I have long wondered about the importance (or lack thereof) in ascribing authenticity to something. Authentic.
I think the first time I questioned it was probably about 15 years or so ago, living in Santa Fe, working in the restaurant world, when the Balsamic Wars were starting. Authentic was a word you wanted to use, when describing the vinegar with which you would be massaging your hand picked wild arugula. Followed by a topping of authentic manchego, perhaps, or in the style of authentic Italian cuisine. The implication, of course, was that unless you had genuinely certified authentic items, you were lesser than. It separated you from the hoi polloi of grocery items.
Santa Fe was a crossroads kind of place, where people come to simultaneously get lost and get found. To shed their layers and take on new ones, to become their authentic self. Shirley McClain flew off her authentic magic mountain, Oprah had an authentic adobe up the road. We all lived the realest, most authentic way we could- sometimes just for the principle of it all. And, as often as not, life was hard and people were still disappointing cads. Perhaps, the real authentic self was not as exciting as the imaginary authentic self.
I occasionally have mused over the media battle for the big descriptors, the nth degree, who gets to claim something so often it becomes meaningless. When the word authenticity becomes an advertisement and loses its essence. How is this meaningful, to me? Some years ago, living in Scandinavia, I stumbled upon a beautiful handmade bag of sealskin, and bone or tusk beads, probably from Greenland. It was sitting on the rack of other used bags at the little thrift store down the street. I bought it for my sister, because she has an appreciation for these kinds of collectables, although I have no idea how authentic it was. I mean, it looked, smelled and felt like what I imagine a handcut, air dried seal fur would be like. There were no signs of industrial manufacture. I had a little fantasy that an Inuit lady had crafted this bag, to carry her sundry items while kayaking among the bergs or collecting lichens on the rocks. Maybe a real Inuit had made it for tourists.
I live in Arizona, where the whole world of the real wild west really lives and breathes, authentic America. My years of anthropology had me struggling with who deigns to designate this title. Surely, handmade jewelry made by "real Indians" and sold to tourists on the side of the road was authentic. Yet, when made with modern beads of plastics, and cords I could buy at the bead store, I wondered where the authenticity lay. In the creator, or the buyer. It's so important for people to feel as if something is real. I had studied iconography, I had understood the importance the connection to a real (though imagined) person, place or happening. As I would never be Native American, could I ever make authentic jewelry- even if my beads and threads and needles and patterns came from a Native American outfit?
But, it is not beads or bags or balsamic vinegar that really matters to me. At least not anymore, as I have looked past the persona of authenticity and thought about what really mattered. My desire to collect unique things waned, as I had to weigh the cost versus benefit of acquisition. Traditional had been vying with authentic in the parlance of genuine experience. Material culture had to adapt to modern availability of materials and techniques. It became more important, to me, to like something because I liked it- not because it appeared to have value. I can appreciate a lucky find on Antique Road Show, but that is a world I have left behind me.
A few weeks ago, I was at a spectacular lecture on a specific herb, Rauwolfia serpentina, and its traditional uses. It is a strong cardiotonic, used to treat hypertension much the way one might employ a beta blocker. Traditional use goes back thousands of years into TCM and Ayurveda, long before concepts like hypertension existed. Instead, the paradigms of health used words like hot, excessive, manic, restless, red, pulsing, insomniac. One is cautioned, if using Rauwolfia as a cardiotonic, to watch for mild depression. The spirit lies in the heart, and depression is often linked to heart disease, trauma, loss, broken hearts. Wild pulsing raging hearts caught in the throes of excess can be tuned down too much, slowed too much, cooled too much.
What was most interesting about this lecture was not the specific actions of the reserpine alkaloids. It was the speaker's side trip into the world of authenticity. Why hypertension? For many, a life of accumulation, of excess, of overconsumption, of constant acquisition, of identifying in those things. When do we find depression, with Rauwolfia? Perhaps, he suggested, when the heart is "toned" and the awareness of living this life- an unauthentic life- brings the depression to the fore. The realization that all this excess, this consumption, this acquisition, this drive towards what we believe is relevant- and recognition that it is perhaps not all we have imagined it to be. This tends to happen around mid-life, socially and biologically, but it can come at any time. The moment of realization may be painful, but needn't be debilitating.
How much of our lives are busy presenting our idealized self to others? How much of that is authentic? What if we don't like how we "really" are? Can we change this, and truly become someone else, something else? How many skins do we need to shed, or clothes do we need to try on? If I make you something with my heart in it, is that authentic enough?