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Essay/Stories & Literature
Rebel Without a Cause (1955) Courtesy Warner Bros

The coming-of-age con

How can you go about finding ‘who you really are’ if the whole idea of the one true self is a big fabrication?

Cody Delistraty

Rebel Without a Cause (1955) Courtesy Warner Bros

Cody Delistraty

is a writer and historian based in New York and Paris. He writes on literature, psychology and interesting humans. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Atlantic, among others. 

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2,800 words

Edited by Marina Benjamin

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Near the end of J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), the novel’s hero Holden Caulfield buys his sister Phoebe a ticket to the carousel in the park and watches her ride it. It begins to rain, and Holden – having spent most of the book in some form of anxiety, disgust or depression – now nearly cries with joy. ‘I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all.’

Holden watches his sister reach out for a ring from her bobbing horse, and he has a profound revelation: life is about maintaining some form of optimism and innocence – of continuing to try, even in the midst of an impossible world. Later, Holden says he gets ‘sick’, but now he is mostly sanguine: he plans to go to a new school in the autumn and is looking forward to it. Holden has had an emotional experience and, as a result, has found himself. This, in turn, will allow him to enter society, which marks his growing up.

The term Bildungsroman was coined by the philologist Karl Morgenstern in the 1820s to denote ‘the hero’s Bildung (formation) as it begins and proceeds to a certain level of perfection’. The term grew in popularity when in 1870 Wilhelm Dilthey wrote that the quintessential Bildungsroman was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796), in which the protagonist has the double task of self-integration and integration into society. According to Dilthey, self-integration implies social integration, thus the Bildungsroman is concerned predominately with leading the protagonist (and the reader) into his productive societal place. It is largely from this tradition that most contemporary coming-of-age culture, Salinger included, springs.

Take, for instance, the fact that the culminating fight scene in most superhero stories occurs only after the hero has learned his social lesson – what love is, how to work together, or who he’s ‘meant to be’. Romantic stories climax with the ultimate, run-to-the-airport revelation. The family-versus-work story has the protagonist making a final decision to be with his loved ones, but only after almost losing everything. Besides, for their dramatic benefit, the pointedness and singular rush of these scenes stems from the characters’ desire to finally gain control of their self: to ‘grow up’ with one action or ultimate understanding.

Sometimes there are slight inversions, but the coming-of-age story remains essentially the same. Mike Nichols’s film The Graduate (1967), for instance, is a supposedly inverted coming-of-age story, in which the newly graduated and existentially lost Benjamin eventually realises that he has made a mistake by ignoring social norms and eloping with the daughter of his older lover, rather than adhering to the expectation that he would just get a job and move out of his childhood home. His single moment of understanding comes in the back of the bus that whisks him away with Elaine who flees her own wedding to another man. Only here, at the film’s end, does Benjamin come to realise the error of his ways in deciding not to ‘grow up’ within the expected social boundaries. 

Finding one’s true place in the world is a massive trope, not just in film and theatre, but also in literature, education and motivational seminars – any place where young people are involved. In all these cases, the search for the ‘self’ is dubious because it assumes that there is an enduring ‘self’ that lurks within and that can somehow be found. Whereas, in fact, the only ‘self’ we can be sure of is one that changes every second, our decisions and circumstances taking us in an infinite number of directions, moment by moment. And even if we think we have ‘found ourselves’, this is no panacea for the rest of our lives. In the last line of F Scott Fitzgerald’s debut, This Side of Paradise (1920), young Amory Blaine cries out: ‘I know myself, but that is all.’ Young as he is, Fitzgerald’s confused Princetonian still sees how insubstantial the knowledge of his ‘self’ is within the larger context of his life.

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The idea of there being a single ‘self’, hidden in a place that only maturity and adulthood can illuminate and which, like archaeologists, we might dig and dust away the detritus to find, is to believe that there is some inner essence locked within us – and that unearthing it could be a key to working out how to live the rest of our lives. This comforting notion of coming of age, of unlocking a true ‘self’ endures, even though it is out of step with current thinking in psychology, which denies a singular identity, and instead posits the idea of staged development, or an eternally malleable sense of self that shifts as we grow older, and with the uniqueness of our personal experience.

As the 19th-century philosopher William James put it: ‘Properly speaking, a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognise him and carry an image of him in their mind.’ In his poem ‘We Are Many’ (1967), Pablo Neruda expressed a similar sentiment:

When everything seems to be set
to show me off as a man of intelligence,
the fool I keep concealed on my person
takes over my talk and occupies my mouth.

