The mystery of Archibald Leach
Look behind the interval curtain … to unravel the mysteries of self-reinvention
The Circling Fin
Sometimes an insight is memorable because it is so perfectly wrong. The campaign slogan of our ruling party before the economic crash of 2008, for example, was ‘A lot done, a lot more to do’. In fact, it would have been truer to say ‘A lot of damage done, a lot more damage to do’.
Another such backwards quote happens to be one of F Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous: ‘There are no second acts in American lives’. But in fact, his America was perhaps the one place where you could reinvent yourself. In Europe at that time, from Ireland to Greece, not only your own past but your family’s past (and their ancestors’ past back to the year dot) stuck with you like a birthmark.
That’s why the early life of trailblazers seems to belong to a different drama than the second half. But what happens in the interval between these two acts … what happened to James Joyce between Dublin and Trieste? To Chopin between Warsaw and Paris? To Picasso between Spain and France? In each case, a dependent self was shed and an autonomous individual emerged.
It’s not often we can peek behind the curtain at that moment, so we are lucky that one newspaper took the trouble to ask a young Oscar Wilde what his plans were. His response? “I want to do everything in the world. I cannot conceive of anything I do not want to do. I want to write a great deal more poetry…. I want to write a great many more plays, and I want to make [aestheticism] the basis for a new civilisation.”
I’m reminded of the boy in my school who turned down a trial with Manchester United because he planned to start his own soccer team. And of Yeats marking a ‘colossal self-conceit’ in the young Joyce.
No doubt confident claims about remaking civilisation can be hard to take for people who have observed you as a youngster first coming to grips with cutlery. But that fumbling child – just as much as the later laureate brandishing her Nobel Prize – has to possess a whopping dose of self-regard to sustain their journey.
Often the sharp location shift from Act I to Act II is accompanied by a name change, all the better to escape the petty restrictions of the original image: Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman; Cary Grant was once a circus performer by the name of Archibald Leach. And I won’t even tell you what Picasso was baptised as: it runs to 20 words.
Self-reinvention is at the root of all meaningful careers, and America was the first to fully accommodate that fact.
But now, with the Internet, the curtain never closes on the First Act: Facebook and Yahoo want your real name and they won’t let you change it. That horrible poetry and lovelorn ranting you posted as a teenager is perpetually attached to your Google identity.
So, to update Fitzgerald: ‘There are no second acts in electronic lives’.
Fin Keegan is a writer based in Westport. This column is based on his weekly radio essay, heard on WRFM radio, and online at thecirclingfin.com.