Faking Good, Faking Bad

You Are What You Pretend To Be
Kurt Vonnegut wrote that. The words were spoken by a character in one of his books but it is quoted sometimes as though it were Vonnegut’s own philosophy and therefore great with wisdom. Shakespeare has Duncan say that there is no art to tell the mind’s construction in the face. People often quote that too, as wisdom, apparently ignorant of the context – that it was spoken by a man who was about to be murdered by a close associate whom he should have known better. That Shakespeare wrote the line doesn’t mean that he believed the philosophy. If he did he was a fool and that seems unlikely. Similarly, as a philosophy, the words spoken by Vonnegut’s character is complete rubbish, and that is not necessarily a reflection in itself on Vonnegut. It’s a common fallacy to assume that especially pithy aphorisms spoken by an author’s characters must be the opinions of the author, and this is not to invoke ‘literary theories’ such as deconstructionism  or other quintessentially French entertainments.
The ‘philosophy’, for now I must put sardonic makers around it, applies, in any case, only to attributes which are not readily testable. If I pretend to be a concert class cellist that doesn’t make me one and I can be found out soon enough. But I may be a nasty person and pretend to be kind and not be found out unless I am careless and let the mask slip.  If I pretend to be kind does that make me kind? What about the other way around? If I am an emotionally battered person who desperately wants to be liked I may pretend to be nasty, not because I truly am but because I wish to control the rejection from others that I have come to expect by causing it myself. Does that make me a nasty person or I am a really a kind person who just needs a little more understanding?
Well, no. You are not a kind person in that latter case. In that latter case you really are what you pretend to be because you are not pretending because it is all about you. When you do bad you are what you do if you are getting what you need. You are always what you do if what you do is bad and it makes you feel better about yourself or saves you from something.
If we are impatient, spiteful, irrational, needy, histrionic, selfish, thoughtless, self-regarding, and so many more things that are so much to be disliked then to the extent that we are those things those things are really us. We are not ‘under too much stress’, ‘having a bad day’, or ‘not really like that’. We really are like that. 

 In Robert Bolt’s, ‘A Man for All Seasons’, Thomas More is depicted as insulting some of his important friends when he knows that he himself is doomed. He does this for them, to make it easy for them, to save them from association with him if they choose to believe his insults, dislike him for them, and save themselves. That is what they do choose.
But then he is a saint. For most of us, you can be truly good, or if you’re bad enough you can fake good, but you can’t fake bad unless you are really good and you want to relieve people of the burden of liking you, entirely for their sake. Most people who behave badly do so entirely for themselves and their own precious opinions of their own worth, and the more they do it, the more they truly are the type of person who behaves badly. They truly are who not who they pretend to be but who they pretend to themselves not to be.


Richard said...

Excellent piece, Jim. Thank you.

Hamish said...

I think there's a lot of truth in Duncan's line: "there is no art to tell the mind’s construction in the face."
I don't see why Shakespeare would be a fool if he believed that himself.
Or have I missed something?

Jim Baxter said...

I'd agree it's not possible sometimes to tell much from a face when you don't know something about the person too. But 'No' art? I'd say the line shows, and is meant to show, Duncan's as both complacent and fatally naive.

Jim Baxter said...

How about this? 'No' art?


Richard said...

"There's no art to find the mind's construction in the face", if taken literally, is a bit limp. As Jim says, context is all. He has just executed the Thane of Cawdor for disloyalty, and the line is his public excuse for failing to spot the treachery beforehand - 'how could any of us have known?' kind of thing. All the more ironic when you know that the new Thane of Cawdor is listening, and taking note ...

Hamish said...

For sure there is irony in Duncan's words, but that doesn't make them foolish.
You seem to be saying you CAN judge a book by its cover, and it's impossible that a man may smile and be a villain.

Often I find myself looking at a photograph of a criminal convicted of a horrendous crime, and thinking he looks quite ordinary, harmless, nice even.
I'd like to think I would be able to make a better judgment if I met him face to face, but I'm not sure that I would.

Richard said...

"You seem to be saying you CAN judge a book by its cover"

Not really. Like you, I have often wondered about pictures of criminals and asked myself if I would have spotted them in the street as a murderer or whatever - and usually decided not. But Duncan knew the Thane of Cawdor well, and was still deceived. If he relied on the man's appearance, he was a fool, and if he based his trust on knowing the man, then he was a poor judge. The mind/face line strikes me as more post-hoc justification than anything else.

Interesting that Duncan is one of the few regal characters in the whole of Shakespeare to be given an almost wholly sympathetic treatment. His only flaw is in trusting the wrong people.

Jim Baxter said...

You seem to be saying you CAN judge a book by its cover,


and it's impossible that a man may smile and be a villain.


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