Friday, April 27, 2007

A Question of Identity

When you look in the mirror
Do you see yourself,
Do you see yourself on the TV screen,
Do you see yourself in the magazine
When you see yourself does it make you scream

X-Ray Specs, Identify

I have a guilty pleasure. Almost a secret. Except I'm blogging about it, of course.

I *love* Victorian 'sensation' novels.

This does relate to modern fiction. I promise.

Those Victorian thrillers are unbelievable freaking potboilers. Any writer living would be hard-put to stir up suspense the way Wilkie Collins could. I mean, stay-up-late-at-night-then-eventually-turn-off-the-light-cause-its-morning-now suspense.

But like Cold War spy novels, the conflict in those Victorian stories tends to be pretty much the same over and over. But where Fleming and LeCarre gave us Communists (and to a lesser extent, our own watchmen), the great threat to Victorian society was loss of identity.

And outdated as both sets of conflicts may seem, they both gave us moments of harrowing thrills that still have us turning pages generations later.

Victorian thrillers were about identity for a reason. Who we were was fragile for the first time EVER in that culture. Before then, people mostly stayed in their own towns and farms. An entry in the church register was all the written record many had of their lives. The meticulous over-documentation of the twentieth century was still in the future.

Identity was fragile.

In the mid-1800's, people were moving around more. They might live miles and miles from that parish register or half a planet away in New Zealand, Austrailia, India or the West Indies. We were who we said we were, and proving the point was a ticklish business. A changed line in a church register, or the unscrupulous lies of an alcoholic scoundrel, could royally fuck up an honest person's life.

The twentieth century changed a lot of stuff. Year after year, we documented more and more of our lives. Those Victorian thrillers became increasingly difficult, maybe even impossible.

Or did they?

These days, identity might be more fragile than ever.

On the one hand, we're us. Inalienable, a priori. I lift my right hand (typing slowly with my left) and touch my chest. My heart beats under my palm. There I am. I'm sure it was the same for the good people of the 1800's.

But how did they prove whose hand did the lifting? Whose heart did the beating? They didn't have driver's licenses, library cards or Visa. They had friends who could vouch for them, letters of introduction and those all-important entries in the parish register or family bible. Not what you'd call incorruptable...

But what are we?

I've got a wallet full of paper. Some of it has my picture on it, some of it just my name, and all of it adds up to a composite of my odd little life. My NZ driver's license is my main ID. I used my Minnesota license to get it. I got *that* with my Social Security number and birth certificate. All my US paper, even the passport I used to move to NZ, all came back to a bit of blue paper and a number.

And news stories have shown us the horrors that await an honest person whose blue paper and number fall into the wrong hands. And what about our online identities? Every bank account I have, the email that runs my work lives, even this blog, all are just a few user names and passwords.

Information is corruptable, and people are infinitely corrupt.

Might be time to look back at some of those Victorian thrillers. They might inspire some ultra-modern thrillers.

PS. I do realize that punk diva Polly Ester was talking about a different aspect of identity, but I couldn't resist the reference...


Charles Gramlich said...

Great point about the nomadic, almost surrealistic identity that many of us live today. Great stuff for a story or series of them. I just finished talking about identity in David Morrell's work, but didn't really pursue it from this direction.

Kate S said...

Very interesting... (pulls on goatee)

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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