On the R train from Union Square to Prince Street, I sit across from a girl who seems to radiate the very signification of “cool”. Her red curls fall into place like puzzle pieces, a beguiling smile in her eyes underneath her mask. A seemingly careless outfit, yet its nonchalance manifests itself through all the right pieces: perfectly tattered boots, a vintage-looking leather bag, the rings on her fingers that surely were collected from a plethora of farmers’ markets and local jewelers. But it’s her shirt that catches my eye — a purple long-sleeve with graphics promoting a band I have never heard of.
The screech of the subway lets out dozens of commuters, invariably busy, impatient. Dozens of others rush in to take their seats. We live our lives in shared fragments, coexisting in each other’s perception for fleeting moments. The moments pass, and we return to being inconsequential strangers.
On my phone, I scroll through the band’s discography and add a couple of songs to my playlist. A local band from the city, with a great sound and a small, loyal clan of listeners. In the next weeks, I tirelessly have their music playing on repeat. At some point, my love for this band becomes my own genuine prerogative, but until then, I look at the album cover and think about the stranger on the subway, the transient timeframe in which I established my admiration for her first impression. I think about the irony of the way I subconsciously emulate the distinct authenticity I saw in this girl, and how this must be the same unspoken irony of our constant pursuit of individuality, and simultaneously, conformity.
The human longing for belonging is evident in our everyday compliance to conventionality. Yet while we are so willing to allow others’ dispositions to color our own, we are preoccupied with the desire to be different, to be individual.
Walter Benjamin illustrates this best in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In his essay, he discusses the notion that a work of art “has always been reproducible”. From a strip of negative film can surface countless copies of the same photograph. The authenticity of an entity is found in “the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning […] to the history which it has experienced”. The grandeur of the photograph is the moment you were living when the subject was captured, an exotic landscape oceans away or a memorable dinner party that took place years ago. As you look through the viewfinder and press the shutter, you immortalize it as a piece of your personal records. A prerequisite of authenticity, Benjamin writes, is the existence of the original. His idea is that authenticity is permanence — reproducibility is volatility.
I am perpetually emulating the essence of the things I see around me. Fragments of our image, when taken in on their own, rather than in whole, are mirrored in everyone else in our lives. The pieces of my identity — in the things I say, the things I feel or the things I write — are just as easily found in other people. In fact, I’ve come to terms with the idea that very little of me is thoroughly distinctive or individual. But while the negative I receive from the film lab may reproduce hundreds of copies of the same photograph, the solid metal of the camera and the grip of my fingers around it as I take a portrait of my friends is, as Benjamin puts it, my authenticity, my permanence.
In an attempt to be a better writer, I underline the notably romantic, jarring or poetic passages I come across while I read. When I revisit a book, I flip through the pages to find these underlines, scrutinizing the diction, the wording, the techniques that the author implores. My ventures to absorb beautiful writing in hopes to translate another writer’s brilliance into my own is often my only goal in reading, even more than grasping the plot or message of the book. I fall in love with the way strangers laugh, the way the woman in the store intonates her sentences, the gentle mannerisms of the barista taking my order. I emulate all the things I admire, in conviction that the sum of these parts will someday formulate a concrete authenticity of my own.
At Notre Dame, we are always waiting for the next opportunity to impress someone. We look to others and silently measure our dedication, our passion, our sense of direction in comparison to theirs. Being a member of such an explicit community, coming together for the mutually agreed intention of pursuing quality education, the influence our time here will have on us transcends the academic skills we learn in the classroom. Our proximity to equally motivated, bright young adults exposes us to a whole multitude of people within whom we will find specks and slivers to mirror.
“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element,” Benjamin writes in his essay. “Its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” My presence in time and space is this: I sit in the corner seat of a cafe and I try to remember all the artwork, places and individuals that have charmed me in my life, the way my imitation of these entities have refined my own identity into someone who I slowly grow more comfortable with every day.
Shouting hello to a friend on the sidewalk on the way to class. A phone call from a family member back home. Sometimes, our reflection in others’ mirrors comes in brief instances. In the warmth and love we feel in our mundane routines, we emulate these feelings. And in this, we find permanence.
Reyna Lim is a sophomore double majoring in finance and English. She enjoys writing about her unsolicited opinions, assessing celebrity homes in Architectural Digest videos and collecting lip gloss. Reach out with coffee bean recommendations and ‘80s playlists at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.