So Many Selves, So Little Time

Madmen's Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks).

Madmen's Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks).

President Obama is a Kenyan or a Muslim — or a Kenyan Muslim — masquerading as an American Christian. The Dalai Lama is an undercover Nazi agent. Mad Mens Don Draper is Dick Whitman — the real Draper was KIA in Korea. Weeds‘ Botwin family, on the run, just became the Newmans.

Strangest of all, apoplectic far-Right lunatic Glenn Beck transmogrified — for a day, at least — into Our Savior last week before a throng of some 87,000, according to aCBS News estimate. (A count of 1.6 million – and, miracle of miracles, still growing — was trumpeted by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, a Republican who pretends to be sane).

It’s getting tougher than ever to tell the players — real and fictional — even with a scorecard.

Tales of hidden identity have existed since storytelling began. They’re there in the Odyssey – Odysseus went undercover to fool his enemies upon his return home; the Bible – God, or carpenter’s son?; Shakespeare — Twelfth Night‘s gender-twisters; and Superman/Clark Kent — to name a few.

In a recent essay in Esquire, Stephen Marche argues that the double-life theme is especially ubiquitous these days. He coins the term “Geheimlebensroman” to describe the TV, film and prose tales of covert agents, con men, undercover cops, identity thieves and garden-variety impostors now blanketing the airwaves and bookstores.

Even that gasbag Polonius might flip his crypt upon hearing Marche’s flip, cop-out conclusion that our culture — with its avatars, anonymous dating services and chat lines — renders the search for a single, unified self old-fashioned: “There’s no point in trying to find yourself anymore; you’ll only find somebody else. “Who am I?’ has already been replaced with ‘Who are I?’ Soon it will be ‘Who cares?’ and we can all just get down to the business of living.”

The price we pay for excessive real-life reinvention can be the loss of our own best self, a core character with potential for change but held together by some version of the Golden Rule — treating others as we would like to be treated. We fall far short of this ideal much of the time, but we have the ability to feel remorse and try to learn from our mistakes.

What about the sadists, narcissists and sociopaths and their apologists who — if they care at all — play the doppelganger card to excuse loathsome behavior? Rich and powerful characters — think George Steinbrenner, John Edwards, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin (revealed in a new Vanity Fair profile to be a horrible tipper, when she tips at all), the radio talk-show kingpins, etc. — often get a pass from the media, especially after they die, because they’re “larger than life” or once or twice covered an employee’s hospital bills. And you don’t have to be rich or powerful to enable egregious behavior on the grounds that the offender is “a different person” when drugs, alcohol, medication or even plain old road rage is involved.

Those of us who try to stick to one identity still create stories about ourselves from the stories we’ve heard. Behavioral neurologist Antonio Damasio, author of the forthcoming book Self Comes To Mind, says we all model our personal narratives after characters we encounter in fiction.

“You’re constantly rearranging the narrative of your life,” he told NPR’s Talk of the Nation, “which is about how our sense of story influences our lives. And you’re rearranging as a function of the experiences that you have had and as what you imagine your experiences in the future ought to be.”

In Daniel Chaon’s fascinating 2009 novel Await Your Reply, three interweaving story lines reveal characters engaged in identity theft, fake personalities and identical twin-confusion to reveal they aren’t who we think — or they themselves know — they are. In Janet Maslin’s New York Times review of the book, she observed that now “the full and true self is an endangered species.”

If Maslin’s right, our species itself might be endangered. Brain research confirms what the Buddha said 2500 years ago: we can’t think or do two things at once, let alone be two different people. When we multi-task we’re really shifting back and forth so rapidly it just seems like we’re doubling our productivity. In Await Your Reply a confused character refers to The Road Not Taken — the famous poem by “that guy David Frost” — and wonders why we can’t take both. We might encourage him to try one path at a time –he might just get a glimpse of his one and only best self.

Michael Sigman

Michael Sigman is a writer/ editor, media consultant and the president of Major Songs, a music publishing company.

Crossposted from Huffington Post with the author’s permission.

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