Essay by Walter Cummins
I’d always thought of Paul Newman as a pretty cool guy—handsome, talented as an actor, entrepreneurial supporter of the same causes I am, married to a very attractive and appealing woman, essentially living the good life. What man wouldn’t want to be like Paul Newman? And so, I was one of many surprised when a book based on taped interviews he had once given portrays him as insecure and uncertain about his own identity and ability. The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man reveals that he didn’t see himself as the man others did.
The actor-director Simon Callow, who appeared in a film—Mr. and Mrs. Bridge—with Newman, in his review of the book for The New York Review of Books, reports that on the movie set he found the man distant and locked within himself. This long review cites passages that exemplify Newman’s judgments of his own weaknesses, exposing the inadequate contrast with the man the world thought he was. Callow uses the term “self-disgust” but finally admits Newman’s performance in the film they shared is “great acting.” He concludes about the book: “As an account of the inner life and struggles of an altogether exceptional human being, it belongs with the best of memoirs, theatrical or otherwise. The only quibble might be with the title: there was nothing in the least ordinary about Paul Newman. He faced his final illness from cancer with great courage, wit, and dignity.”
While seemingly endorsing Newman’s self-deprecation throughout most of the review, Callow ultimately refuses to accept Newman’s negative characterization of himself. Then it struck me, of course: The book is just the man’s opinion of who he was, no more valid than anyone else’s, with no special authority just because he had been talking about himself.
We’re prepared to assume that people’s personal revelations, particularly admissions of weakness, must be taken seriously as accurate because they come from the source. And Newman’s gift for language adds the illusion of insight; for example, “My mother’s dogs were an analog to her children, to that empty decoration running around loose grabbing all the affection while his orphaned core just tried to protect himself from being crushed by the decoration.”
But just because they are creatively articulate doesn’t mean Newman offers valid conclusions rather than merely a questionable self-evaluation. In essence, the book effectively reveals what Paul Newman thought about himself—but doesn’t present a definitive picture of who he actually was.
Then I realized the same is true of me and of you and of everybody, for that matter. No one true judgment is possible. We exist as a multiplicity, each version sharing inevitable characteristics because of the way we are made yet arranged with differing emphases and interpretations. The picture we have of ourselves is no more authentic than that held by our family, friends, and acquaintances. We present the world with a set of attributes as raw materials for ourselves and others to assemble into a picture of who they think we are. The result is a collection of pictures but no single correct one. In fact, it’s quite possible that our self-image is a greater distortion than that of others because we are measuring ourselves against a version of who we think we should be.
Given my profession of teaching literature, I couldn’t help relating this conclusion to the theory of the authorial fallacy, which specifies the error of believing the author of a work is the one person who knows what that work is really about because he or she created it. The concept comes from a 1946 essay by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley in which they argue what the author meant to say and what the writing actually says may be two entirely different things. The author’s intent is not necessarily the result.
Having published more than one hundred short stories, I can’t argue with that conclusion. In fact, in most cases when writing I was focused on developing a convincing plot rather than trying to make a statement. I’ve relied on readers and reviewers to tell me what they think the story is about, aware that their interpretation can make much more sense than mine and usually does.
Similarly, my sense of who I am as a person is just one reading of my presentation to the world. One key difference is that I perceive it from inside, while everyone else does from outside. That unique perspective carries no more authority than that of the author of a literary work. In fact, it may serve as a source of distortion, just as Paul Newman may have been mistaken about himself.
No doubt, the women who married him saw a different man than he did. He had two wives, Joanne Woodward, the second, for fifty years. I can’t speak for her reading of Newman, but I can for my late second wife’s reading of me the first time we met. Over the next forty years that reading often changed, depending on what I did to annoy or please her, but ultimately in her final days she affirmed her initial reaction. She had told me that first evening she knew she wanted to marry a man like me.
Why, I wondered. Was it because I was an academic wearing a tweed jacket, and she had a thing about tweed? Or about academics? Early on she told me that academics were more interesting than the corporate executives who populated her workday. Over the years she liked to tell people that her husband had been her major advisor. I don’t mean to imply that the me she married was a fabrication, rather that certain characteristics she found in me satisfied a need in her that wouldn’t have mattered to other women. While thousands—perhaps millions—of women fantasized a marriage to Paul Newman, her reaction to me was—fortunately—unique.
My wife’s interpretation of me relates to another literary theory that I’ve always found convincing—reader-response theory. It also applies to people creating an image of Paul Newman or anyone developing a sense of another person. Essentially, the work of literature isn’t actualized because the text, which is just words on a page, exists only as potential until it is engaged with the mind of the reader, who is a necessary partner in the creative act, or perhaps more like a catalyst to make the text come to life.
As a result, each reader experiences a somewhat different work based on that reader’s own background and interests at the time. That’s why reading a work at various points in one’s life can be a different experience because the reader comes to the work with new perspectives and different interests.
Ultimately, no one definitive reading of a work can exist. It will vary with the nature of the reader, which is also a shifting set of circumstances. One’s identity as a person is also shifting. Existence precedes essence, as the existentialists say, and there is no such a thing as a singular absolute essence. Like the work I think I am reading, my interpretation of the person I am engaging with, whose essence I have concocted, is mutual creation of our interaction.
The most recent theories in physics that propose a solution to what Einstein saw as the contradiction between gravity and quantum theory resulted in the 2002 Nobel Prize for researchers who proved the inseparability of connected objects even light years apart. The term used to explain the phenomenon is “entanglement.” Dennis Overbyte, writing in The New York Times quotes physic professor Daniel Kabat to explain it:
We’re used to thinking that information about an object — say, that a glass is half-full — is somehow contained within the object. Entanglement means this isn’t correct. Entangled objects don’t have an independent existence with definite properties of their own. Instead they only exist in relation to other objects.
Entangled objects in physics possess an eternal connection. Not so with texts and readers or human with other humans, even with ourselves. And books and humans do have an independent existence. But the essential information within them is latent until released though a connection with another person. A human entanglement is necessary.
But for people, unlike objects, what is revealed through the relationship is not a fact but only a speculation that emerges from the varieties of entanglements, like that of Paul Newman with himself. In fact, those taped interviews may have been a performance, a groping to express an interpretation that might have changed a decade or two later. Writing, acting in a film, or living a life is certain to produce a variety of results depending on the reactions of the perceiver.