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Posts Tagged ‘authenticity’

I’ve just finished re-reading one of my favourite books: True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, by playwright and director David Mamet.

mamet

At first glance, it’s a trenchant attack by an experienced and opinionated drama teacher on Stanislavsky and the whole theory of ‘Method Acting’. Method Actors try to get inside the mind and heart of the characters they are playing. The more they ‘become’ the character they are playing, and the more they identify with the experience of the fictional person they are trying to bring to life, then the more authentic – so the theory goes – their portrayal will be.

Mamet says this is just nonsense. The actor just needs to act. Their inner experience has nothing to do with the effectiveness of their acting. The good actor, as opposed to the ‘Great Method Actor’, simply plays the part, using all his or her skills and experience of the stage. The success comes through the strength of the writing, and the extent to which the actor can communicate the ‘practical’ intentions and concerns of the character: what they want, where they are going, what they are worrying about, why they are excited, etc.

It’s this dynamism that makes a character interesting. This is what makes drama dramatic. We are not moved by a character’s emotion (that’s a cheap response); we are moved by the dramatic situation that causes the emotion in the character. So the primary task of the actor is not to simulate the inner experience or emotion of the character, but to put his or her dramatic situation onstage in front of us. They are quite different tasks.

You can apply this to so many different situations, and not just to acting – which is why I find the book so inspiring. It’s about discovering a different kind of authenticity from that which is normally on offer in our culture. To be authentic is not to go inwards, to summon up great depths of emotion, to express ourselves without self-restraint: this is authenticity as ‘sincerity’. To be truly authentic is simply to act for something worthwhile, to live a life worth living. It’s more objective, more matter-of-fact.

There is still a kind of transparency (which has a great currency in our culture), but this is because when you see what someone is striving for, it helps you to understand who they truly are. You don’t always need to go inward; you don’t need to get them on Oprah.

This is basically Aristotle. It’s the telos (the end, the purpose) that defines a person’s actions; and it’s the telos that defines the person. I don’t discover who you are by having you pour out your heart to me (although that might, in some situations, be an important moment in our relationship!); I discover who you are by seeing how you live and what you care about and who you love and what you would die for.

It’s the action, the life, that makes you the person you are, and makes you interesting or not so interesting. The inner commentary that you may offer me, or the emotions that you may experience, may help me to understand you a little bit better, but they won’t actually show me who you are. I need to discover that by the way you act. This is what Manet and Aristotle know.

Here are a few of my favourite quotations from the book:

Nothing in the world is less interesting that an actor on the stage involved in his or her own emotions. The very act of striving to create an emotional state in oneself takes one out of the play. It is the ultimate self-consciousness…

The good play does not need the support of the actor, in effect, narrating its psychological undertones, and the bad play will not benefit from it…

In ‘real life’ the mother begging for her child’s life, the criminal begging for a pardon, the atoning lover pleading for one last chance – these people give no attention whatever to their own state, and all attention to the state of that person from whom they require their object. This outward-directedness brings the actor in ‘real life’ to a state of magnificent responsiveness and makes his progress thrilling to watch…

Great drama, onstage or off, is not the performance of deeds with great emotion, but the performance of great deeds with no emotion whatever…

The simple performance of the great deed, onstage or off, is called ‘heroism’…

Preoccupation with effect is preoccupation with the self, and not only is it joyless, it’s a waste of time… Only our intention is under our control. As we strive to make out intentions pure, devoid of the desire to manipulate, and clear, directed to a concrete, easily stated end, our performance becomes pure and clear…

There is much, much more to this simple book – 127 pages, large print. Do take a peak.

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Charles Guignon has written a lovely book called On Being Authentic. He draws on a number of philosophers and historians, and on examples from contemporary culture, to tell the story of where our modern notions of ‘being authentic’ and ‘being true to oneself’ really come from.

Broadly speaking, according to Guignon, we have seen three types of ‘self’ in the West. In pre-modern times, in the classical and medieval worlds, we had ‘the extended self’. Here, what makes me ‘me’ is that I belong to something bigger than me, something that comes before me, and extends beyond me. I don’t choose or define this larger whole – it defines me. As Guignon writes:

My identity is tied into the wider context of the world, with the specific gods and spirits that inhabit that world, with my tribe, kinship system and family, and with those who have come before and those who are yet to come. Such an experience of the self carries with it a strong sense of belongingness, a feeling that one is part of a larger whole [p18].

It reflects the interwovenness of all reality. I am part of an overarching whole, a cosmic scheme. The meaning of my life is very clear, and it is not at all up to me. There is lots of identity and belonging; but very little freedom.

In modern times, over the last four or five centuries, the idea of individuality and subjectivity has become more prominent. I am a subject with my own experiences, feelings, desires and opinions. I relate to the outside world of course, but that relationship is partly determined by my own decisions about how to construe that relationship.

