Authentic Anxiety

By DuncanRhys C. Liancourt

––I have been anxious lately that I have not been deviant enough. I am trying to deviate, you see, from my artistic predecessors. Harold Bloom, in The Anxiety of Influence, tells me that I must do so in order to create my own original work. I agree with him and I worry incessantly that I am, to paraphrase Bloom, failing to beget myself. See, I’m paraphrasing rather than being original, thus my anxiety. And it doesn’t even help that Bloom himself quotes, among others, that master of self-reliance Emerson. Then I read something that seemed likely to assuage my anxiety: “there’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”

Wow, I said to myself, who is this Helene Hegemann, this prophetess who dares announce with Barthesean confidence the death of originality? Or does she mean that it never existed at all, that artists and would be artists through the centuries have been duped into seeking that which can never be found? The New York Times article that quotes Ms. Hegemann, “Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age,” says that this visionary is “a German teenager whose best-selling novel about Berlin club life turned out to include passages lifted from others” and that it “fueled a brief brouhaha.” The brouhaha being only brief, and Ms. Hegemann’s book making it to the finals for a fiction prize made me think it might old-fashioned of me to cling to this originality thing anyway. And anyway (I credit Ms. Hegemann with this use of ‘anyway’), I could not possibly remain anxious about originality while also being anxious about authenticity without suffering devolution to a damp, quaking mass of random organic particles awaiting a lightening strike, so I thought I would just worry about how to find this authenticity thing.

I was just about to look on line to see if Ms. Hegemann had yet produced a non-fiction work on her method for achieving authenticity when I read the rest of the NY Times article––why can I not just learn to skim the shallow sound-bitey surfaces?––and was stopped cold by the words of another young person. “It may be increasingly accepted,” said Sarah Wilensky, Indiana University senior, “but there are still plenty of creative people – authors and artists and scholars – who are doing original work. It’s kind of an insult that the ideal is gone, and now we’re left only to make collages of the work of previous generations.” I angsted over which young woman I should let influence me more. I even angsted over using angst as a verb. But Ms. Wilensky’s comments struck me not only as more true, but also as more authentic.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good collage, and Ms. Hegemann’s book may be wonderful, but her philosophy as propounded here strikes me as semantic word play in the service of denial. Perhaps it’s her way of dealing with the anxiety of influence, whether she is conscious of feeling it or not, because achieving mere authenticity cannot be the only goal of the creative impulse.

Consider a product of someone’s creativity, a work of art if you will. You are reading it, looking at it, sitting in it, what have you. Is it authentic? Well, is it indisputably the work of the person whose name it bears? Yes, let’s say there is no doubt about is provenance. Is it made in a traditional way so as to resemble an original? It needn’t meet this definition of authenticity if it is a work of the imagination seeking to be original. Is it based on facts, is it accurate? Well this does not matter if it is not trying to report facts. What about a more philosophical authenticity, is it emotionally appropriate? Let’s give it that, allow that it is a true communication of its creators humanity. This work of art then is authentic. Yay, we’re done, we’ve done our due diligence and into the canon it goes to be enjoyed, respected, consulted and imitated for all time.

Um, not so fast. We want our friends to be authentic, to show us who they truly are; we want our Rolexes to be authentic, unless we want to them to be copies that look authentic to our friends so that we appear authentically swanky. But we still want to know about their inauthtencity, which means the sidewalk where we bought them is authentically inauthentic. We want authentic antiques and authentic reproductions, authentic news sources and authentic Tuscan food, except when we want the chef to experiment and give us her or his interpretation of authentic Tuscan food. Authenticity is good, in short, but it is not all we want. And, thankfully, it is not all that there is no matter what some makers of pastiche, creative as their pastiche making may be, and certain authors of ‘memoirs’ say to the contrary.

Sometimes we don’t want authenticity at all. Sometimes we want true creativity, imagination, a voice unique and fresh. Sometimes we want originality. An original does not come out of nowhere, it has influences, but as Bloom explains, “a poet swerves away from his precursor…antithetically ‘completes’ his precursor…apparently [empties] himself of his own afflatus…” A poet “opens himself to what he believes to be a power in the parent poem that does not belong to the parent proper, but to a range of being just beyond the precursor…he yields up part of his own human and imaginative endowment, so as to separate himself from others.” And finally “the poem is now held open to the precursor, where once it was open…”

Bloom writes of “the art of knowing the hidden roads that go from poem to poem” as that which “criticism is.” This is my pastiche of his sentence, arranged so that I may attempt to make my own final point. The hidden roads that go from poem to poem, the ley lines of creative influence, are discoverable through reading. This is true for critics, for poets––in the broadest sense of the word––and for readers who may never compose an original work of art but cannot help, individuals that we are, thinking original thoughts. Once discovered these roads can be traveled, and, to paraphrase Frost, there is always a road less travelled, one that each unique individual may chose to explore in her or his own original way. Then there is always the possibility that we may swerve off the road altogether, break new ground and forge ahead anew.

Thus sang the uncouth swain to th’ oaks and rills,

While the still morn went out with sandals grey,

He touched the tender stops of various quills,

With eager thought warbling his Doric lay:

And now the sun had stretched out all the hills,

And now was dropped into the western bay;

At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue:

Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.

“Lycidas” by John Milton, final stanza.

4 Responses to “Authentic Anxiety”
  1. Janet Barnes says:

    I’m especially intrigued by these authentic Rolodexes you write about. In this age of iPhones and iTouches and iPads and Droids and Blackberries, it must be a true mark of originality, perhaps even artistic integrity, to turn to something as quaint as a Rolodex as the arbiter of one’s social network. But then to fret about the authenticity of one’s Rolodex–not to mention the authenticity of one’s social network–must indicate that the anxiety of influence is indeed at work. Or perhaps that is simply a sign that one is under the influence?

  2. Clare Keller says:

    I do wish to be subscribed, but it’s not clear how I submit that information without a comment! Hopefully, it’s an authentic one. Clare

  3. Lucille Magnus says:

    As always you got me thinking about originality and imagination. I have been reading a book about David Foster Wallace, and newly appreciating his authenticity and that he thought people read books to be less lonely. And also, surprise…TINKERS: The character George on his deathbed remembering his father who “tinkered.” “He tinkered. Tin pots,, wrought iron. Solder melted and cupped in a clay dam. Quicksilver patchwork. Occasionally, a pot hammered back flat, the tinkle of tin sibilant, tiny beneath the lid of the boreal forest. Tinkerbird, coppersmith…” Sometimes there’s a prose poem. LucyM

  4. Laura says:

    Baby, your problem is that your the perfect man and so there are no flaws or rough edges showing. Don’t confuse perfection with inauthentic. Just know that I appreciate that the burden for you is heavy 🙂

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