A world doesn’t seem real for us till it has been represented. And we are convinced that it is authentic by all its crass imitation.
We wish that there were someone observing our life. And when we view a play or read a book or look at a sketch, don’t we hope that we are doing what others might somehow do for us, witnessing our lives?
We seem real in our own and others’ eyes only by participating in all the world’s unreal shows.
I begin to misconceive the world where it meets my skin. I misjudge the very air, warm or cool, wet or dry.
Most of us see with our prejudices, not with our eyes. We are thus spared first from attending to what’s in front of our face, and then from the need to judge by our own lights.
In this world of imitation it’s false shows, frauds, puffery, masks, drapery, shuffles, charades and hoaxes that have the real authority. Anything genuine has no place. Nothing is so real and solidly-based that it can keep standing without the prop of empty pomp and ostentation.
1 Cheap imitation
I don’t doubt that the goal that lies just out of my reach is my better self. But this is what has filled the place of the better self which I could become right now, if only I could quit struggling to seize the cheap baubles that hang just out of my reach. As Pascal points out, ‘We unceasingly strive to embellish and preserve our counterfeit being and neglect the real one.’
We rush expensively round the world in search of the gaudy makeshifts for the plain rich goods that we could have found at home. ‘Let us not rove,’ Emerson urged, ‘let us sit at home with the cause. The soul is no traveller.’ We have all that we need right here in front of us. But can we sit still long enough to see it? ‘Human unhappiness,’ as Pascal wrote, ‘springs from one thing alone, our inability to stay quietly in our room.’ We don’t care where we’ve been, and we don’t know where we are, since our eyes are fixed on where we’re on the way to. And when we get there, we still won’t know it, since we’ll be speeding off to some new destination. We are always travelling and never arriving. And yet we see no point in the mere journey.
Don’t we always find some proxy that will cost us less and gain us more to do duty for the arduous and precious goods that we claim to set such a high premium on? If we can call it by the same name, we count it a bargain. And most of us are content to roost in this cheap and undemanding double world. We prefer anecdotes to evidence, incidentals to the core, presuppositions to principles, entertainment to enlightenment, news to permanent truths, borrowed opinions to our own cogitations.
We are a stiff-necked people, yet how low we kneel to the first fetish that we find. We rend our flesh for the calf of gold, but we won’t give up trifles for the one true God. We may not need a creed to put our trust in, but don’t we still crave an idol to crook the knee to? And yet most of them are too unworldly to keep our loyalty for long. So our idolatry proves to be no less fickle than our faith.
I shun real and solid goods, but my greed drives me on to trawl for thin and inessential ones. I cling ferociously to the trash that I don’t prize, yet I coldly let go of the precious things that I do prize.
We waste no end of time doing what we would not do if we had to pay for it. And we pay large sums of money to lay hands on what we’d not care for if it came free. We would be bored to spend much time contemplating a piece of scenery which we would be glad to spend half our life labouring to buy. How much of our life we fritter away to get such worthless junk, and what a small part of it we give to tend such priceless treasures.
The best is never good enough for us. We want something more plush and velvety and conspicuous. We rarely want the best, and when we do, we prefer to have it varnished and adulterated. We want to lodge our senses in a sumptuous palace, which will soon fall into disrepair anyway. But we leave our minds to cringe in a derelict hovel packed with shopworn pilfered fittings. We furnish our homes with luxuries, and fill our minds with junk. We demand the best of all the things that are not worth possessing, delicacies, finery, furnishings, gewgaws, gimmicks, frippery and blinking device, all the toys of our gimcrack affluence. We want the best of the cheapest things and the cheapest form of the best things. We strive to excel in the lowest tasks. What we covet is cheap trash expensively done. As we grow wealthier, we complicate our appetites and coarsen our minds. We crave more and more costly refinements of plain necessities. But we still make shift with the old crude substitutes for the most precious goods, such as art or intuition, which cost us so little in any case.
Aren’t most of our bargains more fatuous than faustian? We sell our birthright for a mess of pottage. We are beggared by some of our canniest deals. We trade our freedom for the mean expedients that we trust will one day make us free. We submit to a permanent yoke to win a precarious liberty.
2 Scant imagination
We are, as Bagehot said, governed not by the strength of our fancy but by its slackness and languor. If we had more of it, it might not cheat us with such ease. I am mesmerized by images, because I have so little imagination. Our illusions are so thin and limited, and yet we never come to the end of them. Most of us can grasp only what we have seen, yet we still muddy it with our turbid fantasy. We are suggestible but not imaginative.
