Clancy Martin – On Liking, Loving and Jonathan Franzen
A few years ago, in a terrific article in The New York Times on the dangers of contemporary smartphone and other “social” technologies, my good friend and mentor Jonathan Franzen summed up the difference between wanting to be liked and genuinely being loved as, roughly, a difference between falsehood and truth. It’s an essay worth reading in its entirety, but for my purposes I’ll condense it to a few passages:
If you dedicate your existence to being likable…and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick….
The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life….
There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of.
Here Franzen articulates a view that has had such diverse and formidable advocates as bell hooks, C.S. Lewis and Diotima (from Plato’s Symposium). That said, they are all of them wrong.
The problem comes from an old, dangerous myth, whose most prominent advocates in the West have been even more formidable thinkers, like Socrates and Descartes, that there is, to quote Franzen, a person “who you really are.” This is, one guesses, a different person from the one you seem to be or are trying to be. It also must be a person you know: that is, in order for you to try to be someone other than the person you really are, you must have a pretty good idea who the person you really are actually is.
But we don’t know who we are—in part because who we are is constantly changing, in part because self-knowledge is notoriously elusive, and in part because who we are is a function of who we are with, what we are doing, what roles we are assuming and what goals we are pursuing. You are one person with your wife, another person alone at home with a book, still another with your children; the you on the beach in Goa is different than the you seated in front of your computer in your office; the you out with buddies after work is not the same you as the person who first wakes in the morning and contemplates getting out of bed to take a shower. This was already old news when Nietzsche and Freud showed how poorly we understand ourselves; and when Erving Goffman wrote The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life in 1959 it became something like the standard wisdom. But it’s an understanding of the self that stretches back far behind the Buddha—who was perhaps our most profound skeptic of the idea that there is a self or that such a self is knowable–into the ancient Vedic tradition. If you think you have one stable self-image, you’re just fooling yourself.
Here’s the point: to be with other people, whether they are people we want to like us, people we like, people we love or people we want to love us, is always to create a kind of being together. I am busy assessing your needs, desires, and preferences, and you are doing the same with me: and whether it’s a friend at work, someone you’re trying to seduce at a bar, or a life-long friend this process is always ongoing. When we say that “no man is an island” (John Donne) or “to live alone one must be either a beast or a God” (Aristotle) what we mean is being human is being human with others, which in turn means playing roles, conforming ourselves to the expectations of others, and revising our own emotional needs and views in line with the emotional situations of those other people. This is not lying about who you are—you don’t really know who you are, independent of other people!—it is becoming who you are, it is allowing yourself to flourish as a social being.
To suppose that there’s something wrong with trying to be liked is as confused as supposing that “the real you” appears when you’re very angry or very sad or even very loving and intimate. Just because an emotional state is powerful doesn’t mean it is anymore (or less) authentic than another emotional state: in fact I am neither my “real me” nor my best me when I am having a terrible fight with my wife. And the fact that I want my children to like me as well as to love me but doesn’t mean that I am being insincere in my self-portrayal with my children. I don’t always like my children—but, Franzen would respond, I do always love them, and that difference matters. But that is a matter of my commitment, my choice, my resolve—and not a matter of how many complex self-creative games each of my daughters might be playing in trying to manipulate me.
So don’t worry so much about authenticity and sincerity, please –they don’t exist, not really. They are a kind of helpful guide in the way that trying to be honest is a helpful guide in a world where we constantly have to tell lies. Instead, accept that being humans together is supposed to be fun, it’s not so terribly earnest, it’s more like a game—and all the best games encourage us to make-believe. Play at being whoever you want to be—and accept the fact that the other people around you are engaged in just the same healthy activity.
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