The Made-Up Self: Impersonation In The Personal Essay, by Carl H. Klaus
In many ways, this is the sort of effort that could only be in an age as obsessed with irony and meta-analysis as our own is. To wit, this is a collection of personal essays by an essayist that examines the artifice of identity in the writings of other essayists who wrestled with the problem in their own essays. I don’t comment on the artifice involved in all of this to dislike it, after all, I have written personal essays on the same subject, and I offer here a review (in a somewhat personal essay format with the problematic “I”) of this book, adding yet more layers of impersonation. In many respects, the author points out, it is unavoidable that writing personal essays should lead to problems with the persona of the author. The author, in the context of writing a personal essay, turns disorderly reality into a comprehensible picture that is more coherent and more appealing than the reality, but in many cases the act of writing is the only way in which the writer himself (or herself) and the audience can understand the thought processes of the writer. We know ourselves by writing ourselves, but in the process of writing ourselves we change what is into something that can be understood and organized. In short, essayists face the same sort of Heisenburg uncertainty principle as scientists trying to look at the velocity and position of subatomic particles. By observing what is inside of ourselves, like observing the interior of the atom, we change what we observe in the act of observing it.
This short book of about 150 pages or so contains four parts, each of which contains two or three essays. After a prologue that introduces the problem of the “person” in the personal essay, the author discusses evocations of consciousness in three essays, with one on Montaigne’s thoughts on himself and his complex movements towards a poetics of self, ideas of consciousness in the personal essay, and discontinuous forms of consciousness, particularly focusing on the writing of E.B. White. After this the author looks at evocations of personality, with a look at the tension between the singular “I” and the Chameleon “I,” an essay on the pseudonymous self “Elia” in Charles Lamb’s essays, and a discussion of the problem of the essayist in never being one’s self while always being oneself in the writing of Virginia Woolf. After this the author discusses the relationship between personae and culture, with a look at cultural consciousness as well as a discussion of politics in Orwell’s “A Hanging.” The fourth part of the book discusses the relationship between personae and personal experience, with a discussion of malady in the personal essay and turning daily experiences into essays through the medium of notebooks and diaries in the writing of Jane Didion.
One of the aspects that makes this book so appealing is that the books is written by a noted essayist who has read a lot of essays and who is writing the book for other essayists. I can scarcely imagine someone caring about the problem of the mask of personae in the writing of essayists unless one is in the habit of writing essays and considers the identity of the implicit author of one’s essays to be problematic or at least interesting. If you do not read or write essays, this problem will be an incomprehensible one and not an interesting and thought-provoking one. Yet when we write personal essays, we are at least pretending to the world (or ourselves) that we are revealing something genuine about the person writing those essays, namely ourselves, even as we are aware that we are cleaning up the space inside ourselves to welcome that company, and putting on company manners, and not acting ourselves as we would if no one was paying any attention. The fact that essay writers have always wrestled with this tension between honest self-portrayal and the awareness of the artifice in any self-portrayal means that we can wrestle with that problem ourselves as essayists in the knowledge that we have plenty of company, including this author.