The Problem of Character

What is it, really? What is personhood? Can anyone say that he knows who he is–particularly, what’s original in him and what was contributed by mother, father, John Wayne, Homer Simpson, JFK, or the Marx Brothers? Or, do the people we know, watch, and emulate pour through us, leaving their sayings and ideals which we incorporate and make our own? The question is particularly important for a novelist, for the characters she thinks she is “creating” may have made several appearances in the books she’s read and movies she’s watched, and only seem original because she’s named them. The mind teems with stock characters: what may seem like Venus springing fresh to life in a spray of sea foam is actually a painting by Botticelli, reproduced in countless books and TV documentaries. It’s art trading with art, not drawing from life. As art surrounds us more and more it’s difficult to distinguish the two. Art swapping with art is increasingly shallow and bizarre, but life trading with life is mere biology. Art and life need each other: Hamlet draws from his audience a much as they draw from him.

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