Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Balance and Authenticity in Don Belton's "My Soul is a Witness"

Balance and Authenticity

Don Belton's “My Soul is a Witness” describes the struggle between the public and private life of a performer. Her identity crisis stems from her personal sacrifice for the advancement of her career. The loss of balance between her public and private worlds causes her to be regarded as a purely public persona. Her true self becomes forgotten and she becomes a character for public consumption. The parallelism between the performer and the apartment along with the evolution of her music symbolizes this loss of balance. The performer's rebirth in the story can be related to current celebrity turmoils and transformations.

The performer's apartment serves as a symbol for the performer herself. The original reasons for purchasing her apartment, which is now her headquarters, were personal. She “craved a life filled with books, [her] own cooking, and other people's music” (66). She imagined living a fulfilled life in the apartment. She hoped to share it with a man “who would admire [her] secret face” (66). The apartment represents the life and love she hoped for. Instead, “[t]he apartment is a prop, a part of the machinery that throws [her] outside image at the world. The original concept of the apartment as a home has evolved to become quite the opposite. It parallels the performer, in that it is no longer the original. They have each evolved to an untrue state.

Her music also evolves into a similarly untrue state. She originally had the “sound [her] soul made in [her] body to reach an audience” (68). There was an authenticity to her song. She “would have wrenched it from the center of [her] breasts if need be to work up a feeling” (68). Her records now come “clothed in jarring hooks and computer-programmed crashes” instead of from her heart where she originally connected with her audience. Now she “record[s] music [she] no longer love[s]” and has “become a simulator” (67) (68). Her performance authenticity is lost because she loses her personal authenticity while “the audience drains the performer without making spiritual repayment for the performance” (Miller). The disconnect with her audience grows exponentially and she becomes concerned about her career beginning to end. The intimacy with the audience during the original performances allowed a “conversion of emotional energy” (Miller). The technological advancements of her performances take her further away from her audience.

The power of water in the story exemplifies the power of transformation and regeneration. She twice rises from water in the story. Her emergence from the bathtub makes her feel “sick and longing” (66). The bath has physically transformed her into a performer, ready to entertain, but she is mentally “between worlds...waiting for [her] transformation” (66). This departure from a physical tub of water juxtaposes against the performer's hallucinatory birth from “hours on the watery floor” (69). After her bath she needs a Valium, wine, and cigarettes, whereas after her rebirth she “simply rise[s]” (69). The bath is a precursor to a theatrical evening. The rebirth, although theatrically described by Belton, is authentic in that she had a personal experience not for public consumption.

The loss of personal and public life balances is prevalent in current American society. The proliferation of gossip magazines, dailies, glossies, proves the desire of the American public to know about their entertainers private lives. These in addition to internet and around the clock news channels prove the public's constant need for consumption that causes celebrities to feel as if they live on a stage at all times. This causes an identity crisis to arise in them regarding their personal authenticity. Just as the performer's neurosis consumes her to the point that she experiences a physical, emotional, and spiritual breakdown, so too do many celebrities. As a reader of the performer's story, one is left at the end wondering what she will do now. The rebirth hopefully functions as a new beginning and a time to examine her life; an epiphany. If that is true, the reader is left to wonder what this dinner party will turn into and if she will change how she is living.

The implications of the loss of the true self of celebrities results in neurosis and bounded authenticity. Just as the performer “consider[s] the drama of [her] public life-- [her] magazine covers, industry awards, record-breaking sales, [her] marriages and remarriages and the lovers who turn in to soul-murderers in the dark” so too do today's celebrities(67). The blossoming career so soon turns in to the “new album and a seventeen-city concert tour, product endorsements, hotel rooms, private jets, parties. Oblivion” (67). The disconnect begins with the audience and the original authentic self. The allure of multiple vices contributes to the personal fall of the celebrity. The performer's “voice strains under the burden of cigarettes and isolation” (67). the destruction of the original continually spirals out of control.

The ultimate contradiction of the story is the opening description of the performer exiting her limousine and entering her apartment. She wraps her “face and head in a tulle black veil [and] put[s] on the dark glasses” (65). As she passes the paparazzi her “teeth flash inside the veil”(65). This scene is the ultimate paradox in that it is the performance of privacy. The line becomes even more blurred because even privacy becomes an act, but for who? Is the celebrity truly trying to retain privacy or merely alluding to privacy's possibility? One need not look further than some of unbelievable attempts to convince the public of one's privacy while simultaneously performing the opposite.

The story serves to explicate the repetition of the same situation for all celebrities and performers. While some performers are reborn and sustain the new life, some are continually reborn, and some simply die. The possible rebirth may simply become an overdose. The performer in the story “remember[s] [her]self”(69), just as adoring fans hope that many of their flailing celebrity interests will. Just as in the story, once the balance and authenticity are lost the personal self is not far behind.

Works Cited

Belton, Don. The Soul is My Witness. Breaking Ice. Penguin. New York: 1990.

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