We Hollow Men

Fantastic stories often stray into fantasy—who knew?

As if faux-memoir writer James Frey weren’t enough, hip literary circles have been rocked by the revelation that the author JT LeRoy is just a phantom of two washed-up rockers’ imaginations. LeRoy, HIV-positive queer writer of “autobiographical” childhood truck-stop prostitute tales, does not exist, and his rags-to-riches memoirs are a hoax. Oh, the critics bemoan, what happened to the importance of being honest? Where lies the lost virtue of authenticity?

A better question might be, “Have we lost our grip on reality?”

For several years, everyone acted as if a person named JT LeRoy existed; his publisher paid him, he gave book readings, and fans wrote letters to him. LeRoy told stories of his experiences as an abused child, running away from home, life as a lot lizard turning tricks with passing truck drivers, drug addiction, and HIV—rough, troubled authenticity. Then one day, poof, he disappears, leaving behind unsettling doubts—how much of our own reality depends on artificial, constructed truths?

Our personal identity has been constructed for us. Immersed in media from the moment of birth, we’ve already seen every meaningful moment of our existence enacted a thousand times on the TV screen. From meeting the parents to soft crying at a funeral, movies and television have carefully prepared us for how to act in any given situation; there are no more authentic, naked, and unprepared experiences. Instead, we go through the motions we’ve seen before. As The Postal Service sing, “I kissed you in [the] style [of] Clark Gable”—every guy learned to kiss by watching movie kisses, so every kiss is an imitation.

The media can’t take away the pain of a funeral or the thrill of a kiss, but it robs us of our authenticity; how many of our actions, consciously or not, are based on what we’ve seen done before? Proust can insist “not only upon suffering, but upon respecting the originality of my suffering,” but that perspective vanishes beneath the weight of life previewed. Of course, we aren’t the first generation to grow up with movies and television. This effect existed before, but it is a matter of degree; our simulation differs by being more realistic, more complete.

In the aforementioned Postal Service song, “Clark Gable,” the actor simulates an imitation kiss in the context of a movie, with ersatz rain as a backdrop—“the script it called for rain / but it was clear that day / so we faked it.” It’s an apt reflection of existence; like LeRoy, we live in an artificial, constructed reality.

It is a world where The New York Times can unknowingly run a lengthy profile of LeRoy, a nonexistent person; it’s a world where facts compete, contradict one another, and change with the times. Our decisions about (and knowledge of) the world are largely based on constructed images, not personal experience. I believe that Hilary Clinton is frosty and that Osama bin Laden crashed planes into the World Trade Center not because I had any direct experience with the former first lady or September 11, but because it appears that way on TV.

In other words, because the world is too complex and broad for personal experience, we make use of unstable and inaccurate proxies. Seemingly solid facts, thoughtless orthodoxies considered True, are largely—although not entirely—a matter of perspective. Which makes Jon Stewart’s denunciation of Crossfire wishful thinking. He wants networks to relay the Truth that descends like manna from the heavens. Tragically, there is no such truth—the networks’ cacophony of talking heads is an apt reflection of reality.

But, as both the appeal of LeRoy’s authenticity and the subsequent outrage indicate, we’re in denial about this reality. Instead of accepting that people can have different conclusions—truths—about the world, we want to deride our opponents—those who say “Bush lied” or those who supported the invasion of Iraq—as villains, liars and scoundrels. It is not simply a matter of acknowledging that there are two opinions about each question—one right and one wrong—but recognizing that there can be two sets of facts for each issue, both true.

As LeRoy vanishes into thin air, he reveals our ever-ephemeral grasp on truth and reality. Our world depends on a haphazard balance between manipulated images, unfiltered images, and direct experience. And upon this arbitrary and artificial backdrop—a reality far from terra firma—we play out our personal simulations. It’s an uncomfortable idea: Our existence, seemingly solid and objective, is no less artificial, constructed, and illusory than LeRoy.

So vive le LeRoy’s of this world; they represent the ultimate expression of our age, more true to reality than Truth.

Piotr C. Brzezinski, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.