“I may presently change, not only by chance, but also by intention.”
We called him Cowboy, and he wore the hat and talked the lingo and slid a gun into his drawer in the newsroom office. Which brought a few eye rolls, but in time, he grew on us, and what seemed like an adult con or an adolescent game became just him. His enthusiasm for that way of being in the world was as real as sweat and spit; who were we to bar him because he grew up back east and worked at a desk?
Persona was first understood as the mask worn by actors in classical Greek theater and then by Jung as “the mask of the soul.” Inauthenticity, the workshop-givers call a masked soul. But my feelings toward people who cultivate a persona have softened—maybe because the old boundaries of selfhood have blurred.
When my iPhone offered me an avatar, I made her purple and gave her a bun. Others probably chose a gender of a different gender, or no gender at all. Reachable at all times and online in multiple ways, we must shuffle through various selves to decide how to be, who to be, on what platform. And they do feel like selves, schizoid though that sounds, rather than roles one played from nine to five back in the compartmentalized days.
So why not be a little theatrical with them?
I once read a book in which a wealthy, quirky character had designed and engineered his entire home so that once he entered, it was 1898. Gaslight, no tech, lots of dark velvet—you get the picture. He found it soothing. And I made a secret plan that if I ever got rich and eccentric, I would live in the 1940s—bright red lipstick, swingy music, a war worth fighting….
Even politicized, compulsively explored, and mapped in granular detail, one’s given identity can grow dreary. I think about how fun it was, as a little girl, to change my name every day. “Today I am Barbara,” I would announce, somehow already sensing that being Barbara might open up a few fresh avenues. How exciting it was, when I was in my twenties, to try on different career options, explore different cities as places I might want to live. How dangerous it is, in a marriage or deep friendship, to assume you already know who this person is and exactly how they will respond, think, and behave.
When we find a way of being in the world that feels right, why not embrace it? Society already demands that if we do certain jobs or embrace certain institutions, our beliefs, clothes, behavior, and way of life will conform. Is that not artifice? Often it leads to the inauthenticity that chafed Jung. “The persona,” he wrote, “is a compromise between individual and society as to what a man should appear to be”; it is “the individual’s system of adaptation to, or the manner he assumes in dealing with, the world.” Tellingly, the persona, by his thinking, is “that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is.”
Harsh, Carl. I am German and Irish, but I feel French. Cowboy felt western. Are we lying? I think not. Something in us resonates with cultures that the accident of our birth excluded. Surely a man who posited universal archetypes and a collective unconscious can understand a resonance that goes beyond one’s private experience? He called it a big mistake to identify with the persona, but he was referring, in that male-dominated, work-dominated time, to “identification with one’s office or one’s title.” Reducing one’s entire personality to a sliver of glory.
That, I would call a bit part.
Ultimately, persona is theater—a theater of the self. We are all strutting on that stage, looking for roles that feel right for us—or will push us somewhere deeper and more exciting. Yet we police one another’s midlife crises, wary of any departures, and sigh when someone decides to style themselves differently, switching to initials, perhaps, or just a first name. Critics have fun snooping around to find the selves that do not conform, the impulsive social media posts, the affairs, the ideological inconsistencies.
I wonder, though: if we gave ourselves more freedom to live out various aspects of our personality, play with what resonates, would we be as vulnerable to peccadillos and hypocrisy? Would we be as reductive, or stay as stuck, equating our entire self with our political beliefs or past trauma?
Our online selves will soon be as tough to track as our passwords, but if they all spring from a self that is authentic—that admits, like Walt Whitman, to containing multitudes—they will do no harm. “Act the part” is often good advice. Smile, the neuroscientists urge, and you will feel happy. Human beings have always played assigned roles; as a social species, we need that sort of organization. But with persona, you get to pick. And instead of just picking a role as defined by some institution, you are picking your own way of being in the world.
Maybe it will help you pick out new clothes. Definitely it will remind you of where your comfort zone is, where you resonate and feel at ease. That seems far more authentic than ignoring your own inclinations and allowing your self to be circumscribed by place of birth, station in life, gender, race, and past experience.
The persona was the mask worn by actors in ancient Greece—but its purpose was not to fool the audience about the actor’s identity. The mask’s exaggerated expressions helped define the character, and most important, the mask functioned as a tiny megaphone, making the actor’s voice more audible.
Making sure what was inside came through loud and clear.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.