The Lies That Bind

"The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity" by Kwame Anthony Appiah

THE LIES THAT BIND: Rethinking Identity. By Kwame Anthony Appiah. Liveright Publishing. 247 pages. $27.95.

Identity is a tangled weave for we clannish creatures.

And one must work to distinguish its strands. In arguing for a concept of human identity that transcends race, religion, nation, culture and class, Kwame Anthony Appiah has set himself a formidable task.

A professor of law and philosophy at New York University and a columnist on ethics for The New York Times, Appiah is of Asante and English descent. He knows something of cultural distinctions.

His “The Lies That Bind” is a useful corrective to muddled thinking on the histories and compositions of identity, though its assertions can be ideologically driven, an obvious riposte to the new nationalism and nativism exerting itself these days, not to mention all manner of “populist” doggerel. The book makes many a valid point about the incoherence of narrowly defined identities and our illusions regarding them, but the early chapters invest too much time splitting hairs and stating the obvious.

Appiah also tends to preach to the choir. Those who find his arguments congenial, which is to say tolerant, pluralistic, self-questioning and cosmopolitan individuals, will carry his tune. But those not in the chorus likely will turn a deaf ear to the sermon. When Appiah settles in, he demonstrates a reasonable cast of mind, and critics would labor to dispute most of his conclusions. Yet for a realist, his hopefulness can seem misplaced, an exercise in wishful thinking.

That said, Appiah's examination of cultural history soars in the chapter “Boundaries of Identity.” He uses the example of Aron Ettore Schmitz, a writer of Italian and German origin born in the free imperial city of Trieste in 1861, to illustrate how the concept of nationalism emerged in the 19th century. Before that time, few (if any) in Europe thought of themselves as “Europeans.” More broadly, the very idea of Western civilization and “The West” had not yet come into being. Those terms really emerged after World War II.

When Schmitz arrived at a school in Bavaria in 1874, he was visiting a Germany that was younger than he was. Italy as we know it had been created in the year of his birth. In time, Schmitz had an identity to which many in the 20th century would lay claim, that of being a citizen of one country (Austria) who became a citizen of another without leaving home.

In an interesting aside, Appiah notes that Schmitz adopted the pen name Italo Svevo for his novels, and became good friends with James Joyce during the years the latter lived in Trieste (1904-20). It was a mutual admiration society. Joyce, who clearly had his own complicated relationship with nationalism, tutored Schmitz/Svevo in English and helped him get his novel “Zeno’s Conscience” translated from Italian into French.

Joyce admired the book extravagantly, and later claimed that Schmitz/Svevo’s complex national and cultural identity (plus his love of endlessly exploring the streets of his multicultural hometown) was the model for Joyce’s own boulevardier and rambler, Leopold Bloom in “Ulysses.”

Schmitz's saga reminds one that the “reality of linguistic and cultural variation within a community can be in tension with the romantic nationalist vision of a community united by language and culture,” and that this tension is the rule rather than the exception.

Appiah looks back at the 18th century's rise of Romanticism as a reaction to the rationalism and restraint of the Enlightenment and shows how it helped provide the impetus for 19th-century nationalistic fervor. Throughout, it is a story of invention.

“Recognize that nations are invented,” he writes, “and you see that they're always being reinvented.”

But being a people is not simply about how we think of ourselves, writes Appiah, a committed builder of bridges. “What others outside the group think is important, too. Identity is negotiated between insiders and outsiders.”

Ultimately, he says, we do not have to acquiesce to the forced choice between globalism and patriotism.

“The unities we create fare better when we face the convoluted reality of our differences.”

Reviewer Bill Thompson is a freelance writer and editor based in Charleston.