I give my mind up to melodramatic dreams, and thereby pile on my head prosaic debacles. We tell ourselves lies that we don’t believe, and then wreck our lives in the vain effort to live up to them.
Our imagination is our ideal consumer feeding us the world. Our yawning fantasy cooks up images for our greed to grub up and swallow. We have just enough imagination to pique our greedy dreams, and just enough initiative almost to make them real. We confect senseless wants, and then have to use up our lives cramming them with senseless satisfactions. We have all the fancy we need to set us on to crave more of the same, but not to spur us to make anything new.
Our thoughts sound so plausible to us because they echo the sentiments that we are so used to hearing from others. We don’t reason. We merely respond. And we don’t respond to things as they are, but to the responses that others have made to them. We don’t deal with actualities. We tack together new editions of the old versions of them.
‘Our souls are moved at second-hand,’ as Montaigne says. We are touched by things because others have been touched by them. We don’t know what we ought to feel till we learn from others what they have felt.
Why do crimes like the shoah seem so unimaginable once they have happened, when they had been imagined long before they were committed? We go on inflicting unthinkable atrocities because we have thought them out so sensationally, till we will at last inflict on the world an end that will be unthinkably thoughtless. Once the pious had inscribed over the gate of hell ‘Divine power made me, wisdom supreme and final love,’ it was inevitable that monsters would one day set up their obscene paradoxes over the gates of extermination camps. How little imagination we must have, to hear of such horrors and not go mad.
Human kind has spent as little effort imagining its utopias as it has to make them real. They are all as trite and predictable as they are doomed and impractical. We have too much obsessive fantasy not to go on projecting them, and too many unruly cravings to be resigned to remain in them.
I can’t imagine not being here for the years to come, which I can’t imagine. Nothing is more unremarkable than the death of others or more inconceivable than our own.
That truth is stranger than fiction is one of the tired fictions that are more familiar to us than the truth. ‘Truth,’ as Twain said, ‘is more of a stranger than fiction.’ Life springs more surprises than books, but all of the dreariest and nastiest kind.
Images and icons rouse in us more intense feelings than the real thing. ‘We rarely view great objects in insulation,’ Montaigne says. ‘The small accoutrements, the outer paraphernalia are what catch our eye. Caesar’s toga threw all Rome in turmoil, which his death did not do.’ We are moved more by the occasion and all its attendant circumstances than by the true cause. We prefer the frame to the sketch, the blurb to the book, the tale to its telling, the shell to the kernel, the annotations to the text, the libretto to the music, the setting to the play, the costumes to the script, the story to the style, the pay to the deed, the fame to the feat, the church to the faith, the graven image to the god, the life to the work. We are thrilled by anecdotes, but numb to art. We crave the infantile satisfactions of story, but we have no patience for the adult exactions of art. We favour cheap melodrama over chaste melody. We inspect the painter’s signature more inquisitively than the painting’s design. Most of us are too shrewd to be fobbed off with what’s real and precious, yet we’re mesmerized by shallow fakes. Kafka’s goblin face haunts us more than his devastating fables. Guevara’s defiant stare galvanized a generation of tame eaters and feeders to hollow posturing and declamation. It is the icon that we love and not the god, the pose and not the principle. And yet the lurid caricature of an author like Machiavelli may show us more fruitful truths than the real thing.
Human nature stays the same from age to age, since there is so little of it. It strives to get what it wants, but what it wants and how it strives to get it are limitlessly adaptable. Its most marked feature is its bent for proliferating bizarre conventions. Nature can vary as weirdly as custom, and custom clings as tenaciously as nature. And yet a usage or taboo that has lived on for hundreds or thousands of years may die out in a generation.
Drive custom out with a pitchfork, yet will it run straight back. ‘The unnatural,’ Goethe points out, ‘that too is natural.’ Though one might just as well say, the natural, that too is unnatural. Whatever we like we call natural, and what we dislike we call unnatural.
Of all things instinct is the least natural and spontaneous, the most robotic and mechanical. It is the mere translation into habits of an encoded set of instructions.
We are by nature creatures of convention. ‘Nothing cannot be made natural,’ Pascal wrote. ‘Nothing natural cannot be lost.’ Artifice is our nature, and our nature is one of the unnatural’s unnumbered variants. We don’t touch nature save through the prophylactic of custom. And we don’t discern custom, as we have grown so used to taking it for nature. Many of the desires, behaviours and institutions that have been thought most natural are in fact the most stubbornly conventional. It takes a great deal of nurture and formation to turn people into what they have made up their minds they are by nature.
