Persona derives from the Latin word for an actor's mask (in the Greek and Roman theaters actors wore cork masks carved to represent the type of character they were playing). As a term in composition, persona means the writer's presence in the writing.
The derivation from "mask" may be misleading. It does not imply a false face, a disguise, behind which the real individual hides. A writer's persona is always "real." It is there, in the prose. The words you choose, the sentence patterns into which you arrange them, even the kinds of paragraphs you write and how you organize your essay, suggest a personality, which is, for that particular piece of writing, you.
But, you may object, a persona is not really the person who writes. interestingly enough, comes from the same
Latin word.) Of course, that is true, and it is true that the same writer may assume different personas on different occasions. Still, the only contact readers generally have with a writer is through his or her words. For readers the persona implicit in those words is the real, existential fact about the writer.
The question to ask about any persona is not, Is this really the writer? The questions are, Is it really how the writer wants to appear? And, Is it how he or she can best appear? To put the matter another way: Is the persona authentic and appropriate?
Authenticity means that the personality readers sense in your words is the personality you want them to perceive. To say that a persona is authentic does not necessarily mean that it is really you. We are all many different people, showing one face to friends, another to strangers, still another to the boss. Here authenticity simply means that how you appear in what you write is how you wish to appear.
But authenticity is not enough. A persona must also be appropriate, efficacious in the sense that it achieves your ends. At the very least it ought not to get in the way.
Persona is most immediately and directly revealed when a writer discusses himself or herself. For instance, a clear personality emerges in the following passage from Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography. Franklin is explaining that when he educated himself as a youth he learned to drop his habit of "abrupt contradiction, and positive argumentation" and to become more diffident in putting forward his opinions. (He is, of course, talking about the same thing we
[I retained] the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence, never using when advance any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words, certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather I say, / conceive, or / apprehend a thing to be so or so, It appears to me, or / should think it so for such & such reasons, or / imagine it to be so, or it is so if am not mistaken. This habit I believe has been of great advantage to me, when have had occasion to inculcate my opinions & persuade men into measures that 1 have been from time to time engag'd in promoting. And as the chief ends of conversation are to inform, or to be informed, to please or to persuade, wish well meaning sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive assuming manner that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given us, to wit, giving or receiving information, or pleasure: for if you would inform, a positive dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments, may provoke contradiction & prevent a candid attention. you wish information & improvement from the knowledge of others and yet at the same time express your self as firmly fix'd in your present opinions, modest sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturb'd in the possession of your error; and by such a manner you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire.
Franklin strikes us as a discerning and candid man, sensitive to how he affects people, but sensitive in an unabashedly egocentric way. His advice about not coming on too still worth based not so much on concern for others as on a clear-eyed awareness that modesty is the way to get on in the world. Yet the very openness and ease with which Franklin urges that advice washes away its taint of self-serving manipulation.
We sense a different personality in these paragraphs from Bertrand Russell's Autobiography:
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.
have sought love, first, because it brings so great that would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. have sought it, next, because it relieves loneli-terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. have sought it, finally, because in the union of love have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is least—I have found.
With equal passion have sought knowledge. have wished to understand the hearts of men. have wished to know why the stars shine. And have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, have achieved.
Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but cannot, and too suffer.
This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.
Russell is more emotional than Franklin. His attitude toward knowledge and toward other people is less self-serving and more passionate. He is driven to knowledge not because it serves his ambition but because of a compulsive desire to know (though Franklin too could show a disinterested quest for knowledge). Russell sees other people not as helps or hindrances to his career, but as fellow humans, for whose suffering he can feel compassion and sorrow.
Yet there is more to Russell's persona than the obvious emotionalism. His feelings are constrained within a rational framework. The organization of his paragraphs is tightly analytical, and the whole passage can easily be reduced to an outline. Here is someone who not only feels intensely but whose intellect imposes order upon emotions, giving them a sharper focus. We sense a powerful, complex mind, in which emotion and reason are not at war but are reinforcing allies. Russell's passionate response to life gains intensity because it is shaped by reason.
Persona, as you can see, is a function of the total composition. It emerges not only from the meanings of words but also from the more abstract, less obviously expressive patterns of sentences and paragraphs and from overall organization.
While most obvious in autobiographies, persona is not confined to such writing. It exists in all compositions. Even when a writer uses an impersonal point of view, avoiding "I," "me," "my," we sense a personality. In the following passage a historian is discussing dress and personal cleanliness in the Middle Ages:
Hemp was much used as a substitute for flax in making linen; the thought of hemp curdles the blood.
In the thirteenth-century romance L'Escoufle Sir Giles, beside the fire, removes all his clothes to scratch himself. (Fleas, no doubt.)
Such comments reveal writers as personalities, with their own ways of looking at the world—in Bishop's case with a pleasantly cynical humor.
Even in relatively faceless writing there exists a persona. Here is Charles Darwin describing the mouth of a duck:
The beak of the shoveller-duck (Spatula clypeata) is a more beautiful and complex structure than the mouth of a whale. The upper mandible is furnished on each side (in the specimen examined by me) with a row or comb formed of 188 thin, elastic lamellae, obliquely bevelled so as to be pointed, and placed transversely to the longer axis of the mouth.
Darwin's is an observant, precise mind. He refrains from saying more than facts allow: notice the qualification "(in the specimen examined by me)." Although he does allow emotion occasionally to show (a "beautiful... structure"), Darwin's tone is essentially sober, objective, painstaking, which, for his purpose, is exactly what it should be.
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