Hypocrisy about Hypocrisy: The Creation of Selves

by Wayne C. Booth

or several days now my left knee has screamed at me as I walk. This morning, as I limped into our University library, I saw a colleague far across the hall and quickly stopped limping and walked toward him smiling cheerfully, but in far greater pain than when limping. We had a brief good chat about his essay on Aristotle's Metaphysics, and I walked away still not limping, showing no signs of the pain and aging that I felt.

Was that show of total health a masking of my inner self? Obviously--or at least one of my selves, the pained one. I was playing a role, enacting a painless character, pretending to be in better health than I was. I did not want to plague my colleague--not a close friend but a scholar I admire--with a pained, inferior Booth. For all I know, he may have been concealing his own pains--or contempt. Thus we both acted out our roles as scholars, just as we all act out diverse roles day by day.

Is that kind of posing morally defensible or contemptible? I have friends who claim that it is contemptible, even as I catch them doing it. I defend it, especially when it's masking of the kind I'll dwell on here: the creation, in writing, of a better self.

Certainly masking of one kind or another takes place every day. When public figures--including politicians--put on their diverse masks, should we always blame them for it? Is it always hypocrisy in the bad sense of that word--always indefensible, immoral lying? Such masking always does attempt to deceive the world, in one sense, whether the poker faces of George W. Bush and Al Gore or the disastrous masking of presidents Nixon and Clinton. But was it contemptible this morning when you showered, put on makeup or shaved or trimmed your beard? Was I immoral last week when I wrote a letter of recommendation somewhat more enthusiastic than I felt about a student, because I knew that my letter had to compete with other letters, and all letters these days are hyped? In short, is there something in our process of trying to present selves better than we know we are that is not just inescapable, but in some way valuable, even redemptive? Are there occasions when masking could be called not wicked hypocrisy but perhaps "hypocrisy upward?"

In its Greek origins, the word hypocrisy simply referred to "acting out a role," doing what an actor does on the stage. It lacked its later Tartuffian connotations of vicious, harmful faking. The term itself may not be rescuable, but I want to argue that we practice far too many bad kinds of hypocrisy when we pretend that playing roles, projecting only half-true images, is always bad--and that only those down below us, the wicked, fail to practice total openness. Too many of us talk as if only absolute, full, honest, open sincerity, with nothing hidden, is morally defensible, even as we violate that utter, undivided so-called sincerity every day.

Here I'll dwell on the way in which most attempts to write more effectively exhibit hypocrisy upward: the effort to create a work that by its very existence implies an author/persona more wise, more skilful, more spontaneous than the flesh-and-blood author. And my general claim--perhaps seeming obvious to some and offensive to others--is that our lives would be cursed if writers did not practice such hypocrisy. We need those created, somewhat faked models. We are--contrary to what a lot of authors' biographies imply--blessed when skilful authors perform selves superior to their everyday, warts-laden selves.

I'll offer here two illustrations of "hypocritical" literary creations that demonstrate how hypocrisy upward is exhibited in what many of us English literature professors think of as the purest form of writing: poetry.

Robert Frost's better self

In fine poetry, what we almost always meet are voices that seem to be speaking directly, wonderfully cleansed of all flesh-and-blood traces, transformed selves far more admirable than the so-called real authors who created them. Consider Robert Frost, one of the truly great poets of this century, and one who has been almost viciously "outed" by some biographers uncovering his worst faults. Just who is the Robert Frost we meet in this mostly ignored poem, "A Time to Talk"?

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don't stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven't hoed,
And shout from where I am, "What is it?"
No, not as there is a time to talk,
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.
What kind of person, first, is the narrator, the speaker here? Here is a man whom I cannot resist admiring and do not want to resist: a dutiful, hard-working farmer, who though facing the endless task of hoeing the hills, cares so much about friendship that he'll drop the work and chat. He's a man who thinks of the farmland as mellow, but leaves it for the sake of a friendly visit. Good talk, in a rural scene with a friend, is for him a high value.

