The following essay, loosely based around the writings of Oscar Wilde, was written for my honors Queer Writings class at Austin Community College on April 23rd.
Tell A More Interesting Story
Wildflowers are a sign that I’ve lived another year. I can’t seem to believe it until I see them blanketing the grasses by the roadside, those little strips of the Texas prairie that civilization has allowed to survive. I am reminded of that first spring I spent numbly wandering through the smell of Earth in bloom—the one right after my fifteenth birthday, right after I dropped out of high school, and right before I learned to imagine surviving to adulthood. And I am reminded of the spring after that when I had laid my adolescent death wish to rest, and I could finally smile at the idea of a fresh beginning. Now it doesn’t feel like any time has passed at all ‘till cold rains flutter indecisively into a scorching early summer and I see the brown-eyed susans raising their little yellow banners in victory. Wildflowers are a sign that I’ve lived. I have decided this, and so it is true.
If identity is just a story we tell ourselves over and over again, then that story by nature can be changed.
I have a habit of making symbols out of ordinary things as if my life were a movie I could pick over and analyze for hidden messages. I know there’s no such thing, but I do it all the time. I have a glossary of personally meaningful nonsense stored somewhere beyond my brain and behind my heart. For example, the moon is a sign of enduring truth. Although it appears to change shape in the sky, its true form is static; it only depends on where the light happens to fall in that moment. Just as Oscar Wilde wrote in his famous prison letter De Profundis, “At every single moment of one’s life one is what one is going to be no less than what one has been.” Past, present, and future phases exist at once in the spherical moon.
Wilde goes on to write, “Art is a symbol, because man is a symbol.” A symbol is anything that stands in for some other concept. Symbols only have meaning through human interpretation. According to NASA, the real moon is just a mass of iron, olivine, and plagioclase feldspar flying through space; recent scientific research into personality indicates that the way we think of people as characters with enduring traits may be nothing but a comforting myth. Yet just because symbols have no inherent meaning does not mean they are meaningless. In art, as well as in life, meaning is created and shared. If identity is just a story we tell ourselves over and over again, then that story by nature can be changed. Through this comparison to symbols, Wilde suggests that to live an artistic life is to take in the whole cornucopia of human experiences both positive and negative and to simply tell a more interesting story.
Who Am I?
Philosophers have long struggled with a problem called “the persistence of identity.” People want to know: Who am I? But even those three simple words carry a host of further questions. “Which you is who? The person you are today? Five years ago? Who you’ll be in fifty years? And when is am? This week? Today? This hour? This second? And which aspect of you is I? Are you your physical body? Your thoughts and feelings? Your actions?” Many people spend years struggling to find out who they really are. But I would argue that who we are is not something meant to be found like a prize in a scavenger hunt, but something that is created by the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves.
“People can use their wonderful brains to think differently about situations… to reframe them, to reconstrue them, to even reconstrue themselves.”
In an episode of radio called “The Personality Myth,” NPR host Alix Spiegel talks to a psychologist whose research challenges something most people take for granted about their identities: “The idea that there are specific personality traits that we all have inside of us that are stable and consistent and will determine our lives.” Walter Mischel started out his career trying to study these personality traits, but when he ran studies and dug through past research, evidence suggested that this kind of stability of personality over time and across situations simply doesn’t exist.
For example, Mischel cites a large study on children’s honesty by researchers Hartshorne and May, which found that the children they were studying were never simply honest or dishonest. Thousands of children were given numerous opportunities to be dishonest at school and home, but the same kid who was a model student in history class would cheat every day in math. Their behavior was not consistent across situations. In the past, every time a study like this would come out, the researchers would assume they did something wrong. It must have been a mistake. But Mischel thinks the mistake might be in researchers’ assumptions, not their results. His own research finds that “people are predictable, but they’re predictable because we see them in situations where their behavior is constrained by that situation and by the roles they’re occupying and the relationship they have with us.”
But where is the individuality in that? Are we fated to operate like automatons, acting out the expectations of our circumstances? No. There is a third player in this game of identity that Mischel calls “the mind”: our attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions about the world and ourselves. These form the lens through which we view our circumstances, coloring our actions and in turn continuing to cyclically shape our ideas about who we are. And these stories are within our conscious control as long as we recognize them as changeable. “People can use their wonderful brains to think differently about situations,” Mischel says, “to reframe them, to reconstrue them, to even reconstrue themselves.”
A few years ago I woke up, wiped the crust from my eyes, vomited again, and poured the last of that disgusting peach vodka into the toilet. I decided to never drink again. I did not have the energy to be dramatic about this. I brushed my teeth and went back to sleep.
