Were you and I to interact directly, whether communicating face to face or exchanging messages in writing, we would be tailoring our self-presentation to each other. We would be thinking about what information we feel comfortable divulging and how exactly to frame it so that we can represent ourselves, our opinions, and our lives how we want. The more honest of us want all the outward manifestations of ourselves, our words and our gestures and our actions, to be authentic realizations of what we think we really are and what would attain to what we most want to be. The less honest of us are calculating constantly about what we should be presenting so that our narrative is as consistent as possible and we can get as much as we want as possible. And most of us probably live somewhere on the spectrum between yearning to express ourselves as authentically as possible and realize ourselves as ideally as possible on the one hand and to present ourselves as beneficially as possible on the other.
Deception is a feature, not a bug, within human psychology. This is to an extent unavoidable. Because there is no simple self-presentation that is free of all artifice whatsoever. Because every attempt to understand or present ourselves involves construction of images, of narratives, of categorizations. It involves a process of both making sense for ourselves out of fragmentary raw materials. How to group together our ideas? How to order the events of our lives? How to characterize the flux of feelings and thoughts that constitute our inner life moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day, year to year, decade to decade? These choices involve making decisions about priorities. What is most important? What can I push to the side. Which part of my experience seems to make overriding sense of the most of my behaviors and beliefs and attitudes and passions and pains. What parts of all this constitute the real essence of who and what I am, and give context to so much chaos?
Working out our beliefs, our values, our priorities, our identities, and most of all making the hard tangible choices that depend on how we decide all these things is a constant process of sifting and sense-making. It is inevitably a process of creation, guided by a range of values, including, but not limited to, concern for truth.
And this process of self-formation, self-definition, self-understanding does not just happen in reflective people, meditating deliberately in pursuit of enlightenment. It’s an automatic process, engaged in constantly, no less by the unaware than the aware. Every conversation, every choice, rapid decisions are being made. Masks are being chosen or modified or discarded. We’re modulating our emotions and thoughts not only to what others are saying aloud but what their bodies and faces and omissions are telling us. We’re gliding between roles, like world class actors who can dramatically switch personas on a dime. Except when we wind up with lines we don’t know how to read and marks we don’t know how to hit and we suddenly start losing altitude and plummet to a crash.
Because there is always a degree of creation involved in all social reality and since so much of the world we live in, including so much our very selves themselves, is deeply socially constructed and shaped, there is no such thing as a simple uncomplicated direct and true “representation” of what really is. There are more truthful accounts of things and less, to be sure. But there is none that is not mediated by language, by complicated interconnected webs of beliefs and concepts and values, and by a range of lived social practices. So many creative contributions of our minds and our culture go into every thought and deed and every self-expression and self-understanding.
So, in this context, when you and I directly interrelate with one another it is always mediated by an immense amount of culture and constant calculation about how to present ourselves to one another.
But there is something fascinating about what happens when we interact like we are doing right now, right here. I am not addressing you as the individual that you are. I am talking to the generalized you. I am talking to you, whoever you are. I am still extremely conscious of my self-presentation in such exchanges. But are you? You don’t have to reply. No one has to know what you think about when you read me. In many cases, no one has to know that you read me. I don’t even have to know that I’m addressing you. What that means is that something can happen here, in the medium of public writing, that cannot happen in the world of interpersonal interactions. We can have secret conversations without ever admitting them to each other.
When an author writes about anyone, the people she’s describing know they’re the ones described even if she doesn’t and never would. Were I to talk to you about extramarital affairs, you would likely present yourself in a calculated way, concerned about the appearances of your opinions. Were I to write about them, the part of you who has had them or been cheated on or both stands up in attention. You’d probably never talk to me about this. But you engage intimately and viscerally with my words, working out your own conceptions of adultery and its ethics not as the guarded you who would talk to me, but as the more private you who reads me.
When writers write, we get to pierce the outward appearances and address people as they are to themselves. The closeted take us into their closets without letting us know. Our stories of our bedrooms are imagined adjoined to their own bedrooms. Our stories of our lovers are filled with memories of theirs. The guilty put themselves in chains when they read our indictments–or desperately try to keep them off. Our discourses on heartbreak are felt with ache in broken hearts. Our discussions of war are heard on the battlefields within soldiers’ hearts. When we talk about parenting, we’re in people’s childhoods, we’re standing by their children’s cradles, we’re at their parents’ graves with them. If we talk about rape, rapists hear the words of prosecutors or defense attorneys as they sit accused, and repeat to themselves the story they’re trying to stick to. When we talk about rape, survivors test our every word against a traumatic memory for its veracity.
Writers address people’s secret protected inner lives without ever knowing the secrets. We become part of people’s intimate, private analyses of their deepest pains and fears and hopes and loves and beliefs, without ever really knowing what’s happening in our readers or what it will lead to. We never feel a fraction of your emotional responses. We’ll never know about the arguments that go on in your head as you read us. We’ll never know when what we say will wander through your subsequent reveries. We rarely know a fraction of who you even are. I may probably never know about you. And even if I do know you, usually I will never know about what you read that I left lying around the internet or what exactly you did with it.
Yet readers invite writers into their minds. Just by reading this, you invite me into your mind. Your mind says my words, thereby trying them on and having any of a range of reactions, both emotional and cognitive. Yet, I write here, alone. I always write alone. Even when in public–especially when writing in public–I write in the privacy and secrecy of my own mind. Imagining a public. Careful about how a public will take what I say. But just looking at a computer screen, not another person. Searching my heart and mind and my memories and listening to the remembered voices of countless others who have wormed their way into my mind with their words. Solitary, wrestling with myself and all the people who have helped form me in an infinite number of ways, I write. Solitary, disengaged from those physically around you, you read.
Every time you read, you invite someone into your mind. If you want to transform your life, change who you read. If you want to be surprised by who you can be, start reading people you are not in the habit of reading, in genres you are unaccustomed to, in disciplines of learning you are unfamiliar with, and in voices you do not yet hear in your solitude.
A related reverie: How I Relate To People Socially