The Psychology of Self-Deception as Illustrated
in Literary Characters
Texas State University
people nowadays know what man is. Many sense this ignorance and die the
more easily because of it . . . I do not consider myself less ignorant
than most people . . . I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased
to question stars and books; I have begun to listen to the teachings my
blood whispers to me. My story is not a pleasant one; it is neither sweet
nor harmonious as invented stories are; it has the taste of nonsense and
chaos, of madness and dreams like the lives of all men who stop deceiving
themselves. (Hesse 105)
have all experienced insight resulting from the recognition that some prior
belief or perception was incorrect. In this instance, pleasure and happiness
may result from the intrinsic delight that often accompanies authentic
learning. Conversely, anxiety and fear may result from a disturbing realization:
If what I once believed to be true now appears false, other beliefs may
prove to be false as well. The intensity of response to each insight is
relative to the salience of the knowledge domain: namely, how central the
notion is to an individual’s sense of self. Therefore, if the new insight
involves self-understanding, accepting the new information would obviously
entail altering self-perception. In this case, the “saliency test”—a test
so see whether information is relevant to self and hence worthy of attention—is
met, regardless of how inconsequential the information might appear to
an outside observer. Thus, the potential exists for any kind of new self-referential
information to be emotionally laden,
means that the potential for invoking anxiety or fear is exacerbated.
We are continually flooded with information that could challenge self-image.
In an effort to avoid damaging it, we often deceive ourselves. The purpose
of this inquiry is to define self-deception, its potential, its functions,
and the range of strategies that are employed in avoiding or distorting
information that conflicts with self-perception. In doing so, we attempt
a phenomenology of self-deception. Given the inherent paradox of the subject
matter—the possibility that anything we bring to bear based on our own
experiences might itself be a deception—we turn to literary characters
for insight, namely Jean-Baptiste in Camus’s The Fall, Captain Vere
in Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor, Howard Campbell in Vonnegut’s
Mother Night, and the Mariner in Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient
Definitional and Conceptual Issues
to Freud, knowledge begins with perception and ends with responses. As
information flows, it can be diverted, transformed, or erased. A modification
begins at the first perceptible moment, when information passes through
a “first memory system,” or what contemporary cognitive psychologists refer
to as the “sensory memory”:
prescience is exemplified in his positing a perceptual capacity that has
no memory of its own, takes fleeting note of the sensory world, but stores
no lasting impressions. He saw that the functions of receiving sensory
signals and registering them are separate, a fact later borne out
by the neurophysiology of the sensory cortex. It was not until 1960 that
his description of perception found a scientific basis with the experimental
discovery of what we today call “sensory storage,” a fleeting, immediate
impression of our sensory world. (Goleman 58)
this first memory system, information can either dissipate or continue
to flow to one of a number of other memory systems. As it does, only a
small percentage enters conscious awareness, the rest resides below its
threshold. According to Freud, the key tenet to self-deception is that
though we are not aware of the existence of this information, it exerts
a considerable influence over our behavior. Once memories are somehow designated
as “threatening,” the information is either transformed (via mechanisms
of defense) or barred from conscious awareness by cognitive censors. The
censors filter out information likely to provoke pain or anxiety, while
allowing non-threatening information to flow. The immediate relevance of
Freud’s model to the phenomenon of self-deception is readily apparent.
Each lacuna (perceptual gap or cognitive omission) prevents an accurate
or complete perception of reality. But, because we are seldom aware of
the lacuna, we believe our cognitions accurate.
Sartre also addressed self-deception, or, as he termed it, “mauvaise
foi” (“bad faith”). In his discussion of “bad faith,” he defines consciousness
as “a being, the nature of which is to be conscious of the nothingness
of its being” (Sartre 147); like William James, he perceives that consciousness
would be more accurately conveyed as a verb than as a noun. The apprehension
of its own “nothingness,” which creates a sense of “lacking” or “need,”
directs itself towards some type of understanding, similar to William James’
link between attention and meaning. A thing may be present to a person
a thousand times, but if it goes completely unnoticed by the individual,
it cannot be said to enter his experience. A person’s “empirical
thought depends on the things he has experienced, but what these shall
be is to a large extent determined by his habits of attention” (James 286).
