Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Pursuit of Authenticity

Many years ago when this author was at college he had a wonderful director for his master’s thesis, one Rev Dr. Brian McNamara, S.J.  Brian was an inspiration as he taught me how to read with an extra edge, or, if you prefer with purpose and focus.  He was a wonderful scholar to whom I owe a lot of my critical abilities.  Anyway, Brian was steeped in the existentialists as well as many other wonderful theologians and philosophers.  One of the words quite often on his lips was that word most favoured of the existentialists, i.e., “authenticity.”


This term is used also in psychology and the philosophy of art as well as in existentialist philosophy.  Authenticity is basically the degree to which one is true to one's own personality, spirit, or character, despite all the pressures the world of external living imposes upon us.  Authenticity to the mind of this writer at least, is all about coming to grips with who one really is in oneself, with a sense of personal identity.  Essentially, it is for me, summed up in the great Socratic motto: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  By this, Socrates meant that we should be beings who are always in pursuit of what is true and liberating of who we really are inside.  In the philosophy of art, "authenticity" describes the perception of art as faithful to the artist's self, rather than conforming to external values such as historical tradition, or even commercial worth.  Most artists, worth their salt, would not prostitute their talent (or soul) for anything as inauthentic as “filthy lucre.”

The great Walter Arnold Kaufmann (1921-1980), the German-American philosopher, translator, and poet is quite rightly credited with popularising the writing and the ideas of the existentialist writers such as Dostoevsky Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers, Sartre, Marcel, and Camus, though he favoured the first four of these over the last three. 

For these writers, the conscious self, to be an authentic self-creation must come to terms with being in a material world – often a very hostile one indeed.  In this encounter with the external world this conscious self meets external forces and influences which are very different if not inimical to the health of the real self.  Therefore, authenticity is one way in which the self acts and changes in response to these pressures.  Such authenticity then is all about being true to the inner or real self, to the creative urges within one, to the dreams and visions of the soul.  As the reader will see, my prose is becoming somewhat flowery because language begins to strain against its very own limits when we begin to speak about these concepts.  Can the the “needs of one’s inner being” be met in modern life?

A Film about Authenticity:

At this stage I should like to offer here a brief review of the film Revolutionary Road which I went to see with my brother Patrick last evening.  I was impressed by the wonderful acting of Kate Winslett and Leonardo di Caprio and enthralled and gripped by the story.  In short this film is all about the struggle for authenticity as characterised in the female leading character as she struggles both with her own and with the greater  inauthenticity of her husband’s character. 

Some Background:

Revolutionary Road is the first novel of author Richard Yates and it was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1962 in the U.S.A., and In 2005 the novel was chosen by Time as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present – no mean achievement, indeed, for any novel. In the October 1999 issue of the Boston Review,Yates was quoted on his central theme: "If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy." The Wheelers' frustrations and yearnings for something better represent the tattered remnants of the American Dream.

The Storyline: The story is simple but gripping because it is so true to life. It's 1955. Frank and April Wheeler, in the seventh year of their marriage, are living a life that appears to most as being near perfect. They live in the Connecticut suburbs with two young children. Frank commutes to New York City where he works in an office job while April stays at home as a housewife. But they're not happy. April has forgone her dream of becoming an actress, and Frank hates his job - one where he places little effort - although he has never figured out what his passion in life is. One day, April suggests that they move to Paris - a city where Frank visited during the war and loved, but where April has never been - as a means to rejuvenate their life. April's plan: she would be the breadwinner, getting a lucrative secretarial job for one of the major international organizations, while Frank would have free time to find himself and whatever his passion. Initially sceptical, Frank ultimately agrees to April's plan. However, their beautiful visionary plan becomes unstuck as Frank becomes more caught up in his work, succumbing to his boss’s praises and as April becomes more and more depressed. 

And so the film follows the story quite faithfully, I believe, as I have not read the book.  Yeats had this to say of the book’s title, in an interview with DeWitt Henry and Geoffrey Clark for the Winter, 1972 issue of Ploughshares:

I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the 1950s. Because during the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs — a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price, as exemplified politically in the Eisenhower administration and the Joe McCarthy witchhunts. Anyway, a great many Americans were deeply disturbed by all that — felt it to be an outright betrayal of our best and bravest revolutionary spirit — and that was the spirit I tried to embody in the character of April Wheeler. I meant the title to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the Fifties.  (See this link here for the source of this quotation: Revolutionary Road)

Hence, this film Revolutionary Road is a superb film insofar as it deals so splendidly with the conflict at the heart of this drama viz., the conflict between the authentic and the inauthentic at the heart of man.  Therefore, we are back to the question I raised above in my first few paragraphs -  Can the the “needs of one’s inner being” be met in modern life?   This film suggests that it cannot.  Have we sold our souls to the devil of modern capitalism?  It would seem so.  In this sense, this film is very relevant to our contemporary world as we are now entering the greatest worldwide recession or depression we have known since 1929.  The sparkling jewels promised by capitalism may really be only tawdry trinkets of a very questionable value indeed. The acting in this film is superb, as is the film script which, I should imagine is fairly loyal to the original novel.  The dialogue is superb and one can feel oneself moved as if one is present at a live performance of a play.  Here’s a small taste of the dialogue from the film:

April Wheeler: Don't you see? That's the whole idea! You'll be able to do what you should have been aloud to do seven years ago, you'll have the time. For the first time in your life, you'll have the time to find out what it is you actually want to do. And when you figure it out, you'll have the time and the freedom, to start doing.
Frank Wheeler: This doesn't seem very realistic.
April Wheeler: No, Frank. This is what's unrealistic. It's unrealistic for a man with a fine mind to go on working year after year at a job he can't stand. Coming home to a place he can't stand, to a wife who's equally unable to stand the same things. And you know what the worst part of it is? Our whole existence here is based on this great premise that we're special. They we're superior to the whole thing. But we're not. We're just like everyone else! We bought into the same, ridiculous delusion. That we have to resign from life and settle down the moment we have children. And we've been punishing each other for it.

This film is good because it asks the right questions about the values we hold in our so called modern society.  Are we really true to ourselves, to our inner values, to our sacred dreams and private hopes?  How far can we or should we realise them? The film does highlight the essential loneliness and alienation of modern humanity.  However, we can also ask the question of how far we can reconcile our dreams with the reality of our workaday lives – how far can they be reconciled?  Surely there is a middle ground?  Is that what psychotherapy in all its various forms is really about?  To that extent have they replaced traditional religions in attempting that reconciliation?  Where can we see ourselves in this film?  In how far are we being really authentic and congruent human beings?  All these questions are worth asking.  To that extent this film is so worth seeing.  Be prepared to be moved and indeed to think and reflect on life.  That’s the price this film asks and the only price worth paying! 

Above one of the official pictures advertising the film Revolutionary Road (2008) which features the wonderful actors Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet. The film is directed by Sam Mendes, Winslet's husband.

1 comment:

Amberla said...

Hi Tim. It has been over a year since you wrote this, but I found it by googling the phrase "such authenticity." I am reading a book by (of all people) 50 Cent that is talking about authenticity and fearlessness. Maybe it would interest you - the title is "The 50th Law." Anyway, I really like your reflections here. I am striving to be more authentic myself, as I start my journey in fashion design school - I want to discover more about who I want to be creatively. I have not seen Revolutionary Road yet, but perhaps I should. So I thank you for this blog, it does what you have set out to do in your welcome note, "to make its readers think and reflect." Thank you! :)