Wednesday, May 28, 2008
The Imaginary Audience
Let me describe what I see in front of me:
the Sunday edition of the NYTimes, Tricycle (a Buddhist magazine), a book of poetry by Emily Dickinson, The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang, The Energy of Delusion by Viktor Shklovsky;
and underneath the coffee table, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, and Tom Jones by Henry Fielding.
I am reading all of these books at the same (or sections of them)--in addition to the newspaper and magazine.
Lin Yutang talks about the "histrionic instinct". I have quoted extensively from his book in the previous post. He talks about our human drive to perform for others. He talks about how we are hardwired for the approval of an audience. Let me quote him once again:
"Consciously or unconsciously, we are all actors in this life playing to the audience in a part and style approved by them."
Right now I am blogging. There has been a recent explosion in blogging. The Internet is a suspended audience. You know people are watching; you just don't know how many or who these people are. The audience becomes more elusive. But it is only the promise of someone watching that we need. A virtual audience will do just fine.
In Las Vegas, eight years ago, I had an experience.
I became an actor in my own life. Was I imagining things? I deeply believed that my actions were central to the world. I adopted a persona based on these beliefs.
In adolescent psychology, this is called "imaginary audience." Another characteristic of adolescent egocentricism is the "personal fable". Professor Boughner of Rodgers State University writes: "adolescents imagine their own lives as mythical or heroic" and "they see themselves destined for fame or fortune".
These ideas seem closely related to what Lin Yutang calls the "histrionic instinct".
Eight years after my experience in Las Vegas, I set out to write my history. You can call this history my "personal fable".
The novel is called Lethe Bashar's Novel of Life.
Lethe Bashar is me eight years before, in Las Vegas. What defines Lethe's character is the "histrionic instinct".
My adolescence was a dream. I was under the spell of my own play-acting. I created a persona to feel important, to feel unique. (Could I be doing the same thing now? Writing the novel?)
I am writing the novel to understand the character and the dream. And to know the spell has truly ended.
Can the actor awaken from her performance at the end of the day?
The theater lights have turned off, the audience has gone home. The actor is still up on stage.
At a certain point, the role the actor plays can become self-destructive. The imagination fuels her sense of power as well as her sense of defeat. According to adolescent psychology, the actor thinks that she is invincible. Imagination becomes dangerous, a weapon. There are consequences for incessant dreaming. Sometimes this is called "idealism".
I compare my alter ego, Lethe Bashar, to Don Quixote. Lethe Bashar takes drugs and acts out an imaginary role as poet/writer. Don Quixote reads too many books and acts out an imaginary role as knight errant. Both go on journeys. They leave their homes.
The novel by Cervantes is a violent novel. It is funny, but it is also violent. Nabokov writes, "Both parts of Don Quixote form a veritable encyclopedia of cruelty. From that viewpoint it is one of the most bitter and barbarous books ever penned. And its cruelty is artistic."
What I have described to you is adolescent psychology. But couldn't we say this is adult psychology as well?
Lin Yutang writes, "The only objection is that the actor may replace the man and take entire possession of him."
The actor degenerates into a fool, a nutcase, like Don Quixote. We have seen many of these characters on reality television, on American Idol.
The audience laughs instead of cries. And yet somewhere inside we can relate to this foolishness. We empathize with Don Quixote.
There are many books at my house. Gazing at my library solidifies my sense of self. I surround myself with books, extensions of myself.
If I am an actor, books are my props. At the beginning of this essay I described to you "the set".
You are my audience right now. Your applause strengthens my purpose.
I cannot see the writer or the artist. I can only ruthlessly act out his needs and desires. The role is my destiny and my pre-destiny.
Destiny gets created somewhere.
Lin Yutang says that beyond the fear of God and the fear of death is the fear of one's neighbors.
In other words, society.
The audience is society. A child's first society is her mother and father.
I first started reading classical literature to my father when I was in middle school.
I hated it.
But he would make me go downstairs and sit with him on the couch. We would read for one hour. He had a collection of leather bound books that arrived in the mail each month.
The books literally cracked open they were so new. Each new edition had a frontispiece portrait of the author. The manila pages had illustrations. Under a block of letters that read, "PUBLISHED EXPRESSLY FOR THE PERSONAL LIBRARY OF," my father signed his name.
I couldn't understand what I was reading and that's why I despised reading with my father. It felt like a cruel joke.
For five years I read with my father almost every night.
Lin Yutang says the actor is seeking approval of the audience. The audience is society.
I really believe in my role as a writer. I don't know who I would "act out" instead. It's not easy to pick up another role.
We become who we are through sedimentation. Years of repetition. We work with the old drafts constantly, rewriting the ego. The future seems to hang on the success or failure of a single part.
I omitted the first line of this essay. I was making revisions. I will include that line here:
"I'm making discoveries about myself that are unsettling."
The unsettling part of a dream is not the dream itself, but discovering the dream is unreal.
Can I escape my role as a writer? Do I even want to?
Posted by Lethe at 12:49 PM
Labels: adolescent psychology, approval, audience, Don Quixote, imaginary audience, personal fable, reading