Hunger for the Whole

Forward: Sorry this is a bit of a long one—but I think I stumbled on an idea that I may want to research more!

Egan’s Look At Me is populated by references to the currents of dualities which define life: real and imaginary, material and immaterial, appearance and existence. A primary example of this duality is Swenson’s shadow self. The shadow self, Egan, through the voice of Swenson, is “the caricature that clings to reach of us, revealing itself in odd moments when we laugh of fall still,” or simply, who we are when we believe no one is watching (42).

Looking at the book through the framework of hunger and appetite, Look At Me diverges from previous readings in Kraus’ Aliens and Anorexia and Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist” in its attention to appetite’s counterpart, consumption. Consumption, in this context, refers to the the seeking of experiences, emotions, personas, and the like for the purpose of resolving discomfort, either through distraction or momentary pleasure. The plot of the book is driven not by hunger explicitly, but the consumption of its characters—Charlotte [Swenson]’s manic schemes to recover her career and identity after her accident, Moose’s hyperfixation on his historical research, young Charlotte’s numerous attempts to immerse herself in romances—each character we encounter is desperately engaging in activities to stave off the gnawing feeling of alienation from not only the other people in their lives, but their reality and identity altogether.

Swenson briefly comes to awareness of her own interior duplicity, as she reflects on her Parisian affair with Henri:

“In moments, I clutched at the notion of some larger ‘me’ that could contain and justify my contradictory behavior, but more often I simply felt like the scene of two irreconcilable visions, two different people (104).”

Swenson’s identity, particularly following the accident, is characterized by her flight from self-reflection and admission. Her encounters with Irene challenge this instinct in her, forcing her to reconcile her “shadow self” with the many colorful personas which she dons at her own convenience.

The shadow self of Egan’s mythology represents a dissociation between the performance composed by every person and the self which lies beneath. The idea is not presented within the text as a reconcilable phenomenon, merely a fact of modern life. Christopher Lasch discusses this phenomenon in his seminal work, The Culture of Narcissism:

“To the performing self, the only reality is the identity he can construct out of materials furnished by advertising and mass culture, themes of popular film and fiction, and fragments torn form a vast range of cultural traditions… imprisoned in his self-awareness, modern man longs for the lost innocence of spontaneous feeling.”  (166-167)

The modern performative self, in its best efforts to cordon off its shadow counterpart, seeks the validation and encouragement of those perceiving it. This causes distress and alienation within the subject, only fueling this consumptive urge to feed the performance with more affects of the world it seeks to please.

Sherry Turkle, in her work Alone Together, addresses social consumption in the context of technological communication. She describes the performative self as, “a personality so fragile that it needs constant support,” engaging in conversations with a rolodex of ‘close friends’ seeking the validation it so craves. “You can take what you need and move on. And, if not gratified, you can try someone else,” she continues (167).

Returning to the idea of hunger, Egan’s Look At Me balks at hunger and want at large as conceived in other works. Media, attention, sympathy, confessions—no one starves in the age of mass culture and technology. Rather, we binge any and everything stimulating. The contemporary individual is a godless glutton, in constant want of an emotion, relationship, project to spirit us away and give our lives meaning. Our shadow selves are starving for spiritual peace and self-reconciliation, but a culture of hyperactivity makes that seem entirely inconceivable.

The union of the shadow and material self is critical to the harmony theorists gesture toward, but how does one arrive there? Abject livid starvation, as enumerated in Kraus’ work, serves a similar, albeit masochistic, means of vacant, temporary stimulation. Does the holy union of shadow and material look like the coveted middle ground— a temporary hunger, only meant to serve as an impetus toward action, coupled with the realization of emotional patience, mediated through God, therapy, or a secure attachment style?

In the meantime, modern life is a buffet, and we all have a lifetime ticket.

Works Cited

Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissism : American Life in Age of Diminishing Expectations. Warner Books, 1983.

One comment

  1. Cleo, I really enjoyed this – and if, as you say, your interest has been piqued as regards a larger project, I think you’ll find lots more in Alexandra Kleeman’s work to go on with, which takes as its jumping off point one of the questions you pose here: ‘The union of the shadow and material self is critical to the harmony theorists gesture toward, but how does one arrive there?’

    You mark a move from abnegation to consumption (or from starvation to gorging, even) as a central one between Kraus and Egan, making the acute observation that ‘consumption’ – what we might even call desire (appetite attached to an object) – is the ‘engine’ of plot in the novel (it’s interesting too that you loosely frame this in terms of generic investment, even before our class discussion: Charlotte ‘invests’ in the redemption arc promised by professional success; Moose immerses himself in the discourse of history; young Charlotte tries to write herself into a romance).

    You capture something else here about the place of motion and movement in the novel, and the way in which these ‘journeys’ end not in resolution but in – not necessarily disaster, but certainly not in any neat conclusion (cf. Morgan on the ‘cyclical’ nature of the plot/form of the novel; think also about how desire operates in consumerist culture, always deferred and displaced through the commodity form so that our hunger for the human can never truly be sated. Or, per Morgan again, ‘Why does everyone in this book want to take their wives on holiday??’ lol). This connects too to the Lasch quotation you use and this concern with the ‘lost innocence of spontaneous feeling,’ which very closely recalls the Wallacian anxiety regarding the other-directedness of interiority in the ‘advertising age’ (according to Adam Kelly), but also reminds me of the Beats and their connection between spontaneity and authenticity – think On the Road again, eh? We could think about Egan’s use of the novel form in light of this too, and Deepali’s suggestion that the novelist is faced with a certain lack of novelty (hahaha) – what to do when everything has been done before? Well, Egan seems to say, why not do it all, again.

    The central question you seem to be asking here is what we want (though whether I mean we as readers, as wider society, or what, I’m not even sure myself – perhaps all of that??!) – that is, is it satisfaction that we seek, or seeking itself? How do or might we resist the impetus to consume and the restlessness of the self motivated by this ceaseless appetite? There is a connection here to Nikolas Rose’s work, which I mention in this week’s lecture (please do not talk to me about the lecture just now…things have not gone according to plan!): Rose sees the rise of psy culture as instantiating a project of self that lacks any substantive ethical dimension, and ties us instead to this ‘journey’ model of constant striving and becoming, under the guise of offering us ‘freedom.’

    In light of this, it’s interesting to think about the ending (or should that be beginning??) of LaM, in which we learn that Charlotte has actually completed that process of self-abnegation Kraus outlined in her work; she’s not-Charlotte now, whoever that is. And yet we, the reader, find ourselves still stuck with the Charlotte we thought we knew, turning back to the text to look for clues that might tell us more, but only thrown back into the imaginative world built for us by Jennifer Egan. Cleo – is there no way out?!

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