This post concerns character and voice, but I’m going to start by discussing bees. And Denis Diderot.
In his novel Rameau’s Nephew, Diderot disputed the notion of a distinct and singular human personality. He considered this a holdover from the days of superstition—it smacked of a soul, and other discardable pieties.
Using as a mouthpiece a fictionalized version of the composer Rameau—who was constantly obliged to curry favor with patrons, placate audiences, appease musicians, hold off creditors, sweet-talk paramours—Diderot argued that we assume a given role depending on the social circumstances we face, with completely contradictory roles required in different places at different times.[pullquote]Who am I supposed to be?[/pullquote]
Instead of being steadfast and certain—our “true nature,” or the image of God—human character more resembles a swarm of bees, comprised of dozens, even hundreds of individual poses or personas swirling around a void.
If one of those personas feels more solid or firmly rooted, that’s only because habit, created by the daily assumption of that particular role—dutiful daughter, friendly neighbor, taskmaster boss—has made it more routine, familiar, natural.
But all it takes is a sudden or drastic change in social setting and we find ourselves asking: What’s expected of me here? Who am I supposed to be? [Read more…]