Truth and the Self in the Writing of Self-Disclosure
English 209: Emerging Genres
Truth and the Self in the Writing of Self-Disclosure
Life experience and two years at a small liberal arts college have served to teach me, if nothing else, this lesson: In life, in history, in art, there is no single, foundational truth. Instead, one must gather ideas, attempt to make them work together, and use the results as both a tool and a basis on which to base other ideas. This is the closest we can get to “truth”: Not one foundation, but something multi-faceted and ever-shifting.
The idea of “truth” is especially relevant in discussion of literature that deals with self-revelation by the author. In mediums such as the published diary, the autobiography, and, more recently, the blog and the personal online journal, several lines of inquiry are pertinent. Does the time it takes to publish the work have an effect on its “truthfulness”? Must the reader expect the author to stay close to objective facts in their work, or can deviations from those facts have truth value in and of themselves? Is total, exhaustive self-disclosure closer to a “true” expression of the writer’s self, versus disclosure and/or magnification of a certain aspect of the writer’s self? Is there only one “self” to express? These questions have been difficult since the beginning of literature, and become even more complex in an era in which anyone with access to a computer has the ability to express some version of themselves, through the written word, to anyone else with access to a computer and a command of the other’s language. Examination of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Custom-House,” as well as contemporary thought on online writing, sheds light on these questions, but also paves the way for more.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter begins with an introductory chapter entitled “The Custom-House.” In this, Hawthorne recalls his time as an employee of Salem’s Custom House. He introduces some of the more interesting personages he met there, and gives a sketch of Salem, his hometown and the home of his ancestors. He meditates also on the loss of artistic creativity he experienced during his time working there, and his discovery of local historical documents, along with a fabric “A,” which would later provide the inspiration for the plot of the rest of The Scarlet Letter.
Hawthorne begins the chapter by stating that it is autobiographical, the second public “autobiographical impulse” (Hawthorne 7) that he has experienced in his career as a writer. He believes writers commonly do this in search of a kind of empathy, that an author, “when he casts his leaves forth upon the wind…addresses, not the many who will fling aside his volume, or never take it up, but the few who will understand him, better than most of his schoolmates and life mates.” (Hawthorne 7) In this bit of self-disclosure, however, he does not believe that he is revealing his “true” self, something he seems to see as a foundation behind many veils. He searches for this satisfaction instead by removing a few of the veils, but never showing all of what is behind them: “it may be pardonable to imagine that a friend, a kind and apprehensive, though not the closest friend, is listening to our talk; and then, a native reserve being thawed by this genial consciousness, we may prate of the circumstances that lie around us, and even of ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind its veil.” (Hawthorne 7) A personal revelation, a confession, to Hawthorne, does not necessarily include exposure of the whole self, and requires only a sympathetic audience.
Later in the chapter, Hawthorne claims to have stumbled upon documents detailing some of the history of Salem. Most striking in these documents, to Hawthorne, is the life story of Hester Prynne, which provides a framework for the plot of The Scarlet Letter. He claims that he wants to place himself in the position of “editor” of a true story, which is his “true reason for assuming a personal relation with the public,” (Hawthorne 8) the only drive behind his starting the story within an autobiographical context. Why precisely he does this is not satisfactorily explored by Hawthorne, however. Presumably, he wants to portray the story as a portrait of Hester Prynne as she truly is. Because she is clearly a sympathetic character throughout the novel, he wishes to erase the stigma from the real person by placing her in an unveiled portion of his reality; if she is “real,” he can present her for pardon by the public. He does the same thing for his persecuting Puritan ancestors, taking their guilt upon himself and praying “that any curse incurred by them…may be now and henceforth removed.” (Hawthorne 13); by confessing the wrongs of men related to him in reality, he feels that he may be taking some of the shame of their bloody legacy from them. If simply revealing a person in the most “honest” context possible is Hawthorne’s tool for absolving them of any public dishonor, this may be, by extension, applied to him. Some have argued that the whole of The Scarlet Letter is an indirect autobiography, Hawthorne unveiling a part of him which has sinned in the guise of Hester Prynne (Class Discussion). Public revelation of the private acts as a release, and a mode of absolution.
“The Custom-House” is part of a traditional bound book, published and sold to an audience far removed from Hawthorne. The chapter, and The Scarlet Letter itself, is likely the product of many drafts, outside editing, and generally, a lot of time. Hawthorne weighed, sifted, and rearranged the text many times over its two years of development, presumably, before it reached its audience in the state in which we find it. In the process, ideas that were used at one point in time have been lost (With the obvious exception of saved drafts of the novel, if any exist). Though Hawthorne likes to imagine a sympathetic reader seeing and understanding his work, that reader would not have been able to discuss with Hawthorne what he or she had read, or at least, not quickly. Perhaps they could have corresponded with him through letters, but the interaction would be protracted, and lose the intensity of the instantaneous conversation. In fact, the only outside interaction Hawthorne notes in the book is in his preface to the second edition of the novel, in which he describes the “public disapprobation” to his humorous description of the other officials in the Custom House (Hawthorne 5). This large outcry seems to be the only noteworthy interaction between reader and writer. Even here, it is not in the form of a discussion, but simply one-sided rage by the public.