From pole to pole our kind is a neurotic animal, and has at all times been perverted. ‘Man,’ as Rousseau says, ‘is a sick animal,’ and we will butcher all the healthier ones in our vain search for a cure. We are beasts that want to have everything both ways. We have maimed and mutilated our primal instincts by thousands of years of training and civilization. Yet we push the most elaborate schemes to give an outlet to our most childish drives.
Our passions corrupt our reason, and our reason complicates our passions.
An animal is an ingenious piece of clockwork. But in us consciousness has sent the mechanism haywire.
The animals can make do with their instincts. We, with our more evolved form of consciousness, need illusion. They live their ignorance through their sane instincts, we formulate ours as ideas. Since we have the eyes to see the truth, we need to stun and blinker them with our misconceptions. We are dressed-up animals, still stung by our lusts and alarms, but out of harmony with our natural bent.
A sentient being needs to keep up the illusion of its meaning and purpose, so as to give its brute insensate will a pretext to go on with its struggle.
Nature is a monstrous whirring clockwork of cruelty and futility. The life of the beasts is a lethargic nightmare from which we’ve awoken to appalled consciousness, resolved to electrify the world, so that no one will need to dream any more.
Only a being alienated from nature could love it.
As the green world goes to rack, instead of cherishing its last frail traces, we more and more hanker for the synthetic and the virtual. Our devices add to our power, while distancing us from real life. Nostalgia now recalls us not to a richer and more authentic reality but to the artificial images of technicolour kitsch. By the time that we put an end to the real world, it will have so long faded from our view, that we won’t so much as notice its passing. We are too busy documenting our own wonderful lives to notice that we are exterminating all life around us. We will be travelling too fast for the least report of its perishing to reach our ears. Our machines are gnostic angels poised to deliver us from the toils of this earth.
In order to enjoy the simple and natural, you need to have the wherewithal to live out of range of their unpleasantness.
Convention manufactures our fallacies for us, so that we don’t have to draw on the handicraft of imagination. We don’t think our own thoughts, but merely counterfeit an authorized currency. And we don’t discern our artfulness and shamming, since we sham so instinctually.
We cling to convention because we are so listlessly artificial, but we can foil convention only by becoming strenuously artificial. It can be defeated not by spontaneity but only by forethought and deliberation.
If you want to see a thing afresh, you have to gaze at it long and long, till you start to see it for the first time. A blur of custom blears our eyes from the cradle, and we don’t see fresh till we have learnt to look with unhasting intentiveness. When asked to draw what’s in front of their eyes, children reproduce a facsimile of its stock icon.
Conformist competition assembles the labyrinthine machine of self-interest. We conform to compete in what matters, such as work, and compete to conform in what does not, such as conversation.
Our views fluctuate like a weather made by the insistent climate of our time and place.
The herd is our habitat, and we camouflage ourselves in it by conforming.
I spend half my time trying to fit in, and the rest striving to stand out.
Would we be so impressed by those who flout convention in such commonplace ways, if we didn’t submit so supinely to it ourselves?
Our illusions are kept up by our personal conceit and our social solidarity.
Most people are as conventional as they are conceited. But fortunately convention curbs their conceit, and their self-conceit makes some of them delightfully unconventional.
Some minds are so heavy and immoveable, that all they’re good for is to act as ballast for social norms.
The state, though careless of our private conceit, is admirably configured to give an outlet to our endemic self-importance. It makes up a vast fretwork of mutually remunerative frauds.
Some people will go to great lengths to seem original, short of thinking for themselves. They cling to their quirks, but take no pains to find new truths.
No name, no shame. You don’t learn to feel embarrassed by what is natural till it has been named.
We live so falsely, that you can win a name for bold wit by pronouncing a curt but obvious truth now and then. We count on the sentinels of civic respectability, educators, lawgivers, magistrates and pastors, not to do this, but in our cringing age we celebrate them when they seem to.
We take pride in our singularity, but we thrive by our timid conformity. We like to feel that we are unique, yet we grow anxious if we stray too far from our herd.
We all conform, yet we boast that we are mavericks, seeing that we commit a few acts of abortive defiance to flout our subjugation. Some of us try to work up our distinctiveness by cultivating a small ensemble of affectations.
