The Creative Cleft: Joyce Carol Oates on the Divided Self and the “Diamagnetic” Relationship Between Person and Persona
By Maria Popova
“I am more interested in human beings than in writing … more interested in living than in writing,” Anaïs Nin wrote when graciously declining being profiled in Harper’s Bazaar in 1946, an act of resistance against the tendency of such cultural reportage to flatten out a creative person into a static, one-dimensional self rather than a vibrant human being full of conflicting dualities. In fact, we now know, thanks to modern psychology, that the notion of unchanging personality is a myth, just as we know that the left brain vs. right brain divide is scientifically misleading and the cultural polarities we subscribe to are psychologically toxic. But perhaps one of the greatest divides that we humans, woven of inner contradictions as we are, have to grapple with is that between person and persona, our private and public self, the inner world and its outer expression — and hardly any species of human is more chronically bedeviled by this drudging duality than the writer.
In Who’s Writing This?: Notations on the Authorial I with Self-Portraits (public library) — the same superb Borges-inspired 1995 volume that gave us famous authors’ hand-drawn self-portraits and the story of Edward Gorey’s pseudonyms — comes a remarkable meditation on the subject from Joyce Carol Oates, in a short essay titled “‘JCO’ and I” and prefaced by her own collaged self-portrait.
It is a fact that, to that other, nothing ever happens. I, a mortal woman, move through my life with the excited interest of a swimmer in uncharted waters — my predilections are few, but intense — while she, the other, is a mere shadow, a blur, a figure glimpsed in the corner of the eye. Rumors of “JCO” come to me thirdhand and usually unrecognizable, arguing, absurdly, for her historical existence. But while writing exists, writers do not — as all writers know.
Noting that she always beholds photographs of her likeness with “faint bewilderment,” Oates urges the reader not to be deceived about the difference between the likeness and the self, and adds a poignant meditation on the odd cultural tendency to turn a living writer’s persona into taxidermy while the arrow of time carries the person along the trajectory of human life:
“JCO” is not a person, nor even a personality, but a process that has resulted in a sequence of texts. Some of the texts are retained in my (our) memory, but some have bleached out like pages of print left too long in the sun. … I continue to age year by year, if not hour by hour, while “JCO” the other, remains no fixed age — in spiritual essence, perhaps, forever poised between the fever of idealism and the chill of cynicism, a precocious eighteen years old. Yet, can a process be said to have an age? an impulse, a strategy, an obsessive tracery, like planetary orbits to which planets, “real” planets, must conform?
Oates considers the notion of art as something external to the individual, something that inhabits him or her rather at random, and adds to history’s most beautiful definitions of art:
No one wants to believe this obvious truth: The “artist” can inhabit any individual, for the individual is irrelevant to “art.” (And what is “art” — a firestorm rushing through Time, arising from no visible source and conforming to no principles of logic or causality.) “JCO” occasionally mines, and distorts, my personal history; but only because the history is so close at hand, and then only when some idiosyncrasy about it suits her design, or some curious element of the symbolic. If you, a friend of mine, should appear in her work, have no fear — you won’t recognize yourself, any more than I would recognize you.
It would be misleading to describe our relationship as hostile in any emotional sense, for she, being bodiless, having no existence, has no emotions: We are more helpfully defined as diamagnetic, the one repulsing the other as magnetic poles repulse each other, so that “JCO” eclipses me, or, and this is less frequent, I eclipse “JCO,” depending upon the strength of my will.
Oates returns to the central divide between the likeness and the self:
And so my life continues through the decades…not connected in the slightest with that conspicuous other with whom, by accident, I share a name and likeness. The fact seems self-evident that I was but the door through which she entered — “it” entered — but any door would have done as well. Does it matter which entrance you use to enter a walled garden? Once you’re inside, and have closed the door?
For once, not she but I am writing these pages. Or so I believe.
Published January 20, 2014