SELF AND IDENTITY: READING MARIA DIBATTISTA’S NOVEL CHARACTERS

I’m not sure that I can do justice to Maria DiBattista’s Novel Characters: A Genealogy (2010) in this hot Mediterranean afternoon and after a mind-numbing two-week spell of marking. The case, however, is that I can’t stop thinking of her distinction between self and identity (or, rather, Self and Identity) and I’d like to add my own thoughts to that. I’m sure that much better brains than mine have discussed this issue but here’s the first lesson about self and identity: each person feels them in a different way and, so, a personal point of view must be necessarily valid. Or I’m just having my cake and eating it.

You may have come across DiBattista, a Princeton professor, because she is co-editor together with Emily Wittman of The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography and a specialist in Virginia Woolf (which explains plenty about her view of character). Her Novel Characters does not seem to have stimulated readers to leave comments in the habitual places, from Amazon.com to Goodreads, but it has gone through seven editions. This means either that it is more popular than it might seem at first sight, or that it has found its place in a rather scant line of publications about character. E.M. Forster’s venerable Aspects of the Novel (1927) still reigns supreme (DiBattista opens her own volume with the inevitable reference to flat and round characters), despite the efforts of neuroscientists to unlock literary creativity. I have managed to forget the big name behind the crass analysis of Hamlet in one of those scientific volumes, which only convinced me that scientists do not read enough literary criticism. I truly think that I have read DiBattista’s rather old-fashioned volume in rebellion against that silly, arrogant man.

Allow me to clarify that I use ‘old-fashioned’ here as a term of praise. DiBattista begins by promising to offer a new taxonomy of character but soon enough she plunges into the comfort of treating fictional constructs as if they were real people, which is what we all do (and enjoy). Her people are divided into Whole (Originals and Individuals), Fractions (Selves/Identities) and Compounds (or Native Cosmopolitans), though I’m not sure why she uses subdivisions which only include one category. She does not offer what I expected from her: a reflection on how authors view their own characters and the mechanism it takes to create them; instead, she discusses the personality of fictional characters with much gusto. That was, if not totally unexpected, quite rewarding. At points I thought I was reading a 1980s, pre-theory volume, of the kind I was asked to admire as an undergrad (by authors such as Tony Tanner and company) and I found myself enjoying DiBattista’s unembarrassed discussion of Alonso Quijano or Isabel Archer, as if these were people in our acquaintance about to have dinner with us. She still trusts that we all have read the same novels, which is a daring position to take in a book published in 2010.

DiBattista writes that one thing is personal identity (or Self, with a capital S) and quite another group identity, the basis of identity politics. “Identity’, she argues, “has come to displace Self in an age and in a culture that has become increasingly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan, and multinational”, hence her inspection of what she calls the native cosmopolitan. I think it is only common sense to claim that a “self that is more aware of its outward rather than inward determinations may envision its contact with others somewhat more anxiously–or aggressively as the case may be”. Yet, this is a truth that needs to be repeated for it is at the core of most human tragedy: each Holocaust victim reminds us of what it is like to have a Self but be treated as an individual marked by Identity; the process of dehumanisation of the other, whether in Auschwitz or on the flimsy rubber boats loaded with migrants sinking in the Mediterranean on a daily basis, begins by denying the Self, and continues by abusing Identity. This is the great theme, DiBattista says, of for instance, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children and similar masterpieces. This is the great theme of life on Earth, I should think.

How, then, does one “preserve the rudiments of the Self in the fortress of (group) Identity”, as DiBattista puts it? This tension, DiBattista notes, is present in all hyphenated identities, such as Chinese-American and so on. The problem, I think, is that whereas racial and ethnic compound labels are acknowledged and, thus, have become useful (or relevant) to discuss the clash between Self and Identity, others are invisible, denied, or inexistent. Brigitte Vasallo’s idea of staging the first festival of ‘cultura txarnega’ a while ago in Barcelona met a barrage of negativity from those in Catalonia who believe that we, the culturally hyphenated persons, do not exist (her initiative was, though, welcome by those who needed the label ‘charnego’ to be reconfigured for our times, to express their Self). As I age, I am, like everyone else, chagrined by the growing distance between the Self I perceive in me and the Identity pushed on my body. Yesterday, a young man offered his seat to me on the metro (by no means the first time this happens to me). That was a lovely gesture, for which I thanked him, because I have learned that this is how people see me, but, still, it rankles. Imagine what it must be like to be a Self but be denigrated all the time by misogynists, racists, homophobes because of the Identity you supposedly embody.