Modern psychology backs up such notions of a fluctuating, erratic self. For the past few decades, the study of personality came in two basic modes. One argued that personality is formed and fixed in early childhood. (‘Personality Set For Life By First Grade’ was a newspaper headline in 2010.) You couldn’t do anything about who you were: you could only figure yourself out, and then try to fit in. The other mode argued the opposite case: one’s personality is inherently unstable, so unstable, in fact, that it can never be ‘found’ or even understood.

Personalities can and do change, often a lot, and, especially with a therapist’s intervention, sometimes very quickly

Most recently, research studies suggest a melding of these views. An individual does not have a given ‘self’ but is instead comprised of many ‘selves’ that shift slowly and in relation to social circumstance. Brian Little, a personality psychologist at the University of Cambridge, has distinguished between ‘biogenic’ personality traits – genetically programmed, and, therefore, fixed traits – and ‘sociogenic traits’ – traits based on the reaction to one’s social environment, which are constantly in flux. An analysis of 207 studies, published in January 2017 in Psychological Bulletin, supports Little’s claim that we have both fixed traits and shifting ones. The analysis found that personalities can and do change, often a lot, and, especially with a therapist’s intervention, sometimes very quickly.

Why, then, is the myth of ‘growing up’ so persistent? If the idea of a ‘single self’ is out of kilter with the way that psychology understands identity – as a succession of selves, or multiple selves co-existing in one individual at all times – what keeps it running?

It is comforting to buy into the idea that we can ‘grow up’ into society. It suggests that there’s a place that we’re headed towards, where we might finally belong. Although the Bildungsroman’s origins are of German construction, the coming-of-age tale has become an peculiarly American phenomenon, since self-understanding in the United States is largely predicated on a self-making mythos. Where, in Britain, one might be asked about one’s parents, one’s schooling or one’s background, Americans seem less interested in a person’s past and more interested in his or her future. More cynical observers have claimed, perhaps rightly, that this is because Americans don’t have a clear history and culture; but the coming-of-age tale has also become important in the US because of a constant – maybe optimistic, maybe pig-headed – insistence that one can always remake oneself. The past is nothing; the future is everything.

This idea of inherent, Adam-and-Eve innocence, and the particularly American interest in it, is perhaps tantamount to a renunciation of history. Such denialism infuses both American stories and narratives of national identity, said Ihab Hassan, the late Arab-American literary theorist. In any case, the American tale of growing up concerns itself with creating a singular, enterprising self out of supposed nothingness: an embrace of the future and its supposedly infinite possibilities.

From a more sociological perspective, the American self-creation myth is, inherently, a capitalist one. The French philosopher Michel Foucault theorised that meditating and journalling could help to bring a person inside herself by allowing her, at least temporarily, to escape the world and her relationship to it. But the sociologist Paul du Gay, writing on this subject in 1996, argued that few people treat the self as Foucault proposed. Most people, he said, craft outward-looking ‘enterprising selves’ by which they set out to acquire cultural capital in order to move upwards in the world, gain access to certain social circles, certain jobs, and so on. We decorate ourselves and cultivate interests that reflect our social aspirations. In this way, the self becomes the ultimate capitalist machine, a Pierre Bourdieu-esque nightmare that willingly exploits itself.

The emphasis on coming of age reifies the moral importance of work

Even the idea that there is a discreet transition from youth into adulthood, either via a life-altering ‘feeling’ or via the culmination of skill acquisition, means that selfhood is a task to be accomplished in the service of social gain, and in which notions of productivity and work can be applied to one’s identity. Many students, for instance, are encouraged to take ‘gap years’ to figure out ‘who they are’ and ‘what they want to do’. (‘Do’, of course, being a not-so-subtle synonym for ‘work’.) Maturation is necessarily related to finances, and the expectation of most young people is that they will become ‘independent’ by entering the workforce. In this way, the emphasis on coming of age reifies the moral importance of work.

Even the idea of massaging one’s surroundings so as to induce a Romantic, feeling-based turning point in a young person’s life can itself be monetised. Rite of Passage Journeys, a Seattle-based private-adventure company, takes young people on guided hikes and camping explorations with the intention of helping them to find their true selves. ‘We work to assure that initiates come out of the experience with a new and empowering story that helps them take responsibility for the decisions that set the course of their future,’ reads the Rite of Passage Journeys website. ‘We help initiates create the story of who they are and the kind of life they want to build based within the exploration of their own personal values.’ The idea is to help people quickly ‘find themselves’.

Why should one have to go through a whole childhood of experiences and challenges in order to find oneself when a week at camp can help one find it immediately? When viewed in this kind of cynical, exploitative light, the notion of ‘finding oneself’ starts to look even less natural than before. And while contemporary psychology mostly says that there is no singular self, our shifting selves all seem intent on completing one task: exploiting their own development.

