My academic books were purged shortly after my finals and the losers traded at the university book mart. The survivors, including those which have never been opened in the intervening years, have not been threatened since. They are pillars of my bookcase, as safe as the fading photographs in rarely opened albums, repositories of memories created decades ago. I often see them on the shelves of university contemporaries, representatives of our shared student experience.
Some language books have sneaked alongside the text books, a reminder of an alternate life path which was scuppered when I had just turned seventeen. At the time I had mastered Corneille, Molière and Henri Troyat’s existentialist roman, La Tête sur les Épaules, all in their original French. I needed a good grade to read languages. French and Italian would have been my choice. I knocked on the staff-room door and asked Mrs Harrison if she thought I would get a B in French at A level. “No.” And so the die was cast. I applied for social sciences on my UCCA form.
I did get a B in French and over the years have attempted to learn Italian and German on many occasions. The older I get, the more difficult it becomes, and I seem to default to French whenever my brain is telling me to speak Italian or German. I probably accepted my French teacher’s assessment too quickly. Although I was torn between my love of languages and passionate interest in politics, I suspect I readily accepted her judgement because of fear. I can still remember the trepidation I would have felt as I imagined leaving my yet-to-be-made new university friends to spend a year in a foreign country as part of the mid-course year abroad which all language students took. I would have conjured up an image of a lonely garret in a world where everyone else knew and understood each other.
Before the Internet and Facebook leaving school at 18 was a daunting prospect. I still have a horde of letters I received from old school friends written from their colleges around the country in our first year away. Certainly we all found new circles of friends very quickly, eased into adulthood by a benign college or university environment. I’m not sure if subsequent letters were destroyed, but I suspect by the second year we no longer felt the need to spend hours writing letters to school friends when we could be drinking coffee with new friends, or perhaps trying to interpret Marx, Marcuse and Gramsci was taking up too much of my time.
The book that stands out for me is Erving Goffman’s ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”. This has been re-read since university, and many times. Goffman analyses social encounters from a dramaturgical perspective. We are all players on the social stage. Back stage we rehearse our front stage performance. Here we are alone, our authentic selves. On the front stage the actor uses impression management tools to manipulate the audience, to present an image, a pattern of behaviour that is contrived to achieve a goal. The argument in the book influenced my novel, the psychological thriller, “Deluded”.
BELIEF IN THE PART ONE IS PLAYING
When an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them. They are asked to believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes he appears to possess, that the task he performs will have the consequences that are implicitly claimed for it, and that, in general, matters are what they appear to be. In line with this, there is the popular view that the individual offers his performance and puts on his show ‘for the benefit of other people.’ It will be convenient to begin a consideration of performances by turning the question around and looking at the individual’s own belief in the impression of reality that he attempts to engender in those among whom he finds himself.
At one extreme, we find that the performer can be fully taken in by his own act; he can be sincerely convinced that the impression of reality which he stages is the real reality. When his audience is also convinced in this way about the show he puts on – and this seems to be the typical case – then for the moment, anyway, only the sociologist or the socially disgruntled will have any doubts about the ‘realness’ of what is presented.
At the other extreme, we find that the performer may not be taken in at all by his own routine. This possibility is understandable, since no one is in quite as good an observational position to see through the act as the person who puts it on. Coupled with this, the performer may be moved to guide the conviction of his audience only as a means to other ends, having no ultimate concern in the conception that they have of him or of the situation. When the individual has no belief in his own act and no ultimate concern with the beliefs of his audience, we may call him cynical, reserving the term sincere for individuals who believe in the impression fostered by their own performance. It should be understood that the cynic, with all his professional disinvolvement, may obtain unprofessional pleasures from his masquerade, experiencing a kind of gleeful spiritual aggression from the fact that he can toy at will with something his audience must take seriously.
It is not assumed, of course, that all cynical performers are interested in deluding their audiences for purposes of what is called ‘self-interest’ or private gain. A cynical individual may delude his audience for what he considers to be their own good, or for the good of the community, etc.
Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Everyday Life, Pelican 1974, p 28-29