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Ron Rosenbaum has intrigued me re: an aspect of Hitler's personality
December 16, 2013 3:59 PM   Subscribe

Reading his "Explaining Hitler" a while back, Ron Rosenbaum briefly mentioned reading various explorations of Hitler's personality, one of which touched on the possibility that Hitler was not actually Hitler, but was merely 'acting like Hitler' and was very aware of the gap between real man and created monster. And I just thought he was nuts. While not overly concerned with Hitler himself, I am extremely interested in that idea: that people can be themselves, or other than themselves, or intentionally act like themselves on a long-term and global scale. I feel that way once in a while myself. It is a very hard topic to google, though (or explain, clearly), and my skills are thin. Does anyone know of this literature he referred to or anything similar? Or even what such a thing might be called?

Rosenbaum himself only mentioned it in passing whilst describing Claude Lanzmann's refusal to consider any fact about Hitler whatsoever outside of the reality of his deeds. I understand that refusal, but I am curious as to the internal monologue of someone so over-the-top evil. I've re-perused Hofstadter but that doesn't seem like anything he's quite touched on. I have always assumed that rationalization could lead one to self-delude your way out of a lot of things; but the notion that someone could consciously construct a representation that ended up being the historical Hitler is breathtakingly weird. But so are humans. Thanks for anything anyone comes up with.
posted by umberto to Religion & Philosophy (18 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." says Vonnegut in a novel about a Nazi war criminal. Not quite Hitler, but it's somewhere to start.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:09 PM on December 16, 2013 [9 favorites]


You might be interested in exploring George Wallace. Famous for supporting segregation, he was actually personally progressive on race politics. After losing his first [gubernatorial] race, he made the conscious decision to run as a vocal segregationist in order to implement other democratic policies on poverty and education.
posted by politikitty at 4:18 PM on December 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


Would Dramaturgy apply?

"In dramaturgical sociology it is argued that the elements of human interactions are dependent upon time, place, and audience. In other words, to Goffman, the self is a sense of who one is, a dramatic effect emerging from the immediate scene being presented. Goffman forms a theatrical metaphor in defining the method in which one human being presents itself to another based on cultural values, norms, and expectations."
posted by JoeZydeco at 4:25 PM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Reality TV.

Paris Hilton has openly said she was just playing a character of herself.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 4:31 PM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think this would fit in somewhere around performance theory (i.e. the idea that speech and actions are a deliberate performance), but I'm not 100% sure on that one.
posted by graymouser at 4:44 PM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Building on the Dramaturgy angle, read Erving Goffman, including his "A Presentation of Self in Everyday Life" - you can me-mail me if you want a PDF of an article of his that clearly outlines his main points. I got it in my communications class.

The other thing you're talking about could be True Self / False Self AKA Personality Disorders, where the ego-self-representation is really poorly constructed and bears little connection to the true self. Our true self is our authentic self - what we really feel, think, want, need. Through bad parenting (abuse, lack of love or attention, poor emotional mirroring etc.) a person can develop and then identify with a False Self i.e. they actually have no idea who they really are, and can feasibly live their lives acting out this false self, with no actual connection to their feelings. Such people are very shallow, or hollow (empty). For these ideas you could read James F. Masterson & Robert Firestone. Masterson looks at false self vis a vis personality disorders, whereas Firestone looks at more "benign" situations where people in relationships avoid intimacy or rejection by dancing around their true selves i.e. an authentic interpersonal interaction.

Finally you could look into Wilfred Bion's work on basic assumption groups i.e. the patterns we unconsciously enact when in a group setting (like at work) which again bear little resemblance to the work at hand, and more people acting out patterns that feel real at the time but are really just unconscious processes kicking in. Authentic people are more impervious to this, and less authentic people will get sucked in. To that end (and for a real mind-fuck), attend a T-group and watch them come out of yourself and others.

On re-read - these might not grab you at all, since what I've mentioned above largely deal with personalities / behaviors that manifest out of unconscious processes.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 4:45 PM on December 16, 2013 [6 favorites]


To say that high-profile individuals like politicians (or dictators) display personas that are uniquely tailored for particular situations is nothing new or revolutionary.

Actors do this sort of thing all the time.

It's fairly well-known that Hitler practised oratory with a coach, for example, and you could say everything he did was fine-tuned and intended to manipulate his audience.

People who are referred to colloquially as "sociopaths" or "psychopaths" do this as well.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:47 PM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ron Rosenbaum briefly mentioned reading various explorations of Hitler's personality, one of which touched on the possibility that Hitler was not actually Hitler, but was merely 'acting like Hitler' and was very aware of the gap between real man and created monster.

We can't really evaluate how true the assertion is for Hitler's case, but it's easy to see in regular life that there's tremendous variation in the degree of harmony between someone's perception of their authentic self and the roles they play for instrumental purposes like work. Some people really identify with their role and adopt it as a part of their personal identity, and some people just do what their role demands simply because it demands it, and have a sense of self that's not really connected to it. So I think that "acting like themselves" is a distinction without a difference, because you're either consciously playing a role or you aren't, and for analytic purposes I can't see how it matters if that role is vice president of a company or Yourself, a person who has their own mythology.

I am extremely interested in that idea: that people can be themselves, or other than themselves, or intentionally act like themselves on a long-term and global scale.

