The Ersatz Life, Examined

Authenticity is something we can only imagine these days. In the midst of some deep-relaxation exercise, we might picture small children playing with wooden toys or humble peasants toiling in the fields, but even our inward set pieces feel a little fake. The wooden toys are actually replicas of plastic toys that are, in turn, replicas of cartoon characters featured in blockbuster movies. The humble peasants are really actors imitating what they think hard labor looks like, based on a mix of children’s books about John Henry, Sam Cooke lyrics, and online porn.

The more unreal the world becomes, though, the more we fixate on finding and elevating the real. We strain to imagine places that aren’t zoned for commercial use and personalities that don’t feel like an echo of a tweet that’s an echo of a character on a Web series that’s an echo of a J. Cole lyric that’s an echo of something Oscar Wilde said a long time ago, back when people said things out loud to each other. Privately, we feel sure that genuine, unguarded, unmediated behavior can only be glimpsed at the zoo, and even there the undomesticated animals appear to be mimicking the animals they’ve seen on Animal Planet. Still, imitation is the highest form of flattery, we say to ourselves, hoping that clichés mixed with irony mixed with goofiness add up to proof that we’re at least slightly authentic.

But nothing feels less authentic these days than the pursuit of authenticity (pickling organic vegetables, quoting Walden, scrawling in Moleskine notebooks). Our world is so supernatural, so surreal, so synthetic that even saying so sounds suspicious; it has to be some kind of stating-the-obvious scam, more bait laid out for suckers. We see right through ourselves. We’re fifteen steps ahead and therefore five hundred steps behind. Even as we strive to preempt ourselves, we self-consciously question the use of “steps” to measure our so-called “progress” toward some ideal. Our conscience is crowdsourced. The more we pretend to anticipate every new angle or argument, regardless of how logical or nonsensical it may be, the more it all feels like posturing and farce, with the word logical cuing the laugh track.

This is where Eric G. Wilson’s latest, Keep It Fake: Inventing an Authentic Life (Sarah Crichton, $25), begins: Since nothing can be authentic and everything, including the concept of authenticity, is a human construct; since we’re all actors who invent ourselves from moment to moment; since the world is an exercise in uncertainty; and since we’re endlessly commodified, by market forces and ourselves and each other, why not just lean in and enjoy these infinite layers of artifice? No powers of imagination or light-breath work necessary. Just be like the old man of Spithead, who, according to The Wisdom of Insecurity, by Alan Watts, opens his windows each morning and mysteriously says:

Fill jomble, fill jumble,
Fill rumble-come-tumble.

Or, if you prefer, be like Keats’s famous interpretation of Hamlet, which, as Wilson writes, “intimates that we are at our best when we practice ‘negative capability,’ the ability to remain in ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’”

If Wilson’s project sounds hopelessly familiar and affectedly postmodern and intolerably inauthentic, well, that can be tough to avoid in works of popular philosophy. Writers like Geoff Dyer, George Saunders, and Alain de Botton might tackle sweeping themes, but their attempts to offer groundbreaking new insights are typically upstaged by the artfulness and flair of their prose: the self-abnegating reflections, the melancholy cultural snapshots, the inspired ideological scatting.

American Museum of Natural History, New York.
American Museum of Natural History, New York. Thomas Hawk/Flickr

Although such writers make these magic tricks look effortless, they’re not easy. Wilson seems to be aiming for a similar blend of ideas, emotional improvisation, and free-form wordplay in Keep It Fake. He’s at least become a kind of expert at the antithetical screed. Going against the grain is his jam—most memorably in Against Happiness (2008), where he argued that the ultra-American imperative to be cheerful and positive only makes us more anxious and depressed and, furthermore, that melancholia is underrated. In Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck (2012), Wilson explored why we’re so transfixed by pain and suffering and emerged with a few thoughts on how, without evil, good has no meaning. But that’s a sentiment that may sound, to jaded ears, like an echo of “YOLO!” which is an echo of a U2 lyric, which is an echo of something Nate mumbled in the second-to-last episode of Six Feet Under.

