Authentic Engagement

A radical way of being.

Alienation and Authenticity

Authenticity is an antidote to feeling invisible and not knowing who you are.

I recently saw the movie The Double. It is based on the novella The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), one of the first existential literary authors and an icon of Russian fiction.

The Double is a story of a young man, in his late 20s, who is incredibly passive and afraid yet quite sincere, earnest, and smart. Life happens to him. He can’t find a way to impact, push back, or flow in his life. The movie starts out with the protagonist, Simon James (portrayed wonderfully by Jessie Eisenberg) sitting on an empty subway. A man about his age dressed in a suit and holding a newspaper gets on the subway and approaches Simon. He tells Simon he is sitting in his seat and Simon must move. Simon is bewildered and appearing defeated, gives up his seat to the man. This passive and reactive stance foreshadows how Simon inhabits his life. He feels invisible and in truth is not recognized by others. He leaves no lasting impression on anyone, including at his office where he has worked in the same cubicle for the last 7 years. He expresses that he is not in control of his life, that he is a puppet on someone else’s strings. As the movie progressed, a new person starts at the same company Simon works for. This person looks identical to Simon and is named James Simon (also portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg), thus the title The Double. However, in terms of his personality, James Simon is the opposite of the protagonist, Simon James. James is charming, magnetic, and manipulative. The movie explores the nature and evolvement of the relationship between Simon and James as it progresses from friends to enemies.

The movie gripped me as it was such a vivid portrayal of alienation of both Simon and James. My interpretation is that they are the same person – but together were so disconnected from their inner life and the world, they don’t realize it. Thus, the powerful demonstration of alienation.

I felt for this young man and was deeply moved by his dilemma. Simon felt helpless and impotent to impact his world, even though he knew what he wanted. While Simon felt deep desires (to make an important contribution at work and to date the girl who was the copier clerk at the office), these desires remained only wishes because his efforts to be noticed and heard were ineffectual. Simon didn’t exist to others. He recognized himself, but was alienated to the world. James, on the other hand, didn’t know who he was beyond his manipulation and charm, which he used to get recognition at the work place and to date the copier clerk. However, James didn’t have a true sense of self. He didn’t exist without others. He was recognized by the world, but alienated to himself.

Being authentic is the opposite of alienation. It is knowing that you are the agent of your life. Being authentic means I interact with life in a powerful and meaningful way. I know who I am. I intend to access all aspects of who I am. I feel into my experience, and become aware of my authentic needs. I am aware I have choices in how I respond to my needs in relationship to others. I can take a stand, popular or not. I can fit in and stand out. I am visible. I am recognized. I both impact my world and respond to it.

In the opening scene of The Double on the subway, Simon seemed to connect with his fear and anger, but felt impotent to fight back. If he was connected to his authenticity in relationship to others, he could have drawn on a resolve that he wasn’t going to be pushed around, regardless of the consequences. For instance, he could have challenged the man about the absurdity of demanding Simon’s seat when the entire subway was empty. He could have refused to move.

Instead of focusing on manipulating others to get what he wanted, James could have accessed vulnerable aspects of himself. He seemed to be in complete denial of his vulnerability. For instance, he didn’t know the material to pass his entrance exam, so he coerced Simon to take the test for him. He manipulated Simon into introducing him to the copier clerk, then outwitted Simon and dated the clerk. It seemed James lived an image of a confident man capable of getting all his needs met by manipulating others. He did not recognize his vulnerability and his lack of confidence to be smart enough and disciplined enough to pass the exam, or meet the woman on his own merits. If James was connected to his authentic self, he could have acknowledged his vulnerability and explored it with Simon. The result could have been he takes the exam on his own right away and takes his chances, or decides to take it at a later date once he has prepared.

Authenticity and alienation are on a continuum. I believe that we can all identify with being in a place where we are uncertain about who we are and what we really want. There is some level of alienation from ourselves. Also, I believe we can all identify with being in a place where we are clear about what we want, but are ineffective in our interactions with the world to actualize what we want. When this happens, there is some level of alienation to the world.

The aim is always to move away from alienation and towards authenticity. Whether it is in relationship to ourselves or in relationship to the world, it is helpful to know our ways we don’t connect to ourselves or the world. Once we become aware of that, it is an opportunity for us to be more authentic.

 

Bob Edelstein, L.M.F.T., M.F.T., is an existential humanistic psychotherapist based in Portland, Oregon.

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