While it is easy to be suspicious of the cultural appropriation of selfhood as it relates to growing up, it is important to think about what a more accurate way of depicting what this vital, transitory period might look like. Humans create their own histories but, as it is now, the culturally prescribed template for growing up says there is a time for growing up and then there is a time for being a grown-up. The ultimate goal of social integration that lies at the heart of American coming-of-age tales is problematic because it gets in the way of real life. If we are convinced we’re trapped in a dichotomy – growing up or being grown-up – there is little room to actually grow, to make the mistakes or live the kind of life that leads to genuine maturity. Likewise, if an individual is convinced that he is already grown-up, he will do little in the way of self-improvement, or growth: which is the kind of maturation that one should pursue throughout a lifetime and not merely as a rite of passage.

To adjust our sights and view ‘growing up’ as a constant, essentially endless part of life is to fundamentally shift our understanding of our lives and ourselves. In The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture (1987), Franco Moretti points to notable differences between German and English coming-of-age novels, and those typically written in France. He suggests that German and English novels incline towards a ‘classification principle’, in which the narratives provide a clean ending and an emotional catharsis. The novel’s protagonist returns to their society and, in doing so, validates that society as being the best possible option for them. Characters who reach out on their own, ignoring their society or their home, either tend to be punished or else find that there are no better alternatives. (This leitmotif is perhaps most classically depicted in the Bible’s Parable of the Prodigal Son in the Book of Luke.)

The French, however, tilt towards a ‘transformation principle’ in their coming-of-age tales, Moretti says, by focusing on narratives that depict change for its own sake. On this model, narrative resolutions become unnecessary, and catharsis is viewed as ultimately meaningless. In Voltaire’s Candide (1759), for instance, a quintessential ‘French transformational novel’, the messiness and horror experienced through the near-entirety of the novel fails to lead to Candide understanding how to embrace and integrate into society, still less to his learning how to combat this awfulness. He can only content himself to it.

Life is a wave of events. You don’t come of age; you just age. To come of age is merely to live long enough to do so

This style of coming-of-age tale is finally rising, albeit slowly, in the US too. It’s a shift perhaps most famously evidenced in Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood (2014), which celebrates the fluidity of real life by filming the same actors over more than a decade, and allows the boy of the title to morph physically and emotionally as he grows. Boyhood departs from the formula of having a single revelatory moment that usually stands for the key climatic shift in linear American storytelling. Instead, the movie’s rolling structure implies that there is no solution to the hardships of growing up, no solitary moment in which immaturity might be faced down by adulthood once and for all. There is only the passing of time, and the accumulation of experiences that can be retroactively tagged with meaning, or, perhaps more resonantly, left alone.

‘Growing up’ as it is defined today – that is, as entering society, once and for all – might work against what is morally justifiable. If you are a part of a flawed, immoral and unjust society (as one could argue we all are) then to truly mature is to see this as a problem and to act on it – not to reaffirm it by becoming a part of it. Classically, most coming-of-age tales follow white, male protagonists because their integration into society is expected and largely unproblematic. Social integration for racial, sexual and gender minorities is a more difficult process, not least because minorities define themselves against the norm: they don’t ‘find themselves’ and integrate into the social context in which they live. A traditional coming-of-age story featuring a queer, black girl will fail on its own terms; for how would her discovering her identity allow her to enter a society that insists on marginalising identities like hers? This might seem obvious, but it very starkly underscores the folly of insisting on seeing social integration as the young person’s top priority. Life is a wave of events. As such, you don’t come of age; you just age. Adulthood, if one must define it, is only a function of time, in which case, to come of age is merely to live long enough to do so.

Although it flies in the face of what our stories have taught us for generations, a new understanding of coming of age, in which there is no direct path to maturity, no single ‘self’ that might be discovered or created, has the potential to be incredibly freeing. If one wishes, one can stand in the rain, watching a carousel, finally feeling grown-up. But, just as legitimately, one can simply experience it and enjoy it, and not feel the pressure to make anything of it all.

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Support Aeon

Ideas can change the world

Aeon is a registered charity committed to the spread of knowledge and a cosmopolitan worldview.

But we can’t do it without you.

Aeon is a registered charity committed to the spread of knowledge and a cosmopolitan worldview. Our mission is to create a sanctuary online for serious thinking.

No ads, no paywall, no clickbait – just thought-provoking ideas from the world’s leading thinkers, free to all. But we can’t do it without you.

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