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?

CRA 5-28-08


Lethe said...

Dear Chris,

Allow me to send you some thoughts in response to your Imaginary Audience writings. I think that I have something to say on the topic because I myself have experienced it in my life.

The problem you have articulated seems largely to be one of the ego. Moreover, it seems to be a problem that many artistic and educated people are prone to experience because they are well-read, and therefore, through repetitive conditioning, have internalized the structures of narrative and imposed them consciously or unconscious on their own lives. You read a lot of books containing epic heroes and naturally at a young age you strive to be an epic hero yourself. However, many people, being the unreflective specimens that they are, are born with natural impulses and perform un-choreographed actions based on those impulses, which in short time eventuates into an identity -- a natural one, by which I mean the logical descriptor of a collection of unrehearsed thoughts, attitudes, relationships, and actions. Granted, there is showmanship in every aspect of human activity, but I think to dwell on this inappropriately will only give one a warped perspective and cause one to lose sight of the main beast. I do not believe, as the post-modernists do, that everything is hapless relativism and there are no individuals. Not exactly, at any rate.

But my primary point should be that you seem to be obsessed with the 'writer as identity' model. Once upon a time, so was I, and still worry about having inherited a new set of disadvantages since I've decided to relax my mind a little and to stop being so hyper-intellectual, to live life more in the external realm than I had done before. I worry about balance. Moreover, I worry about being less "important" of an individual -- again, the ego, since, after all, being a writer and a learned person still has a highly privileged status in our society. I think to myself, "wow, I'm just another guy now that I've lost the writer identity, one of the average human crew," and secretly take comfort in the fact that I work for DePaul and the Provost of the university hears my name now and again from my equally high-ranking boss. It has been an effort to put down that heavy badge of honor -- a humbling act -- but I think I am now the better for it and am more true to myself, freed from the strain of having to maintain an identity that my natural impulses were no longer in harmony with.

However, the above paragraph is a descriptor of me, not necessarily of you. What activity makes you happy in life, Chris? If it's writing, then continue writing. But if you put down some of the burden that goes along with worshiping one's own identity, or worshiping any identity for that matter, I think you'll find you'll have a lot more energy, and be at peace. I think the goal of this life is to be truly happy, which is another way of saying being fulfilled by one's activities and one's relationships, to be physically and mentally healthy. And boy, as I have found, does being an actor significantly distract from that road to health.


Lethe said...


You've written an insightful and genuine record of your thoughts. I thank you for the time you took to write these thoughts and relate to my essay in a very specific and personal way.

We met at DePaul University where we were undergraduate students. You were the "writer" I longed to be. To me, you epitomized everything a writer was, at that time. You had won awards and were the darling of the English Department for your talents. You had a persona, a wayward, scalawag, artistic temprament. You worshiped the Beats and read Jack Kereouac as if he were the Messiah. Most importantly, you wrote with passion and originality and for this I admired you most.

I continued on my journey as well. Never giving up writing, never losing the will, always striving toward a goal of some sort. And that has been my identity as a writer for the last eight years. One to whom writing never came easy but because I had a drive, and a love, I have been blessed to see my self evolve.

You went to graduate school and became more of an intellectual. You always used to have a creative fire burning in you. But after grad school you were more cynical and extremely analytical in your speech and thinking. You even made mention of losing your old writing self. You barely wrote anymore. And I thought to myself "what a loss of a great writer" because I always thought you were an exceptional writer.

Ironically, it seems the two of us are converging more than you may think. While I still see myself as a writer, and I continue to write, my attitude has shifted. Perhaps the best quote to put here is Lin Yutang, who writes, "It is important to dream, but perhaps even more important to be able to laugh at your dreams." This attitude along with the understanding that, even though I'm a writer, I'm still no more unique or special than anyone else. This issue is central to the adolescent character I portray in my fiction. He still has to learn this hard lesson.

In adulthood, we realize just how many people there are out there. Our adolescent fantasies are knocked down to size. We get perspective. And we also realize, if we are wise, that fame and fortune is just as much of a curse as a blessing. The truth of the matter is that living in the middle is the best way to achieve happiness. To write and be half famous, known to a circle of friends. To write for the sheer enjoyment of writing.

You mention "balance". Balance is everything in adulthood, and that's what I'm learning too. I'd say that these days I give more importance to "living" than writing. Writing is important to me, but I can see the big picture at last.


stolich said...

You are always an actor, even if you observe yourself (one as the "knower," the other as the "known.")

Our lives is like a book that we write. We are the writer and actor at the same time. We can live our lives like a book that we want to read.
That is what I do.
And I write about my life, the one I want to read about.

Lethe said...

I agree Aporia. But does everyone live their lives this way? We do (you and me) because we are writers guided by the "histrionic instinct". But what about those who do not write and do not see themselves as actors. I'm just playing devil's advocate.

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