But who, behind that narrator, is the implied author? Well, he is posing as that farmer, but he's much more than that. Here is a man devoted to beautiful poetic form, working hard with rhymes of road, hoed, walk, talk, around, ground, tall, wall, and--separated by six lines--"What is it" and "friendly visit." He's also working hard with meter and line length, so that he can shock us with that short final one: For a friendly visit. To me that's a lot harder than plowing a field (I've worked at both), and it's wonderful to meet a man who rightly loves farming, considers friendly talk even more important, and yet considers writing a beautiful poem most important of all.

So the implied author is a weirdly different, richer character than the speaker, though not in really shocking contrast. After all, a farmer could also be a poet, and both a farmer and a poet could love to chat with a neighbor. Meanwhile, where is the flesh-and-blood Frost? You may not want to ask, because the question may diminish the pleasure of the poem. But for a moment let's contrast those first two Frosts with those who emerge from some of his biographies, as summarized by Denis Donoghue in the New York Review of Books.

The first and most influential of the negative exposures of his faults was Robert Frost: The Early Years, 1874-1915, by Lawrence Thompson. Frost was "an appalling man, petty, vindictive, a dreadful husband and parent . . . a monster, a man of systematic cruelty. . . a man who pretended to be a rustic peasant type but who was always well-to-do and urbane." The more careful biographers, like Donoghue himself, don't portray him as quite that bad, and some, without denying appalling faults, portray him much more favorably. (A small number portray him, somewhat dishonestly in my view, as almost a saint: as pretty much the man implied by the wonderfully complex, honest poetry.) But none of them portrays a man I'd like to have as a neighbor or relative. I might even turn down an invitation to have lunch with the Frost I meet in the biographies. The man I'd love to have as a next-door neighbor or brother is the one who emerges from that poem, or from "Mending Wall," say, or "The Death of the Hired Man."

Does that mean that the created self is a total falsehood, a hoax, someone we should reject as a deplorable phony? Absolutely not. He is not only as real a Robert Frost as the flesh-and-blood sinner, he is in one sense more real, and of course far more influential. In creating him, Frost has created a version of his self not only that he likes better but also that elevates his world and mine. Just think how impoverished our lives would be without such elevations--whether we call them hypocritical or not.

In a curious way, I find my admiration for Frost the poet actually rising a bit when I learn some contemptible details about the everyday Frost. How could a man plagued with such faults and miseries produce such beautiful, moving poetry? Well, obviously, he could do it because the poet Frost, the created self, was in many ways aspiring to be, and succeeding in the attempt to become, a realer, truer, more genuine version than the one who was sometimes cruel to his wife and children. As he sits polishing his poems, they either wipe out the parts of his self that he did not like, or, when the darker selves get dramatized, the superior Frost conquers those selves by polishing the poem.

Sylvia Plath: Writing on the edge

Let's look at an even more complex and painful example, Sylvia Plath. Of the relatively small collection of poets whose lives I've studied seriously, she is top contender for prize as "Speaker with Largest Number of Contradictory Voices"--in other words, the greatest amount of posing upward (sometimes it feels to me "downward"). As her husband, her journals, and her many biographers have revealed, she herself felt divided in many different ways about just which of her poems really fit the person she wanted to appear to be. She simply did not trust her voices, even when she felt that the poems and stories that her voices created were admirable. As she said when explaining why she chose the title The Devil of the Stairs for her first collection of poems, after many other changes of title: "This title encompasses my book and 'explains' the poems of despair, which is as deceitful as hope is."

She had a terrible time deciding not just between the voice of despair and the voice of hope but between the voices of anger, of physical violence, of revenge, of sexual bliss and disappointment. Title after title stresses different voices. Not long before she committed suicide, Plath finally settled on the title Ariel.

Ted Hughes attempted to influence how his wife would be remembered, but he could not control Plath's own efforts to create her poetic self. He "omitted some of the more personally aggressive poems from 1962, and might have omitted one or two more if she had not already published them herself in magazines." Responding to her mother's distress at how Plath seems to be portrayed in the poem, Janet Malcolm rightly explains: "It seems never to have occurred to Mrs. Plath that the persona of Ariel and The Bell Jar was the persona by which Plath wished to be represented and remembered--that she wrote this way for publication because this was the way she wished to be perceived, and that the face she showed her mother was not the face she wished to show the reading public."

