The concept of “identity” is no longer an easy one to define. The nineteenth-century idea of identity, as illustrated in the biographical cast of the novels of the period, was ever-evolving, but rarely problematic. The Nervals (“je suis l’Autre”: [I am the Other]) and Rimbauds (“je est un autre” [I is another]) were limited to the poetic fringes. This solid notion of identity was grounded on a benign version of Girard’s mensonge romantique that understood each individual’s desire as essentially his own. It began to break down in the postromantic era of Flaubert and Baudelaire, when the beginnings of consumer society problematized the individual identity of desire by openly proposing both its generation and its satisfaction.
The postmodern era has been characterized by an extreme skepticism about personal identity. We have so imbibed Barthes’ “death of the author” in the wake of Nietzsche’s “death of God” that we forget that the logique du supplément cuts both ways. If insisting that something exists, as Rousseau does for the purity of our moral intuition, is a demonstration that this existence is already compromised (for why else would we need to insist on its existence?), insisting that something does not exist, as Barthes does for the author, is a demonstration that it still haunts us (for why else would we need to insist that it shouldn’t?). And it is all too easy to remark that the authors of discourses denying the reality of the authorial subject inevitably add them to their CVs. In the heyday of deconstruction, personal identity was all but dismissed as a category of thought. Then the Paul de Man scandal undermined the prestige of this mode by showing that the ethical dereliction implicit in the denial of the responsible self went beyond simple inconsequence. If I cannot be identified as accountable for my acts, then all evil is possible.
Today, identity has been reestablished with a vengeance and, however collective and victimary it may be, this is on balance a good thing. The most resentful identity is better than none at all. Even if when you commit a crime you say “history will absolve me,” you’re a step ahead of one who says, as was claimed in defense of de Man–he was mercifully never called upon to say such things himself–that the continuity of self between the author of antisemitic articles and the Yale professor is so problematic as to make condemnation reflect more on the condemner than on the condemned. Nevertheless, collective identity is ultimately unsatisfactory. I say this not as a moralist, but as an originary thinker about culture. There is not enough content in collective identity to nourish the cultural function of deferring resentment. Collective identity is only functional in a political context, and politics is a “thin” activity, as opposed to the “thickness” of economic life. Only in times of revolutionary unrest does the political realm offer the general public a sufficient context for action. At others, we must look to our personal lives, which primarily means to our place within the system of production and exchange.
The thinness of political-collective identities is concomitant with their resentful nature. Although it is a tautology that there must exist dominant collectivities as well as dominated ones, one hears little about the former because, precisely because the rich and powerful generally have a more lucid idea than the powerless of their collective self-interest, they need not identify their selves with it. Non-homeless people don’t identify themselves as “the homed.” It is those who find it harder to promote their interests within the exchange system who must turn to collective political action, and to the collective identity it presupposes, in order to turn their resentments into action.
I have often spoken in these columns about the ever-expanding capacity of consumer society to furnish elements of a discourse of identity to its members. Our clothing, foods, furnishings, cars, are bearers of messages that, although lacking in syntax, are filled with “lexical” meaning. However secondary and ephemeral these creations, they are real and freely chosen, in some cases with great care and self-consciousness. No doubt our desires are second-hand, but we all possess and react to this Girardian insight it by some form of what he calls l’ascèse pour le désir [askesis for desire], ironizing, modifying, hiding or hyperbolizing our desire.
But in the esthetic realm, and particularly in literature, we find models of individual identity that we can apply not merely to the messages we construct from consumer products but to our historically existing selves as a whole, to what in more religious times we would have called our “souls.” In contrast, those works that operate in terms of collective identities suffer from the fallacies of the “typical” that Lukács had already denounced two generations ago in socialist realism–a mode still alive today in various victimary guises.
Despite the hyperbole of the slogan “death of the author,” Barthes was not wrong to emphasize the dynamic nature of all the identities literature creates, including the author’s. The authorial self is not only constituted by the work in the external sense that the work is the author’s mode of self-presentation to the world; it is no longer possible for a self-conscious author to distinguish a priori between his own constituted identity and the identities-in-process of his characters.
Let me suggest a paradigm of two literary models of individual identity, the Proustian and the lyrical.
