In the last pages of J. M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg (1994), a fictive Dostoevsky ponders the question of writing as betrayal. What does it mean to exploit one’s life in one’s writing? It is also to exploit the lives of others—of friends, lovers and family—who are inevitably reduced and distorted in a written work. They receive nothing, yet are stripped of autonomy and transformed into a literary type. What is more, an author can never be neutral on this matter. “They pay him lots of money for writing books,” thinks Dostoevsky, the words reportedly spoken by his dead son Pavel, whom he is about to betray by taking up his pen. Coetzee in turn exploits Dostoevsky, and the novel’s moral question is yet more pointed when we learn that his own son died in a climbing accident. The book is hence a kind of postmodern stitch-up in which Coetzee indicts himself and draws us into a maze with no discernable exit. If we are to write, betrayal is inevitable. The only question to resolve is its flavor. (“It tastes like gall.”)
Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010) re-treads this ground on a sunnier day. Subtitled “a novel from life,” its avatar-protagonist Sheila begins tape-recording conversations with her friends in the hope of inspiring dialogue for a play. Really, however, she wants to pursue the title question—how should a person be?—which has preoccupied her since the collapse of her marriage. “I wanted to be an ideal, and believed marrying would make me into the upright, good-inside person I hoped to show the world.” Imitating a social ideal, Sheila takes nothing from it: “It was like I was not there at all—it was not me.” So begins an obsession with authenticity that finds itself caught up in paradox. For, as Sheila says at the outset, she tries to answer her question with yet more imitation: “For years and years I asked it of everyone I met. I was always watching them to see what they were going to do in any situation, so I could do it too. I was always listening to their answers, so if I liked them, I could make them my answers too.” Sheila’s tape-recorder is a literal manifestation of what such imitation implies: a dead, mechanical thing, repeating perfectly, yet with nothing inside. The question of how to be hence overlaps with that of how we can be at all: Where is an authentic person, a subject, located within this imitation? Is Sheila really there at all?
On the other side of this dilemma lies the issue of betrayal. Sheila’s most important relationship is with her friend Margaux, a painter whose liberated insouciance she comes to idolize. The first time Sheila records her, Margaux remarks, “You there with that tape recorder just looks like my own death.” She then asks, “Just promise you won’t betray me.” Of course, Sheila betrays Margaux despite herself, firstly by purchasing the same dress as her, and secondly by persisting with the recording. Margaux’s anxiety that Sheila is merely exploiting her to find out “how to be” leads her to terminate their friendship. Yet, as she later reveals in a reconciliatory email, her unease was not only provoked by betrayal or exploitation, but by Sheila’s stealing something of her identity: “what i feared most were my words floating separate from my body.” Margaux’s anxiety is thus the mirror of Sheila’s. Sheila is worried that, behind all the imitations she puts on display for others, there simply is no real internal self. Conversely, Margaux fears that her real internal self will become dissipated, lost in the external world. Margaux wishes to be identical with her words, and is troubled by the fact that words, as public tokens, never wholly belong to her, but can be recorded, repeated and misunderstood.
Sheila and Margaux suffer from complementary forms of philosophical confusion. Sheila’s tendency to think of the self primarily in external terms, which never translate into what she wants them to be internally, is met by Margaux’s strong sense of her inner self, which in turn is threatened when translated into the outside world. How Should a Person Be? is hence more than a simple self-help book masquerading as a novel. Rather, it imaginatively stages both sides of a profound philosophical problem: Where is the self? While a literary work cannot provide unequivocal philosophical answers to such a question, Heti is nonetheless able to show us the way in which both Sheila and Margaux’s positions are confused. Sheila’s confusion is itself a feature of the narrative, and is more or less explicitly resolved towards the end of the book. Margaux’s confusion, on the other hand, finds a subtler resolution in the book’s form, and the relation into which it invites readers.
The manner in which the book approaches the question of the self could hence be seen as a kind of imaginative philosophy. Rather than approach philosophy argumentatively, the novel imagines it in all its connections to our everyday lives. What does a philosophical problem look like when it becomes real for us? What does it mean to live through such a problem? But this method of “imagining” philosophy is also a way of actually doing it. We find solutions to philosophical problems when the inherent confusion of a certain way of life becomes apparent. Sometimes what it takes is to try to live that confusion, and to fail. This can be occasion for another act of imagination—one that explores how our way of seeing the world and our way of being in it can fit back together.