Thus James concludes that all of our consciousness—our sense of meaning,
our very sense of self—must be constructed from material to which we have
attended. The meaning we derive as we experience life, the
that is a stream of this ongoing experience, and the self that we construct
as a personal representation of consciousness are all dependent upon our
habits of attention. Take the slave, for example, who unmindful of his
severe constraints, suddenly realizes his current position and now attends
to advantages enjoyed by his master. The freedom his master enjoys becomes
very appealing. His awareness, however, of severe punishment or even death
for pursuing this freedom causes him to bury this realization in a morass
of reasons why the life of the slave is enviable. In Sartre’s view, he
now exists with “bad faith.”
concedes that “bad faith” can best be understood as “a lie to oneself,
on condition that we distinguish the lie to oneself from lying in general”
(Sartre 148), which requires another person. Herein lies a key distinction
in his formulation: The liar, in order to complete his task, must maintain
complete lucidity about some truth that he possesses. One cannot lie without
possessing some personal truth, and lying is different than simply
being in error. Taking it further, Sartre directly criticizes Freud’s model,
especially the concept of the censor:
psychoanalysis substitutes for the notion of bad faith, the idea of a lie
without a liar; it allows me to understand how it is possible for me to
be lied to without lying to myself since it places me in the same relation
to myself that the Other is in respect to me. (Sartre 154)
other words, Sartre argues that the censor must know a truth in order to
provide the resistance that Freud describes. “There must be an original
intention and a project of ‘bad faith’; this project implies a comprehension
of ‘bad faith’ as such and a pre-reflective apprehension [of] consciousness
as affecting itself with ‘bad faith’” (Sartre 150-151). To deceive ourselves
“successfully,” we must pre-reflectively be aware that we are acting in
“bad faith.” Placing the source of “bad faith” in a “location” of the mind
that cannot be easily accessed (like the Freudian unconscious) renders
the project of authenticity virtually impossible. Sartre believed that
adhering to a “unity of consciousness” allows the project of “bad faith”
to be a conscious project and places the locus of control for “bad
faith” with the individual.
Fingarette attempts to avoid the paradox of the Freud–Sartre debate: How
can one know something, and, at the same time, not know it?:
than the paradox of knowing ignorance, I have treated as central the capacity
of a person to identify himself to himself as a particular person engaged
in the world in specific ways, the capacity of a person to reject such
identification, and the supposition that an individual can continue to
be engaged in the world in a certain way even though he does not acknowledge
it as his personal engagement and therefore displays none of the evidence
of such acknowledgment. (Fingarette 91)
all engage ourselves with the world in some way, but one does not necessarily
articulate this engagement; that is, one may fail to reflect on it. According
to Fingarette, an individual may either avow this engagement as his own,
or disavow it altogether. To disavow selected sequences of engagement is
similar to denying responsibility. Although the original project of “bad
faith” (disavowing elements of one’s experience) is itself a decision made
in “bad faith,” it does not begin as intentional deception. Instead, the
decision to avow or disavow is influenced by the threat or reward such
an apprehension poses toward self. If choosing to avow a particular engagement
with reality threatens the current self-schema, then attention may be directed
to another aspect of one’s engagement with the world. In a manner consistent
with Festinger’s description of cognitive dissonance, anxiety is avoided
by not “noticing” the very thing that threatens one’s identity. The crucial
step toward “bad faith” is
rooted in a failure of attention: we
disavow by “not noticing,” and then failing to notice that we have not
noticed. By adhering to this model, Fingarette avoids the infinite regression
into which a Freudian view may lapse. If one defensive maneuver covers
another, it is impossible to distinguish the last defense from prior ones.
Part of our psyche shields another part from awareness.
according to Fingarette, one is not destined to a life of denial and deception.
To the contrary, he believes that one may choose the careful, painstaking
path of avowing one’s engagements with the world (Fischer 148). But avowing
our engagements with the world must entail making our motivations apparent.
The individual engaged in self-deception refuses. With each omission, the
project of deception becomes more rooted in the nature of self.
well do the theories of Freud, Sartre, and Fingarette capture the essence
of self-deception? Is it ever possible to know when one is deceiving
oneself or can we only become aware of the deception after it occurs? To
answer these questions and more, we examine four literary characters actively
involved in self-deception.
the main character in Camus’ The Fall, serves as a fine example
of an individual practicing self-deception. The work describes Jean-Baptiste’s
confession to a man in a bar, and throughout, he emphasizes his extraordinary
ability to forget: “To be sure, I knew my failings and regretted them.