5 The banal is bizarre
We may go extravagantly off course, because we have dreamed some weird new dream, or else because we adhere to some tawdry creed which we have never gone to the trouble of interrogating. We think lethargically yet theatrically, and so we lapse into sensational tropes rather than reach for chaste truths. We fall into such far-fetched misinterpretations, yet we fail to say anything new. Even our lies lack inventiveness. We lie by nature, but an imaginative lie must be the work of patient art. ‘As universal a practice as lying is,’ Swift said, ‘and as easy a one as it seems, I do not remember to have heard three good lies in all my conversation.’ We veer off into the wrong paths because they’ve been trodden so smooth by all the scuffed feet that have tramped them. We are whimsical but not original, idiosyncratic but not individual, and obdurate but not independent. We have such overbearing illusions and such a timid imagination. Though impermeable to ideas, we are susceptible to infectious opinions. Our fantasies are just as dank and grimy as the low reality which we want to use them to tunnel out of.
Our dogmas are fantastic but not imaginative, and arcane but not rigorous.
Our superstitions are as banal as they are bizarre. And most of our common sense is as bizarre as it is banal. The opinions that infatuate us are flamboyant yet flat, while the ones that we live with are flavourless yet concocted.
Most people are empiricists. They find it easier to take in facts than to find out reasons. Yet the facts that they take in are not the raw data presented to them by their senses but the accepted coin minted by convention.
Some insights glimmer as the luminous sunset of a rare experience. But the flash of an event may disorient us and darken what it seems to light up, and the glare of particular incidents may blind us to broad truths.
You can’t judge an idea that you have had, till you have forgotten the experience that gave rise to it.
Your experiences may crystallize your thoughts, but they don’t create them. Some grant you a glimpse of notions that you have not yet found bright terms for, and some at last suggest the words for vistas of pure thought that you saw an age ago.
‘Experience,’ wrote Livy, ‘is the schoolmaster of fools.’ The world is still a brutish tutor, and still we don’t learn. It enjoys flogging its pupils more than educating them, and it robs them of the rich percipience that their lack of experience gave them for nothing, and then charges a disproportionate fee for its tuition. We net our most profound perceptions from our abysmal fiascos, provided that we don’t drown in their instruction first.
Before you have lived long, you are taught that living will teach you all that you need to know. But what you learn from a long life is that it doesn’t have much to teach you, though most of us learn so little from it that this is one more lesson that we fail to glean.
The inexperienced are glad to be misled by their outlandish preconceptions, the experienced by their drab and unenlightening experiences.
Do bookish and cloistered people differ much from travelled ones? Have both not quarried a heap more raw material for thought than they will ever use to think with? ‘Each of us,’ Nietzsche says, ‘now lives through too much and thinks through too little.’ Few people want to learn more from their breadth of experience than how to cope with it. And all they gain from their involvement in the world is the skill to use the cheap arts that will help them to rise in it.
The most repressed and uneventful life has plenty of room for high raptures of reverie and emotion.
Artists render their experiences exemplary by misrepresenting them.
All that most people want to learn from their experience is how to squeeze it to yield them more profit or amusement.
Don’t our lives, which seem so rich and chequered, confirm time and again a small compendium of thoughts formed by bloodless inquirers who had a sparse acquaintance with life? Those who scorn mere book-learning verify by their untutored experience a narrow scatter of trite notions to be read in books. All the good maxims exist by now, as Pascal said, but how monotonously we keep on reconfirming their direst lessons.
Our experience is surprised to learn what our inexperience has long guessed. ‘A moment’s insight,’ says Oliver Holmes, ‘is sometimes worth a life’s experience.’
We come out of most events by the same doorway we went in. We love to boast that some occurrence has changed our whole view of the world, though it’s rare that we can point to any new views that we have drawn from it. Our most unsettling experiences fail to make a dent in our pre-established opinions. An upheaval may jolt your fixed ideas, but they soon spring back all the sturdier. Our ideology guides us through our experiences, and then it tells us what they mean. Our most wayward experiences serve to prove the truth of our most orthodox prejudices.
We shift and vary at the least cause, and yet the most momentous happenings leave us blockishly unchanged. The gentlest breeze can blow us off course, though a blast won’t budge us from our set ways or fixed point of view.
If you wait for history or experience to teach you, then you will have learnt too late, like a commander fighting the war just gone. ‘What a pity that in life we only get our lessons when they are of no use to us,’ as Wilde said.
Most of us can bear to live reality, provided we aren’t forced to reflect on it. A few of us can bear to reflect on it, so long as we aren’t forced to live it. Once you have learnt what is true, how could you bear what is real? Some people can make their way through a torrent of experience because they don’t feel it keenly, and the few who do feel it keenly can’t endure much of it. Those who are proud of leading such full lives are too dull and distracted to have anything but hollow ideas. Their own lives are so crowded, how could they grasp that the world is so empty? Most of us are too self-satisfied to feel how sad life is. But a few make so little of their own life, that they see through the littleness of all life.
