My Many Selves: The Quest for a Plausible Harmony
Wayne C. Booth
Utah State University Press, 2006
(Cross-posted from theredbrickstore.com)
What Would Wayne Do?
In many ways I’m a very lucky guy. My favorite visual artist happens to live in my same town, and she’s at the beginning of her career, so I get to buy her stuff without paying thousands or millions of dollars. Some of my favorite authors, like Margaret Blair Young and Patricia Karamesines, frequent the same email lists and blogs I do. One of my favorite filmmakers knows my first name, as does one of my favorite playwrights. However, my luck ran out on October 2005 when Wayne C. Booth died without finding out that I’m his biggest fan.
Of course, I didn’t realize I was until this last week when I read My Many Selves: The Quest for a Plausible Harmony, published by Utah State University Press. I found out, in fact, that when I grow up, I Wanna Be Wayne.
Booth goes about constructing his autobiography (or Life, as he calls it) in a very strange we. He writes as if he isn’t just one person, but a flesh and blood symposium where a number of different Booths converse and battle for control every day. The reader gets to meet Vain-Booth, Egalitarian-Booth, Thinker-Booth, and yes, even Luster-Booth. Sibyl would have a tough time rounding up enough personalities to play a pick-up game with this crowd.
At first, Booth’s multitude of personae struck me as strange. As a Mormon, I grew up with the idea that a person is a single being with a distinct personality that makes itself felt from premortality to postmortality. Satan is an intruder, trying to introduce impurities into an otherwise (relatively) pure soul. So life was a battle between “me” trying to keep myself intact and “Satan,” who sought to pull me apart.
That premise made for a dramatic life story – me vs. the guy with the horns. But Booth’s multiple-self premise makes for an equally interesting drama — man vs. himselves.
Readers get ringside seats to events such as “The Quarrel Between the Cheater and the Moralist,” “The Puritan Preaches at the Luster While the Hypocrite Covers the Show,” and a very interesting chapter, “The Hypocritical Mormon Missionary Becomes a Skillful Masker, and Discovers Hypocrisy-Upward.”
Being constituted of so many personae, Booth’s world is one where honesty, rather than being simple, is an act of skill. Think about that famous Elder’s quorum question, “What should you do if your wife, quite pleased with her new purchase, asks ‘How does this dress look?’ and you’d like to gouge your eyes out?”
Immediately Fashion Consultant-Carter jumps up and says, “What is that thing, a couch slipcover from a trailer park garage sale in 1979?”
But I Don’t Want to Sleep on the Couch Tonight-Carter says, “What’s wrong a little white lie? Tell her it looks great.”
Then I’ve Read Deborah Tannen-Carter intones, “What makes you think she’s asking about your opinion of her dress? Maybe she just wants you to express your acceptance of her.”
“OK,” Symposium Chair-Carter says, rapping his gavel on the table, “Tannen-Carter has a point. So how do we subtly avoid the dress question while expressing our love?”
Radar-Carter grabs the microphone and shouts, “We’ve been thinking too long, she’s not going to believe anything unless we say something in the next half second!”
What’s a guy to do?
Like the rest of us poor schmucks, Booth finds himself in a myriad of difficult situations where he wants to be honest, but has a hard time, first, generating a moral position, and, second, constructing a skillful way of interacting with the situation. He encounters these situations in academia, family life, grief, love, church, and the army, to name a few.
Honesty as a creative act.
The most interesting example of this is the chapter entitled “The Hypocritical Mormon Missionary Becomes a Skillful Masker, and Discovers Hypocrisy-Upward.” In it, a twenty-year-old Booth finds himself on an LDS mission, but despite his best efforts completely bereft of a testimony. He doesn’t cotton to the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling, or the Church’s other supernatural claims. But being a missionary, he is constantly interacting with people he loves and cares about who DO hold those beliefs.
Even at 20, Booth was a thoughtful enough guy to dig under the surface of this situation. Doing so, he began to see this tension between himself an others not as a battle between his “enlightened” worldview and everybody else’s unenlightened” worldview, but as an opportunity.
The question constantly on his mind was, “How can I reconcile their rhetoric with mine, their surface codes with what I am sure are shared beliefs that are more important than all those literal claims? How can I get each side to understand the other? [...] Inwardly I disagree with you strongly on many crucial points, but outwardly I must seem NOT to, hoping that we can move closer and closer to some point where we REALLY agree – and thus we can make progress together” (125).
Booth’s social conscience really shows through in this chapter. His constant attempts to engage in constructive dialogue with the people around him is astounding to me. He seems to prefer people to principles.
As I read My Many Lives, I was reminded of Eugene England who was constantly trying to help people of disparate views within the Church listen to each other. The only real difference between Booth and England that I could see was that Booth worked in more “worldly” spheres while England focused his work on LDS spheres. I’m grateful to have known both of them, Gene personally and Wayne through his book; to see that two people with such different theological views could harmonize so well in their desire to build community. Which is, I think, what Jesus was after in the first place.
As Booth puts it, “Nothing we ever work at [...] is more important than the drive not just to maintain peace with rivals or enemies or misguided friends, not just to tolerate them generously, not just to condescend to them with a benign smile or hide something they would hate, but to understand them, to learn to think with them while assisting them to think with you in return” (133).
Talk about fridge magnet-worthy.