In his new book Keep It Fake: Inventing an Authentic Life, Eric G. Wilson tells the story of his life as a liar, and how this lying ultimately led him to this truth: there is only lying, but some lies are truer than others.
Bill Murray acts out true lies, for instance, while a campaigning politician (take your pick) is a lying truthteller. And it turns out that the truer fictions—and not only Murray teaches this but also William James and Virginia Woolf—are the ones that can save our lives, or at least make life more interesting, as a poem is more interesting than a platitude.
For a book about fakery, Wilson looks for truth everywhere. He contemplates Schopenhauer’s definition of music, he unpacks the weird sublime of David Lynch movies, he marvels at the impeccable persona of Cary Grant (and the Archie Leach he left behind), and he looks for the satisfactions of fatherhood, even as he finds he gets the best response from his daughter when he’s at his most manic. Wilson is such a deep reader, he finds it leads to artifice everywhere he looks. But accepting artifice can be therapeutic, even instructive. Seeing through things doesn’t have to be depressing. It can be almost shamanistic in the right hands. Even if your everyday persona has to be a necessary construction, there’s no end to the depth of experience, even as you’re searching for an ever elusive truth. Wilson, who is also the author of Against Happiness and Everyone Loves a Train Wreck (both Sarah Crichton Books/FSG), along with five books on psychology and the arts, is an expansive thinker and marvelously entertaining and insightful writer. He spoke to us, brimming with erudition and wit, from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he is the Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest University.
In Keep It Fake, you write extensively about living with depression and bipolar disorder, which you have also written about elsewhere. It’s ironic, because when I first met you in graduate school many years ago, you seemed neither melancholic nor manic. You seemed like the most together person. You had an incredible work ethic, you were very disciplined, you didn’t complain, you had great posture, you had gone to West Point. At the time, I associated intellectual life with sloth, and you seemed like the opposite of that. But now I see that you were living up to what this book is about, because internally, there were these other things going on.
A lot of people say that very thing. They would say, “You don’t seem depressed.” I think part of it is being southern, being brought up to never show anything that’s the least bit unpleasant, and that got deeply ingrained. And also, I grew up with a football coach dad, a hard nosed guy, who said, “Never cry. Never show any emotion.” And I really appropriated that stuff. It’s not something I’m that proud of. I think it would have been better in the long run if I had been able to express more of that angst, created behaviors more appropriate to it. As I say in the book, there’s a kind of performativity that you have foisted upon you where you’re just acting out scripts made by others. I think I was doing that then—acting out my dad’s scripts, my mom’s scripts. Only later did I forge my own identity, and so did indeed fashion role more appropriate to my darker energies. I still come across as a fairly well adjusted person, though, because I guess I’ve not entirely let go of my good Southern manners.
By the time you decided to get a Ph.D. in English, you were off the charts of what your father had in mind for you.
Very much so. He was cool about it, though. I thought he wouldn’t be. He actually had to endure three disappointments. I left West Point, which really hurt him. He was proud of me for getting into this prestigious school and for being a good athlete, and I was all over the local papers, the first kid to ever get into West Point in the history of my high school, and then, suddenly, I quit. For him, quitting was a kind of sin. After I left West Point, I went to North Carolina State for a semester, and I was going to walk on their football team. I quit that, and then I transferred to Appalachian State, a little comprehensive state university in Boone, North Carolina, and I was going to play football, and I quit there, too. So he got three different moments of my quitting. But I have to say, he only wanted my happiness. He didn’t scold me. He’s actually been very supportive of my intellectual career. I think he learned to create new narratives himself, that included a new character—my son the professor. And then, too, he probably picked up on one of the reasons I quit football then—for the first time in my life, I feel into a serious depression.
When you get depressed, how does it manifest?
In deeply depressed phase, I experience profound apathy and fatigue. Something is telling me, “Don’t get out of bed. Nothing means anything.” I fight this feeling of emptiness by working my ass off. I’m actually less able to do that now, now that I’m older. I’m 48 and don’t have the energy I once did. Frankly, I’m going through a difficult time, because I’ve relied a lot on that vigor to escape that void. I’m trying to create a new narrative now that will help me understand this emptiness in a new way—not as something I have flee with all the force I’ve got, but maybe a space I can find the courage to roam around in.
In Keep it Fake, I loved reading your descriptions of a brilliant and visionary professor we both had, Angus Fletcher. You wrote about being a young man from the south in search of an identity as a disaffected graduate student, and how, in Angus, you found something to emulate: keeping it fake by being what Angus would have called labyrinthine.
The first class I took with Angus was on nature poetry. His hair was all over the place, he was wearing duck taped Chuck Taylors and those horn rimmed glasses. And he had that strange voice. He was like a person from another world. With a lot of professors, you’d get their shtick pretty quickly—Marxist, feminist, or what not, you know, some controlling ideology, but with him, you never knew what he would say next. With Angus, it was like an improvisational comic routine at the highest intellectual level. He showed me a new way to be an intellectual: not someone who had arguments and positions and studied and gained information and was learned, but someone who entered into this endless intellectual play, turning scholarship into a creative art, research into the exploration of the soul’s labyrinth. This idea of being labyrinthine: think of Coleridge calling Shakespeare myriad minded. I think Angus is that way. There’s a multiplicity, manifoldness to his brain. This myriadness often came across when Angus would simple bring in the newspaper and riff on the headlines. Like the day he brought in some tabloid. There was an image of a cloud that looked demonic. The headline went something like, “Satan appears in a cloud.” Angus asked something along the lines of, “What does it mean to appear? A celebrity might appear. But a professor shows up.” Just like that, in the blending of the ordinary and the extraordinary, a kind of Zen koan.