So, here’s the great literary conundrum: fiction is supposed to express Self through its best rounded characters but, what do you do with Identity? Authors are making the point that individuals other than white, male, heterosexual, patriarchal men have a Self but in order to do that, they highlight Identity. This is what misogynists complain about when they say that in the novels by women too much attention is paid to femininity (as if men’s fiction were not essentially about masculinity). As those of us supposed to lack a Self shout to high heaven that we also have complex feelings, which is how I felt as a working-class undergrad reading privileged Virginia Woolf, we are increasingly isolated by Identity labels; meanwhile, those who should be labelled escape scot-free. Nobody ever refers to ‘White Literature’ but we have ‘African American Literature’, and we have ‘Women’s Literature’ but not ‘Men’s Literature’. Expressing the Self, in short, is not open to everyone, which is why Identity is receiving so much attention. We collectively believe that this is the best way to have everyone express their Self, but I very much suspect it is just another form of control. Those with the privilege to express their Selves without Identity labels have not really relinquished the privilege, nor do they want to do it. And why should they?

Is claiming the right to a Self a bit too much in the times of the selfie and the narcissistic display on the social media? Possibly. Yet, again, it needs to be done because even in the novel, which offers the deepest possible way to share human experience beyond our immediate circle, the Self is disappearing. I don’t read autofiction, precisely because it manages to offer the hell of narcissism without offering the heaven of understanding another Self, but I was tempted to read Manuel Vilas’s highly acclaimed Ordesa. What I found in its pages was a testimonial of the current inability to express (deep) Self, coming from someone my own age and with a similar experience of being declassed through education. As I put up with the farrago of repetitive, wearisome prose (and he is a major poet!), I told myself that it is not Identity but the Modernist invention of the inner Self that is destroying the novel. Few people are truly interesting and while Vila has been praised for making that very same point, I balk at the emptiness of his main character and possibly self-portrait. At one point, I can’t recall the exact sentence, this pathetic excuse for a man says that feelings are bourgeois, though he doesn’t really mean feelings. He really means the possession of enough sensitivity to notice that feelings must be of a specific kind–that is the Modernist Self, inherited from the 19th century novel. I think that I resent Vilas’s male protagonist because although he is in terms of Identity unlabelled, he still cannot sustain his own Self. And he doesn’t even write well. What a loser…

I’ll finish with a personal anecdote. I was last week in Valladolid and whenever people asked me where I’m from and I replied Barcelona, they had the same reaction: ‘but you don’t have an accent!’ I explained that I’m bilingual, that my accent in Catalan is the standard Barcelona accent, and that my Spanish sounds like the neutral variety spoken on the Telediarios because a) I was educated in Spanish-language Francoist schools until the age of 14 and b) my grandparents on the maternal side were Castilian from Burgos, and I did like very much my grandfather’s crystal-clear, solemn speech patterns. The puzzlement of my Valladolid colleagues, then, has to do with the lack of representation in the media and in fiction of people like me. We don’t exist as an Identity, though we are very common, which means that our Self is hard to express in any language (here I am writing in English!). Novels, by the way, have no place for bilingual people, as they (the novels) are written in one single language. A limitation hardly discussed, by the way, in Literary Theory, if ever.

So, to really finish: ask yourself what kind of fictional character you would be. Would your representation be dominated by an idea of the Self or by Identity? How does your sense of Self cope with the Identit(ies) you have chosen, or have been attached to you by others? Is the Self, as Vilas argues, the privilege of the higher classes and of the declassed educated? What’s the future of the fictional character if Identity labels continue their proliferation? And so on…

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