LDR STUDIES TOOLKIT | 2a. “essence”

Anthony Mandler. "Tropico" (still 1), 2013.

I think that I’ve now admirably dismantled the notion that Lana Del Rey’s music is governed by a “persona.”  To recap:

1. “Persona” means – literally; i.e., in Latin – “mask, character, role.”  In other words, a persona is a cover-up that conceals an entity’s “true” nature.  It’s a created exterior that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the interior – like one of the thousands of dentist’s offices you see in L.A. strip malls that are obviously not dentist’s offices.

2. Exteriors, by their nature, a.) have boundaries (in fact, they’re boundaries in themselves) and b.) don’t have depth. Personas, then, a.) have specific definitions and b.) contain nothing that contradicts those specific definitions.  When we talk about an entity’s persona, we’re talking about an exterior with a defined “what” that is only that “what.”  A “true” entity’s nature might be undefinable and infinitely unexplainable, but a persona serves a definite purpose.  A lot goes on in a whorehouse, but the only thing that happens in a “dentist’s office” is “dentistry.”

3. Lana Del Rey isn’t just a persona, because Lana Del Rey can’t be summed up by a defined “Lana Del Rey.”  She might not be an actual person, but she isn’t just a character put on by Elizabeth Grant for the purpose of selling records, creating controversy, or even making interesting music.  There’s no specific way that one can sum up “Lana Del Rey” because Lana Del Rey isn’t a specific thing.  Her nature is different than the “real” Elizabeth Grant, but it’s still a “real” nature in itself – at least, it’s “real” in that it evades definition and seems to contain infinite (-ish) depth.  If anything, Lana Del Rey is more like a “Thai massage parlor” that is also not a Thai massage parlor – there may be something “real” going on behind her, but there’s plenty of legitimate Thai massaging happening too.

Simply put, a persona lacks the “realness” (the “authenticity”) of a “real” (an “authentic”) entity.  By this logic, if Lana Del Rey were a persona, she would be irrefutably “inauthentic.”  If the inconclusive blog wars of 2011/2012 have proven anything to us, it’s that Lana and “inauthentic” do not go neatly hand-in-hand.  She must be something else, then, but to figure that out we’re going to need to pinpoint what “authenticity” actually is.  Which clearly means that we have an ontological struggle on our hands, which clearly means that we’re going to have to go all the way back to basics and hammer out definitions for the cornerstones of ontological struggle – that is, the warring concepts of “essence” and “existence.” (1)

Anthony Mandler. "Tropico" (still 2), 2013.


Latin did us well with “persona,” so let’s use that to figure out “essence.”  The story here is a bit more complicated, but much more interesting: “essence” comes from the artificial Latin present participle “essent-em,” a philosophical construction made to mimic the Greek “οὐσία.”   In case you are not a Classics scholar: a participle is a verbal adjective or adverb, i.e. a verb used to describe something (a “running” brook, a “winning” smile, a “freaking” awesome car).  “Essent-em” would be the participle of “esse,” which means “to be” – in other words, “being.”  “Being” is not a word that the boorish Romans were particularly into, but it was a useful one to the philosophical Greeks because it so effectively gets to the heart of what a thing is.  “To be” (of which “is” is of course the third-person active present) is a wonderful verb.  It takes no qualifiers: it’s the basic verb of a thing in-and-of-itself.  A thing that is does just that: it’s not doing, it’s not defining itself, it’s not even here or there – it’s just “be”-ing.  Dude! – “being!”  Chill word, Socrates.  It was bound to work out so perfectly – the beauty of a participles is that it incorporate its verb into the concept it modifies without that concept actively doing the verb.  A “winning” smile doesn’t actively “win” anything – “winning” is just a component of what that smile isYou could arguably call participles the part of speech of is-ness, so what better way to consummate this relationship than by making “is-ness” into a participle itself?  Being,” then, becomes a beautiful, self-defining word.  “Being John Malkovich” – not actively doing what John Malkovich does (John Malkovich-ing), but just John Malkovich because John Malkovich.  You could go on with this for days; one could hypothetically wrap one’s head around it, but it seems to require about 600 pages that only amount to half an introduction.

“Essence,” then, is the Anglicization of the Latinization of the Greek “”οὐσία” which literally means “being.”  Why bother with a separate word that conceals its definition when we have a wholly adequate one that cuts right to the chase?  I imagine there’s someone who has devoted a considerable portion of his life to this topic and could give you a fascinating explanation, but I would expect that it has something to do with the historically Latin-heavy nature of philosophical discourse.  The Scholastics may have been reading Aristotle in the Greek, but they were writing about it in the Latin, and through the Latin do we receive it.  So, despite its bastardized synonymy to the relatively pure “being” (only relatively – the OED etymology entry for “be” is a horrorshow), we’ve found ourselves tied to the pretty but confusing “essence.”  At the very least, this helps to keep our terms straight: “being” means a lot of things, especially as a modifier; “essence” means pretty much only “essence.”  In other words, when you’re talking about “essence,” you’re talking about “being” as “being” (being being being; being being “being” being being; being being “being” being – see the problem?) (2)

All of this hopefully makes very clear, then, the basic concept: “essence” is what a thing is.  Nothing more or nothing less.  You can’t define an entity by its essence; you can’t define an entity’s essence by the entity.  Or rather, you can, but only as such.  Words – comparisons, limitations, definitions – won’t do essence any justice.  The essence of tree is tree-ness; the essence of John Malkovich is John Malkovich-ness; the essence of a Los Angeles whorehouse is Los Angeles whorehouse-ness. (3)

Anthony Mandler. "Tropico" (still 3), 2013.

