In Search of Authenticity: The quest for identity and the postmodernist mirror-game in A.S. Byatt's "Possession"


Seminar Paper, 2001

21 Pages, Grade: very good


Excerpt

Table of Contents

Quotations

1. Introduction

2. The quest for identity and the postmodernist mirror-game – Can truth be a (re-)construction?
2.1 Definition and modern theory of authenticity
2.2 Construction and reconstruction of lives: Possession as a metabiography on the romantic ideal of authenticity
2.3 A postmodernist mirror-game

3. Conclusion

Bibliography

Narcissism, the unstable self, the fractured ego, Maud thought, who am I? A matrix for a susurration of texts and codes? It was both a pleasant and an unpleasant idea, this requirement that she think of herself as intermittent and partial. There was the question of the awkward body. The skin, the breath, the eyes, the hair, their history, which did seem to exist.[1]

[...] toute idée de l’homme est une idée de l’amour.[2]

1 Introduction

“Post-modernist fiction often presents us with a pastiche of genres and styles.”[3] This is especially true with regard to A. S. Byatt’s Possession. A Romance[4]. In her metafictional novel, Byatt connects a bygone time with the present, interweaving a personal quest for identity with a literary search and patterns of romance, and thus providing the reader with letters, diary extracts and poems that interrupt the outer narrative. The novel reflects upon the question of how lives can be recapitulated and represented, but it also focuses on the difficulty of remaining objective versus certain topics or persons. Furthermore, it also conveys the postmodern idea of the scattered self. The novel ponders over the question if someone can really seize another person, especially when there is a distance of more than a hundred years to overcome. Considering knowledge, for instance, about a bygone time, we have to admit that this knowledge is always based on second-hand information. Thus any information we obtain is an imparted truth unless we experience it ourselves.

In Possession, the author juxtaposes the Victorian age with the post-freudian time, as the two young literary scholars Roland Michell and Maud Bailey unexpectedly become figures of romance when they discover a surprising link between the two poets on whom they are authorities, namely Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. The chase for bits of information regarding the Victorian poets’ lives and the unfolding story of a secret love-affair between them triggers the development of a romantic relationship between the two scholars. Thus, Byatt connects the two time-levels by implicating the academics in a postmodernist mirror-game.

Byatt’s interruptions of the narrative, confronting the reader with some narrative

situations and a postscript taking place in the (dead) past, provide the stimulus of a living past. Containing poems as well as letters and journals from the past, Possession is a richly layered patchwork connecting the bygone Victorian age with the present. The patchwork also allows Byatt to play with literary genres such as fairy-tale, romantic quest, myth and detective story. On the whole, the multidimensionality of the novel lets the reader explore and reflect the multilayered meanings of ‘possession’. Therefore, for a satisfactory understanding of Possession ’s implications, it is essential to take a closer look at the concept of authenticity, the desire for knowledge and Byatt’s postmodernist mirror-game.

2 Authenticity and the postmodernist mirror-game – Can truth be a (re-) construction?

2.1 Definition and modern theory of authenticity

Initially the term ‘authenticity’ shall be defined. It is a term that is frequently used, but it is applied to remarkably distinct contexts. In the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, ‘authentic’ is defined as ‘known to be true or genuine: an authentic document, signature, painting’; and, secondly, as something trustworthy; reliable: an authentic statement.’[5]

It becomes apparent from this definition that authenticity always implies realness and truth. The term connotes definite origin from a source. Something that is called authentic is actual, veritable, something that derives directly from its originator (greek ‘autós’ means personally, own[6]). But the term also denotes ‘being fully trustworthy as according with fact’[7]. Therefore the concept of reproduction is connected to authenticity as well. Something that is called authentic can be conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features, which means that it is like the original, or represents the original.[8]

Furthermore, the term also implies genuineness of a human being; somebody is authentic because he is true to his own personality, spirit, or character. When a person behaves authentically, he does not pretend to be someone different, no concealment of identity is exerted. On the whole, the semantic concept of authenticity is either something conforming to or based on fact, or it is used in the sense of authority (Greek ‘authentEs’ signifies perpetrator, master)[9].

However, as Jacob Golomb points out in his study In search of authenticity. From Kierkegaard to Camus[10], authenticity is a concept most often referred to with regard to works of art or documents. When adopted to human life and human identity, authenticity becomes a highly complex notion: “Who is the legitimate prototype, the paradigm of authenticity? The eighteenth-century poet Edward Young provided one paradoxical answer: ‘Born originals, how comes it to pass that we die copies?’ ”[11]

Kant’s introduction of the ‘transcendental ego’ cleared the way for the existentialists’ claim of the ‘death of God’ and the notion of the self-creation of one’s selfhood, that is authenticity.[12] As a result, the concept of authenticity rejects any externally imposed codes of values and mostly focuses on “[...] the origin of creativity and spontaneity, on ‘how’ rather than ‘what’.”[13]

The rejection of any external values poses the question whether authenticity can be a “viable ethical norm”[14] or whether it is merely a romantic ideal, “an immature protest against the levelling processes of the unidimensional objectivity that dominates our modern, excessively technological civilization.”[15] The philosophers’ view on authenticity, namely that this concept can hardly ever be realized in a world of norms,[16] cultural as well as social, may hold true to a certain degree. Golomb sees that it is presently unfashionable to speak of authenticity[17] because of the “[...] decline of the ethic of subjectivity in the postmodern era, and the suppression of individuality encouraged by the mass media and multinational markets [...].”[18] However, according to

Golomb, the undermining of authentic selfhood by modern society will stimulate the quest for authenticity as a personal, corrective ideal.[19] On the other hand one might argue that postmodernism is not the trigger for the search of an authentic identity but that the quest is already inherent in the postmodernist discussion.