The resolutions to both Sheila and Margaux’s confusions are bound up with the novel’s reflections on self-help books and their authority. The phrase “self-help” can be read in two ways. On the surface it refers to an ideal of independence—therapy without a therapist—achieved simply by purchasing a book. Yet this book is also offering you help with something specific: the self. The genre of “self-help” hence carries with it the thought that self-realization and fulfillment can be achieved alone, through self-reliance. The name “self-help” involves a surface renunciation of authority: by turning to a book, you are helping yourself with your self, but by turning to another person, you aren’t. Of course, the book still has its authority, but the reader of a “self-help” book does not have to admit their dependence on it. A similar quibble underlies Sheila’s confusion. “For so many years I have written soul like this: sould,” she tells us. She is worried by the parapraxis, but even more so by a French girl’s interpretation: “Maybe it doesn’t actually mean you’ve sold your soul—I was staring unhappily into my beer—but rather that you never had a soul to sell.” Then again, perhaps the real unconscious slip is the missing ‘h,’ which would transform sould into should, a word clearly preoccupying Sheila. For her, defining the self is already linked to a desire for imperatives—how should a person be?—yet she does not immediately make this connection. Like the logic of the phrase “self-help”, Sheila’s sould masks the connection between defining the self and a desire for authoritative direction.
Heti has clearly thought a good deal about the form of self-help books. She has even written one with Misha Glouberman (Margaux’s husband, who also appears in the novel), The Chairs Are Where the People Go: How to Live, Work, and Play in the City (2011). Not only does Sheila read these books (“I know what they say: You—but better in every way!”), but How Should a Person Be? is a rattle bag of aphorisms, stories and ideas—the kind of anecdotes to be found in self-help books. Discussing their painter-friend Sholem, Misha tells Sheila, “He seems really afraid to take a wrong step at any moment, in any direction. And if what you’re afraid of is to take a wrong step at any moment in any direction, that can be limiting. It’s good for an artist to try things. It’s good for an artist to be ridiculous.” A later chapter, “What Is Cheating?” informs us that “It is cheating to treat oneself as an object, or as an image to tend to, or as an icon. It was true four thousand years ago when our ancestors wandered the desert, and it’s as true today when the icon is our selves.” Other nuggets are more gnomic: “I had a vision. There is a person walking through a busy marketplace in some other faraway land. She is carrying a sack with something really heavy in it. The sack is really heavy. So she throws away the sack. […] She didn’t know how valuable the thing was inside.”
A good deal of the book’s appeal comes from such passages. Even when they are mawkish or guileless (and Sheila’s voice only saves itself from being irritating thanks to hefty self-ironization), it can be fun to pick through them and test them for truth. While it is clearly influenced by the rhetoric of self-help, How Should a Person Be? deliberately avoids providing any coherent program. Indeed, the statements often contradict each other: “We don’t know the effects we have on each other, but we have them” is shortly followed by “Who cares what people say? What people say has no effect on your heart.” The result is that the book offers a potpourri of self-help wisdom from which readers can pick and choose. On the one hand, it depicts how and why people make such statements when reflecting on specific circumstances in their lives, yet at the same time it appeals to readers by asking them to decontextualize and reappropriate these statements for their own use. Do you like the idea that our effects on others are unknown? Fine, take it—it doesn’t matter if you think these effects never reach the heart. By underlining the contingency of examples of “self-help,” yet maintaining faith in their potential interest, Heti draws her reader into the self-help game. She hence engages them in an imaginative form of reflection on the nature of such “self-help” statements. Why do I like certain bits of the book but not others? What am I doing when I say they are useful and agree with them? Where does their authority come from?