Plath's journal entries (only a fraction of which I've read) are full of stories, many that are perhaps true and many that are obviously jazzed up with the thought of turning them into publishable stories. But in most of them we can detect a genuine effort to find and project this or that real "self," and particularly the self that will know how to deal with being a woman.

Throughout her poetry, Plath often reveals that she is trying hard to give an honest portrait of her real self. But we can thank our good fortune that most of those selves were escaped when she sat down to write the poems about them. Even her latest poems about the approaching suicide reveal an author who is still very creatively alive while contemplating death. Here is the concluding moment from her Collected Poems.

The woman is perfected.
Her dead
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare
Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.
Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little
Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded
Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden
Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.
The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.
She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.
After reading that poem aloud several times, I find myself not just admiring but in effect loving the implied author--a wonderfully different person from the one I have met in her diaries and in some of her more careless poems. She is of course thinking about suicide, contemplating it, even planning it. But for the time being, she is creating a beautiful poem about how contemplating suicide feels, and thus she is creating a beautiful self. She is thinking about the awful way in which to commit suicide will be for her a metaphorical killing of her children. Her past life with them will disappear, the loveliness somehow disappearing, but not into sadness. The moon (the world that transcends human emotion) has nothing to be sad about.

At the end she--the creator whom she chooses to project, no matter what Plath had actually felt five minutes before--is attempting to place her coming death, with poetic force, into the general truth about the universality of death.

And meanwhile, probing for that truth, she is also aspiring for poetic beauty and excellence of poetic structure. Her "self," thinking as a dying self, is creating a self capable of writing a beautiful poem while feeling suicidal. Note how she handles the rhymes: "in the scrolls of her toga," and on through "rose close," "odors," "throats," and "bone." It's as if she were sighing, Oh, oh, oh, death where is thy sting?

But the flowing "o"s change to nastier vowel rhymes and harsh, explosive alliteration and half alliteration: "Each dead child coiled, a white serpent. . ." And finally: "blacks crackle and drag." Drag her and us readers where? Into a powerful confrontation with death, while enjoying great poetic skill!

Meanwhile, who are the diverse selves you and I enact as readers of such a poem? If there were time I could trace in detail at least five Booths here, some of them critically meddling in ways that actually can harm the poem. There is Booth the totally engaged reader who follows the poem faithfully and accurately at every point, attempting to join the implied author in every word, shoving aside all the complex critical issues I've been raising. That Booth includes the lover of prosodic richness, following Alexander Pope's commandment, "The sound must seem an echo to the sense."

But meanwhile that reader cannot forget the awful fact that Plath committed suicide very shortly after writing the poem. The implied "Plath" must have sensed that such a reader will be especially touched, as I am, by her managing this creative moment at such a desperate time of life. Just think of how differently we would read this poem if we did not know that she committed suicide, as of course neither "we" nor "she" knew at the time of the writing.

Intruding on all this is the critical Booth who risks destroying the poem by exploiting it for this article. Motivated by his grappling with hypocrisy, he has imposed his critical interests in a way that would no doubt feel offensive, or at least irrelevant, to Plath. This intrusive Booth stands cruelly above--or should I say "below"--the suffering persona. He would of course like to claim that he is himself an example of hypocrisy upward. Except for this intrusion, his mind, his soul, his self is totally occupied with the honest pursuit of truth about hypocrisy and about this poem. He obviously wants to appear as the most honest critic alive. The moralist in him is even tempted to harm the poem a little by sermonizing about suicide. He thus has an irrelevant, aesthetically destructive temptation to lecture the flesh-and-blood Plath for what her act did to the world by ennobling suicide.

