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Yearning for authenticity

Immersed in a culture of hype and spin, we can’t help longing for something real

By Alanna Mitchell

In an age when reality shows are faked, spin passes for news, hamburgers are filled with pink slime and supermarket foods trumpet the fact that they’re made from “natural” ingredients, where’s the role for authenticity?

Maybe the secret is that we yearn for it. In this modern wilderness, perhaps we are on a communal quest for voices who are trying to recover a cultural and intellectual heritage that has resisted being mashed up and extruded into preformed, ready-to-eat patties.

Authenticity has a wild appeal. I’m thinking of the throaty beauty of the songs of the British phenom Adele, whose second album, 21, explores her breakup with a boyfriend. Not for her Katy Perry’s canned music and cartoon blue hair or Lady Gaga’s flank-steak dress. Instead, Adele’s melodies are true and so is the pain, while her costumes and updos are like something you’d see at a dressy party around your own dining table. She eschews the other pop queens’ emaciation, too, looking like someone who could dig into your meal with gusto. It’s such a relief.

And while the gimmicks of Katy Perry and Lady Gaga are selling loads of albums, Adele is outpacing them both. Her latest has sold more than 22 million copies worldwide, recently sweeping the Grammy Awards with best song, record and album of the year.

That urge for truth-seeking runs through The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by the Harvard University Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt. Greenblatt has painstakingly uncovered the tale of how the 15th-century apostolic secretary and ancient bookhunter Poggio Bracciolini found one of only a handful of remaining copies of the lost Latin poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius. The poem was dangerous. Once Poggio rescued it from a German monastery’s musty library after centuries of obscurity, it literally changed the course of history, Greenblatt avers.

Why dangerous? Not only were Lucretius’s 7,400 hexameters pagan — and therefore automatically suspect in the fundamentalist Christian era of Poggio’s find — but they also scandalously described a world made up of invisible particles constantly in motion, particles that cannot be created or destroyed but only recombined into new entities. These moving bits are atoms, and they link all things, both alive and not, including rocks, rivers and stars. The logical extension is that humans are part of a larger system that has spawned us as well as everything else. When we die, we go back to the bits that made us, and these bits get made into something else.

This means the universe was not created for us, nor do we occupy a place of privilege. There is no afterlife, just bits. And as for the gods, well, in Lucretius’s understanding, they were indifferent to human blandishments, prayers and sacrifices precisely because they were gods. His message is that life is to be lived for pleasure, for beauty, for today.

The poem was deeply subversive even when Lucretius wrote it in the first century BC, being incompatible with the twin Roman cults of the gods and the state, as Greenblatt notes. But during the frenzied inquisitorial spasms of the 15th century and later, talking about the poem was nothing short of a ticket to the rack. Many died from espousing its revolutionary atomic theory, not least the Dominican monk and astronomer Giordano Bruno, whose tongue was bridled and body burned at the stake to silence his heretical ideas in 1600.

The miracle is that the poem survived, escaping the book burnings and bannings the Vatican ordered. It survived covertly, first talked about by the intelligentsia, who passed hand-copied Latin versions around, and then translated into other languages and printed by the presses that had begun springing up. Lucretius’s seditious ideas helped to inflame the Renaissance curiosity, eventually infusing Charles Darwin’s theories, Thomas Jefferson’s contributions to the Declaration of Independence, the concepts of Einstein and Freud, and the spirit of scientific inquiry that has led us ever closer to understanding how those little bits work. You could say this summer’s Higgs boson discovery traces its roots back to Poggio on muleback in the 15th century, searching for forgotten classical texts in the German countryside.

The imperative for authenticity is also a theme of Ian McEwan’s 2010 novel Solar, whose main character, the physicist Michael Beard, is a study in the catastrophes that happen when truth is lacking. Beard won his Nobel Prize early in life, possibly mistaken for someone else, and has dined off the glory for decades, wallowing in gluttony and easy sex, stealing other’s ideas.

Only once in the novel does he feel anything real, and that happens in the book’s final sentence. By then he has lied so much and for so long that he doubts anyone would believe him if he tried to express it. It’s an unforgettable scene, searing because it speaks to the deep modern fear of being unmasked as fake. When there’s so much fakery about, how do you even know what’s real?

This question is particularly poignant in Canada, where it feels like the 15th century all over again. Here, scientists are banned from speaking of their own publicly funded scientific findings to the press. They are driven to march on Parliament Hill to protest against the government’s unwillingness to acknowledge scientific evidence. Unfazed, the federal government continues shutting down government archives and libraries and chopping scientific programs. It’s a book burning in all but name.

Ideas and opinions are suspect too. Here in Canada, if you hold beliefs that are different from government policy, you get labelled seditious. Curiosity, desire, imagination and scientific inquiry are falling under the axe of ideology. Can the Inquisition be far behind?

Perhaps we’ll avoid it. The Renaissance happened despite the Inquisition, after all. And even fantastical ideas, like the theory of atoms or, in contemporary terms, the growth of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, eventually become undeniable.

Maybe today, the greatest thirst is not so much for authenticity as it is for reassurance that there is a difference between what’s real and what’s not. 

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