The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, 1988. Photo by Elliott Erwitt/Magnum
Can novelists or psychologists better capture the strange multitude of realities in every human self?
With her curling blonde hair and her slender limbs and her beautiful clothes, Inez was alluring in an obvious way, and yet it was easy enough to see that her slightly protruding blue eyes were blank screens of self-love on which a small selection of fake emotions was allowed to flicker. She made rather haphazard impersonations of someone who has relationships with others. Based on the gossip of her courtiers, a diet of Hollywood movies and the projection of her own cunning calculations, these guesses might be sentimental or nasty, but were always vulgar and melodramatic. Since she hadn’t the least interest in the answer, she was inclined to ask: ‘How are you?’ with great gravity, at least half a dozen times. She was often exhausted by the thought of how generous she was, whereas the exhaustion really stemmed from the strain of not giving away anything at all.
This amusing passage, written by Edward St Aubyn in his novel At Last (2012), touches upon Inez’s looks, social class, psychology and behaviours. It’s hard to imagine a better description, and it’s certainly superior to what people provide to each other conversationally or on dating websites. And yet, any particular reader will project his or her own stored images, memories and worldview upon Inez. She is different in each person’s mind. She is also a symbol of the worst traits of her social milieu – satire posing as personality.
Though normally with less flair than St Aubyn, we’re constantly describing ourselves and others. Sometimes, the stakes are low, as with idle chat, and sometimes they are higher, such as when we’re summing up a potential job candidate or a possible love match for a friend. Writers search for emotional granularity, consequential details and apt metaphors, while sociologists and personality psychologists have come up with sorting tools such as the ‘Big Five’ personality traits – extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, openness to experience, and conscientiousness. But if I tell you someone is ‘a nice-looking middle-aged Asian extravert who is fairly agreeable, neurotic and open-minded, and from the Midwest’ you have no idea what she’s really like. You barely have a starting point.
People have habits of speech, mannerisms, a temperament that is at least in part inborn, and even behavioural signatures and routines. But across time and contexts, any of these characteristics can change. We can act against our own proclivities until they aren’t proclivities anymore. Being enclosed in solid, distinct bodies fuels the belief that our personalities must be fully formed and consistent as well. But they aren’t. Everyone from pop-psych authors to business-school professors to astrologers has come up with her own system for sizing up people. If it were possible, wouldn’t one method have prevailed by now? In fact, two recent paradigm-breaking studies suggest that personality traits can shift slowly yet drastically over time, and quite quickly after therapeutic interventions.
A million tiny human factors – tone of voice, brand of shoes, frequency of smiles – form a gestalt as difficult to pick apart as it is to pin down. If a person contains multitudes and is perhaps even infinite, how can we compare infinities? This is a legitimate question for theoretical mathematicians, but in the science of personality (unlike mathematics) perception trumps precision most of the time.
This fluid state of affairs is often captured best by writers, who tend to have an agenda when delineating characters. What we’re often not conscious of are our own agendas when casually describing others. Do we want our audience to like the person we’re talking about? To see themselves in her? To – I don’t know – maybe draw a comparison that’s favourable to us? Just as people around us are in flux, so, too, are our intentions. Acting as though other people have personalities is sometimes a prerequisite to reaching our own social goals.
The messy mosaic of feelings and impressions that assemble in our own minds when we meet another person is brilliantly depicted in Mary Gaitskill’s novel The Mare (2015), about Velvet, a Brooklyn girl who grows close to Ginger, a middle-aged woman from upstate, and the horses stabled near her house. Here Ginger assesses Velvet’s mother, Alicia:
It took me a minute to realise that the power in her body didn’t come from her musculature or size, but from her character; she sat in her body like it was a tank.
Later Ginger meets a horse trainer named Beverly:
Her eyes were simple mentally but emotionally snarled, aggressive and shrewd like an orangutan’s. She looked out of her eyes so hard you couldn’t look into them. She was verbally polite to me while her face dismissed me with the fast scorn of a teenager. She looked like the kind of person who could really mess up a child.
These evocative outward descriptions are portals to interiors – but mostly to Ginger’s. Though she might think of them as personality descriptions, these are really her gut-level intuitions, which mingle with her own state of mind and shape how people appear to her. Ginger’s acute sensitivity to danger surfaces in the way she sees both these women. How the women act over time will tell us if her hunches are correct. Novelists know that behaviour is always more revelatory than a grocery list of traits…