The answer to this last question is implicit in Sheila’s confusion. She turns to others for help with her self because these others appear to possess the unity she lacks. “Responsibility looks so good on Misha, and irresponsibility looks so good on Margaux,” Sheila tells us on the novel’s first page. “How could I know which would look best on me?” The point to raise here is: How could Sheila ever perceive some disunity between Margaux’s “inner self” and her external actions? Sheila does not have, and never could have, private access to what it is like to be Margaux. For Sheila, Margaux simply is her external self. There is hence no possibility of Sheila attributing to Margaux the same anxiety that she herself suffers. Literally everyone else in the world will come across to Sheila as more unified than she is, by virtue of the simple fact that, for her, they are what they do. Conversely, Sheila never feels that she expresses herself in this fashion, because her skeptical questioning accompanies every action with the thought that it is borrowed from someone else. Inauthenticity is the fear of people who cannot identify with their actions.
Sheila’s fear of inauthenticity is accompanied by a tendency to idealize others as exemplary unified selves. She assumes that there is no “gap” between others’ selves and their deeds, and hence bestows on them a kind of authority. This authority, however, is purely imaginary—it arises simply from their being other. Sheila’s sense of self is weak, and hence susceptible to all kinds of external “authority”: watching people, taking their words, or even picking up on the words of books. Everyone she encounters she presumes to know something she doesn’t, since she doesn’t perceive in others the same weakness, or indeed confusion, that she feels in herself. Here is one possible source of “self-help” statements’ authority: they come from elsewhere. While presentation of such statements as part of a rigid program, presumably in a book by someone signing “Ph.D.” after their name, might appeal to traditional sources of authority, the fundamental factor motivating the seeker of self-help is the basic otherness of these statements. The structure of such authority is made clearer, performatively, through Heti’s lazy, citational approach to self-help wisdom. When ideas are presented as isolated nuggets, ripe to be decontextualized by a reader (or by Sheila herself), what authority they have is simply that of being other—and hence potentially more unified than the reader. So we return to the paradoxical phrase “self-help”: the desire for such help is ultimately a quest for external authority.
Sheila’s philosophical confusion consists in not being able to identify with her actions. She responds to it by looking obsessively to others as sources of authority, while simultaneously wishing to deny this dependence. Heti expresses and attempts to resolve this dynamic explicitly on the narrative level. An important phrase is introduced early on by Margaux, describing another painter friend, Eli: “He’s just another man trying to teach me something.” Evidently what Margaux dislikes in Eli is his overt pretension to authority. Yet throughout the book, Sheila not only seems unperturbed by such pretension, but actively seeks it. When she takes a hairdressing job, the salon owner tells her, “I have decided to teach you everything I know.” Sheila bows her head in gratitude. The same dynamic is even more obvious in the submissive sexual relationship she enters into with a man named Israel, despite her best intentions to “never let him see my underpants.” In the “Interlude for Fucking,” Sheila gives full voice to her submissive fantasies, and indeed stops worrying about any gap between who she “is” and what she does. The collapse of her intention indicates its insubstantiality: when Sheila stops reflecting, she does achieve a kind of personal unity. Could it be that she simply is submissive? On this reading, Sheila’s confusion disappears when she finally acts as she is, and the relationship allows her to do so. This is not, however, the reading the novel encourages, as Sheila remains discontented with Israel, divided about her commitment to him, and ultimately seeks to break things off.
A more sophisticated understanding of the relationship is possible. Instead of seeing it as dispelling Sheila’s confusion, we could instead view it as intimately bound up with that confusion, another symptom of it. In one sense, yes, Sheila does find a unified self in the act submission, not thinking twice before acquiescing: “All right, Israel. I will put it in my mouth. You just close your eyes. I will do my work for you in the morning.” At the same time, however, can we not understand this act as the only way Sheila could ever perform the sense of inauthenticity and the desire for authority she feels, the only way she could achieve some sort of unity for her already-divided self? To say that she simply is submissive, and dismiss her confusion, is too easy. Instead, her submissiveness is the product of that confusion, both a means of performing it and a means of renouncing the pretensions to agency that trouble her. It is hence only after Sheila begins to gain awareness of her condition that she comes to terminate the relationship.
Sheila’s breaking off her relationship with Israel is an important closing step in the “narrative solution” to her confusion. As the novel progresses, Heti shows Sheila realizing the hypocrisy of her dependence:
I had come to New York as a student, like it was my teacher. And hadn’t I always gone into the world making everyone and everything a lesson in how I should be? Somehow I had turned myself into the worst thing in the world: I was just another man who wanted to teach me something!
