Inauthenticity?

The passage below comes from a review in the NY Review of Books.

I know that I am not the only female philosopher who came from a background pretty discontinuous with the life of an academic. So I decided others may find the reflections below interesting, if in some striking ways different from our experiences.

One of the differences is that what to Toibin are literally different locations can for us live side by side in the same house or neighborhood. So the experiencing of changing back to the academic person may be more difficult. And if one spends time as an adjunct, one may then live a twilight kind of life, with another kind of life always waiting in the shadows.

So comments please on your experience anjd on whether you can offer advice, describe problems, and so on. It would also be so interesting to see whether people think gender makes a difference. (I tried belatedly to ask about race in this context. See the first comment.)

By Colm Toibin

Those of us who move from the provinces pay a toll at the city’s gate, a toll that is doubled in the years that follow as we try to find a balance between what was so briskly discarded and what was so carefully, hesitantly, slyly put in its place. More than thirty years ago, when I was in Egypt, I met a cultivated English couple who invited me to stay in their house in London on my way back to Ireland. They could not have been more charming.

The only problem was that they had an Irish maid who, as soon as I arrived as their guest, began to talk to me in the unvarnished accent of home, as though she had known me all of her life. Since she was from a town near mine, we spoke of people we knew in common or knew by name or reputation. It was all very relaxed and friendly.

Later, after supper, my two English friends asked me if I minded them raising a subject that troubled them. Did I know, they asked, that my accent and tone, indeed my entire body language, had changed when I met their maid? I was almost a different person. Was I aware that I had, in turn, changed back to the person they had met in Egypt once I was alone with them again?

I asked them, did they not also speak in different ways to different people? No, they insisted, they did not. Never! They seemed horrified at the thought. They looked at me as if I was the soul of inauthenticity. And then I realized that those of us who move from the periphery to the center turn our dial to different wavelengths depending on where we are and who else is in the room. In this world, memory becomes a form of reparation, a way of reconnecting the self to a more simple time, a way of hearing an old tune before it became textured with orchestration.

16 thoughts on “Inauthenticity?

  1. It is interesting to me that, given the prejudice the Irish can arouse in some English hearts, it isn’t easy to capture more of the effects of racism in his metaphors. Even people who are certainly brought up in the center can find themselves treated like maids or much, much worse.

    Perhaps some of this is cptured by the fact that Toibin has learned not to appear so Irish in many contexts. I remember asking someone from Devon why in Oxford one didn’t hear any of his home accent. “Because no one would believe a word I said if I sounded like that,” he explained.

    At the time, class prejudice could be very vicious.

  2. Is there anything more authentic to the spirit of the True learner than to master her native tongue, and then embark to learn new languages in only strangely familiar tongues? Then, to open her heart and mind again to receive these new languages, to synthesize and transmute her learning, and then to be able to offer gifts of translations that augment the souls of those prepared to open their hearts and minds to receive her, as she has always greeted them?

  3. Is this really a periphery/center issue, or more a case of having a foot in very different worlds – which is the case for many of us (though perhaps not for the English friends)? It’s not clear to me that there is a political component here.

  4. Ajk, really nice point. An easy response would be just to propose we limit our attention to cases where there is a center-periphery distinction. But I think your remark reminds me that there is much less unity to the grad school experience than I was assuming.

    More comments, please!

  5. I apologize, sincerely, for my failure to discern the relevant issues, I am still learning, and academic philosophy has never come easily to me.

  6. Mary, I am sorry I left you feeling an apology was called for. Our discourse is enriched when people take risks. And you idea is interesting. I apologizefor not taking more time with it.

  7. If it makes sense to say here, what I failed to communicate more clearly in m earlier post, is that my own experiences suggest strongly to me how such seemingly dramatic (from the perspective of others) shifts in personal presentation: intonation, nonverbal and verbal language, accent, manners of speech, ways of being etc can be felt as continuous, seamlessly smooth transitions, from the standpoint of first person. I experience it every time I was participate with my academic colleagues in the profession of philosophy, when I return home to be among family and friends. Throughout my college years, I worked as a server. I recall even picking up and speaking in an accent and manner more similar to those families I was serving. Upon reflection, from the third person standpoint, how much more inauthentic could I seem (observe her, faking an accent for a tip!). However, from own experience, and from years of reflection on my own aberrant behavior, I know how authentic that behavior was on my part. I have always wished to connect compassionately with others so I can understand them as best I can. This practice removes barriers to clear communication, and it allows me to serve others better. Now, I do that not with customers but with my students, with my colleagues, with my faculty mentors, etc. And the question of my own authenticity no longer arises for me. Often times, people shut me out way before I can say or do anything truly unnerving or morally blameworthy in their eyes, and I am grateful for this unintended consequence of being as compassionate and genuine as best I can in my words and deed, as I have no desire whatsoever to cause to anyone any more discomfort or consternation than they are prepared to welcome in dialogue with their search for truth. The reflections you shared and concerns you posed through your post spoke to me and my experiences on these matters in this way.