Yet I continued to forget them with a rather meritorious obstinacy” (Camus
76). This admission seems peculiar; most do not boast forgetfulness. But,
as our self-deception theorists remind us, forgetting something—especially
something relevant to self—can be a useful tool for maintaining consistency
and avoiding anxiety or pain. In this case, the fact that Jean-Baptiste
regretted his failings illustrates that he was aware of them. In addition,
the pleasure derived from his superior ability to forget indicates that
these failings must have initially created considerable anxiety. The following
passage suggests a purpose to his motivated forgetting:
the interest of fairness, it should be said that sometimes my forgetfulness
was praiseworthy. You have noticed that there are people whose religion
consists in forgiving all offenses, and who do in fact forgive them but
never forget them? I wasn’t good enough to forgive offenses, but
eventually I always forgot them. And the man who thought I hated him couldn’t
get over seeing me tip my hat to him with a smile. According to his nature,
he would then admire my nobility of character or scorn my ill breeding
without realizing that my reason was simpler: I had forgotten his very
name. The same infirmity that often made me indifferent or ungrateful in
such cases made me magnanimous. (Camus 49-50)
that at the same time Baptiste is confessing his forgetfulness, he paradoxically
identifies the individuals he has supposedly forgotten. Therefore, he has
not really forgotten, nor has he exchanged forgetting for forgiveness.
Consider another instance of his lapse in memory:
contemplated, for instance, jostling the blind on the street; and from
the secret, unexpected joy this gave me, I recognized how much a part of
my soul loathed them; I planned to puncture the tires of invalids’ vehicles,
to go and shout “lousy proletarian” under the scaffoldings on which laborers
were working, to slap infants in the subway. I dreamed of all that and
did none of it, or if I did something of the sort, I have forgotten
it. (Camus 91-92; italics ours)
desire to engage in destructive and antisocial behavior is set against
his ability to forget these impulses.
forgetting contributes to his positive self-image.
avoided telling the man in the bar that he did nothing to prevent a woman
from committing suicide (only later does the reader make this unsettling
discovery). The following passage suggests that though he avoided dealing
with the woman at the time, it affected him:
ordinary or not, it served for some time to raise me above the daily routine
and I literally soared for a period of years, for which to tell the truth,
I still long in my heart of hearts. I soared until the evening when . .
. But no, that’s another matter and it must be forgotten . . . I ran on
like that, always heaped with favors, never satiated, without knowing where
to stop, until the day—until the evening rather when the music stopped
and the lights went out. (Camus 29-30)
we confront a paradox: it is Jean-Baptiste alone who broaches suicide,
while he simultaneously suppresses the thoughts from consciousness in order
research on memory suggests that the suppression of a painful thought can
lead to an obsession with the suppressed memory (Wegner et al.). In fact,
the difficulty in suppressing even a simple, non-painful thought can be
easily illustrated in Wegner’s challenge, which we urge the reader to undertake:
“Right now, try not to think of a white bear. Keep trying. Do not think
of a white bear. Remember, don’t think of a white bear.” The dilemma
is evident, suggesting the complexity of mental processing required in
simply forgetting a white bear. When we attempt to forget an experience
that is rooted in reality and painful to behold, the complexity may be
a keen observer of human experience, recognized that multiple themes define
the overall project of self-deception. While motivated forgetting provides
one possibility, another is laughter, which appears throughout Baptiste’s
confession. At one point, Jean-Baptiste states, “I again began to laugh.
But it was another kind of laugh; rather like the one I had heard on the
Pont des Arts. I was laughing at my speeches and my pleadings in court”
(Camus 65). Baptiste realizes the absurdity of his actions as a lawyer
when he questions his own arguments. Laughter serves to close the gap between
the disparity of what he believes and how he presents himself; Jean-Baptiste
laughs to avoid the pain of incongruity.
is playing the part of a lawyer, and as Sartre contends, we assume any
convenient role in order to avoid making decisions. When the role gains
ascendance over self, we can simply respond reflexively to its demands
by thinking and feeling nothing. His lack of awareness is evident throughout
shortly after the evening I told you about, I discovered something. When
I would leave a blind man on the sidewalk to which I had convoyed him,
I used to tip my hat to him. Obviously the hat tipping wasn’t intended
for him, since he couldn’t see it. To whom was it addressed? To the
public. After playing my part, I would take the bow. Not bad, eh?
be sure, I occasionally pretended to take life seriously. But very soon
the frivolity of seriousness struck me and I merely went on playing my
role as well as I could. (Camus 87)
a role, or as Fromm would put it, “escaping from freedom,” allowed Jean-Baptiste
to avoid responsibility. By purposefully forgetting aspects of himself,
and laughing at the “frivolity” of his endeavors, he continues playing
a role. The dictates of the role, in turn, provide a false sense of consistency.
being judged is Baptiste’s greatest fear, and the avoidance of judgment
his greatest motivation:
I was aware only of the dissonance and disorder that filled me; I felt
vulnerable and open to public accusation. In my eyes my fellows ceased
to be the respectful public to which I was accustomed. The circle of which
I was the center broke and they lined up in a row as on the judges’ bench.
