Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Spanish writer Javier Marías, which aired on CBC Radio One on October 15, 2017, was another Writers & Company interview that connected perfectly with my own current preoccupations.
Marías is billed as “Spain’s most celebrated contemporary writer,” and is the author of over a dozen novels. The interview focused on Marías’s most recent book, Thus Bad Begins, and included much discussion of Spain’s current and past (Fascist) political environment. However, the part of the interview that hit me hardest came in the last few minutes, when Marías talked about the role of imagination.
He started by saying that fiction set against a backdrop of significant historical events can be “stronger” than any history book because it allows us to witness events through our imagination.
But it’s not only historical events that are enriched by the imagination. He explained: “Even what we live, we have to imagine it, too, in order to live it thoroughly.” As I understand him, when you pass on the events of your daily life to your imagination, you can see your life as a story, or as part of a story. By viewing your life through the prism of imagination, you gain a “richer understanding of your life, and your own self, probably.”
I inwardly said “Yes!” when Marías said the word “richer” to explain how imagination adds to life. We can use our imagination to embellish the facts, but we can also use our imagination to make something happen for real in the future.
Continuing to speak in the language of stories, Marías said, “Some people don’t feel the protagonist in anything, not even their own life—which is terrible! . . . But I know these people” [meaning “people like this”]. He added that when people see themselves as only a secondary or supporting character, even in their own life (emphasis mine), this is wrong!
Marías and Wachtel shared a laugh as they agreed that making a story out of your life can be depressing sometimes. Wachtel joked, “What a dull novel! Nothing happens!” But the point was that no one’s life story need be dull when it is examined with the help of the imagination.
As I listened, I understood the truth of what Marías was saying. I have recognized for a long time that I’m driven to think of my life as a narrative, and to create chapters and short stories within that narrative. I also need to create stories about the important “others” in my life and to explore their backstories—this can help explain how they behave, both generally and within the context of our relationship.
Using the imagination to create stories about our lives is a way of making sense of life’s chaos and randomness, the dazzling multitude of choices we make, the ways others influence us, plus all the happenings of sheer luck or forces we can’t understand.
Another role that imagination plays is in the creation of our persona, the “self” that we present to the world. This persona or “self” includes physical aspects—some unchangeable, but some that can be to a large extent constructed, first with the visionary tool of imagination and then with tangible tools like makeup and clothes. We also reveal our persona through our behaviour and through the stories we tell about ourselves: the things we choose to reveal, hide, or invent.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of “persona” because of a blog I came across recently called The Used Life. The author of this blog considers the shaping of her life and her persona as a daily act of creativity. She is aware of the role of imagination and how it guides us in creating our own persona (or personas).
In one post, she explains her admiration for two famous women, Anaïs Nin and Coco Chanel. The first is most famous for her writing of erotica and memoir; the second for her business success in the world of fashion; but both were geniuses in the art of creating irresistible personas that allowed them to be independent, free, and powerful women at a time when most women were followers defined exclusively by their roles as wives and mothers.
In reading the works of Nin or a biography of Chanel, the writer of The Used Life experiences “an almost euphoric moment of recognition: I can’t believe it! She’s just like me!” The quality she is recognizing in them, which is vitally important to her, is
. . . a desire and an ability to adopt personas, to experiment with different ways of being, a vast and all-consuming curiosity that drives one to constantly become without losing the core of oneself entirely.
I, too, have long been fascinated by Nin’s erotic stories and, especially, her journal. The latter, a lifelong body of writing, has been edited and published in multiple volumes. (See my post on Nin’s journal here.) Nin lived the erotic life she wrote about in her fiction; for her, the creation of many personas, each suitable to her mood and her current experience and partner, was essential.
The author of The Used Life, like Nin, feels that having one persona is not enough; she must continue to fashion herself, “to experiment with different ways of being.”
I, too, recognize the desire to be more than one person, to have fun and be liberated by trying on different personas. This is achieved partly by how you fashion yourself on the outside: the “persona” you present to the world.
But the outside is a manifestation of a reality about yourself that you feel on the inside. It is a recognition of the complexity of competing parts of the self and the variability of moods (including intellectual abilities, sexual appetites and fantasies, the urge to be someone different, travel somewhere different, interact with people outside your “normal” everyday tribe).
There is also the fun of playacting. What can you get away with? How can you make a figment of your imagination (including your presentation of yourself) real? What interactions will happen when you meet those who want to “play” with this “alternate” version of you?
The compulsion to create multiple personas comes from a deeper need than “fun,” though. It comes from the awareness that I contain so many potentialities, and perhaps there is sadness and regret that only a small percentage of them gets realized and manifested. Ultimately, the desire to create multiple personas is a rebellion against the constraint of having only one body and one life to live.