As the other Booths have read and re-read the poem, as they have revised and re-revised these sentences about the reading, critic Booth has been masking as a totally scholarly and critical persona--the objective pursuer of nothing but the truth about how poets enrich us with their practice of hypocrisy upward. He is thinking of scores of matters that not only would Plath consider irrelevant but that he suspects may be irrelevant--at least to the aesthetic value of the poem. Only Plath's poem can rescue him from that kind of unfair intrusion.

We are told that Plath wrote "Edge," and others of her best poems, in those final hours, waking at five in the morning in a freezing unheated apartment, miserably angry with Ted for his affair, overwhelmed with the care of the two children, desperate for financial help from friends. She felt, in those brief hours, that she had finally found the true self that she wanted to express, and she did. But as we've seen, that creative self was still a mask that was torn off each morning as soon as the children awoke. Throughout her life she had been troubled by self-consciousness about her masking--sometimes as a totally passive, dutiful domesticated woman, sometimes as almost a whore, sometimes as . . . who knows?

No reader, of whatever moral or intellectual persuasion, can avoid objecting to at least some of her maskings, once they are revealed. I (that is, one part of me) cannot resist thinking that if she somehow had resisted the "modernist individualism" that her culture--her family, her friends, her English teachers, the books she read--had imposed on her, if she could somehow have managed to diminish the passionate, anguished search for the one true self, she might have avoided that suicide. She had the gifts to become, as some critics have claimed (though Ted Hughes has denied it), a great novelist. All we can do, at the end of the story, is thank our fate that she finally found the mask that freed her to write those final poems. That mask, alas, led her, as validation for its authenticity, to turn on the oven gas. We would all be a lot better off if, at the end, she could just have said, "In celebrating suicide, I was just masking as a true poet absorbed in making beautiful poetry."

Flawed but admirable

Throughout these examples a question shouts at us: Why bother mentioning the inferior everyday Frost or Plath? Why not just enjoy their works, and forget about the flesh-and-blood selves that many consider more real? Some critics argue that we should; others find themselves condemning or downgrading the literary works once they find gruesome facts about the author's life. Too many critics recently, for example, have been lowering T.S. Eliot's ranking because biographical research reveals far more anti-Semitism than crops up in a couple of poems. Others have criticized Eliot for purging from his poems his homosexual self. Such probings can sometimes destroy our pleasure in joining the created, would-be superior self.

But for now I offer one simple answer. In a curious way, I find my admiration for Frost and Plath and others actually rising a little bit when I learn some contemptible details about the struggling authors. How could creatures plagued with so many obvious faults and miseries produce such beautiful, moving literature? Well, obviously, they could because the Implied Author Selves were in many ways aspiring to be realer, truer, more genuine versions of life than the ones who were cheaply competitive, sometimes even cruel, deceptive or destructive. As they labor away, polishing their novels and poems, they either wipe out the parts of themselves that they don't like, or, when the darker selves get dramatized, as in Plath's "Edge" or Frost's "Home Burial," the superior selves usually win by polishing and cleaning up the works.

As you could predict, any book on this complex subject would have to face similar questions in dealing with drama, with journalism, with scholarship, and so on through all kinds of writing. But I hope that these examples illustrate clearly how hypocrisy upward enables authors to create selves that, though they always to some degree overlap the flesh-and-blood selves, in most cases they elevate it. The account either enhances it, cleans it up, idealizes it, or straightens it out.


Wayne C. Booth, born 1921, was raised in Utah, educated at Brigham Young University and the University of Chicago, and taught at Haverford College, Earlham College, and--since 1961--at the University of Chicago. Though his central vocation has been teaching literature and the improvement of rhetorical practices, he has found time to publish many books, including The Rhetoric of Fiction, A Rhetoric of Irony, Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, Critical Understanding, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, The Art of Growing Older (an anthology of fine poems by aging authors, with commentary from aging Booth), and For the Love of It: Amateuring and its Rivals.

COPYRIGHT | A version of this article was delivered as a lecture at the October 2000 Humanities Open House at the University of Chicago. Copyright 2001 The University of Chicago.

(c) 2004 The University of Chicago :: Please direct questions or comments to furlong@lib.uchicago.edu