Marcel Proust is arguably the writer who put the most of his personal life into his work, and in the most systematic fashion, yet it is impossible to derive from A la recherche du temps perdu [Remembrance of Things Past, or literally, In Search of Lost Time] a sense of the “identity” of the hero, in the sense that one has such a sense for nineteenth-century heroes, or even for Swann. Proust’s is a universe without human love which therefore lacks the possibility of fulfillment through human interaction. Art is the only means of genuine communication with others. The goal pursued by the protagonist from the beginning is to accede to the realm of esthetic creation, which requires of him renunciation of worldly desires. His “identity” is defined by his search for salvation as an artist, the point of departure for which is the generative scene of the mother’s kiss described in the first part of the novel, before the petite madeleine restores to him his memories of “lost time.”
In this model of identity, “life” in itself is not a totality, but a mere multiplicity; it is the source of our identity only insofar as it is “transcended.” Life is a trial; we are constantly subjected to desires, “temptations” like those that assailed Flaubert’s patron saint Anthony, but not being saints, we do not simply reject these temptations, we fall into them, and through suffering the pains of jealousy and disillusion, we learn that our desires cannot find satisfaction in the human sphere. Once we have gone through this process, we can write our own novel of disillusion.
Proust’s story both comes to a logical end and is cut off arbitrarily–by the war, by the narrator’s illness, by his stepping on a loose paving-stone that reminds him of his visit with his mother to Venice, where he saw a mosaic of the face of Christ in the Baptistery of Saint Mark. God, or the author, decides that the hero has learned enough; now he can leave the world to write. His identity includes all the content of the worldly desires he has transcended. Esthetic salvation does not reject the worldly, but lifts it to a higher sphere. The attractiveness of Proust’s novel as a model for individual identity is that it understands the totality of our life, however sordid or self-indulgent its details, as an askesis and therefore as something valuable in its very lostness. But this is only possible through renunciation; we cannot remain bound to the world, even to our families and loved ones. The solitary narrator becomes a priest of art, as Proust himself did in his last years in his famous cork-lined room where he worked incessantly on the manuscript of his novel.
But there is only one Proust. If I try to salvage my “lost time” in the same manner, I am soon faced with the realization that the real secret of his novel is its generative structure, beginning with the scene of the mother’s kiss. Thus even if I concoct such a scene for my own novel, I am only repeating what he has already done. The specificity of my content is irrelevant, as is my own askesis. For Proust does not in fact provide us with an ascetic praxis, merely with an abstract pattern that can be filled in arbitrarily. Certainly the scene of the novel grows darker toward the end, with Albertine’s imprisonment and Charlus’s increasingly open perversion, but there is no way of justifying within the fallen world itself the transcendental leap that will get the protagonist out of it. He has all along hoped for such an act of grace, and we are not surprised when it finally occurs, but because it is not generated from his life, it consecrates it only abstractly, as a lesson in futile snobbery and false hope. My own false hopes can therefore only be more of same.
The lyrical model, in contrast–that offered by lyric poetry–does not take a purely ascetic view of the world. The human world, the locus of human love, is meaningful in itself and not merely as material for art. The lyric, because it is addressed in the first place to a single reader through whom the assignment of meaning is potentially to be achieved, allows me to include the content of my life in a gesture not of immolation but of consecration. Snobbery and disillusion are not lessons in the vanity of human desire on our way to art, but lessons in the inadequacy of one stage of love in preparation for a higher stage. Art is necessary to communicate these lessons, but it is not their final solution; poetry is only possible because life is already virtual poetry. In this way, my identity as the synthesis of my experience retains its dynamism within the world rather than being defined from outside it by its negation. There is but one Proust; everyone is potentially a lyric poet.
Neither of these models of identity is political or otherwise collective; but they do not exclude politics or collective experience. When we hear the self spoken of as an “intersection” of different identitary discourses on the model of the exilic or colonial traversal of boundaries, we should give some thought to the mode in which these discourses are synthesized. Is their diversity the occasion for Proustian cynicism about the world of desire, or for lyrical enrichment of experience? Perhaps the best indication might be the degree of concreteness with which love is evoked, for it is here, it seems to me, that the operation of cultural empowerment may be most fruitfully exercised. The models of identity that art procures for us must increasingly emphasize the intimate sphere because that is where the vast majority of us are best advised to seek satisfaction in a world whose public scene grows increasingly less glorious as it becomes more difficult of access .