In short, the moment I grasped that there was something to judge in me,
I realized that there was in them an irresistible vocation for judgment.
Yes, they were there as before, but they were laughing. (Camus 78)
awareness of this internal conflict leads him to the realization that if
he can judge himself, then so can everyone else. By refusing to acknowledge
faults in himself and constructing a view of self without them, he can
easily defend against the judgments of others.
spite of Baptiste’s self-deceptive behaviors, evidence that contradicts
one’s self-concept that is “out of character” still manages to break through
to awareness. To combat it, Baptiste practices diffusion:
to be happy it is essential not to be concerned with others. Consequently,
there is no escape. Happy and judged, or absolved and wretched. (Camus
is what no man (except those who are not really alive—in other words, wise
men) can endure. Spitefulness is the only possible ostentation. People
hasten to judge in order not to be judged themselves. (Camus 80)
my words have a purpose. They have the purpose, obviously, of silencing
the laughter, of avoiding judgment personally, though there is apparently
no escape. Is not the great thing that stands in the way of our escaping
it the fact that we are the first to condemn ourselves? Therefore it is
essential to begin by extending the condemnation to all, without distinction,
in order to thin it out at the start. (Camus 131)
sting of incongruent information can be softened: It is not that “I” am
that way; it is rather that “everyone” is that way. In one sense, Jean-Baptiste’s
strategy to avoid judgment is similar to the idea of diffusion of responsibility
(Darley & Latane; Latane & Nida). Rather than hold himself responsible,
he attributes the characteristics to everyman. In another sense, this mirrors
Freud’s notion of projection, save for a minor modification: I see the
characteristic as “within me” at the same time that I project it onto “you.”
In Freud’s scheme, we make such projections while denying projected content
as relevant to self.
more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you. Even better,
I provoke you into judging yourself, and this relieves me of that much
of the burden. (Camus 140)
strategy follows a certain logic: If I find something undesirable within
myself, then, whether they are aware of it or not, other people must have
this same attribute. If everyone else possesses this negative characteristic,
then there is nothing
particularly wrong with me. The undesirable
attribute is not distinctive to self, and therefore, does not need to be
incorporated into my self-concept; the “saliency test” is no longer met.
Melville’s novella, Billy Budd, Sailor, the simple story of a conflict
between shipmates plays a subservient role to the discussion of self-deception.
At the center of this discussion is the Captain, Edward Vere. The plot
concerns Billy Budd, a moral young sailor, who accidentally kills his superior,
John Claggart, the evil master-at arms. When this event occurs, Vere must
make a crucial decision: Should he uphold naval law and condemn Billy to
death, or do what is morally right, opt for another punishment, and let
him live? He knows that Claggart falsely accused Billy of mutiny. He also
knows that Billy has a speech impediment, and therefore has to resort to
using his fist to defend against the accusation. No sooner than Billy accidentally
lands the fatal blow, Vere has already sealed the sailor’s fate. He states
of Claggart: “Struck dead by an angel of God, yet the angel must hang”
(Melville 101). The reader immediately notices a conflict arising in Vere.
He considers Billy an angel, but believes that he must sentence him to
death. The reader asks: How can one condemn an angel to death? The answer
in a study of Vere’s self-deception.
is a constant struggle between Vere’s morality, and the naval laws he must
uphold as captain. In deceiving himself, Vere, like our other literary
characters, is able to justify his actions and resolve the struggle. The
work itself is rather deceptive, so we must look beyond what is stated,
when an index is given, to what is implied about this struggle. In Chapter
11, the dialogue between the narrator and “his senior” is one such time.
The narrator states:
of the world assuredly implies the knowledge of human nature, and in most
of its varieties.
but a superficial knowledge of it, serving ordinary purposes. But for anything
deeper, I am not certain whether to know the world and to know human nature
be not two distinct branches of knowledge, which while they may coexist,
yet either may exist with little or nothing of the other. (Melville
exchange suggests that one may be knowledgeable of the world, or reality,
yet create a division between an
of human nature, or the identity of true self, and consciousness. For one
who accepts reality and perceives himself accurately, there is no division:
“human nature,” or the identity of true self, would be included in “knowledge
of the world.” In Vere’s case, they are “branched” by his self-deception.