We can decently commend what we are by commending what we have lived through. Our experiences have made us the people that we are, but they are not so exclusively our own that we can’t show them off. And we are so proud of them that we’re happy for them to lead us astray.
Life scatters from your thoughts most of its teachings as soon as it’s passed them on to you. So there are some things that you have to go through again and again, to fix in your mind what going through them made you forget.
We plunge into experience, and find that it wets us just up to our ankles.
Life holds out such rich possibilities, yet we taste it in such a thin form. It can be so stinting, yet we imagine it so prodigally. How penetratingly we feel the most casual occurrences, but what sparse sense we glean from the most overwhelming marvels.
Those who have no imagination place a high value on wide experience.
People assume that they learn their ideas from experience because it supplies them with the anecdotes which is what they have instead of ideas.
We lead our vacant or full lives in order to escape from the vacancy which might have taught us what we are.
Our most vivid images and memories are transmitted to us not by our own experiences but by the external machinery of film and photographs.
7 We experience our prejudices
We live most of our life vicariously. We allow images and convention to script it for us, and then we fail to grasp what they tell us. So we set great store on experience, but most of what we experience are the fantasies that we get at second-hand, which assure us that we have lived through things first-hand. Most of the thoughts that we owe to personal experiences merely reprise trite theories.
We feel sure that we have taken in raw the experiences that have in fact been synthesized many times through other minds. We process fresh events to make fatuous chatter.
All we need in order to thrive in the world is a few tattered platitudes. And this is just as well, since we reap from all our thriving not much more than a few tattered platitudes.
The years, which we trust will unfurl to us green truths, leave us with a pinched yield of musty truisms. Why else would we think so highly of what they teach us? They gratify us first by reinforcing our timeworn views, and then by dignifying them as revelations.
If we had learnt more from our past experiences, we might be free to spend our time now on something more edifying than experience.
Our experiences run in the muddy ruts dug by common prejudice.
Experience beguiles us by supplying us with new sensations while entrenching our drab ideas.
Our received opinions teach us a large part of what we think we live through. And then what we live through verifies our received opinions. ‘As a child,’ Pavese wrote, ‘one learns to know the world not, as it would seem, by immediate inaugural contact with things, but through the signs of things, words, pictures, stories.’ We experience our prejudices, and prejudge our experiences.
We crib most of our views from others, and so we depute to others the task of making sense of the world for us. We read events in the drab code of our tags and catchwords.
Those who know only what they have lived through will live through only what they already know. Yet we assume that living will prove the commonplace that life confutes all commonplaces.
We live as we travel, and we travel as we shop and consume, distractedly sampling the flavours of our plastic fantasies, and taking our own snaps of the landmarks that we have seen so many times in films, postcards, guidebooks and posters. We don’t care if we have tasted life to the full, so long as we’ve got the photographs. We jaunt round the world in the quest to experience at first-hand the second-hand images of a place which have been printed on our soul. Then we skew these too by experiencing such a cramped ambit of them. A site comes to be picturesque because it has been pictured so many times. ‘When a thing is a wonder to us,’ Twain says, ‘it is not because of what we see in it, but because of what others have seen in it.’ Most of the beauty that we see comes to us through the eyes of other beholders.
You broaden your mind by ranging widely through the cooped or unbounded expanse within your own head. But most of us just shuttle from one stock view to the next. ‘It’s not only better,’ says Pessoa, ‘but truer to dream of Bordeaux than to go there.’ By longing to travel to a place you learn all that it has to teach you. But by consummating your longing you sterilize your vision. ‘The farther one journeys,’ Lao Tzu writes, ‘the less one knows. So the sage gets there without going.’
Tourists are in the position of children in the midst of adults. They have to watch how to act in order to get what they want, and have to mimic ways of behaving that they don’t quite grasp the point of.
The habit of travel makes us too distracted to find what we’re looking for even at home.
We mimic how people act, because we hunger for acceptance. And we mimic what they believe, because we don’t much care for the truth. We come to be careless copies of cheap originals. ‘Most people,’ as Wilde says, ‘are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.’ We strive to make our lives real and dense by emulating phony and hollow models, like films, celebrities and photographs.
When left free to follow nature, we naturally copy our peers. ‘Man,’ as William James said, ‘is essentially the imitative animal.’ To conform is one of the deepest of the heart’s needs.
