“Never to Be Yourself and yet Always…”

In her wittily written, ironically spiced essay, “The Modern Essay”, Virginia Woolf does not forget to praise, in a rather hidden way, the role of subjectivity in modern writings. It is understandable, since she herself was one of those intimately writing authors, who can still stir up all kinds of emotions in the reader, while making him/her deeply contemplate on the meaning, all this by the subjectivity of the style of her works.

Quote: “Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem.” It is indeed a problem, which I think she really was faced with, but she did not inspect the problem itself, instead she went on, and later she began to criticize in a fine way the methods essayists use to maintain the distance between them and the reader: “We have no longer the “I” of Max and of Lamb, but the “we” of public bodies and other sublime personages. It is “we” who go to hear the MAGIC FLUTE; “we” who ought to profit by it; “we”, in some mysterious way, in our corporate capacity, once upon a time actually wrote it. For music and literature and art must submit to the same generalization or they will not carry to the farthest recesses of the Albert Hall.” She also gives the motives of such artistic behavior: “ “I” must always think things for himself, and feel things for himself.” In other words: there is much to risk and I would like to enlighten this issue, since Virginia Woolf did not have the space for that in her essay, and since she did not have the intention to do it. I would also like to raise the question, which is the following: in what degree affects the self of the writer not just the essays, but generally every kind of literary creation?

Here I use the term subjectivity with a larger meaning than it is used generally, because I could not find a better term to represent that artistic way of thinking, manner of writing, that involves the very self of the writer in the created work. In this way, subjectivity can also be associated with artistic honesty and self-revelation, which is of course, far beyond subjectivity (an objective, third person narrator can and does reveal itself, can and does convey artistic honesty, of course).

The first question I would like to answer is what points should we take in consideration when speaking of the self of an artist in connection with his or her work? Psychologists analyzed the self form different viewpoints.

Festinger, the English psychologist, stated, that a person cannot exist without social comparison. Our self has three different stages: the aspirational stage, the expectational stage and the manageable stage. The first stage consists of the things that a person wants to achieve. The second stage consists of things that others expect the person to do. The third one contains things that the person actually did.

Freud constructed a tripartite model of the structure of personality, distinguishing three structural elements within the personality: the id, ego and super-ego. The id is that part of the mind in which are situated the instinctual sexual drives which require satisfaction, the super-ego contains socially acceptable control mechanisms, and the ego is the conscious self, which has the task of reconciling the other two. The concept of unconsciousness is related with the id, the consciousness with the ego, and the super-ego is seen in his theory as an unconscious screening-mechanism.

Jung spoke about two types of personality: the extroverted and introverted personality.

Adler defines the personality in the context of native interest in socialization of human beings, and due to this, in the context of the feeling of inferiority and superiority.

Eric Berne observed three ego-states within the personality when the individual is involved in interpersonal relationships: the parent, the adult and the child state. In the transactions between individuals he observed certain patterns which repeatedly occurred, and which he named games, and thus developed the transactional analysis.

I could go on with the interesting observations psychologists have found out about the essence of the self during the short history of psychology, but I think these are enough to prove the fact that nothing that human beings do can be done without that social comparison of which Festinger speaks. The concept of the three egos that fight in ourselves are also connected with the idea that a person undergoes some psychical duel in whatever he or she does because of the knowledge of not being alone and due to the fact that he or she does not want to be alone. Adler’s theory resembles to this, and the point I would like to make is that in all the complexity of the self of an artist, he or she undergoes the same psychical process in connection with others as all the other human beings, and we have to take this in consideration when we speak about their works. Jung’s personality types reflect this, just as Berne’s observations.

Now if we analyze the problem of subjectivity and honesty in the context of a writer’s work from the psychological perspective, things appear to be different as Virginia Woolf saw them. It is no more “a problem”, one of the many, but now it is a serious life-death question, that probably deserves more than only one essay.

