I’ve been worried about the word “authentic” recently. I just don’t understand what it means any more. In fact, I’m worried that it doesn’t mean anything.
Oh, I get what “authentic” means when applied to an object, particularly an art object or an antique. Let’s say, for instance, that you just bought an “authentic Navajo saddle blanket”. Presumably that means a Navajo wove the blanket in a traditional style. If a gringo had woven a similar blanket using traditional techniques, it wouldn’t be “authentically” Navajo.
What if a Navajo decides to become an abstract expressionist and weaves a blanket in the style of Mark Rothko? Is that still authentically Navajo? It’s an interesting comparison because – if you look at blankets as art – Navajos may well have been the first abstract expressionists. So is the saddle blanket depicted here authentically Navajo, or authentically abstract expressionist, or an authentic precursor to Rothko?
It gets even weirder as we apply “authentic” to people. Self-help enthusiasts tell me that I should be my “authentic” self. Well, OK … but who else would I be? Is my “authentic” self somehow different from the self that I’ve grown so comfortable with over the years? Is it somehow trimmed or edited?
And how does my “authentic” self relate to reality? I’m the product not only of my own efforts but also of many years of bumping into other people. Like a stone in a river, I’ve been shaped by millions of interactions with other people. Is that shaping process part of my “authentic” self or should I just ignore it?
And what does “authentic” mean when it’s applied to literature? I’ve heard authors, especially novelists, described as “an authentic voice of XYZ”. Then I read their books. They’re depressing. In fact, here’s what “authentic” novels seem to have in common: They’re about poor people or outsiders. They’re pessimistic. They rail against the establishment (or just rich people in general). They’re angry. Has a happy novel ever been described as “authentic”?
Don’t get me wrong — some “authentic voice” novels are superb. For instance, I think Vilhelm Moberg provided an authentic voice of the 19th century Swedish diaspora in his novel, The Emigrants. It’s an epic story about people who must choose between famine and emigration. It’s about poor people; it’s pessimistic; it’s depressing. It’s also great.
But why are only sad, depressing, pessimistic novels described as authentic? Is there something inauthentic about happiness? Denmark is often described as the happiest country in the world. Does that mean that Danes are inauthentic? (Well, there’s always Hamlet – was he more authentic than modern Danes?) Similarly, could you write a novel with a happy ending and call it “authentic”? Or, as one critic put it, is a happy novel just “too working class”?
I’ve decided not to use the word “authentic” until I get a better handle on what exactly it means. In the meantime, I have a simple question: Is “authentic” authentic?