As someone who recently pronounced all of Nature “overrated” and decried beautiful autumn-foliage displays as “the shallow supermodels of the natural world” (see Oct. 29, 2001), I would now like to add an even more sweeping declaration in the same mode: Authenticity is overrated . In particular, the search, the quest, for authenticity is in itself intrinsically compromised, inauthentic. A mirage.
It was that mirage-the mirage of a greater, more pure, more authentic Way-that John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, bought into. That’s what you learn from reading his collected e-mails to a hip-hop and Islamic chat-room site.
Mr. Lindh was one of those white suburban kids who make a great display of getting into hip-hop and then putting down other suburban white kids who aren’t as authentically into it as they are. Defining their authenticity by denouncing others as frauds.
Many of his e-mails are taken up with suspicious-sounding lists of the CD’s he has for sale, the leadoff on the first list being these three:
AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted by Ice Cube
Apocalypse ’91 … The Empire Strikes Back by Public Enemy
Fear of a Black Planet by Public Enemy.
I say “suspicious” because he repeatedly posts such lists of CD’s for sale on his hip-hop chat-room site and then lamely adds, “I’m only selling these CDs because I don’t have a CD player.” Huh? It suggests he might not even have had all the CD’s, that he just wanted to boast that “The Disciple of the Englober” (as he liked to call himself) had all the most hard-core hip-hop tracks.
He’s a white suburban kid so sucked in by the cult of authenticity, he even goes so far as to pose as a black rap M.C. in order to lecture some other white kid (or maybe a
real black kid, who knows?) about how bad the kid is at posing as a homeboy.
Think of the following post as Mr. Lindh-or his smarter part-lecturing himself :
“When I read those rhymes of yours I got the idea you were some 13 year old white kid playing smart …. That collad [sic] green line alone leads me to believe you’re one of those white kids who thinks that if he eats enough collad green, watermellon [sic] and fried chicken, and sags his pants low enough he’ll attain the right to call himself ‘nigga!'”
The storyline on the evolution of John Walker Lindh to Suleyman al-Faris is that he traded in his enthusiasm for hip-hop for the “more serious” spiritual path of Islam.
But while he might have switched allegiance from the gods of hip-hop to the God of Islam, there is something common to both of his quests: making a graven image, a false idol, out of authenticity. Just as he’d pledge allegiance to the hardest of hard-core hip-hop to fashion a simulacrum of authenticity, so he had to seek out the most extreme, most puritanical sects of Islam, confusing authenticity with purity. A confusion evident in the mistaken assumption that authenticity must always be found not just in Otherness, but Oppositeness.
It’s certainly not the fault of hip-hop culture; fetishizing authenticity is endemic to all music culture, from folkie sneers at Dylan as a sellout for not adhering to their simulacrum of salt-of-the-earth acoustic authenticity, to the cult of the ever-more-arcane blind bluesman beautifully evoked and gently mocked in Ghost World .
It’s easy to say that the obvious contradiction in the quest for authenticity should be evident: consciously seeking it means it can never be un-self-consciously attained. The seeker can never actually be authentic-only seek to be.
It’s easy to say, but on the other hand, reading Mr. Lindh’s e-mails gave me a kind of “there but for fortune” chill. It could easily have happened to me, another white suburban kid easily led astray by the lure of “authenticity.”
AndreadingJohnWalker Lindh’s e-mail transformation to Suleyman reminded me of another similar there-but-for-fortune transformation: Abdullah.
I’d heard stories about Abdullah back when I started writing for The Village Voice , but I’d never met him. Then one day during the 80’s, long after I’d left The Voice , I ran into Voice founder Dan Wolf in front of Bruno Bakery on West Broadway. It was during the first Koch administration, I think, and Dan was an informal adviser to the Mayor.
I remember complaining to Dan about something the Mayor had just done: refuse to make Martin Luther King Day (which was not yet a federal holiday) a paid day off for city workers. These gestures matter to people, I remember saying, probably while consuming a sublime Bruno cannoli (my idea of the ultimate in authenticity).
And I remember Dan defending Ed Koch as a genuinely tolerant guy, and I think in this context he asked me if I wanted to join him up at Gracie Mansion that weekend when the Mayor was hosting a small barbecue in the backyard of the mansion with a special guest appearance by a guy named Abdullah. Just in from Cairo.
Abdullah was one of those Voice legends-someone who’d taken participatory journalism so far he ended up no longer a journalist, but a true believer. When I came to The Voice , I’d hear stories about some of them. There was the brilliant and beautiful Sally Kempton, Murray Kempton’s daughter, who would become a disciple of Swami Mukdananda and devote her life to saintliness and chastity, to the bitter disappointment of the countless men who were in love with her. (There’s a lovely portrait of Sally-now “Durgananda”-by Sara Davidson in the November-December issue of My Generation magazine.) She seems to have made a more fulfilling choice than another Voice guy who joined a cult that believed that one of the members of Jim Kweskin’s jug band was God; another gifted writer seems to have taken acid, walked into a pond on a commune and drowned under mysterious circumstances. And then there was Abdullah, who started out as a New York Jew and now wore the robes of a mullah in Cairo.