  8. Toibin’s experience offers a vivid illustration of how privileged people may be well-traveled geographical tourists without engaging at all in what María Lugones calls “world”-traveling.

  9. Springel, i am conditionally dismayed by your response. He is now at the center, but the remarks about the maid should alert us to his earlier life. I don,t think people from dire backgrounds invalidate themselves when they are recognized as gifted. Here’s what WIKI says:

    Tóibín was born in 1955 in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, in the southeast of Ireland. Tóibín’s parents were Bríd and Michael Tóibín.[9] He is the second youngest of five children. His grandfather, Patrick Tobin, was a member of the IRA, as was his grand-uncle Michael Tobin. Patrick Tobin took part in the 1916 Rebellion in Enniscorthy and was subsequently interned in Frongoch in Wales. Tóibín’s father was a teacher who was involved in the Fianna Fáil party in Enniscorthy; he died when Colm was 12 years old.

    Tóibín grew up in a home where there was, he said, “a great deal of silence.”[10] Unable to read until the age of nine, he was overcome by a stammer.[11] He received his secondary education at St Peter’s College, Wexford, where he was a boarder between 1970 and 1972. He later spoke of finding some of the priests attractive.[12]

    In July 1972, aged 17, he had a summer job as a barman in the Grand Hotel in Tramore, County Waterford, working from six in the evening to two in the morning. He spent his days on the beach, reading The Essential Hemingway, the copy of which he still professes to have, its “pages stained with seawater.” The book developed in him a fascination with Spain, led to a wish to visit that country, and gave him “an idea of prose as something glamorous, smart and shaped, and the idea of character in fiction as something oddly mysterious, worthy of sympathy and admiration, but also elusive. And more than anything, the sheer pleasure of the sentences and their rhythms, and the amount of emotion living in what was not said, what was between the words and the sentences.”[13]

    I am grateful for your reminding us of Lugones. I would have thought Toibin was also against the erasure of differences among the Irish or among gay men, among whom he places himself.

  10. An interesting post! As a self-conscious refugee, or sorts, from a reactionary midwestern community, I know that I developed, at a young age, an ability to ‘move between worlds’. Like Tolbin, I can, and do, change faces. But I don’t consider this aptitude a sign of inauthenticity. Rather, from my current perspective, I see it as a valuable and authentic capacity to empathetically move between social worlds.

    I don’t expect I would have had cause to develop this capacity were it not for the fact that I was raised in an abusive home, in a community where such things “do not happen.” It enabled me to survive, and eventually overcome, my circumstances. Hence, at present, I value that inheritance.

  11. PR, I agree that blending into quite ddifferent social groups doesn’t need to mean inauthenticity. I worry, though, that in some cases it can be threatening to the traveler. For example, One group might not understand or value what one is doing, and they may be pretty vocal about that.
    One of the two groups may even go in for covert sabotage.

  12. Anne — Allow me to support your worry, which is certainly consistent with my experience. Moving between worlds has its risks, and is not always understood, or appreciated.

  13. There is an NPR podcast called “Code Switch” based on the phenomenon. Not about the academic context, but mostly about the experience of being a POC and/or immigrant in the US: see
    http://www.npr.org/podcasts/510312/codeswitch – you can listen on your computer, or with a podcast app. Introduction MAY 9, 2016, which explains the name, many interesting episodes (DEC 14, 2016), some really moving (JULY 27, 2016), some devastating (e.g. after shootings). A lot of things I confess I’ve never thought about before (JUNE 22, 2016).
    On a different level we all switch e.g. between a “work” personality, and a “private” one, or when we switch languages with their associated culture and unwritten assumptions. It’s just a question of how aware we are of this.

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