, I am a member; that sort distinguished from the Wordsworthian, or egotistical Sublime; which is a thing per se, and stands alone,) it is not itself—it has no self—It is everything and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated … A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no Identity—he is continually in for and filling some other body … It is a wretched thing to confess; but it is a very fact, that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical Nature—how can it, when I have no Nature? When I am in a room with people, if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then, not myself goes home to myself, but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me, so that I am in a very little time annihilated—not only among men; it would be the same in a nursery of Children.

It’s a famous passage for good reason: it expresses an admirable approach to life and to other people and a fine alternative to obsession with one’s own precious Authentic Self.

Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).