The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity by Richard Todd. Riverhead. 272 pages. &16.47
Probing inner truth in this edgy moment, Richard Todd finds much that feels inauthentic, empty, drained of meaning. Once executive editor of The Atlantic Monthly, Todd’s been paying attention a long time and he lives in a place reeking with history, western Massachusetts. He wants to know the source of this malaise and why we hunger after authenticity—and what is that, anyway? In our neighborhoods New England saltboxes and Capes clash with split-level ranches and Bauhaus beach houses, the garages jammed with junk we once craved. Meanwhile, information hits us in an even wilder semiotic stew. The onslaught of ideas and events shorn of context is too great for much to be carried feelingly into our hearts.
And he wonders: is this lament itself just human vanity offended by human vanity?
The Thing Itself begins with Todd’s purchase of a rustic wooden box, supposedly a 200-year-old antique, for $200. Immediately his faint sense of larceny for snatching a bargain gives way to the suspicion that he’s been had. He’s right. The forgery spurs his ramble into America in search of solidity. The endless blows to his ego are funny. At Disney World he stumbles into a “character breakfast,” and Chip, a human stuffed inside an animal suit, musses his hair and mauls his vanity. In a Las Vegas bar he watches geysers choreographed to Appalachian Spring, the spectacle an oddly pleasant sacrilege. At colonial theme parks he’s baleful witness to docents of a certain age wearing mobcaps.
To curmudgeonly Todd, American culture seems the sad residue of authenticity that’s dead and gone. Take the mall: the farmer sold out for a profit; the developer bulldozed the woods and fields for gain; the mall’s cash registers are busy; and we stampede there in welcome postmodern anonymity. “Yet something unfortunate has happened here,” he writes. “You can feel it. As you drive past, the scene is not uplifting. No one has been exploited, but everyone has. This is the feeling, of course, that exudes from much of built America, from our endless date-raped landscapes. Something that began as consensual has ended in tears.”
The Thing Itself is impressive for the way it deftly references great thinkers and poets. My only displeasure was Todd’s dismissal of spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle, whose bestselling critique of ego, A New Earth, he reads in a predatory way. Todd’s real beef here is longstanding: the apparent tension between blissed-out being and restless striving. The notion of too many folks unproductively at peace in the republic unsettles his Yankee soul. He wonders how we’ll get anything done. But the title of The Thing Itself is from a poem, by Wallace Stevens, that refutes Todd’s concern. Stevens took the line from Shakespeare’s meditation in King Lear upon man’s humble animal physicality, the “poor, bare, fork’d animal,” beneath ego’s facade. Stevens’s poem is about a man hearing a bird sing, really hearing the daybreak birdsong, because his ego had fallen away and he was in the moment—not in the past, fighting his dead parents, or in the future, rehearsing his Pulitzer speech. It’s about a man who just was—and then who wrote a poem.
Todd’s book isn’t pedantry or a screed, though, but a warm, creative work. The author is aware of when he’s being snooty, and he cheerfully chronicles his defeat by the rampant personal and corporate folly of our time. His message in a bottle—Hey, this is how it looks and feels to me over here—isn’t a memoir, but as it proceeds we glimpse his key moments. In these scenes he’s getting hurt or behaving badly. Like any adult, he’s haunted. Which should remind us that anyone worth knowing has let himself down. Few, however, pass through life as thoughtfully as Mr. Todd.
The Thing Itself leaves us with the cheering sense that despite our diminished situation our historic burden hasn’t shifted. We’re a clever species that craves goodness. We yearn to be more than our urges. In another day, the authentic self we desire might have been called (without irony) soul. This book suggests we keep a cold eye on society but see what’s holy. That we notice and nurture our inner lives. In this way it rejoins us to the ancient conversation on what it means to be human. “Most people can’t be saints, and most objects can’t be art,” Todd observes, “but in each case the extent to which they are marked by the impulse toward grace is a measure of their worth.”