Sheila becomes increasingly skeptical of her desire for authority, yet at the same time acknowledges the limits of rational reflection for determining action. When Israel sends her an explicit email, she acknowledges, “I saw no way of escaping a man like that.” Sheila knows too well the grip he has on her. The way she succeeds in ending the relationship is hence of particular interest in considering how to dispel our philosophical confusions. It is not as easy as changing one’s mind about how to be, nor can we simply stop asking the question.
When Sheila and Israel end up in bed for the last time they don’t have sex, and Sheila tells him simply “I want to sleep beside your cock.” She curls up under the blanket and Israel objects, telling her to come up. She refuses—“I knew that if I did, his desire for me might remain, and I wanted none of it left. I had to be so ugly that the humiliation I brought on myself would humiliate him, too.” This scene precipitates the end of the relationship and is interesting because Sheila does not simply disobey Israel, disappointing his designs on her (“i like the idea of you doing things i ask”). Instead, Sheila disobeys him through a gesture of apparent total obedience. This short-circuits the structure of his fantasies about her. Total obedience is not, in fact, what Israel wants. If he is actually given it, he has won nothing. The possibility must always remain that Sheila refuse him. He must perceive her acts of submission as consciously undertaken—a genuine desire to submit to him, which could willfully be withdrawn, not merely an act of resignation. Thus, when she finally does refuse Israel, it is only in special circumstances. Sheila’s refusal cannot be read as a wholly willed act that would reassert her autonomy. Instead, she plays out to the full the resigned dependence of her subject position. Sheila, in a sense, acts out the reality of the situation, the only refusal possible that could stem Israel’s desire. What happens in this scene, then, is a kind of reconfiguration of perception. The pathological foundation of Sheila and Israel’s relationship is made fully explicit. They do not merely intellectually acknowledge the nature of the relationship. Rather, its impossibility is finally lived by both parties. In the same way, the solution to Sheila’s philosophical confusion is not brought about by a rational decision or an act of will. Instead, it emerges from her experience.
There are certain terms on which life cannot properly be lived. In Sheila’s case, this means not seeing her self as necessarily inauthentic, and not seeing others as necessary authorities on authenticity. The final scene of the novel sums up the adoption of this attitude perfectly. Margaux and Sholem decide to settle their “ugly painting competition” with a game of squash. As Sheila and other friends watch the game, they can’t figure out what is going on. Someone remarks, “I don’t think they even know the rules. I think they’re just slamming the ball around.” The novel ends: “And so they were.” The pseudo-squash game is clearly an analogy for how Sheila can dispel her anxieties. The solution is not for her to find a suitable authority and submit to it—as her relationship with Israel illustrated—but instead to stop looking for authority, for rules, everywhere. Instead of seeing others as a potential source of rules, they can instead be seen as collaborators in a game whose rules are flexible and emerge as the game is played. Instead of viewing others as knowing more than her, Sheila should instead accept a form of knowing together.
The abrupt termination of the novel with this scene reinforces its quietist position. Sheila’s confusion can dissipate only when she stops asking the wrong kind of question. This does not mean merely forgetting the question of how to be (as was the case in her submission to Israel), but instead reconfiguring her perception such that these questions no longer have a place within her life. Heti thus offers us a kind of imaginative resolution to Sheila’s dilemma on the narrative level. The novel shows us what the world looks like to someone who cannot reconcile themselves with their actions, and as a result seeks out external authority. This isn’t discussed as a philosophically untenable position—it isn’t refuted intellectually like we could refute the skeptical arguments it resembles—but is instead shown as an unlivable position, a pathological way of seeing the world. Sheila becomes aware of this not primarily through reflection, but when encountering the practical impossibilities arising from her confusion. How Should a Person Be? can thus be read as performing philosophy through an act of imagination.
