Hypocrisy in Life and Literature
Wednesday, December 28, 2016
Hypocrisy in Life and Literature
My dictionary defines hypocrisy as “The practice of professing beliefs, feelings or virtues that one does not hold or possess; falseness.” I’m going to add an important distinction. Those who knowingly engage in a falsehood are simply liars (politicians fall into this category). To be a genuine hypocrite there must be an element of self-delusion. You must accept as true that which is not. It’s present in those who are convinced they have fine qualities that they don’t possess, and in those who believe in false versions of the role they played in the events of their life.
A characteristic of this type of hypocrisy is that, no matter how obvious it is, the hypocrite remains oblivious. Such obtuseness makes it a reliable source of humor for novelists. The scene can be as simple as this: A wealthy woman holds forth to her progressive friends about her compassion for the downtrodden; as soon as the salon is over she storms into the kitchen and browbeats the sobbing young servant who broke a teacup. And then fires her.
In the hands of a Dickens or a Waugh we can laugh at this behavior. But hypocrisy is funny only as long as others are the butt of the joke. It’s a failing that is never applicable to oneself. Yet it’s to be found all around us. Anyone with rudimentary powers of observation (and a healthy dash of cynicism) could compile a list of people they know and designate the form their hypocrisy takes. Of course, to point this out to them would be an attack on their self-image; if you don’t want to create an instant enemy you’d better keep your thoughts to yourself.
Hypocrisy is not always to be taken lightly. The avowed environmentalist whose actions are destructive to the environment is a threat. And when self-delusion crosses into a complete break with reality we’re dealing with psychosis. In John Fowles’ The Collector Frederick Clegg finds justification for everything he does; in his mind he bears no guilt for the death of a woman he kidnaps and imprisons. Since there are very few psychotics at large, the damage they do is limited. Ordinary human beings in day-to-day life can cause pain through their hypocritical words and actions. And this pain can come from a most unlikely source: the use of the word “love.” In Erich Segal’s Love Story (which I’ve never read) there’s an oft-ridiculed line: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Those words aren’t as shallow as they may seem. It’s hypocritical to say to someone you claim to love, “I’m sorry I didn’t care for you when you were sick,” or “I’m sorry I was unfaithful,” or “I’m sorry I struck you.”
Nikolai Gogol uses hypocrisy as a source of humor in The Inspector General. The ne’er-do-well who milks his mistaken identity for all it’s worth isn’t a hypocrite; he’s an unabashed scoundrel who lies to sustain (and thus profit from) his role as Inspector. Not so the townsfolk who believe him to be an important man. To them his every utterance is meaningful or amusing, and the women find him extremely desirable. We laugh as we watch them cavort about on the stage. But at the end of the play Gogol has the Mayor go into a tirade over being duped: “It’s not enough to be made a laughingstock — there will come some scribbler, some inkslinger, and will put you in a comedy. That’s what’s mortifying! He won’t spare your rank and your calling, and everyone will laugh and clap.”
Then comes a touch that is pure Gogolian. The Mayor turns on the audience: “What are you laughing at? You are laughing at yourselves.”
I wonder if literary types can laugh at themselves. For if the play were to incorporate a few minor switches (a writers’ conference, a nonentity who is mistaken for an influential editor) we could have a version of a scenario enacted constantly in our literary world. It’s a world made up mainly of people with liberal values, yet it can match and surpass the moral turpitude that is rampant in forms of endeavor that these high-minded souls abhor. I’ve beaten this drum before, in essays on this blog. What interests me here is how, in interviews and books and lectures (and even on the Acknowledgment pages of novels) successful authors, agents and editors portray the literary life as one in which they and their compatriots are dedicated to the highest ideals of their art. Some may be making a calculated choice not to air their dirty laundry. But it’s likely that many have convinced themselves of the truth of their noble sentiments; they refuse to see the exclusivity, cronyism, and toadying going on around them. This makes them qualify as genuine hypocrites. Some scribbler should put these folks in a comedy.
Hypocrisy can be woven into the fabric of institutions and societies. A religion based on the teachings of Jesus flaunts its sumptuous wealth; a country that proclaims its abhorrence for violence has a populace that eagerly consumes the violence doled out on its TV and movie screens. Still, societal hypocrisy may serve a functional role in that it sets standards people pay lip service to. If I were a Jonathan Swift (I’m not) I’d have my Gulliver visit another island, one where people speak the absolute truth and act according to what they truly feel. This island would be in chaos, and he’d be fortunate to escape alive.
For the individual hypocrisy may be one of the keys to happiness. To hold onto false notions about yourself and to embrace doctored scenarios concerning your role in events can blunt the sharp edges of the truth. Those who don’t engage in self-delusion must face their flaws and mistakes. These unhappy people refuse to see themselves and their situation in a more favorable (or at least less lacerating) light; to do so would be to knowingly accept an untruth.The word hypocrite doesn’t apply to all who hold onto untruths. Illusions are in a separate category from delusions; they exist in the realm of hopes or dreams, and who, at some time, doesn’t hope and dream? When the beliefs we hold about ourselves or our future are based on erroneous conceptions, we’re engaging in self-illusion. To account for not achieving what we aspire to, we often find the fault outside ourselves. Few can tell themselves, “I no longer have any illusions about being a talented artist,” or “I’m incapable of having a satisfactory relationship with a woman.” Either way — acceptance or passing on the blame — disillusion is a bitter pill to swallow. In his work Richard Yates has consistently brought his flawed characters to the point where harsh reality asserts itself. Yet he doesn’t view them from afar. What makes Revolutionary Road and Cold Spring Harbor so painful to read is how relatable these people are. We may even see ourselves in them.