There may be less disparity than there seems between our compulsion to play a part and our determination to do just as we wish in spite of what the world may think. All the best and worst things that we do have some smack of showmanship in them. ‘Man,’ as Hazlitt said, ‘is a make believe animal. He is never so truly himself as when he is acting a part.’ Why do some people prefer to act out a tiresome role, such as that of the wailing widow, than just be who they are?
Actors have nothing to withhold, but have a trick of appearing to. They use a twofold chicanery. They seem to feel moods by seeming to suppress them. They don’t borrow a real face, but fashion a false depth.
At times I reach for a real feeling, and find that all I have is a trite gesture. And even the most impromptu of my gestures I have picked up from others. ‘A human being,’ says Adorno, ‘comes to be human by imitating other human beings.’ We are living and responsive mirrors. We change our shape, position and angle in reaction to the images that we reflect.
When I am on my own, I con the parts that I play for the world. I act all my most earnest moods for an audience, though it may be just my own admiring eyes. Yet I may rehearse a scene so many times, that when it at length comes, I’m too irked to stage it in the way that I had planned.
I form my most authentic self by acting out the roles that my self-interest has made me take up. I wear my disguises lightly because I am such a mystery to myself. Play an ensemble of parts, and you may learn how much you are patched up from the parts that you play. But those who keep on one seamless mask are obliged to get sincerity, and so are spared the ignominious acquaintance with their own mixed motives.
Blessed are the actors, for they shall be called sincere. We feel sure that fact looks like bad fiction, and that frankness looks like bad acting. We love to be true to ourselves, especially when someone else is watching.
Our age dotes on forthrightness and authenticity, and hence makes a fetish of showmen and boosters.
We mistake impersonations for personality, assertions for convictions, slogans for creeds, success for skill, the outcome for the essence, and praise from others for our own pride.
We are all the time declaring war on lies, and lying in our declarations. ‘The awe occasioned by how things sound,’ as Multatuli says, ‘plays a large role in the history of delusions.’ We are not the less besotted with lush gestures when they hurt us. And the most incongruous kind of gestures may be our grand avowals of truth and transparency.
All the world is not a stage, so why do all the men and women persist in behaving as if they were players?
Sermon-mongers trust that they heal others by the homilies that they preach, but it is their own sick souls that they cure by their play-acting. They gorge their own egoism by admonishing you to starve yours. The sole salvation that they crave is an adoring crowd. They hope to be redeemed by the ears of their hearers and to be rescued from despair by the faith that others show in them. ‘No siren did ever so charm the ear of the listener,’ Henry Taylor wrote, ‘as the listening ear has charmed the soul of the siren.’
10 Honest hypocrisy
Most people are not hypocrites, since they don’t so much as know what it is that they really believe.
Few of us are honest enough to be hypocrites. To be a hypocrite, you first have to own the truth to yourself and then lie only to others. Conscious dissimulators are forced to confront the truth about their own motives which the sincere can pass by.
You have to choose between sincere self-deception and honest hypocrisy. You have to bring off a lot of evasive manoeuvres, if you hope to shield your embattled truth from the world’s intrusive sincerity.
There are times when brazen egoism alone will dare to tell the bare improper truth.
‘Give a man a mask,’ Wilde says, ‘and he will tell you the truth.’ We may come closest to the truth when we cast out a few flippant witticisms which we don’t in the least believe in. The rest of the time we dwell in our world of earnest illusion.
We have a knack for arriving at the truth by the looped and zigzag avenues of obliquity. ‘Success,’ as Dickinson wrote, ‘in circuit lies.’ Our kind, which sets such a high value on the truth, proves its worth by the artifice, inventions and fictions in which it excels and by which alone it can trace its path to the truth. ‘Our journey is entirely imaginary,’ Céline wrote. ‘That is its strength.’
We are so crooked, how could we draw near the truth save by acts of bad faith? Reach it, and you will learn how great is your need of hypocrisy.
Most of us speak with sincerity but not with truth. A strong mind is truthful yet seldom transparent.
We are too broad and too variegated to grow all of one piece. ‘The entire,’ wrote Adorno, ‘is the false.’ We become whole at the cost of narrowing and limiting ourselves, and by excluding influences which might have spurred our growth.
We are at our best only in stray exploits. ‘Our ability is chopped up in small chunks,’ as Montaigne says. Human kind has done such great things, not by dint of its high level of average capacities, but by dint of their range and variability.
11 Self-deceiving sincerity
Honest people know that they are frauds. The sincere are proud of their good faith, which they keep up by refusing to acknowledge how continuously they lie.
So long as you consent to be a liar, the world won’t force you to tell many out and out lies, though it will pay you well when you do. Bad faith is its own reward, but it reaps the world’s reward too.