Hawthorne’s experience differs sharply from that of the writer of online literature. The capacity for one-on-one, nearly instantaneous interaction between reader and writer is a major way in which online writing, namely blogs and personal online journals, separates itself from printed works that deal with self-disclosure. For the purposes of this paper, I will present definitions of the blog and the personal online journal, mainly stemming from my own experiences in the online world. I am defining a blog as an internet page on which the writer discusses any subject of his or her choosing; the musings can be limited to one subject (A political blog, for instance), but may cover any subject that may be striking the writer’s fancy at that moment. In a blog, the interactive element is key: Readers should engage in a discussion, both with the writer and among themselves, about the blog’s subject matter. A personal online journal, on the other hand, is a space for disclosing ideas and experiences of a personal, usually quotidian nature (However, it does not have to be absolutely limited to the personal; a writer’s politics or hobbies, for example, certainly can come into play in writing in a personal online journal). The space still exists for interaction with the reader, but it is of a different nature. It is usually supportive, mostly for the purpose of indicating to the writer that the sympathetic reader is out there, looking. Because this interaction is not that of a discussion, engagement by the reader is not necessary the way it is in a blog. In what remains of this essay, I will be focusing most of my attention on the personal online journal; it is the medium with which I have more experience. Also, I believe that some of the issues I discuss differ greatly in terms of their implications on the blog, and thus I feel that they are beyond the scope of this paper.
Due to the fact that it enters the world the instant the author decides it is ready, an entry in a personal online journal has the capacity to capture a snapshot of the author’s intellectual state at the moment of the writing. In her essay “Teaching an Old Genre New Tricks: The Diary on the Internet,” Laurie Mcneill implies that this instantaneity gives a sense of the writing being more “true” or “real” than writing that, like “The Custom-House,” has spent large amounts of time being revised, and thus is far removed from the author’s original intellectual product: “Since diarists can post entries immediately after writing them, they have less opportunity to ‘tamper’ with their texts, less time for hindsight to ‘alter’ the ‘true’ version of experiences.” (Mcneill 37) However, capturing the moment of the birth of an idea forever, versus only what it evolved into, does not make the work more authentic in and of itself; the ideas that came and went and shape-shifted to create The Scarlet Letter were, after all, Hawthorne’s own, we presume. The “authenticity” comes from a different place. It is the fact that we come so close, when reading a medium with such an instantaneous nature as the personal online journal, to the ideas as they form and erupt from the author’s mind. In this way, it would seem like we get as close to the source of intellectual output as one can get, watching their construction of their concept of themselves and the world as it happens. This is not possible as an audience member to a bound book, just as it is not possible to comment on the ideas as they form, perhaps even shaping their subsequent development. This instantaneity also serves as an archive of the ideas as they occurred. The archive may or may not be used; as Jessy states in the essay “The Practice of Blogging: A Personal and Academic Perspective,” “I don’t want to read my ‘diary’ entries again, most of the time. They’re single-use entries, often used to express a particular emotional moment.” (Jessy) However, the archive is kept as a way of preserving of the emergence of an idea or ideas; any curious reader can go to the archive and witness the evolution of those thoughts.
In the online world, a writer has the freedom to be whoever or whatever they choose to be. If they are not a public persona, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, or a personal friend of the reader, it would take obsessive research to discover the objective facts of an online writer’s identity in the non-electronic world. There is then an implied trust that the objective facts of the writer’s life are what they claim they are; if I am reading the personal online diary of a 21-year-old female citizen of Montreal, I trust that she is not, in fact, a 40-year-old male New Yorker. After all, if I want to bear witness to the formation of her thoughts as it happens, I am searching for closeness to the actual source of the thought. Mcneill also points out that part of the appeal of online writing is its role as a place of confession: “readers expect self-exposure and the telling of secrets,” (Mcneill 27), the objective reality of the secrets in question being implied. What is the strength of this expectation, though? Do we want the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or can it be distorted in order to tell a good story instead? As Christina Harview points out in her essay “The Blogging Identity,” “When thinking about the use-value of a constructed identity, remember that lies can incite and inspire just as much as truths.” (Harview) If our writer can present a good story about clubbing in Montreal, we will not try to dig into the objective facts, and suspend disbelief. Perhaps the satisfaction from reading an online journal comes from exposure to a truth about a self, and not necessarily one based on objective fact. I have read “Valerie’s” Livejournal (www.popshaped.livejournal.com) for approximately four years. She claims to be a year older than me, and a native of Montreal. I can neither confirm nor deny that she really does live the objective parts of the reality that she claims. However, I do not particularly care to know if she is, in fact, our 40-year-old male New Yorker. Whoever is on the other side of the screen writes highly entertaining stories, and has, on occasion, provided me with genuine insight into the world around me; I see a rant she wrote years ago, after being whistled at in the street by construction workers, as one of the first times that I was incited to rage by the fact that being a woman makes me face such treatment in daily life. This person, whoever they really may be, guided me to a new level of self-awareness. To put it in a larger theoretical framework, Reader-Response Theory emphasizes the importance of the uptake of the writing by the reader; implied in this is that it does not really matter who the author actually is, just that I can use their words for my own formation of ideas (Castle 178).
