Faking It, by William Ian Miller

'Tis the season to be phoney
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

We have reached what is, at least peripherally, the fulcrum of the year's fakery. As the Church by Law Established would have it, God puts on human flesh, we discard many of its lineaments - envy, prudence, spite, restraint - and don the more or less dissembling robes of Christmas at Dickens's Dingley Dell. We welcome the unwelcome, air-kissing those we'd rather air-stab, burying hatchets so temporarily that their edges remain unblunted, scattering randomly infectious bonhomie like so many Typhoid Marys of seasonal goodwill.

This is, at least, a good year for it, and a good time to publish a book on faking and inauthenticity. The fundamentals of democracy, liberty and fair dealing have never been so consistently and soupily dissembled. Our liberties are being constrained under the guise of increasing them; following Saddam's capture we are being fed, behind the transparently phony rhetoric of high purpose, the oldest logical error of all time, the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc. In this case, that means they got Hussein because the "war" was, and is, a just one.

At Christmastide in 2003, a thoughtful exegesis on what it means to be authentic, on how we can not only tell the truth but tell when we're telling it, is just what we need. Nor does William Ian Miller let us down, though his is not a study of public dissembling but of the desirability (or otherwise) and verifiability (or otherwise) of individual authenticity.

As soon as we start to consider the question of fakery, we're up against it. This review, for example, is, like all book reviews, itself a fake, at least in part. It poses as a reasoned assessment coupled with an epitome of the book when, in reality, it's incomplete in both dimensions: just me, the reviewer, trying to impress you, the reader, with the breadth of my own intellect while trying to remember to give you enough of the book's meat to encourage you to read it for yourself.

Does that count? Does that undermine my words? I don't know and Miller isn't sure; but his unsureness, as a good jurisprude - a professor at Michigan Law School - extends to the core of his own identity. Being "William Ian Miller" isn't just to distinguish him from the other plain Bill Millers whose bills he gets sent and who run off with his air miles; it is also, at first glance, a statement of his Wasp credentials.

And yet - just like Jesus Christ - he is in reality a Jew. Would he, he wonders, use his middle name in quite the same way if it were Isidore? If so - or if not - does this mean he is faking it? And what else is he, and you, and me, faking? How can we be sure that he is who he says he is? If we aren't, how can he be sure... and even if he is sure, how can he be sure that the who-or-what he is sure he is, is the who-or-what he really is, even if there is a "really"?

In other words, the core of this learned and deliciously discursive book is Miller's Jewishness (or Jewishlessness), which leads him to the same ur-commandment that issued stonily from the immemorial oracle. Gnothi Seauton: Know Thyself.

Yes; but which self? Miller can't decide where the authentic Miller, in both senses, lies: man, professor, lawyer, son, father, Jew, American, human being... And if only some of these Millers are truly authentic, is the whole then dragged into some degree of inauthenticity by the operation of a kind of proportional representation?

Not that authenticity itself guarantees gratification or even goodness. The person dying of cancer, pain eased by morphine, is not having the authentic experience. But the authentic experience involves clenched fists, beads of sweat, pain and shrieking. We'd be out of our minds not to fake it as often, and as well, as we can.

Applying to our mutable selves the test of authenticity all lawyers must learn ("the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth") would drive the most self-assured of us into a transient lunacy and an endless speculation. Miller considers whether he - and we - can be accused of faking it in just about every circumstance you can think of: at prayer, looking in the mirror, dealing with our children, getting someone into the sack.

When we're being bad or good, modest or vainglorious, apologetic or forgiving, "authentic" or ironical: whatever the nature of our discourse, how can we know whether we are faking it or coming up with the goods? The poet Ian Patterson - a man wrestling with the fakery at the heart of thought's politics - wrote in "Less and Less" of

half a life continuing the social poetry
she called them tributes
to the rhythmic shadows of
the very act of this world
and I call it a game with sticks
by grasping it and any system
to make sense without end...
everyone knows what to do
when they go crazy...

We don't all have access to the certainty of madness's authenticity, and nor is authenticity always necessary or good. The fake apology, Miller observes, is often better than the "meant" one. The fake has obviously cost the apologiser more effort, and thus includes penance as well as self-abasement. Now would be a good moment to point out the common ancestry of the two words: "make" from "machen", and "fake" from "facere". They are German and Latin for - guess what? - the same damned thing.

Miller's academic speciality is, wonderfully, blood-feuds. So when it comes to apology, penance and forgiveness, he speaks with bitter, albeit theoretical, experience. When he writes: "We perform, but we are not professional actors", he hits the nail on the head; but, as so often happens, it drives in a different direction. We do brilliantly, for free, what actors do not so well, for money; and perhaps we are so obsessed with actors and their predictable doings because (like an expensive watch with a crystal back) we can see what they're up to, we can watch the works going round and perhaps get an insight into what we (or the other guys) are up to.

Miller ends up contemplating that the very writing of his book "for public consumption" makes it part of a pose; but that does not make it inauthentic. You bet he secretly knows that while grappling with the endless question of fakery, he is somehow making himself, too, more "authentic". How will he know how well he's doing? The question of self-faking becomes unanswerable the moment it is asked. But what if we never ask it at all? Why, then, we'll never know how much we're faking it. Just ask George and Tony.

Michael Bywater's books include 'Godzone' (Vintage)