It is not uncommon to believe that one only reveals one’s true self under the direst of circumstances, when one’s or another’s (or both people’s) life is on the line. Supposedly, in such moments decorum has been stripped away. One no longer has the luxury to choose how to act; one’s actions are no longer shaped by social expectations. Rather, one acts out of necessity, the self starkly exposed.
It is a belief that informs the brief prologue of Art Spiegelman’s masterful graphic novel Maus. In it, Artie Spiegelman, “ten or eleven” years old at the time, is roller skating with some friends but falls when his skate comes loose. Rather than wait for him, his friends tease him and continue racing to the schoolyard. Artie cries until his father Vladek asks him what’s wrong. When Artie tells him, Vladek, a Holocaust survivor, replies, “Friends? Your friends? … If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week then you could see what it is, friends!”
Vladek’s lesson is a dark one but it also one that is troubled throughout Maus’s narrative, as Vladek displays behavior that had undoubtedly helped him survive Auschwitz but in 1970s New York is almost comic were it not so tragic, making him nearly impossible to be around. However “true” the self who was revealed in Auschwitz may have been, he is impossible decades later in America. So how “true” is he then?
Granted, from a considerably different perspective, William Shakespeare’s tragedy Coriolanus also looks at a man whose essence seems distilled from a hopeless situation at the heart of a war, but whose life suggests the impossibility of this essence. Cauis Martius, Rome’s great general, finds himself fighting a losing battle against the invading Volscians and, in Corioles, it appears that Martius will be overwhelmed, when, to our surprise, he emerges, covered in blood, killing with deadly purpose, victorious. He is henceforth known as Coriolanus, the name by which he will be known until his death, christened, in a manner of speaking, in a baptism of blood. Coriolanus’ tragedy, however, is that his allegedly true face is out of place in times of peace, a truth that ultimately threatens to undo the nation for which he risked his life.
Vladek’s and Coriolanus’s stories are, unsurprisingly, war stories. Subjecting the self to circumstances that test one’s existential limits, truly discovering one’s identity in the process, is a common theme in war stories. At their most clichéd, such stories might revolve around the proud hero who, under fire, pisses his pants with terror, or the apparent coward who turns out to be the bravest man in the unit in the thick of battle. I was amused by how nakedly this theme and its typical narrative couching were addressed in “War Stories,” the ninth episode of Joss Whedon’s Firefly.
From what little I’ve seen by Whedon—which, admittedly, is little, this being the first time I’ve seen Firefly, and I never saw more than the teasers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer—he looks to me as if he likes to take familiar plots and, sometimes self-consciously, make them fresh again. I’ll admit, I didn’t realize what the theme of “War Stories” was until the moment when the sadistic villain Adelai Niska, torturing an unnamed victim, recited an aphorism by Shan Yu, a brutal warrior/dictator, that is repeated later by Serenity’s Shepherd Book, essentially a pastor, that goes something like: “Live with a man 40 years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. Then tie him up and hold him over the volcano’s edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man.”
I was relieved when Serenity’s doctor, Simon Tam, played by the dashing Sean Maher, dismissed the line as “sadistic crap.” I couldn’t agree more. In fact, it seems to me that a case could be made for the luminous self-revelation of those moments, not when it appears one could act no differently, but when it appears that one can. How do you tie your shoes, hold your fork, get out of bed in the morning, wash your face? You engage in these activities every single day of your life, why would they be any less an indicator of who you are than those from more dramatic moments that unavoidably highlight the truth that is expressed every instant of your life: it’s all a matter of life or death.
For that matter, how does any single activity define one? As Vladek Spiegelman and Coriolanus suggest, a self who appears in one situation could very well be an imposter in another, the new situation requiring a different self altogether in which the previous self might be nothing more than a posture or an impediment. But even that goes too far, because when is the self ever really an imposter? No matter what you do, you are revealing yourself, even when you are pretending to be someone else. How could it be otherwise? The self isn’t a coherent, stable thing. It is a convenience, a place marker used to refer to something that’s not really there, at least not in the way that we think. And it troubles me that there are those who live their lives out of a belief not unlike the fictional Shan Yu’s dictum, wreaking havoc for themselves and the rest of us to force everyone’s “true” selves to the surface.
I’m reminded, if somewhat tangentially, of the conclusion to Jorge Luis Borges’ essay “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” in which Borges addresses the perils of trying to create a uniquely Argentine literature. He exhorts, “We must not be afraid; we must believe that the universe is our birthright and try out every subject; we cannot confine ourselves to what is Argentine in order to be Argentine because either it is our inevitable destiny to be Argentine, in which case we will be Argentine whatever we do, or being Argentine is a mere affectation, as mask.” To put it another way, more appropriate to my discussion: To be ourselves, we must realize that we will be ourselves whatever we do, or the self is a mere affectation, a mask, as we know it cannot be.