We are too prudent to lie, and too earnestly self-seeking to know or tell the truth.
How many base things we wish to be but not seem. And how many fine things we wish to seem but not be. I don’t want to appear to act like a hypocrite, but I am quite willing to be a hypocrite so as not to seem like one, just as, according to Pascal, one may behave like a coward in order to win a name for courage. I blush to seem so fake, and so I forge zeal and an authentic self in order to seem sincere.
Grinning sincerity impudently flaunts itself, while truth skulks furtive and shamefaced.
There’s no pose that people won’t put on in an attempt to assert their honesty.
We have seen enough of the world to make us hate it. But we still want so much from the world, that we have to act as if we loved it. And our belief soon falls into line with our act.
When I have to associate with someone, I try to feel as if I liked them, so as not to seem false in my own eyes. I pretend that I’ve been fooled, for fear of appearing insincere, and I coax myself to admire, so that I won’t feel soiled when I toady to them.
A doctrinaire fanatic, such as Hitler, still has to work up his sincerity like a ham actor. Yet the most guileful pretenders lend a limitless trust to their own candour. ‘The greatest and truest zeal,’ Hume wrote, ‘gives us no security against hypocrisy.’ Most fervent devotees are commendably frank and yet disgracefully two-faced. ‘Convictions,’ as Nietzsche said, ‘are more injurious foes of truth than lies.’
Seasoned deceivers know nothing of the delights of mendacity. They perjure themselves as a grave moral duty which they discharge with principled zeal, though unlike the rest of their good deeds they are quite unaware of this one.
An honest hypocrite shocks a solemn self-deceiver. A sanctimonious cheat burns with indignation when a rival is shown to have behaved duplicitously. And they take offence when their dupes refuse to lend them their trust.
A sincere person is shocked by a bald statement of the truth.
Mendacious leaders feel sure of their own authenticity when their followers answer their glib frauds with a commensurately glib faith.
It’s only insincere people who can bear to know the truth. The candid feel no cause to search it out, since their snug self-certainty keeps them safe and warm.
Sincere people believe in their own belief, not in the truth. And we believe in them because we see how piously they believe in themselves. And we have faith in them because we see how much faith the world has in them. They move and convince us, while the truth would fatigue or nauseate us. Their displays of openness seduce us, where plain veracity would repel us. We are left cold by the truth. But we are warmed by the fervour of people who blaze with faith in their own candour. We put our trust in those who keep up an unquestioning trust in their own integrity, who accordingly have least claim to our trust. But we withhold our loyalty from the few who have had the honesty to doubt themselves. ‘The world,’ Trollope wrote, ‘certainly gives the most credit to those who are able to give an unlimited credit to themselves.’
I admire my own authenticity with smug self-consciousness, and my spontaneity with conscious self-satisfaction.
Our plain-speaking makes us conceited, and our conceit spurs us to speak plainly. Our self-deceits levy an onerous tax of candour from our vanity, which we pay by maintaining a complacent devotedness to our routine lies. What a batch of falsehoods we stuff our lying hearts with, to feed our faith in our own truthfulness.
We speak without reflecting, and then we believe whatever we say, provided we can keep it in our heads, which is that much easier once we have said it. We scarcely know what we believe till we have said it. And we keep up our sincerity by saying it over and over.
It’s not hard to give your faith to a thing if you’ve not thought about it.
Sincerity is a psychic thrift. We would blush to profess what we don’t believe, and so we believe whatever we are obliged to profess. We take ourselves in, that we might seem open to others. Most of us have too much decency not to be fooled by the lies that we need to tell. ‘The true hypocrite,’ as Gide says, ‘is the one who has ceased to perceive his deception, the one who lies with sincerity.’
Sincerity is the virtue of those who lack the self-awareness to see how much the most heartfelt belief is made up of play-acting, self-interest, convenience, vanity and habit.
We sincerely believe whatever it suits us to believe. Our convictions are the obeisant lackeys of our commanding ambitions.
Some people overact their parts, to prove that they are not acting. They turn their back on truth, because they are so bent on appearing sincere. They swell their seemly pretences of feeling into unseemly histrionics. Speak emphatically, and you will convince yourself and others that you believe with all your soul.
Young people love striking effects, and so they are prone to mistake vehemence for intensity, and intensity for profundity.
Those who scruple to tell a downright lie will submit to living a whole life of upright self-deception.
Language is the wall partitioning our prison cells which we tap on to signal our loneliness.