As we look at the many works of the writers, we have to say that the greatest question is not that of a writer being honest or not, because from a literary point of view this does not affect the value of a work. (And anyway: how do we measure honesty and what does that really mean in a literary work?) We sometimes can feel that a writer isn’t honest, but this can be in a way part of its style, and the work can be as pleasant and beautiful one, as other more “honest” works cannot be. But the greater question is when and why does a writer need to be subjective, which is closer to his or her real self, and thus to his or her personal honesty, (when speaking of honesty I do not mention now the kind of honesty that only requires the knowing of facts and dates and the retelling of such fact in a law court-manner, because that one does not affect the inner part of a person), and when and why do the readers require honesty from the writers, which honesty would also mean that they want them to be more subjective.

The question, whether readers require first this change in style, and thus somehow they are the ones who make the writers write as they do, or the writers feel the need of change firstly, and then they “educate” their readers to be able to accept the change, is also a hard one to be answered.

Not to mention the idea that knowing the ability of the personality of human beings to play games and take up masks, being subjective can also be only a means of the self playing his games, or creating another mask-personality in order to protect the real one. In this way some of the writings of authors can also be considered as means to express in such a way themselves that their intimate self would remain invulnerable.

But now I would like to deal only with the situation, when the writer is using subjectivity in order to be honest and reveal his real self, in other words: to assume the risk of “think things for himself, and feel things for himself”, and the situation, when this is reciprocal: the readers feel the need of “bringing the author’s personality into literature”. Once again I repeat that I do not deal with the value of the objective or subjective works, nor with the way how we can find out whether a writer is honest or not, but with the question: when and why do some writers and some readers at a point feel the need of honesty in literary works, and thus the change of style, having that preconception that the latter is suitable and more powerful than the other.

Though Woolf did not use first person narrative in her works that period was undoubtedly that one which required subjectivity, and her works are entirely subjective. I cannot raise the question: when and why do styles change in the favor of self-revealing in the course of history, because that would be far too great task even to meditate upon, not to mention to answer it, but knowing some of the literary works of Woolf and her contemporaries, and after I had my observations on that period when they lived, I can draw some conclusion on what probably happened then.

First of all, in a time when the whole world was upside-down because of wars and things became less certain than they seemed to be before, the whole literary writings with impersonal, educative, authoritative undertones became less favored not just by writers, but also by the readers. They realized that a war-report, as factual as it may be in style, is not necessarily the truth, and people became more interested in the truth of the mind than that which is reported in the text-books or history lectures.

Secondly, the impersonal, educative and authoritative style has in its background, in my opinion, the myth of the God-artist, who creates everything he wants and is entirely unreachable by the outsider readers. Readers, just as writers, became aware of the fact that the author could be less God-like and more human like, this way more realistic and more problem-reaching in their time: they could be vulnerable, subjugated to fate and accessible by emotional revealing. Readers wanted to access to their intimate honesty, (as I call this part of the artist), because they did not need anymore the factual honesty (although I don’t think it became less important in their everyday life). And writers wanted to “permeate every word” with “the spirit of personality”, because in the transaction with their readers they realized that they “cannot make use of themselves in literature” if they go on writing in the style which proved to be a game-like masquerade of self-protection in their contemporary circumstances.

What appears to me to be the most extraordinary thing in all this that in order to achieve the most effective way of writing, artists in a way risked their selves, (in this sense self meaning the inner essence of a person), gave up one of the most powerful instinctual way of acting: their self-defense, in order to become more relevant and artistically more powerful. From this perspective, on the other hand, it is also remarkable that readers, in my opinion, usually do not respond to these changes as Woolf thought: by surprise, but by great understanding and contentment. If we observe more closely the whole process of reading and writing, we can draw the conclusion that there is a deep, close and very transcendental relationship between the writers and readers of all time. And if this relationship is broken it must be rebuilt, because without this the whole course of creating and taking in by the reader/interpreter the value, meaning and sole existence of the creation, well, this whole give out – take in transaction is somehow not functioning in the way it should.


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