I remember the gentle, harmonious feeling of the Abdullah barbecue evening. A lovely breeze off the East River was wafting the smoke from the barbecue grill on the lawn to the back porch of Gracie Mansion, as Mayor Koch, Dan Wolf, a couple of other Voice alumni (gifted writer Clark Whelton and gifted editor Alan Weitz, as I recall) and I sat around with Abdullah.
I remember the gentle, harmonious feeling of the evening more than I recall the exact path that Abdullah laid out, the one that took him from being a Jewish intellectual to an Islamic teacher in an Egyptian mosque.
I was leery at first-Jews for Jesus types, for instance, make me feel like, Hey, if you’ve gotta reject your roots, why not go Buddhist? But I recall that Abdullah seemed thoughtful and gentle, not at all a fanatic. The Mayor seemed touchingly respectful of his quest. One had the sense that Abdullah hadn’t necessarily had to repudiate the person he had been to his former colleagues in order to become Abdullah. Which suggested he wasn’t insecure in his own current path, didn’t have to define himself against a purportedly inauthentic origin to make himself seem more authentic.
Maybe that’s the difference, or one of the differences, between those who refuse to make a graven image of authenticity, and those who feel they have to repudiate their own culture-repudiate themselves-in order to become something else, something more “authentic.”
Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against the impulse to seek authenticity, from which I have suffered as well. I find equally appalling the smug sort of people who never question their background, who just assume that by some fabulous stroke of luck, they were born into the culture or the religion that pretty much got things right , so why bother investigating all the ones who got it all wrong?
Nor do I claim any virtue for escaping, for not becoming Abdullah Rosenbaum or some variant thereof. I was certainly vulnerable as a suburban white kid and as an impressionable Village Voice writer. I think I was just lucky on a couple of counts: an English-lit nerd’s preference for seven types of ambiguity over certainty. And the stories that Dan Wolf would sit around and tell about earlier Voice writers who’d gone off to California to visit Timothy Leary, for instance, and never come back, so to speak. Maybe it was because so many of my heroic predecessors had sacrificed their sensibility on the seductive altars of Authenticity-because so many of them had been there and done that so early, so often-that a certain skepticism developed in me which called into question the idea of One True Answer ever being the authentic one.
It’s interesting: Postmodernism is supposed to deconstruct all “essentialisms,” all false notions of authenticity, yet it has made essentialist heroes and heroines of postmodern sages; it has made Derrida and Foucault and Spivak postmodern mullahs, whose disciples turn themselves into slavish ventriloquists and clones of the Theory Masters.
And yet I wouldn’t blame the postmodernists or the existentialists for the cult of authenticity. I’d look back to the Beats.
When you think about it, there was maybe one moment of true Authenticity in all of Beat literature: the original road trip Jack Kerouac took with Neal Cassidy, who then became the embodiment of Beat Authenticity and the subject of a kind of inauthentic cult of authenticity by almost every other Beat writer, who sought to recapture (often by sleeping with Cassidy) that aura. But after that … so much Beat and neo-Beat poetry seems an incredibly strained attempt to feign a Cassidy-like spontaneous madness that it is by now more a literary convention than an actual experience. Hand-me-down authenticity.
This is a bit hyperbolic, but I think the alternative to the cult of authenticity is the cultivation of experience , a skeptical, investigative sensibility, which is why writers who are also reporters appeal to me so much more than academics who rarely leave the study.
A more positive way to make this point about the misconception of authenticity might be to put it in the form of praise for what I believe was one of the most powerful and beautiful attempts to come to grips with the grip of the cult of authenticity: Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s long, complicated, sympathetic and critical portrait of Anatole Broyard, which appeared in the June 17, 1996, issue of The New Yorker several years ago.
Broyard-who, you’ll recall, became the most well-known regular book critic for The New York Times -was a kind of downtown legend as an intellectual and Casanova for years before that. He was, it turns out, a man of mixed-race background who played white all his life in the North, although he seemed to thrive on the rumors that he was black. Mr. Gates does not take what might seem the expected turn and condemn Broyard for denying some authentic, essential self and not “coming out” as black. He is both generous and empathetic in seeing how Broyard just didn’t want to be defined exclusively and reductively by race. Mr. Gates calls authenticity “among the founding lies of the modern age.” The piece left one feeling admiration for those who don’t seek authenticity in either black and white, but in being a mixture. It’s a celebration of the beauty of a Creole, a cafe-au-lait sensibility, of what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “Pied beauty”-the beauty of being multicolored. As opposed to some tyrannical single notion of authenticity, one that drives out all variety of color and imposes a grim “authentic” monochrome. A gray mirage.