Nowadays the story I tell myself about alcohol is completely different from when I was drinking. This isn’t because I have changed — in fact, it’s the reverse. I had to edit my personal narrative around drinking in order to change. Otherwise, my sobriety would only last as long as the emotional whim that started it. One by one I tracked down and eliminated the insecurities that had caused my problem in the first place. I can open up to people sober. I am fun when I’m sober. The final victory was when I was able to switch from I’m quitting drinking to I don’t drink. The former is a struggle. The latter is a simple statement of an identity that has changed.
Art As Practice
Writing and rewriting the narrative of my life through pretentious symbolism is the only way I know how to function. In that way, art is a means of survival.
Wilde writes in De Profundis, “the artistic life is simply self-development.” I believe that the meaning we create for ourselves through identity is a form of art. I view creating and engaging with art as practice for creating meaning within my life. Reading novels and poetry as a child taught me how to deepen my experience of life by creatively interpreting the world around me.
The symbols I’ve invented have helped me consciously edit the way I view the world. They keep me sane. Doesn’t that make them “real?” I remember exactly how real it felt when I bought my first bicycle helmet. On the physical level, it was a hunk of blue head-shaped styrofoam and plastic, but in the fairy tale I created out of my interior life as a sixteen-year-old, it was a peace offering. It said, I now care enough about my life that I will buy safety equipment. This new story I was starting to tell, the one where I wouldn’t end up dying young, was fragile still. It needed something to hang on to. So I chose that helmet as its symbol, and I held it up as proof against later urges to self-destruct. I am not going to break down tonight, I’d think, I own a damn bike helmet. I want to live.
And it doesn’t matter if the meaning of that helmet was entirely fabricated, a private performance, because it worked exactly how I wanted it to. I learned every psychological trick I know from artists and writers. I paint my nails yellow when I want to feel joy. On Saturdays, I light candles and drink red hibiscus tea. I write important dates on the bottom of my boot so that I’ll never lose them. I am determined to eke out as much joy from life as I can get, and if I can’t get any, I’ll still find some of that classic emo-kid satisfaction in the dramatic tension of my misery. As Wilde wrote in De Profundis, “humility in the artist is his frank acceptance of all experiences.” What kind of story would I be living if there were never moments of pain and defeat? Writing and rewriting the narrative of my life through pretentious symbolism is the only way I know how to function. In that way, art is a means of survival.
Working Within the Medium
Finally, it is important to note that within any artistic medium there are limitations. A painting is, for the most part, two-dimensional, no matter the colors. A tapestry is made of cloth, no matter the subject. A novel is mainly comprised of words. This is also true for the creation of identity. A person’s actions and circumstances shape their experience, which is the text onto which the interpretation of identity is applied. You cannot begin to change what you’d like to change about yourself if you are not aware of what is beyond your personal control.
He is using the tools of art to shape his experiences into something he can bear, through the only thing in his incredibly poor situation he can control: his own worldview.
Sexual orientation, for example, appears to be inborn. For some people, it changes over time, but few have seen positive results in trying to force it to change. In my case, the fact that I am attracted to women is simply the text of my life. It could not have been any other way. Within this fact, though, I can do as I please. I can act on my feelings, hide them, hate them, or love them. I can do all of these things with gorgeous inconsistency. I have decided to admit to the way I am and to feel content with it. Sometimes I call myself a homo, other times queer or gay. If I’m feeling courageous I can be a lesbian–I am only a dyke when provoked.
Wilde himself obviously didn’t choose to love men, but he did choose to create beauty and leave an enduring mark on the world through that love. Literary critic Guy Willoughby writes of De Profundis: “Presenting his own troubled history as a self-conscious creation, he adjures his audience to review his life according to the tenets of art-criticism, whereby all his deeds may be faced, condoned, and integrated into a complex and suggestive artifact.” Wilde spends a good bit of the letter discussing how, within the circumstance of his imprisonment, he is fighting against the urge to become bitter and spiteful. He says he is more-or-less okay with suffering, but he “could not bear [the suffering] to be without meaning.” He is using the tools of art to shape his experiences into something he can bear, through the only thing in his incredibly poor situation he can control: his own worldview. In this way, despite his moralistic bent in the letter, Wilde’s notion of artistic survival is highly individualistic. He writes, “Nothing seems to me of the smallest value except what one gets out of oneself. My nature is seeking a fresh mode of self-realisation. That is all I am concerned with. And the first thing that I have got to do is to free myself from any possible bitterness of feeling against the world.” The letter reads to me as a struggle to become different by thinking differently, turning over past events, past writings, even the life of Christ in a search for solid enough symbols to ease the pain of his imprisonment and disgrace.
It is impossible for us to know exactly what Oscar Wilde meant when he penned the words “Art is a symbol, because man is a symbol” at the end of one paragraph in a very long letter from prison in 1897. He might not have meant much by it at all; maybe he just thought it sounded smart. Despite this, I consider it entirely within the spirit of his work to take this witty little phrase into my life and make something important of it. Art is a symbol, because man is a symbol, because both are constantly searching for a way to be more meaningful. I have decided this, and so it is true.