What, however, are we to make of Margaux’s philosophical confusion? What of the issue of betrayal? Recall that Sheila’s concern with inauthenticity stemmed from an inability to identify properly with her external actions. Only other people appeared able to do so, hence she treated them as an authority. Margaux’s mirror anxiety when faced with Sheila’s tape recorder—“what i feared most were my words floating separate from my body”—stems from an excessive identification with her external actions, in this case, what she says. Indeed, we could locate part of that confusion in the fact that Margaux’s logic regarding her words is similar to her indignation when Sheila buys the identical dress. She wants to think of words as potentially unique objects. In doing so, Margaux wishes to deny the brute fact that once something is externally manifested—whether as a word or a behavior—it is never properly one’s own. We can never have complete ownership over what we say or what we do. Someone may always reappropriate, copy or misunderstand it. In this sense, Margaux’s fear of being betrayed stems from an exaggerated ideal of identity that does not appreciate how dependent that ideal is on social recognition. This opens up the possibility that by considering how we appear to others, we may learn more about our identity than through wishful introspection. We could even say that Coetzee’s thoughts on betrayal go in the same direction as Margaux’s. The idea that all writing is betrayal follows from an idealized aversion to decontextualizing others’ absolute singularity. But is something necessarily stolen when it is transmuted into a literary work?
While much of How Should a Person Be? involves an imaginative exploration of Sheila’s confusion on a narrative level, the book shows even greater insight on a formal level, where we may also find a resolution to this second question. The key lies in Heti’s citational approach to self-help wisdom. Indeed, citation is not limited to quoting characters’ thoughts and advice. Lengthy passages are presented entirely in playscript form. Some of these come directly from the tape recorder, whereas others, it is implied, could be from Sheila’s play. Yet more sections of the book are drawn from characters’ letters and emails. The status of such passages is curious. On the one hand, such a variety of forms could be seen as a device to narrow the possibilities of betrayal in Margaux’s and Coetzee’s sense. By implying that these passages are reproduced verbatim, Heti suggests that she is not stealing or embellishing purely for her own ends, but is instead preserving something of others’ singularity by citing the whole context of their remarks. Formally, at least, these passages suggest that they do not wish to “betray” their subjects. Formally, they suggest that they are not fiction. Yet, no reader could genuinely accept this illusion. To all intents and purposes, they are manifestly fiction.
Heti’s use of scripts and letters within the novel form points to this obvious contradiction. For all the authenticity they profess, these documents are not real, but belong to the same tapestry as the book’s self-help advice. The reader is free to graze upon them at will. It is in the nature of the novel (and language) that such passages cannot possess special authority. Rather, they are subsumed within a broader citational logic—the same one that, in the case of the self-help nuggets, undermined the possibility of their belonging to any special program, any specific set of rules. In this light, is Margaux’s fear that we steal her identity really justified? A reader of the book, responding positively to Margaux, need not be seen as complicit in Sheila’s betrayal. Instead, their response is as unfixed, as improvised, as the game of pseudo-squash at the novel’s close. There is not an identity to be stolen from Margaux’s quoted words, rather one that is created and developed through the collaborative process of reading. How Should a Person Be? already invites its readers into a game that is incompatible with Margaux’s confusion. Its very form suggests that identity and authority cannot be fixed in the way that Margaux wishes. We may feel a desire to take up certain things she says, but this is not tantamount to identity theft. Instead, it involves the elaboration of a new identity—the reader’s. Likewise, Margaux’s own identity can itself only be elaborated when met with recognition from others. It is never “just there” in her actions. Exiting her confusion does not mean denying the existence of identity and authority. Rather it means understanding them socially and collaboratively.
Heti has remarked that she wanted her novel to be fundamentally “about women.” In terms of plot and character, it clearly is. But we can perhaps discern a deeper sense to her intent in the book’s thinking about rules and authority. At every turn, it refuses to be just another man telling us what to do. It is suspicious of rigid concepts of the identity of the self—on Sheila’s side, identity only with the inner, and on Margaux’s side, only with the outer. The book as a whole hence performs an understanding of the self that can dispel confusions caused by such rigid concepts of identity. On the one hand, it suggests that a desire for rules and paragons can be pathological, as Sheila comes to see by the novel’s end. Yet it also rejects authority from the other side. Its citational devices ultimately make the reader arbiter of its wisdom. And in this move we find the deeper moral of the book. What is vain is not the desire to learn, but the desire to teach.