To judge something to be authentic is to authorize it. It’s a question of authority, after all, this determination of truth versus fabrication. Stories present a special case, because though they are fabricated, they convey truths beneath the surface. In many cases, they are a distillation of coded, authenticated, behaviors. I was watching First Knight this morning. Though it’s fairly universally reviled, I find this oversimplification of Arthurian legend quite compelling. It cuts to the chase. For example, Guinevere asserts to Lancelot:
Justice? How can there be justice if you find no power higher than yourself?
The movie suffers from what Victor Vitanza aptly names genus-cide. It’s a compression of characteristics of the Arthurian legend that throws out some fundamental differences in order to gain rhetorical power. The problematic word here is your-self. Genus-cidal oversimplification promotes the notion of self as an inflexible, unchanging commodity. We author-ize texts by searching for the author as authority. But the author is a complex thing, particularly in the case of an omniscient, omnipresent one— a God to which all things are subject. I like Protagoras’ take on the question.
Concerning the gods, I cannot know either that they exist or that they do not exist for there is much to prevent one’s knowing: the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of man’s life.
For saying this, Protagoras was expelled from Athens and all his books were burned. Only fragments survive, largely citations of them in other texts, but they are incredible. Where Arthur’s celebration of the value of community and cooperation (and militaristic solutions to problems) has survived and passed from generation to generation, Protagoras is lost to obscurity and he is branded genus-cidaly a Sophist. (Hi)story has judged Arthur more valuble than any agnostic. We like clean simple judgments, not complex ones. Protagora’s criteria for judgment seems both simple and complex. Sextus is one of the few authors that seemed to see the depth involved:
Protagoras, too, will have it that of all things the measure is man, of things that they are, and of things that they are not, meaning by “measure” the standard of judgment, and using the word chremata rather than pragmata for “things”.
I don’t know Greek enough to say if this is accurate, but chremata seems quite close to chroma, or color, which would relate it to a spectrum rather than a simpler notion of “things” as fixed, ideal quantities. As Sextus continues, he seems to suggest that my instinct is correct:
And for this reason he [Protagoras] posits only what appears to the individual, thus introducing relativity . . . Now what he says is that matter is in a state of flux, and that as it changes there is a continuous replacement of the effluvia which it gives off; accordance with one’s age and aspects of bodily condition. He says too that reasons [logoi] of all the appearances are present in the matter, so the matter is capable as far as lies in its own power, of being everything that appears to everybody.
This is dangerously close to the modern cliché “it’s all good” which is a stone’s throw from “it’s all true,” and even closer to “it’s all authentic”. For if man is the measure, or judge, of all things, and all men are equal, then all perceptions are equally valid. However, it’s the pesky problem of self, or the defintion of “what is man” that creates problems.
Men, however, apprehend different things at different times according to their various dispositions. For the man whose condition is natural grasps, out of what is contained in matter, what appears to those in a natural condition, whereas man whose condition is not natural grasps what can appear to those in that condition. The same account, moreover, must be given of differences in age, the question of whether one is asleep or awake, and every type of variation in one’s condition.
Protagoras makes the whole process of judgment problematic. The world in flux is perceived by humans in flux, and the only possible anchor suggested is the idea of “a natural condition” which of course, no one can agree upon. At least not without resort to authority: authority that is in and of itself a problem.
Zucker’s Lancelot vacillates in his enlightened self interest only slightly as he internalizes the values of Camelot: the highest form of natural society. A society built on fabricated legends, told by stories in flux, which change to suit the shifting qualities of nature. His self is transformed while he defines himself as author of his own story. Lancelot Arthur-izes his behavior.
To thine own self be true? Fine, I can accept that. But which self?