The quest for the authentic self

Both Wyatt Gwyon, the protagonist of William Gaddis’s 1955 The Recognitions, and John Yossarian, the protagonist of Joseph Heller’s 1961 Catch-22, are engaged in quests for an authentic self in a corrupt world. This alone opens up a 64-ounce can of worms, not the least worm of which is the question as to whether there is an authentic self to be found at all, whether the very idea is an illusion. How, once one starts looking for it, does one know that it’s been found? Is it even an important question, or is it just another form of narcissistic navel-gazing that we could more merrily do without?

Not to mention that not every person feels the need to search for it; the question never even comes up for most of us, probably; it never comes up for the other characters in these novels. Whether one sets out on this quest or not, one doesn’t feel the need for it until a discomfort and dissatisfaction is felt within; a sense that something, somewhere, has gone wrong with the relationship between us and the world and needs to be set to rights. Most of us probably wander around in a Panglossian haze: that this is the best of all possible worlds anyway, and it’s our job to work our way through it. Neither Gwyon nor Yossarian know precisely what it is that they’re searching for. But they know that, whatever it is, they don’t possess it.

The mid-1950s New York of The Recognitions and the 1942-44 Pianosa of Catch-22 are microcosms of the larger world and, as satirists, Gaddis and Heller are engaged in detailing the corruptions, fraudulence, and stupidity of this world as they impede their heroes on their quests. Both novels are lengthy, as befits the need to detail these corruptions, for they’re many. There are those, of course, that are local to the novels themselves: the corruptions of the artistic scene and popular culture of postwar Manhattan; the corruptions of the military and bureaucracy of the war machine of the 1940s. But Gaddis and Heller both see these corruptions as only local variants of a wider corruption and inauthenticity in the western world in the twentieth century; each of these corruptions receives its due. Among them are corruptions in religion, history, technology, politics, capitalism, education, aesthetics, family life, ambition. As Gaddis and Heller build their long novels out, each of these corruptions results in a barries to the quests of their heroes; they have their obvious effects on the other major and minor characters in the novels as well.

It seems that Yossarian and Gwyon are the only two characters who find these corruptions potentially lethal to their own sense of well-being. Even then, it’s unlikely that either could recognize and name these corruptions themselves, or recognize that they stand in the way of their quests. Ultimately, neither novel answers the questions about the authentic self with which I began this contemplation: Gwyon disappears into the Spanish landscape with his lover and their daughter at the end of The Recognitions, and Yossarian goes AWOL and deserts to Sweden, following the desertion of his crewmate Orr (a homophone for “or” — an alternative to the existing condition), on the last page of Catch-22. Rather than conclusions, these seem like indications that their quests are just beginning, but that they’ve finally been able to take the very first step on that journey. Both books end with a new life for both characters; how Gwyon and Yossarian end up is beyond the scope of the satire.

1 thought on “The quest for the authentic self”

  1. I tend to laugh at many of the more mass-culture anxieties over the authentic self, in part because I keep remembering an image from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt: he starts stripping off one layer of an onion after another while talking about getting to the center of his self (this is more or less how it goes), and of course he finds that there is no core. But you’re undertaking something more serious here, which I appreciate.

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