Beyond the objective reality (or lack thereof, or projection by the author thereof), it must be questioned what exactly is being revealed in writings of a self-disclosing nature. In “The Custom-House,” Hawthorne makes the claim that he is not revealing his entire self, only removing a veil to reveal a part of it. In Laura Blankenship’s blog Geeky Mom (http://geekymom.blogspot.com/), she actually downplays her life as a mother in favor of presentation of aspects of her life related to her professional self (Class discussion 4/22/08). Both concepts are part of what makes her a self, but both are not given the same weight in her writing in that forum. What this means for the “truth” of the writing, when an aspect of the self is, indeed, exposed, but others remain veiled is highly complex. In Mcneill’s paper, she points to the existence, in online personal journals, of the usual inclusion of an “about me” page, in addition to the text, as evidence of the creation of “multiple and simultaneous autobiographical narratives” (Mcneill 31). This stands against Hawthorne’s idea of one foundational self that he has taken trouble to hide in writing autobiographically. That the self presented online is pronouncedly different than the one put forth in the physical world adds another strange kink to the equation. In “The Blogging Identity,” it is argued that this seemingly different self is real, but would conflict with the non-virtual self. However, it is something which the author needs to express, and is free to do this in the anonymity of the internet, where there is no risk of it “breaking down the identity we spent so long constructing” in the world of flesh (Harview). The emergence of the genre of the personal online journal further illuminates the concept of multiple selves, making it more evident in the fissures between lived and online selves.
This theoretical discussion plays out in what I consider a practical sphere of my life. I have had a personal online journal, through the provider Livejournal, since the spring of 2003. Currently, I am a less active writer than I had been at my peak, around 2004, and use the journal mostly to keep in contact with long-distance friends from non-electronic life. This was, in part, due to the fact that I found that I was expressing only a few facets of my self, namely the socially and romantically insecure me, and the me terrified of her own mortality. These selves came to the surface more often in my online musings to an audience than in my day-to-day discussions with those around me in real life. I believe this occurred because it is easier to reveal more personal and/or painful thoughts when you do not have to look into the face of the people you are revealing these things to, and you know they are not looking back directly at you; not having to face an audience directly allows for a loss of inhibition. I also feel that I am far more articulate, better at representing what is happening in my brain, through the written word than I am through verbal communication. The ability to reveal a self I largely kept hidden could be rewarding, but, overall, it became quite negative. Those who were interested in reading my 16-year-old self’s fears that I would never fall in love, or that there is nothing after death, would comment; the gist of the comments was, generally, that they shared my fears. It would feel positive in the moment, but it was only readers who agreed with me. There was no antithesis, in Hegel’s words, which would have let to a synthesis of ideas, allowing me to find new ways of understanding my existential angst. The worst, though, was when I would write entry after entry without receiving comments from my readers. Mcneill argues that the world of the online journal, where (most) writers do not write for a profit, “online diaries can be read as assertions of identity, and arguments for the importance of an individual’s life.” (Mcneill, 26) This implies that a journal’s value lies in an active readership attracted to a narrative they see as interesting and valuable. This was the attitude I took at the time. Consequently, if no one was commenting, I took this to mean that this deeply personal, deeply painful facet of my self that I was presenting was not interesting to others, and therefore somehow lost a bit of its value. To be quite honest, this little journal that took but approximately half an hour of my time each day was generally making me feel quite negatively toward all of my combined selves. Finally, I eased out of heavy involvement in writing the journal.
The writing of self-disclosure brings to the surface incredibly complex ideas about identity, authenticity, and a readership’s expectations of both. This becomes more complicated in the age of the personal online journal, in which anyone and everyone can present themselves to an audience of, well, anyone and everyone; in the anonymity provided by the internet, they can be whoever they want to be, whether or not it agrees with the objective facts about their lives in the non-electronic world. It seems, however, that there are multiple selves, and thus, multiple authenticities. A new dimension is added to the concept of “authenticity” with the instantaneous nature of online writing. Self-disclosure can also have very real consequences, at least for the writer, in the space where the online world meet the real world, namely in the response to the response of the reader. These conclusions only open new questions about what expectations readers and writers may have in a world of multiple truths and authenticities.
Castle, Gregory. The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
Harview, Christina. “The Blogging Identity.” Weblog Entry. Emerging Genres. 4/28/2008. 5/15/2008. http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/2412
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Jessy. “The Practice of Blogging: A Personal and Academic Perspective.” Weblog Entry. Emerging Genres. 4/28/2008. 5/15/2008. http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/2421
Mcneill, Laurie. “Teaching an Old Genre New Tricks: The Diary on the Internet.” Biography 26.1 (2003): 24-47.