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.