Deep Thoughts

The Grand Illusion

August 19, 2017

Multiple Pages
The Grand Illusion

My best books are the ones I haven’t written. They are not yet even in the larval stage, but I know them to be profound and original in content and perfect in form. I am very proud of them, and the mere thought of them gives a spring to my step. They are a justification for my having lived. It is really a pity (for the world, that is) that I shall not live long enough to write them. As Nero put it, what an artist dies in me.

Many of us go to our graves thinking that if only we had had enough time we should have triumphed in some way or another. A few of my patients claimed that, had it not been for some trifling injury to them that was somebody else’s fault, their career would have taken off, as in fact it was just about to do before the injury was done them. This was absurd, for—objectively considered—there was no indication that they would ever have amounted to very much. On the whole, overweight 38-year-olds do not become world-famous athletes, nor do people become concert pianists who take up the piano at the age of 50. But my patients would claim compensation as if their new careers were established fact rather than mere fantasy.

“Though we are enjoined to count our blessings, it is far easier and more gratifying to count our curses.”

Did they really believe what they were claiming? The human mind, as I am sure many people will by now have observed, is a complex instrument, and works at several levels at the same time. Hence one can be sincere and fraudulent at the same time. It isn’t necessary to be a psychoanalyst to believe in the reality and prevalence of self-deception; indeed, it is necessary to be a kind of Candide not to believe in them, and to be utterly impervious to self-examination into the bargain.

The camera, it is said, does not lie, but when it comes to me it not only lies but is a pathological liar, incapable of telling the truth. Who is that creature it takes when pointed at me? Certainly not I: Every camera in the world, it seems, has been programmed to make me balder, whiter-haired, more wrinkled than I am. Who has done this, or why, I cannot say, but the evidence is plain for me, if not for anyone else, to see.

We need our illusions or else we could not face the world; or perhaps I should say we need illusions as a genre, if not necessarily the ones we have. There are some illusions, no doubt, that hinder us or harm us, but there are others that sustain us. Humankind, said Eliot (who used the word before it became politically correct), cannot bear very much reality—especially about itself.

The illusion that one would have been a success but for malevolent circumstance is a very necessary one for a lot of people, for there is no more pitiless or cruel a world than a pure and perfectly functioning meritocracy. Such an arrangement would confront everyone, or at least almost everyone, with his own mediocrity, for the mediocre are by definition in the majority. And who is not mediocre by comparison with Mozart? In a pure meritocracy, everyone would find his true, utterly deserved level; but it is a mere prejudice that if there were justice in the world, everyone would be better off. In a pure meritocracy, there would be no paranoid defense against one’s own nullity—one could blame only oneself for it and no one else. That is why the concept of equality of opportunity, besides implying a kind of Brave New World world, is so deeply vicious, and why so many people who promote it are obviously hate-filled. They do not want to serve humanity but torture it.

Of course, they also know that their ideal is not reachable or even approachable. It is, short of cloning and hatcheries, barely even conceivable. Nor do they truly want their ideal to be realized, for then they would have no providential role to play and would have to sink back into the great mass of humanity, their work done. No; they criticize the world from the standpoint of an impossible ideal not to improve the world but to stir resentment, that emotional equivalent of the perpetual motion machine. The resentful are easy to manipulate and willing to confer power on those who offer to liberate them from the supposed causes of their distress. Therefore it is important to keep inequalities of opportunity firmly before men’s minds; important, and easy, too, for it is always the case that if things had been different, things would have been different. Though we are enjoined—less and less frequently, to be sure—to count our blessings, it is far easier and more gratifying to count our curses. It accords with our desire to explain, or explain away, our failure. There are whole university departments set up to train students to do nothing else. The failure of others is a golden career opportunity for some.

Going to the other extreme, however, the belief that we can be liberated from all constraining circumstances whatsoever even without the establishment of equality of opportunity, what might be called yes-we-cannery, is also a recipe for ultimate misery. Self-conscious optimism (in most cases) leads to disappointment, defeat, and bitterness. That is why American literature, apart from the preposterous Walt Whitman, is generally tragic, because the country is so determinedly optimistic. The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Thank goodness I have overcome my resentment—or would have done so if it hadn’t been for all these interruptions that I constantly suffer, and the necessity to earn my living. I have to work three months a year or more just to earn enough to pay my house and car insurances and my local taxes. No wonder my best books are those I haven’t written; it’s not my fault. The world is conspiring against me, preventing me from doing my best work, to its own immense detriment. I am glad in a way, it serves the world right.

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