Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Illusion, For or Against

One of our greatest quandaries concerns illusion. Is it treacherous, undesirable, even harmful; or optimistic, consolatory, even life-sustaining? Is it near-synonymous with hope, and thus a good thing, or mendacious, self-deceptive, and thus a bad one? To take one example: is it better to know one has only six months more to live and so take the necessary provisions, or better to remain blissfully ignorant up to the end?

There is thus no one easy answer to the fundamental question about our mortality; or, rather, there are two: for the rationalist intellectual, disbelief in an afterlife is empowering; for the common man, but also some intellectuals, belief in it is the panacea. It is, of course, a dilemma that runs through many lives, and is addressed in the arts of film, theater, and fiction, and philosophy.

In fiction, the prime example is Cervantes’s masterpiece, Don Quixote. of which, to my shame, I have only second-hand knowledge. That is because I am a slow reader and have seldom attacked a long book, unless in a financially propitious reviewing assignment. One must, I gather, choose between the romantic fantasies of the Don, and the lower-class hedonism of his squire, Sancho Panza.

Of course, there is folly in combating windmills, but is there no value in perceiving a hefty peasant girl as the noble Dulcinea? Does not the idealizing illusion of a lover or spouse as a Michelangelo David or a Botticelli Venus make life pleasanter?

I suppose the assumption is that whatever suits the individual most is the best attitude toward illusion. Yet one may choose to pursue this troubling question by seeking answers from admired artists. But where to begin?

Let us consider the great author of Les Illusions perdues, who both was and was not a defender of illusion. Balzac was both a Realist and a Romantic, which is to say both a pursuer of hopes that qualify as illusions and a hard-nosed accepter of things as they are.

Take two of his most quoted utterances. On the one hand: “The woman one buys—and that is the less expensive—wants a lot of money; the one that gives herself takes up all of our time.” That is not very pro-illusion. But how about this: “In matters of love there is nothing more persuasive than a courageous stupidity”? There speaks a womanizer who must have entertained some whopping illusions.

Proust--in love at any rate—was an anti-illusionist: “The bonds that unite another person to oneself exist only in our mind. . . . Notwithstanding the illusion by which we like to be cheated, we exist alone.” It is indeed in love that illusion thrives. Thus Nietzsche observed: “Love is the state in which a man sees things most widely different from what they are. The force of illusion reaches its zenith here, as likewise its sweetening and transfiguring power.” That sounds equivocal, as does so much about illusion.

Now let’s skip back to Patrick Henry: “It is natural for man to indulge in the illusions of hope.” That sounds pro-illusion. But here comes the anti: “For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth. To know the worst, and to provide for it.”

There are two great plays for which the matter of illusion is central: Henrik Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” and Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.” About the former, I wrote elsewhere (and reprinted it in my book, “Singularities”): “Hjalmar [Ekdal] is wounded by his weakness, his megalomania; Hedwig [his daughter] by her dimming eyesight, the drabness of her present and future, the very fragility of puberty. Yet the illusion of forest, sky, sea—of greatness, freedom, beauty—keeps them going.” And further: “[M]an cannot slay the illusion, the life-lie he lives by: if he tries to, he kills himself.”

In “The Iceman Cometh,” now in a fine revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the drunkards in Harry Hope’s saloon delude themselves with a pipe dream of being able to stop drinking and resume active life. When the charismatic salesman Theodore “Hickey” Hickman persuades them to give up their pipe dreams and go forth to face reality, it ends up in failure and reversion to those drunken pipe dreams.

So, whether called life-lie or pipe dream, illusion is what keeps these failures from crumbling—pathetic if you will, but not reprehensible. Wising up, and assuming responsibility, means suicide for one of them and murder for another; waiting for death for yet another and alcoholic purblindness for the rest. Even the prostitutes manage to insist that they are not whores, merely tarts.

But careful, friends, with your condescension, let alone contempt; on some level we are all illusionists. In the most secret chamber of our mind, the one closest to unconsciousness, we are, I repeat, all illusionists. There, however well we know that all men are mortal--and, a trifle surprisingly perhaps, all women too—we don’t think that we as well will die. Reading the obituaries in the paper merely confirms us in a sense of fake superiority to those stiffs: What? We too? Impossible!

We can imagine ourselves rich, famous, champions of this or that, lovers of some stunning woman or gorgeous man, but cadavers, worm food, never! The only thing that fully relieves us from fearing and denying death is death itself. Why, even the popularity of movies about ghosts and vampires merely confirms us in our delusion (i.e., an advanced form of illusion) that there is some kind of life after death, be it only as a disembodied scarecrow or a starved bloodsucker. We may not choose the bottle or pills to make us forget; a talent for oblivion sustains all of us in our illusions.


  1. Illusion is what is in front of us. Therefore, we can see it for what it is if we so wish. Delusion, on the other hand, is what is behind us. We never see it pushing us... toward the cliff's edge.

  2. “For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth. To know the worst, and to provide for it.”

    "Whole truth" and "the worst" are illusions. No truth can ever be the whole truth, and there's always something worse than 'worst'.
    By pretending that something is the 'worst', we find relief that we've confronted the truth that can't get any worse.

  3. Without illusion there can be no romance, as Maura Stanton eloquently expresses in her poem "The Veiled Lady":

    The Veiled Lady

    In the 19th Century, clever mediums
    Would rap a table, making the dead speak.
    Ghostly hands would hover in the air,
    Heads would appear, Caesar, Napoleon.
    Sometimes the whole immaterial body
    Of someone’s beloved, dead daughter or sister
    Glided through a room allowing swords
    To pass though it. Once a husband rose
    And tried to caress what was never there,
    A veiled lady he thought was his wife,
    While others in the room almost fainted
    To see him step right through her crinoline.
    D.D. Home could levitate out windows
    And float above a busy London street.
    Imagine sitting on the horsehair sofa
    Almost hysterical, watching that miracle…
    But it was done with thick plate glass and lights,
    A conjurer’s trick, just like the accordion
    Played by a ghost in front of Robert Browning
    Who shuddered when a spirit hand reached out
    And put a wreath of flowers on Elizabeth
    Though afterwards he called it sham, imposture.
    But that’s what I am, that’s what we all are
    To one another, a trick of light and glass
    Projected before an audience of dupes.
    Don’t you see I’m only an illusion?
    You look aghast. You think I’m cynical
    But when you touch me in the dark at night
    You touch biology, twitchings and snores,
    Wetness, jerking muscles. Wild images
    Flicker across my convoluted brain
    As it constructs a person out of dreams.
    That woman you say you love doesn’t exist.
    Look at the way our faces have appeared
    On the black glass of the picture window
    Now that it’s evening, and the lights are on.
    There she is, standing beside you, smiling.
    Go to her. Embrace her if you can.

    —Maura Stanton

    And here is a mock interview with Ms. Stanton at Scarriet: