How many times have you seen this on Facebook? Someone posts about this awesome Mexican restaurant they just discovered, one that sells, like, real street food from Mexico City. Or they put up a picture of a cool old eggbeater they picked up at a tag sale. A garden center near me decorates its walls with 19th-century farm implements. A place called Rejuvenation Hardware offers rusty old hinges and doorknobs (at eye-popping prices). The style sections of The New York Times run stories about Internet tycoons and their artist wives refurbishing barns in upstate New York. The travel sections tell us how to find the real Thailand, or direct us to Languedoc (so much less touristy than Provence). Instagram makes pictures look like … older pictures.
Genuine, vintage, authentic: these are the words that signify spiritual value now for us, and constitute the tokens of our status competition. We hunger for the real to fill us up, and by the real we mean the old or the traditional: anything that isn’t us. The highest praise we can give that lamp or sideboard is that it looks like the kind of thing that’s been in someone’s family for generations, and that’s exactly the illusion that we pay for those objects to give us: the illusion of lineage, continuity, rootedness, memory. Modernity is constant movement, within lives and between generations, a constant shedding and forgetting. We value things that give us the sense of being embedded in space and time, even if we have to buy someone else’s memories, or visit other people’s histories, to get it.
I love it when people say that they “identify as” something or other. “I identify as a Jew.” “I identify as a Southerner.” Buddy, if it’s a choice, it’s not an identity. Identity is not a suit of clothes you take on and off. It’s a skin; it sticks to you whether you like it or not. It’s what other people call you—people with the same identity, people with different ones—not what you decide to consider yourself. History gives it to you, not some kind of “search.” But identity now has become a matter not of belonging or community, both of which are gone, but of, precisely, authenticity. We’re all looking for content, and I don’t mean in the Internet sense. We’re looking for something beyond the stream of images and desires that is constantly flowing through us: something that sticks, something that resists, something that will give us a shape.
But the search for authenticity is futile. If you have to look for it, you’re not going to find it. And if you think you’ve found it—the farmhouse, the village, the music, the food—it’s already gone. It was probably gone before you got to it (which is why you were able to find your way there in the first place), but if it wasn’t, your presence is guaranteed to ruin it.
So what’s the answer? Just assent to your life. You’re middle class? You’re white? You’re Western? So what? That’s just as real as anything else. “We seek other conditions,” Montaigne said, “because we do not understand the use of our own.”