And that mixture is very present in this book as well. I felt like you were writing about canonical literature as if it were popular entertainment and vice versa.
Yes, I think so, and I learned that from Angus. He could turn an infomercial into a weird kind of cultural poem, and then he could talk about Edmund Spenser in a way that almost made him seem like a slapstick comedian. He brought things to life in that way, and that’s what I aspire to as a thinker. I don’t really care about blurring the distinction between high and low culture. It’s really about the play of the mind. What I value most as high literature exists in my psyche in the same way of what I love most in pop culture.
You had this line in the book about therapy that really resonated with me where you discovered the distinction between wanting to appear intelligent and actually getting better.
For me, trying to appear smart has always been a way to stay safe. Instead of trying to have a feeling, I would theorize about a feeling, talk about the meaning of a feeling. Over the years, it became my dog and pony show. I wanted to appear as the smart guy. But ultimately, I think that act was stunting my ability to actually face what was going on, the emotional complexities. A good psychotherapist can short circuit the intellectual acting, puts you in the position where you’re almost inarticulate, feeling stupid and frustrated. But it is then that you might blurt something you’ve never said before, something that will help you see your condition in a new way. Also, a good psychotherapist gets you to parody yourself. I found a therapist who was brilliant at this. He would make me feel entirely pompous, like I was a character in a movie, playing the pedantic professor. Seeing that was useful. It helped mock myself in a useful way, to see that the character I was playing was predictable, boring. He told me, if you don’t like your life, come up with a couple of new habits, treat them as an actor would a script, and follow them out as best you can, where they don’t become habits anymore, they become a part of your life, which is very close to what William James came up with years ago. If you want to be happy, don’t change the way you feel, just smile more, and eventually you’ll find yourself feeling happier.
That’s the essence of this book—keeping it fake—is it not?
Absolutely. It’s William James’s notion that ideas are not true once and for all, but that truth “happens” to certain ideas for a certain amount of time. That’s how Robert Richardson puts it in his brilliant biography of James. What I am suggesting in this book is that we have a degree of agency over what ideas we want truth to happen to. That’s where the imagination comes in and the effort to really treat your life like it’s a work of art that you’re constantly revising and refining and trying to make more powerful, more capacious, more able to connect with other narratives in the world.
But does that advice really work when you’re experiencing crippling depression?
Well, personally, I can’t just smile and feel better. I can’t bring myself to do it. I think it’s probably true, and if I smiled more, then I would think more about presenting a happier identity. It probably would change the way I see myself in the world. But I guess I’m still too fucking depressed. For me, mustering the more melancholy gaze is enough, it works, it is flexible, dark and light in play, like in Durer’s grounded, sad angel.
Well, it’s not just about depression, it’s about authenticity, which is a major category in this book.
In my book, I make a distinction between good phoniness and bad phoniness. You could call it good acting vs. bad acting. Bad phoniness occurs when you simply follow out scripts that you’ve inherited from your parents or friends, say, scripts to which you simply conform; or when you act out your own scripts that grow merely out of your selfish fears and desires—your fear of forces that might compromise your narcissistic comforts, your desire to reduce the world to a mirror in which you only see your preening ego. Creating these kinds of scripts, you’re a bad artist, dealing in stock characters. This is inauthenticity. Authenticity is good phoniness, good acting, good art. You self-consciously create a role capacious and intricate enough to reflect your complex interiors as well as to interweave with the similarly complicated narratives of as many others as possible. You become like a rich, round, interesting character in a literary novel. Of course, this is difficult to achieve—all art is—but in the trying is aliveness, the aliveness, too, of constant revising, because you constantly change your character to address your changing circumstances.
Speaking of good acting: Bill Murray seems to be the muse of this book.
I put Murray in the same category as Chaplin or Grant. These are actors who play the same roles in pretty much every film. Bill Murray plays Bill Murray. Grant played Grant. What these actors provide on camera is a model for living a good life. The most interesting role you can play is yourself. If you see yourself as not some essential monad, but as the artifice that you are endlessly creating, that allows you to fashion your character in such a way that you can engage with the world in the most graceful ways possible. You see Murray and Grant enacting the fact that everything is acted.
How do you see this book reaching a broad audience?
With this book, I am trying to save us from the myth that there is such a thing as a stable self. Most of us are brought up thinking that there is a stable self and you have to strip away the layers and find it and then you are authentic. Find yourself, and then be true to that self. But I find that’s a stifling idea. It led me to be frustrated with my constant wishy-washy-ness, my tendency to contradict myself, to feel that I had no clear identity, no integrity. But to suddenly realize that there is no stable self. That was extremely liberating for me. Suddenly, more behaviors and activities were acceptable. I could be more wishy washy. I could contradict myself. And I suddenly felt like I had agency. I could use my imagination to shape the identity that I felt best helped me connect with the people I wanted to connect with and do the things I wanted to do, even to the point where I realized that the concept of the past was not stable either. Billions of things have happened to you, but if I ask you who you are, you will remember selected events to the exclusion of all those other events. Those are the events that you piece together into your narrative of who you are. And that narrative that you have of yourself at 35 might change when you’re 40, You select different memories. You emphasize, you de-emphasize. Our past is a novel that we are constantly revising.
Your readers are more likely to get the references to Bill Murray than William James. But they shouldn’t necessarily feel that they need to read every writer you riff on.
Right. Don’t read Principles of Psychology, watch Meatballs. That’s one message of this book. Another is, if you believe there’s such a thing as being true to yourself, then you’re just a boring old phony, but if you know that your identity is made up, then you’re as close to the real as you can get. It’s all fiction, but some fictions are more real than others.