Paromita Vohra: What's in a name

Last week, an Italian journalist tried to reveal author Elena Ferrante’s identity
Last week, an Italian journalist tried to reveal author Elena Ferrante’s identity

Last week people debated endlessly the ‘investigation’ into the true identity of the writer called Elena Ferrante.

Her fans — whom one would imagine as most interested in the author’s real-life identity – recoiled at what they see as a violent, even gendered act. In all the time I’ve listened to friends rapturously talk of her novels, I confess I can’t remember anyone wondering about the writer’s true identity.

While this is a debate about the right to privacy and anonymity, it is also a debate about the worth and meaning of art. In these times of celebrity self-promotion and the currency of thinking of the individual self as a brand, anonymity has a radical charge. Anonymous authorship suggests an idea of identity beyond the binary of true and false (it is simultaneously true and false) and by extension an idea of truth beyond right and wrong, black and white.

Anonymity allows us to relate more freely with the ideas present in the work of art – and through that, relate more deeply with our own internal mysteries, our unexpected selves, prejudices, vulnerabilities, possibilities. Artist and audience are liberated for a while from the moorings of identity, and experience what it is not to be locked by that identity into a perpetual sameness. We forget ourselves as we travel through the pages of a book, phrases of performance or music, words and rhythms of poems, movement and structures of a painting and photo, and come out renewed. The experience of art brings to the surface our scattered sensations, impressions, memories and so, synthesise, and coheres them into some kind of harmony, or understanding and with which to move forward into changing reality.

This is a much needed counter to the increasing literalism that has taken over public discourse. While identity signifies invisible power equations, when utterances and identity are tightly fused and what you say is constantly filtered through your identity alone, it denies the possibility of moving forward politically and culturally.

When it comes to art, this attitude reduces all work to bald “content”, what is literally being said and not at how it is said, what nuance, or different rasas, that “way of saying” can communicate. It makes us stupid, by taking away our chance to practise complex communication.

In a world over-governed by a homogenous idea of commerce — that things are valuable only when they sell in large numbers — the market also forces meaning onto works and pushes artists to become synonymous with brand ideas, their person permanently public. The private relationship between artist and audience becomes predefined consumption, instead of experienced revelation.

Imagine for a minute if Chetan Bhagat wrote anonymously. Would his books be either as successful or as reviled? It’s possible they might be only moderately remarked on. Right now, whether you belong to the group Mr. Bhagat flatters or the one he baits with his special baiting brand of tweets it is difficult to read his books without negotiating with this public brand, which he assiduously maintains and shapes his books around. Also, would Mr. Bhagat be a better writer if he wrote anonymously? Would he finally be able to disconnect from the Chetan Bhagat who was dismissed by literary elites, and stop reacting to them?

It can be a wonderful thing to discover who we are, when we forget ourselves.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com

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