In a lenghty discussion of the impossibility to define what authenticity essentially is when referred to human life, Golomb concludes that authenticity is a negative term: In Being and Nothingness[20],

[...] Sartre describes ‘human reality’ as ‘being which is what it is not and which is not what it is’. This idea, and his insistence that authenticity is something we are aware of when ‘we flee it’, suggest that authenticity is a negative term. Its presence is discerned in its absence, in the passionate search for it, in inauthenticity and in various acts of ‘bad faith’ (mauvaise foi).[21]

Thus, it is self-defeating to argue for authenticity; another case in point is the fact that authenticity presupposes and at the same time questions the authority of rationality and objectivity. The difficult of approach to the concept is due to the identification of authentic patterns of living without appealing to normative criteria. For Golomb, the use of literature as a means of indirect communication is part of the solution to this problem.[22]

Although Possession is not a didactic novel to evoke the pathos of authenticity in its readers, it still reflects the notion of authentic selfhood within the fictional realm, through the characters as mouthpieces for the discussion of the quest for identity. In Possession, Byatt constructs a possible world in which the reader can participate in the search for identity and share the characters’ feelings.

[...]


[1] Byatt, A.S.: Possession. London: Vintage Books, 1991. p. 251.

[2] Rougemont, Denis de. Comme toi-même. Essais sur les mythes de l’amour. Paris: Editions Albin Michel, 1967, p. 7.

[3] Giobbi, Giuliana: “Know the past: know thyself. Literary pursuits and quest for identity in A. S. Byatt’s Possession and in F. Duranti’s Effetti Personali.” Journal of European Studies 24:1 (93): March 1994, p. 41.

[4] Byatt, A.S.: Possession. London: Vintage Books, 1991. Hereafter cited as Byatt: Possession.

[5] “Authentic.” Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 4th ed. 1989.

[6] “Authentisch.“Duden. Das Herkunftswörterbuch (Vol. 7). Mannheim (a.o.): Dudenverlag, 1997.

[7] “Authentic.“Britannica Online. Vers. 2001. 16. Jan. 2001. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. <http://www.britannica.com/cgi-bin/dict?va=authentic>

[8] Cf. “Authentic.“Britannica Online. Vers. 2001. 16. Jan. 2001. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. <http://www.britannica.com/cgi-bin/dict?va=authentic>

[9] “Authentic.“Britannica Online. Vers. 2001. 16. Jan. 2001. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. <http://www.britannica.com/cgi-bin/dict?va=authentic>

[10] Golomb, Jacob: In Search of Authenticity. From Kierkegaard to Camus. London and New York: Routledge, 1995. Hereafter cited as Golomb; Jacob: In Search of Authenticity.

[11] Golomb; Jacob: In Search of Authenticity. p. 5.

[12] Cf. Golomb, Jacob: In Search of Authenticity. p. 10f.

[13] Golomb, Jacob: In Search of Authenticity. p. 11.

[14] Golomb, Jacob: In Search of Authenticity. p. 4.

[15] Golomb, Jacob: In Search of Authenticity. p. 4.

[16] “[...] the philosophers of authenticity had doubts about our ability to become authentic [...] – they may have simply hoped to arouse our thirst for our genuine selves and to encourage us to dare to satisfy it.” Golomb, Jacob: In Search of Authenticity. p. 204.

[17] Golomb, Jacob: In Search of Authenticity. p. 5.

[18] Golomb, Jacob: In Search of Authenticity. p. 205.

[19] Cf. Golomb, Jacob: In Search of Authenticity. p. 205.

[20] Sartre, J.-P.: Being and Nothingness, trans. H. E. Barnes. London: Methuen, 1957.

[21] Golomb, Jacob: In Search of Authenticity. p. 7.

[22] Cf. Golomb, Jacob: In Search of Authenticity. p. 18.

Excerpt out of 21 pages

Details

Title
In Search of Authenticity: The quest for identity and the postmodernist mirror-game in A.S. Byatt's "Possession"
College
University of Paderborn  (Anglistics)
Course
Proseminar: Biofictions
Grade
very good
Author
Year
2001
Pages
21
Catalog Number
V6568
ISBN (eBook)
9783638141093
File size
531 KB
Language
English
Tags
Search, Authenticity, Byatt, Possession, Proseminar, Biofictions
Quote paper
Daniela Esser (Author), 2001, In Search of Authenticity: The quest for identity and the postmodernist mirror-game in A.S. Byatt's "Possession", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/6568

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