Again, I would say it's not clear how you'd go about drawing a really firm line between "being yourself" and "acting like yourself" since "being" yourself presumably entails action that proceeds, in some deterministic sense, from identity and native inclination. Acting like yourself isn't so much a distinct mode of being as it is a performance, like any other, which is successful when it convinces other people of what you want them to believe, but in this case there's the additional agenda involved with convincing them that you're not just playing a role, which is itself a basic and fundamental component of conveying authenticity and autonomy.

Does anyone know of this literature he referred to or anything similar? Or even what such a thing might be called?

Sociology and psychology both have literatures that address this cluster of issues, but somewhat differently. As two others already mentioned, Erving Goffman's work on self-presentation would be a good place to start. The literature you're interested in could be characterized as "performativity" and if you just google that (or do a google scholar search: http://scholar.google.com/), you'll probably come up with a lot of resources. You could also look into the scholarship that exists on charismatic leadership and how such leaders manage their reputation and their followers. Look for cases of charismatic leaders who failed at some point in their careers and you'll find people who were unable to convince others of something important, and that will help illuminate the way these things work.
posted by clockzero at 5:08 PM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


An interesting tangent as far as Hitler is concerned is considering just how much being medicated all the time affected his ability to function as a rational person cognizant of his own self.
posted by Fukiyama at 5:19 PM on December 16, 2013


I guess, clockzero, what I am curious about is my feeling that there is indeed a real difference between being yourself and acting like yourself, regardless of the imperceptibility of that outwardly. It makes no difference, on the one hand; and all the difference on the other.

These are all interesting and great responses with much to read. I have always been a performer so am very aware of the created difference between person and persona. Perhaps because of what I do I am interested in the ACTUAL difference: I feel strongly that there are people in the world who ARE themselves --and in fact have a difficult time being anything otherwise-- and people who carry on lifelong PERFORMANCES as themselves, who find it easier to be something that they are not. And I think various personality disorders can sometimes be ascribed to an inablity to cross between or deal with the difference between the two. Again, hard to explain. But thanks, everyone. "Mother Night" is underregarded, I love that quote, and while I was familiar with theatrical dramaturgs, the societal aspect was new to me. Thank you all.
posted by umberto at 5:45 PM on December 16, 2013


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posted by jessamyn at 6:24 PM on December 16, 2013


I guess, clockzero, what I am curious about is my feeling that there is indeed a real difference between being yourself and acting like yourself, regardless of the imperceptibility of that outwardly. It makes no difference, on the one hand; and all the difference on the other...I feel strongly that there are people in the world who ARE themselves --and in fact have a difficult time being anything otherwise-- and people who carry on lifelong PERFORMANCES as themselves, who find it easier to be something that they are not.

It seems like you're explaining that the difference is not between ways of behaving, choosing either to be yourself or act like yourself, but between two types: people who are constitutionally inclined toward being outwardly authentic about their internal experience of themselves, on the one hand, and those whose behavior and affect have an arbitrary relationship with their internal experience of themselves on the other. Is that right?
posted by clockzero at 7:13 PM on December 16, 2013


I was going to say that too, it sounds like you are interested in people who are habitually deeply authentic, and those who are habitually divorced from themselves. I would imagine the latter suffer from low self-esteem or a pathological need to please others, else why the performance?

The kicker is, how would an outsider tell which was which, aside from a general "sense" you get from the person? Authentic people feel good, and trustworthy. Inauthentic people, even if their performance is perfect, feel a little, uh, false. And how would a person on the inside know if they were of the habitually divorced type? The ego-construct being what it is, they probably couldn't tell aside from a whisper of a suspicion, or a deep freak out reaction in the odd chance that those two worlds collide and their incongruencies come to light.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:39 PM on December 16, 2013


Maybe try reading around the false self and true self. we all have both to some extent.. with some folk the false self is running the show.
posted by tanktop at 8:46 AM on December 17, 2013


You might enjoy Jorge Luis Borges' short piece on the subject, "Borges and I" -- different translations here or here.
posted by redfoxtail at 8:47 AM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


The novel The Talented Mr Ripley is relevant; it can be taken to be a study of personal transformation. The protagonist finds himself adept at assuming another identity, initially for pragmatic (and criminal) purposes, but then comes to prefer the personality that comes with it to his 'own' personality.

The pathos of the difference between them is quite movingly conveyed.
posted by bertran at 9:44 AM on December 17, 2013


One interesting (at least more so than Paris Hilton, one might hope) celebrity case study is the life of Bob (Zimmerman) Dylan, who essentially blossomed into a highly creative and original songwriter after attracting little notice as a by-the-numbers folk singer in Minneapolis, including a change of name and a fabulist backstory of living in e.g. Gallup, NM and meeting various blues and country and western singers. The concept has been explored in various books and films, most notably No Direction Home (as documentary) and I'm Not There (as interpretative recreation). What was really interesting to me about NDH is Dylan speaking matter-of-factly in interview in an utterly ordinary voice, in antithesis to the often strange accents, mumbling, and misdirection of his at least early career.
posted by dhartung at 1:08 AM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


It would not have occurred to me as relevant to this discussion were it not for dhartung's comment, but the biography of Joe Strummer in The Future Is Unwritten presented a similar fake-it-til-you-make-it-style quest for authenticity.
posted by ibmcginty at 2:09 AM on February 2


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