This last example is a salient one because the L.A. whorehouse at hand is of course not a “L.A. whorehouse,” but a “dentist’s office.”  In other words, the whorehouse, despite being a whorehouse, is not by definition a “whorehouse” – that is, it’s not defined by its essence.  Instead, it’s defined by something that’s contradictory to its essence, and its essence in turn is contradictory to its definition.  This is the ontological conflict created by a persona in a nutshell: the persona disrupts one’s experience of an entity’s essence by placing a wholly artificial exterior in the way.  But the exterior has no effect on the essence itself  – the whorehouse is still a whorehouse whose essence is whorehouse-ness.  I just don’t have the chance to experience whorehouse-ness – no one does.  We’re all blocked by “dentistry.”

Even if “dentistry” weren’t in the way, though, we’d still have to deal with the problem of definitions.  I could enter the  whorehouse and revel in the glory of prostitution – i.e., experience its essence – but my revelry would always be informed by my experience of the definition “whorehouse.”  I would be in a “whorehouse” – “whorehouses” are, among other things, “illegal,” “immoral,” “exploitative.”  So, despite experiencing the whorehouse in-and-of itself, I would also be experiencing it as it has been defined by some external source, and that external definition would impact and even undercut the purity of my essential experience.  In other words, despite having made it past the “dentist’s office” exterior, I would still be experiencing an exterior – the “illegal” exterior, the “exploitative” exterior, the simple “whorehousee” exterior.  No matter what, my experience of the essence is undercut by my experience of the exterior.  Even if I am the sole creator of the exterior’s definition, my experience of the essence is still filtered through my exterior experience.

What is essence, then, if it can’t be defined and it can’t be experienced?  If a whorehouse can’t be experienced as a whorehouse, is it still a whorehouse?  I am not the first person to ask this question, which leads us to the other side of the great ontological battle, an equally difficult Latinate word whose definition is mostly present in the word itself – “existence.”  [ellipses]

Anthony Mandler. "Tropico" (still 4), 2013.


(1.) I am not qualified to do this.  No one in the history of the world is qualified to do this.  “Essence” and “existence” transcend so many different schools of philosophical thought in so many different forms in so many different languages that you’d have to know pretty much everything to call yrself a expert.  A working knowledge of Aristotelian physics, Scholastic theology, Structuralist semniology, Heideggerian phenomenology, and Sartrean Existentialism will get you maybe 5% there.  Summing up the meaning of being is not a reasonable task.  Entire nations die over this.

(2.) To make life even more complicated:I’ve forgotten to mention here the “essential” (clarity issues are still an issue, even when you try your best) fact that “essence” is obviously a noun and not an adjective and therefore not a straight translation of a participle.  That’s because “being” is also a gerund, or a verbal noun, i.e. “meeting,” “greeting,” “happening,” winning.”  Like a participle, a gerund works a thing’s is-ness into its inert thing-ness; even better than a participle, it does this without requiring a modifier.  A “winning smile” is a “smile” as well as a thing that inherently “wins;” a “winning” is only defined by “winning.”   So “being,” then, is the thing defined purely by its pure is-ness, and “essence” is essentially (aaaah) the same thing.

(3.) TL;dr – this.


If you find yrself in the unfortunate position of actually caring about any of this, here are some “essential” texts (I think this joke is funny and will continue to use it indiscriminately) to check out and suffer over.  There are probably others that more official scholars deem more significant, but these are the ones that I implicitly parrot:

Aristotle, “Metaphysics” “essence” is a word because of this book, so it’s probably the place to start.

Plato, “The Republic”“Metaphysics” is a book because of this, so it’s probably an even better place to start; the theory of forms is more or less the starting point for the theory of essence.

Jacques Maritain, “An Introduction to Philosophy” (1956) – a relatively clear and reasonably balanced exposition on the basic concepts of essence and existence, from a decidedly essentialist perspective.

Heidegger, Martin,  “Being and Time” (1927) – I do not understand this book but I’m pretty sure everything I think is based on it.

Ferdinand de Saussure, “Course in General Linguistics” (1916) – the conversation about essence moved over to linguistics, which basically laid the groundwork for 20th century literary criticism/Lana Del Rey Studies.


One comment

  1. Great article! Your truth/understanding of her is very learn’d and thoughtful. Keep it up :D

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