On pretending

I invoked a trite classic Kurt Vonnegut quote recently in class as a portal into a conversation lecture about socialization: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” Naturally, I then proceeded not to be careful at all.

But who do I mean by “I” in any use of the concept? Like Borges in “Borges and I,” I’m not sure who’s writing this, and I’m not sure who’s now not sure (nor when now even is)…and so it’s “I” turtles all the way down.

Rather than get lost in the infinite regress of the self, I want to address the current part I’m playing. It’s a character called “Mr. Canelli.” He’s my height and weight, and he bears all the trappings of me, but he’s obligated to dress up. He dons relatively fresh slim to extra slim fit Marc Anthony suits, or pants and coats from what he thought was a bygone life; his once dusty tie rack has been pulled out of retirement. Tied up or tied down, the connotation for “Mr. Canelli” isn’t great. So it goes.

He marches around town on his way to an imposing campus every weekday morning, appropriately fashioned and dutifully prepared. He makes his way into brick buildings; he writes words on white boards and connects his computer to a projector. He invites students to be here now with him, except he’s not sure if he is even there; he is sure that “Mr. Canelli” is. A podium invites “Mr. Canelli’s” authority; his suit – buttoned up tightly like his environment – demands it.

He follows Order without orders.

He speaks and ignores the way his words turn into kamikaze pilots, missing his students and striking the floor. The students ignore it too. They think they “get it.” Or at least enough of “it” to make do. To make the grade.

He adjusts his tie. The students reassure him his costume is on straight without saying anything. Without saying anything, the students reassure him his costume is on straight. The show goes on. He returns to his script. The class ends without a bell. So it goes.

So who is “Mr. Canelli?” No one’s given him a script; no one’s stopped him from teaching however he pleases; no one’s told him to be anyone except himself. Is it that he doesn’t accept himself? Or is it that this particular self isn’t his to accept? But if he’s not “Mr. Canelli,” if he’s only pretending to be, then who is he?

Better yet, who’s the one behind it all, the original pretender? What force precedes the conception of “I,” the thing I point to? Is the “I” who names the same as the “I” who is named? Is the identifier also the identified? In the end, perhaps all we can do is pretend.

Then again, “I” don’t know who “we” are. So it goes. Whatever “it” is.


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