We don’t notice what we don’t name. But what we do name soon melts beneath the thick cloak of the names that we confer on it. ‘More hinges on what things are called,’ Nietzsche says, ‘than on what they are.’ The name comes to signify more than the thing it refers to, since it forms the focus of all the customary associations which take the place of the thing in our minds.
‘In speaking,’ Trollope wrote, ‘grand words come so easily, while thoughts, even little thoughts, flow so slowly.’ We dawdle behind the truth, because we have made it too easy to talk and too hard to think. ‘It’s where a thought is lacking,’ Goethe said, ‘that, in the nick of time, a word turns up in its place.’
How few of the great fabled places live up to the romance of their names.
I cherish my name, since it forms the small foothold that my self-importance has in speech, as my birthday is the date that sanctifies the whole calendar. The one spell that is guaranteed to work on all of us is the magic of our own name.
Like a child, I have the knack of pattering coherently about large ideas, though I don’t quite know what they mean. But I get by with seeming to make sense and mimicking the sense that the people round me seem to make.
We don’t let truth get in the way of our style. But don’t we allow all the rest of our wants to get in the way of truth?
It’s those who have no feeling for language that are bewitched by brash slogans, pretentious titles, nomenclature, hackneyed tags, brand names and doggerel. It’s those who scorn mere words that turn out to be their most egregious dupes.
People mention the brand names of the things they own with the same cosy sense of accomplishment that they yap about their friends.
Most thoughts, like lightning bolts, strike a few seconds before the thunder-clap of words.
Truth is so unspeakable and indecent, that it has to be secreted in writing. It is what cannot be said in table-talk. It had to wait till writing was invented to bare its nakedness.
Truth may at times rise to our lips like vomit, but we’ve learnt how to keep it down. We dare tell it only to those whom we don’t know or don’t care for. Thus Stein said that she wrote for herself and strangers.
Most people can’t speak the truth because they don’t know what it is, a few because they know it all too well.
We say nothing of weight in day to day talk. And great authors don’t write a line that could be said in day to day talk. They have to use the forms of casual conversation to convey what can’t be broached in casual conversation.
‘We are truer to ourselves,’ notes Beausacq, ‘when we write than when we talk, because we write alone.’ I make my words my own when I write. When I speak, I compromise with the words of others. The speaker wants to be understood, but the writer expects to be misread, and always will be.
13 We blame words
I am misled not by words but by the motives for which I use them. But then I blame words for waylaying me.
We feel even more dishonestly than we speak. The lie goes deeper than the word. We don’t just tell lies, we feel them. A hundred lies can pass from soul to soul in a flash, and not one word spoken. If we lacked speech, we would have found some alternative way to dissimulate. A world in which we told no lies would still be one flush with fraud, though much more dim and wintry.
Words are the one hook with which we can catch the truth.
Words are the best and worst of us. We pack them with all our hollowest fantasies and all the fullness of our imagination.
14 Words are too strong for our weakness
We make a world of superlatives. We treat words like our children. Our souls may be shrivelled and dislocated. But we still live expansively in language.
We overstate how much we feel and how much we’ve learnt from life. And then we curse words for being too weak to tell what we feel and what we’ve learnt. But we find them adequate for one task at least, to say how inadequate they are. We vie to work up fresh and forceful tropes to voice how language can’t voice our passions. But the one thing too large and terrifying for us to give voice to is our littleness. We profess to despair of language, while employing it to play up our poignant despair. We always care too late, when we have no cure left but words. We love to show off our stricken artistry and air our agonized perplexity. The wounds that we feel for others speak eloquently, but they don’t bleed.
The writer’s struggle is not with the poverty of language but with its plenitude. It holds out to them at every turn a more exuberant range of possibilities than they know what to do with.
Those who have starved ideas carp that speech is too thin and bloodless to do justice to all their profuseness.
When I write, I search for the most forcible terms to match the strength of my thoughts. But when revising, I come to see that my thoughts don’t deserve to speak so loud. ‘Of two words,’ Valéry counselled, ‘always choose the lesser.’ We hollow out speech by inflating all our feelings and their expression. Simplify your means, elevate your aims.
My words prove to me that I do indeed feel what I know I ought to. And I know what I ought to feel because I have heard the words that others never fail to intone on such occasions. I think that I want my eloquence to match the intensity of my own grief or joy. But in fact I want it to match the force of others’ eloquence. I strain to make my tropes equal not to the event but to the tropes that I have heard used at such times.
Why do we claim that language wastes us like a disease, and that we would live so much more richly if we were cured of it? We don’t weary our moods and convictions by expressing them, we flex and feast them. They look less ashen when they have been out in the enlivening sunshine of others’ gaze.