Hollow Heroes Generate False Fictions, Mind Sleuth Says : ‘When the medium itself does not distinguish between actuality and fantasy, judgment is diminished, and this allows for the release of offensive, previously censored aggressive impulses.’
Who hasn’t identified at one time or another with the romantic neuroses of Woody Allen? Or aspired to the unflappable charm of Cary Grant? Perhaps secretly wished for the invincibility of Superman?
It’s fairly common for us to look to movie and TV stars, rock singers and sports heroes as role models, and to incorporate their character traits into our own lives.
Jay Martin explores the sunny and the dark sides of this intriguing subject in his latest book, “Who Am I This Time? Uncovering the Fictive Personality.” Martin is on the faculty of the UC Irvine College of Medicine and is a professor of literature at USC.
I first met him at UCI several years ago when he was conducting a class exploring the creative process as seen in certain movies. With his dual background in psychology and literature, Martin provided many insights to films from “Steppenwolf” to “Tron.” In his book (W.W. Norton & Co., $18.95), he examines case studies from his psychoanalysis practice, as well as examples from headlines.
Two of the most eye-catching subjects are John Lennon’s assassin, Mark David Chapman--who empathized strongly with “Catcher in the Rye’s” alienated protagonist, Holden Caulfield--and John Hinckley, who tried to kill President Reagan after modeling his life and crimes largely after Travis Bickle, the psychotic anti-hero of Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.”
The book has drawn attention from such predictable sources as academic journals and Martin’s peers in the psychology world, and from such high-profile corners as “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and the National Enquirer, which quoted his book in a story that was headlined: “Bizarre Mental Ailment Makes People Assume Famous Identities.”
(I suspect that explains most TV game show hosts.)
For Martin himself, this is no dry academic exploration into the power that heroes can hold. In the introduction, Martin confesses his admiration as a youth for poet-fiction writer Conrad Aiken and writes of how his subsequent contact with Aiken affected his life:
“He became a second father to me. . . . Naturally, my own literary ambitions grew by leaps and bounds. But I also began to learn how interested Aiken was in psychoanalysis. . . . Conrad Aiken’s dual interests, which he passed on to me, led to this doubleness in my own life. But it was perhaps also the doubleness of our times that fused itself into my development.”
In any case, the thrust of the book is to unmask “the fictive personality” that permeates our culture. Martin describes it as “the disease that so disturbed the man who became known as Don Quixote de la Mancha that he replaced his own personality with the fictions that he derived from extensive readings in the tales of chivalric romance.
“He lost or suspended his own unsatisfactory self and replaced it with the characters, thoughts, feelings and actions created by others. Something splendid, as well as something frightening, happened to him as a result.”
Such fictions are integral to the human personality and are nothing new. But Martin goes on to worry that “modern culture has become increasingly differentiated from traditional societies by the enormous enlargement of fictions through the fiction-producing qualities of the media.
“Newspapers (none of us in the media get off the hook), popular magazines, movies and, most of all, television have so flooded modern culture with fictions that many people have difficulty distinguishing between social relations that are real and those that are fantasized.”
In a song titled “Image” from his latest album, T-Bone Burnett hits on the same concept of fantasies and how they can get in the way of genuine communication:
“I had this image of you
You had this image of me
My image would talk to your image
Your image would talk to my image
And somewhere along the line
Our images let each other down.”
Woody Allen has touched on this theme repeatedly throughout his career, from the early “Play It Again, Sam"--in which Allen’s nebbish alter-ego, Allen Felix, tries to live his own life as his role model Humphrey Bogart might have--through the brilliant “Purple Rose of Cairo,” where a ‘30s movie star steps off the screen and wreaks havoc through the irreconcilable clash of fiction and reality.
TV emerges as the prime culprit in Martin’s book, more so than the movies or other media because it is so much more pervasive. “It is a central fact of human life that each person invents a reality in which to live. We do not discover reality,” Martin writes, “we construct it. . . . We create our reality by the way we search for it and what we search for. But, of course, most of us assume that other people also exist and also have constructed for themselves truthful, useful versions of existence.
“When the medium itself does not distinguish between actuality and fantasy, judgment is diminished, and this allows for the release of offensive, previously censored aggressive impulses. Though books have always inspired identifications, television seems to bypass control of the ego, encouraging unmediated identification with the image.”
Martin offers no soothing remedies to combat the media fictions that for too many people replace authentic experience. He simply warns us about them.
“It is neither possible nor desirable to dispense with fictions. But to possess only fictions means to be possessed by them. However many roles we play for others, we must play as few as possible for ourselves.”
No pat answers, no neat and tidy solutions to what seems to be an increasingly pervasive problem. But that’s reality for you.