The key term here is ‘autonomy’, so that the modern self is not so much ‘extended’ as ‘nuclear’ or ‘punctiliar’ – meaning I am the centre, the nucleus, of my own world, and not just the periphery of a socially constructed world. I still have an identity, but it’s one that I have helped to create through my personal choices.

In a post-modern culture, according to Guignon’s summary, the very notion of the stable self or subject has been called into question. Human identity is fluid and contextual. We now have different selves and limited powers of choice. There is no stable centre to the self but multiple centres with different perspectives. We have different masks, different roles, different potentialities. Some we are responsible for and in control of, some not. We absorb the values and visions of others without acknowledging the process.

The nuclear or punctiliar self of modernity gives rise to the fragmented or decentred self of post-modernity.  There is at once a radical freedom, even to go beyond who you are and recreate yourself; and a radical impotence, because you never have the secure foundation of a self from which to move or make a decision.

This is all very familiar to philosophers, but Guignon is a good teacher, and he writes with great insight and wit. And what I find so interesting about today’s Western culture, at least in Britain, is that it is one huge pile up of conflicting notions of the self. It’s not actually post-modern. It’s pre-modern and modern and post-modern all at the same time (and maybe some people would say that this a very definition of post-modernism!). We are longing to belong, and to be true to our inner selves, and to set off in radically new directions – all at the same time. No wonder we are confused!

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Dante and Sartre made guest appearances on Celebrity Big Brother at the beginning of the week. The layout and decor of the new Big Brother house are inspired, say the producers, by the writings of these luminaries:

Executive Producer Shirley Jones today revealed that the whole series has been inspired by Dante’s Inferno including the decor of the house itself.

She said: “The famous line from Dante’s Inferno is ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’, which has inspired much of what we have done to the house, particularly the entrance which is dark and cavernous with flaming walls. When the celebrities arrive in the house on Sunday night they will definitely wonder what is in store for them, it looks incredibly different from previous years”.

In the living area the Dante’s Inferno theme continues with gilded panels, black walls and furniture in rich reds and dark wood. There are some luxurious touches too such as faux fur pelts draped over the sofas, cushions emblazoned with diamante skulls and ornate wall sconces illuminating macabre sculptures.

Jones continued “As well as Dante we have been hugely influenced by Sartre’s line ‘Hell is other people’, and the house reflects this. Whilst the flames and dark colours might look a bit hellish to some, sometimes your actual hell is the people you’re with so we have removed some of the doors to make everything more open plan, there are very few areas to go to if someone needs to grab five minutes of peace and quiet.”

Just to set the record straight: Sartre didn’t put forward the idea that ‘hell is others’ as a philosophical thesis – he put these words into the mouth of one of his characters in the play Huis Clos. In isolation, this line, which has haunted Sartre, gives the impression that he hated other people and believed that human beings would be happiest cut off from all company. This is nonsense. In the drama of the play, and in the context of his whole philosophy, Sartre is saying something quite different.

In his view, a recurring temptation we face as human beings in society is the desire to live solely in order to please others, to live up to the expectations that others impose on us – expectations that we willingly accept and internalise. So our whole life can become a charade, wearing a mask, doing a dance before the gaze of others. It’s an analysis of the psychology of fame. The more we succeed in living up to their expectations, the happier we seem to be – but it is a trap, and we end up losing our freedom, we become defined by the demands that other people have imposed on us. This is living in ‘bad faith’; there is a lack of authenticity, a lack of honesty. Another more traditional word to describe this human characteristic would be ‘vanity’. So Sartre is not quite as radical or novel as he might appear.

Berlin press pack by Downing Street.

A press pack in Berlin

Sartre doesn’t think that the answer is to escape from all human relationships and responsibilities, or to do what we please without any regard for the opinion of others. This is just pure selfishness – which Sartre never advocated. He thinks we should be more authentic; we should take responsibility for our actions and not pretend that we are completely defined by the external pressures that are put upon us; we should develop relationships, as it were, out of love and freedom and not because of a dysfunctional need to take on a certain appearance in the eyes of others.

I’m not defending his whole outlook here. But there is some truth in this suggestion that we can get trapped in the image of ourselves that we see reflected back to us from others.

The opposite of vanity, one could say, would be a kind of self-possession, an ease with others, a freedom to love without worrying about how that love was being perceived.

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I mentioned a few weeks ago that a series of talks about ‘the Fundamentals of Faith’ was coming up. These have now happened, and thanks to the technology team at the Diocese of Westminster you can watch or read them all online. The main link is here.

Just to remind you of the topics: There are talks on Authority and Conscience; Prayer; the Bible; Finding True Happiness; God, Creation and Ecology; and Catholic Social Teaching.

The link to my own talk about ‘Happiness and the moral life’ is below. [That’s Fr Dominic Robinson at the beginning; I start the talk at 2:40].

Faith Matters, Lecture 4 Autumn 2009 from Catholic Westminster.

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