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We Have a Winner of the Summarize Proust Contest

Summarizing Proust may not have been William Deresiewicz’s intention, but that’s what he does:

I love it when people say that they “identify as” something or other. “I identify as a Jew.” “I identify as a Southerner.” Buddy, if it’s a choice, it’s not an identity. Identity is not a suit of clothes you take on and off. It’s a skin; it sticks to you whether you like it or not. It’s what other people call you—people with the same identity, people with different ones—not what you decide to consider yourself. History gives it to you, not some kind of “search.” But identity now has become a matter not of belonging or community, both of which are gone, but of, precisely, authenticity. We’re all looking for content, and I don’t mean in the Internet sense. We’re looking for something beyond the stream of images and desires that is constantly flowing through us: something that sticks, something that resists, something that will give us a shape.

But the search for authenticity is futile. If you have to look for it, you’re not going to find it. And if you think you’ve found it—the farmhouse, the village, the music, the food—it’s already gone. It was probably gone before you got to it (which is why you were able to find your way there in the first place), but if it wasn’t, your presence is guaranteed to ruin it.

So what’s the answer? Just assent to your life. You’re middle class? You’re white? You’re Western? So what? That’s just as real as anything else. “We seek other conditions,” Montaigne said, “because we do not understand the use of our own.”

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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