California Literary Review

Faking It by William Ian Miller

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June 10th, 2007 at 4:26 pm

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Faking It
by William Ian Miller
Cambridge University Press, 290 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

Performance Art

Why are you reading this? Are you hoping someone will notice that you read book reviews? Are you looking to get information that can be dropped into a conversation about the book you just “read”? Or will you purposely mention that you only read this book’s review, thinking this will secure acclaim for both your intellect and honesty (as tainted as you know they both are)? Do you wonder if others have as shameful an inner life as yours? William Ian Miller, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, has written an enjoyable book that asks “To what degree are we all faking it?” At turns erudite and droll, it reads like the collaborative effort of Harold Bloom and Dave Barry.

Well it can’t all be simply a performance can it? How about Thomas Becket wearing that hairshirt underneath his clerical garb? Certainly this private act of penance can lay some claim to purity. But Professor Miller cannot help but wonder if there is still a performance involved, perhaps to God or perhaps to an internal audience – Archbishop Becket’s own self-esteem. In Professor Miller’s view, nothing is untainted, but some things are more tainted than others. Don’t knock the small hypocrisies that we call politeness when the alternative is an uncivil, brutally honest rudeness.

In this frequently autobiographical book Professor Miller searches for his own essence. What is there at his core after all social roles have been stripped away? For Professor Miller it is the primordial Jew. He is proud of 3,000 years of unbroken tradition through pogroms and a holocaust, and deeply bitter over historical and continuing acts of anti-Semitism. The quote from TS Eliot’s Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar is particularly disturbing. Never read that one in high school! Yet we wait for the courageous law student to raise her hand and ask “But Professor Miller, suppose you had been adopted at birth into say an Irish Catholic family, never knew of your adoption, and developed great pride in Irish history and culture. Does that mean life’s circumstances prevented you from knowing the essential Mr. Miller, or could it be further evidence that these are all simply roles that we’re assigned? Some playing them well and others not so well.” Hey this could be the 50 point essay question on the final! But the issue is never raised and we’re quickly on to the topic of faking one’s appreciation of nature’s beauty.

I read once that in parts of Japan, people used to precede any description of oneself or one’s actions with the verb “to play.” “I play at going to the market. I play at being a carpenter.” I imagine in the East, where role playing (from Buddhist Dualism to the Hindu concept of Maya) is (was?) so fully integrated into daily life, Professor Miller’s observations might not resonate quite as strongly as they do for us. On the other hand, Eastern traditions certainly ask much harder questions about “faking it” than Professor Miller does. I believe Professor Miller would quite rightly feel it to be the worst kind of posing for him to expound on Eastern religious themes given his cultural and educational background. Faking It is essentially an intellectual thrill ride, complete with scholarly twists and comic spins – certainly worth the price of admission. But at the end, after we unbuckle our seatbelts, we’re safely back where we started.

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