Indeed, in surveying Wilson’s work, one wonders if the author isn’t making it a little easy on himself. Happy v. Sad, Death v. Life, Real v. Fake: Can you build a career around extemporizing on a series of oversimplified dichotomies? Does wandering through your orchard with a shotgun, aiming at low-hanging fruit, add up to an oeuvre? Even if you back up your arguments with the usual suspects—Marshall McLuhan, Guy Debord, René Descartes, Jacques Derrida, John Berger, Salvador Dalí—isn’t that the literary equivalent of gathering a large audience into a lecture hall just to sync up The Wizard of Oz with Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon?

Maybe so. But if you do it with enough panache, you’re more than forgiven. Wilson is at his best, in fact, when he’s defiantly odd. He triumphs mostly by cutting his self-seriousness and solemn pronouncements on the state of the human condition with flourishes of playfulness, self-indulgence, and passionate digression. He cleverly dissects the existential underpinnings of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse—and recounts how life as a freshman at West Point, punctuated by midnight watch-light-illuminated close readings of
W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, provoked his own existential crisis of epic proportions. He mentions in passing that the Internet is destroying our minds, but then offers up a redemptive retelling of the time he sneezed blood all over his kindergarten teacher’s face. He doesn’t pretend to be greatly concerned with pop culture, but one entire chapter of his book involves recounting every single beat of Bill Murray’s rousingly nihilistic speech in Meatballs, the one that begins with trademark Murray calm and ends with sweating and flushed faces and the repeated chanting of “It just doesn’t matter!” In another chapter, he moves from atoms to bottom-feeding fish to the song “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” to fishermen to global capitalism to the rings of Saturn, ending the whole escapade with the question: “Am I in the carp’s gut, turning, or touring in the millionth Apollo?”

There’s no doubt that Wilson is treading on the most well-worked intellectual ground out there. It’s hard to applaud him for dragging out the same old neo-Marxist riffs with a goofy twist: the classics as transcribed by Tenacious D, in an absurdist Frankfurt School of Rock for the masses. His writing bounces back and forth, alternating between active, dense, and delightful passages and passive, sprawling, flabby paragraphs. He frequently offers up extended referential non sequiturs and long lists of cultural artifacts that essentially amount to Stuff That’s Cool. In a chapter about giving up his former French-philosopher-loving intellectual lifestyle for something less predictable, he writes, “I committed to the uncanny, the melancholy, the traumatic, the outlandish, the sublime, terrae incognitae, a devotion that eventually inspired a whole career of intellectual work, including books on Coleridge’s melancholia, the outré geographies of the North and South Poles, the emotions of androids, David Lynch’s strange worlds, the cultural history of sorrow, and William Blake’s disturbing apocalypse.” (At the end of this particular list, the reader is left wondering if she’s digesting a pop-philosophy book or an OkCupid listing.) He often abandons lively description for long lists of adjectives; curiously, the word capacious appears in many of these long lists and seems to mean, in Wilson’s mind, everything unique and creative and good in the world.

But this may be the real aim of Wilson’s book (assuming, of course, that the word real can ever apply here): to zoom in on what’s unique and creative and good in the world in order to celebrate and embrace it. Why worry about whether things are just “thinks,” as Wilson puts it, or if either really matter, when instead you can ponder the genius of Blue Velvet, Wallace Stevens, Cary Grant, David Foster Wallace, Manny Farber’s “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” and The Matrix?

His question, then, is not “What can we call real?” but “What should we care about once we recognize that the distinction between real and fake doesn’t matter that much?” And if we create our world and ourselves, why not apply the full force of our originality and passion to the project? Since our creations are all we have, why not put our backs into it? Or, as Wilson writes, his signature scatting style veering wildly into the poetic soft shoulder: “The works of Virginia Woolf, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Joseph Turner share these glories: stillness and permanence—an ocean-cliff calm and lastingness; quick darts of thought and emotion, as unpredictable as silvery eels; giant scope, solving mysteries or revealing the unsolvable, from the depths of the darkest fin to the star-high firmament; complexity, depicting life’s bewilderingly intricate anatomies; and simplicity, in the midst of the crazed paradoxes, reminding us that this is it, now, here, always, and nothing you can do about it, and everything.” And maybe that’s enough. Maybe it has to be.

Heather Havrilesky is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead, 2010).