J.D. Salinger & Bin Laden’s Double
Two stories came together for me recently. Each story is completely separate from the other. In fact, they have little or nothing in common at almost any level. Except one. Each is the story of an accidental Metalife. In this respect, told together these stories are remarkably connected.
Last week J.D. Salinger died. Of course Salinger is the author of some of the most compelling—and well known—fiction of the twentieth century. Not only were most of us, somewhere in some class, assigned his books to read, we read them and felt them deeply and many of us loved them. His characters, from Holden Caulfield to Franny and Zooey, were meaningful, some might use the world ‘real’, to us as few characters are. That much is known and upon his death is widely accepted.
But Salinger was not only considered a literary giant, he became a celebrity for being an anti-celebrity. He was famous for not wanting to be famous. He was written about for not writing. He was uninterviewed in an age of endless interviewing. He had an accidental Metalife, the equivalent of an old photographic negative that never was fully developed into a positive image. Once he had become known and beloved, he could not become unknown. This matters only because becoming known and famous and revealing himself, sharing his views on current topics, or discussing his upcoming works to an inquisitive public was not what he wanted. Salinger simply wanted to be left alone.
Gaspar Llamazares is a doctor and a Spanish politician. He was the leader of the leftist coalition Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left) from 2001 to 2008, in the post of General Coordinator. He is a member of Communist Party of Spain (PCE). You can imagine Mr. Llamazares’ surprise when he discovered that the FBI had used parts of a photo of Llamazares taken from Google Images to create a digitally modified image of the al-Qaida leader, Osama bin Laden. The FBI used the doctored image for a new wanted poster. Llamazares’ likeness appeared on the State Department Web site, where the FBI offered a reward of up to $25 million. The FBI has since apologized to Llamazares and taken down the photo from their site; they intended to show what Osama bin Laden might look like today.
While Llamazares is still incensed about having become unintentionally infamous—“Apologies are not enough,” he told a news conference at Parliament after the U.S. ambassador apologized via a Spanish intermediary—like Salinger he encountered his Metalife unawares. He didn’t invite it, he didn’t even realize it at first. He thought it was a joke until the FBI site proved otherwise. Fascinatingly, the FBI revealed that their forensic artist had been unable to find suitable features among the reference photographs of bin Laden and so in part used what he found of Llamazares online. In other words, bin Laden’s photographic Metalife wasn’t enough. The FBI needed to invent—and borrow—another one.
The doctoring and inventing of images is an almost daily hazard among those who court celebrity. This Photoshopped Rihanna is one of many that has gained notariety for being a fake. But what are we to make of the accidental Metalife? The unintended doppelganger that has our persona, face or body parts? How do we maintain the integrity of our identity when we may not have full control of what others do that identity? John Updike approached these questions when he addressed how celebrity affects writers. His words have an uncanny aptness for both what Salinger did not want and Llamazares could not avoid:
“Celebrity, even the modest sort that comes to writers, is an unhelpful exercise in self-consciousness. Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.”
In the new Metalife of ubiquitous self-presentation, identity can quickly morph into performance that smacks of a desire for celebrity. A Metalife of you can inform others about you—can, in effect, stand in place of you—and can then affect how others see and think of you. As more of us employ metalives to present ourselves via YouTube, lifecast ourselves, engage in social networks and then use those networks to get jobs, find mates, and communicate with friends and followers—these questions of who we are when we show up in the world will not go away.
Nor will the likelihood of an accidental Metalife. If anything, that likelihood is increasing with the exponential curve of social media adoption. Salinger refused to put on the “mask that eats into the face.” Llamazares could not avoid wearing the mask, even though it wasn’t his own. Both men were defined in some measure by a mask they never asked for. The connecting of these two men is is a cautionary tale about the nature of modern identity, identity theft (or borrowing) and defending our sense of self.
Both men’s faces were affected by the mask.
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