As the previous example illustrates, the reader must recognize the
“double meanings” (Melville 49) inherent in almost every aspect of the
work. The “right” meaning is sometimes hidden. “Plain readings” do not
go well with Melville—the reader must delve deeper. As Watson states, “Though
the book be read many times, the student may still remain baffled by Melville’s
arrangement of images. The story is so solidly filled out as to suggest
dimensions in all directions. As soon as the mind fastens upon one subject,
others flash into being” (Watson 44). The following passage may “baffle,”
but if we delve further, we can uncover Vere’s deception of self. The narrator
Forty years after a battle it is easy for a non-combatant to
reason about how it ought to have been fought. It is another thing personally
and under fire to direct the fighting while involved . . . Much so with
respect to other emergencies involving considerations both practical and
moral, and when it is imperative promptly to act . . . Little ween the
snug card-players in the cabin of the responsibilities of the sleepless
man on the bridge. (Melville 114)
“battle” metaphorically represents what happened to Billy. Vere’s self-deception
is the “noncombatant” who is “reasoning” about those events: “It” was not
there; therefore “it’s reasoning” is not based in reality. It speculates
about the “oughts.” Its very purpose is to distort reality. His consciousness
is “personally under fire” and “involved” in the actual events. Notice
how Melville hints at this correlation by describing it as similar to “other
emergencies involving considerations both practical and moral.” To drive
this home, he utilizes another clever metaphor in the last sentence: Vere’s
self-deception is the “snug card players,” which “little weens . . . the
responsibilities of the sleepless man on the bridge” (Melville 114,
italics mine) or, in other words, his consciousness.
Vere knows what is morally right, yet tries to deceive not only himself,
but other as well. In Sartre’s terminology, he lives with “bad faith.”
He demands “the maintenance of secrecy” (Melville 103) in what turns out
to be the fatal meeting between himself, Claggart, and Billy. He knows
that this decision is questionable, and, in the end, an open meeting might
have prevented the homicide. Additionally, Vere forbids emotions from swaying
the jurors’ verdict in the trial. He says that the heart “must here be
ruled out” (Melville 111), and they must “strive against scruples
that may tend to enervate decision,” due to “paramount obligations” (obligations
to a man who is practicing self-deception). He also knows that there is
good reason for the jurors’ “troubled hesitancy” (Melville 110) in sentencing
Billy to death, but he tells the jurors to follow his example, and “to
challenge” their “scruples.” He pleads that they “recur to the facts: In
war-time at sea a man-of-war’s-man strikes his superior in grade,
the blow kills” (Melville 111). Billy did kill Claggart, but it
was unintentional and precipitated by a serious, false accusation. Therefore,
Vere does not really adhere to the facts in the case, and by doing so,
he displays a definite “disdain for innocence” (Melville 78).
Another example of Vere’s self-deception is the following broad description:
“His settled convictions were as a dyke against those invading waters of
novel opinion, social, political and otherwise” (Melville 123-4).
“Settled convictions” is close-mindedness, the enemy of accurately perceiving
reality, and “otherwise” is all-inclusive: The “invading waters” of accurate
self-perception would definitely fall under this description.
The following passage describes Vere’s attitude towards his companions
concerning their conversations, and it gives the reader additional insight
into his self-deception:
Since not only did the Captain’s discourse never fall into
the jocosely familiar, but in illustrating of any point touching the stirring
personages and events of the time he would be as apt to cite some historic
character or incident of antiquity as that he would cite from the moderns.
He seemed unmindful of the circumstance that to his bluff company such
remote allusions, however pertinent they might really be, were altogether
alien to men whose reading was mainly confined to the journals. But considerateness
in such matters is not easy to natures constituted like Captain Vere’s.
Their honesty prescribes to them directness, sometimes far-reaching like
that of a migratory fowl that in its flight never heeds when it crosses
a frontier. (Melville 63)
description clearly illustrates that Vere is not concerned with reality.
Instead, his attention is directed at “historic characters” and “incidents
of antiquity.” Therefore, he is “unmindful” of the fact that his conversations
do not make sense. He bars this information from awareness with cognitive
censors in order to reduce the likelihood of experiencing the pain or anxiety
inherent in facing reality. Vere fails to be attentive (a fatal step toward
“bad faith”); he “never heeds the frontier.” He disavows, and in doing
do, fails to accept responsibility. His denial ultimately destroys both
himself and Billy.
Scholars familiar with the work of Melville know that he is a master
at the art of ambiguity, a deceptive, yet effective literary device. He
uses ambiguity as sly indexes to how we should read the narrative. The
narrative should bring us to certain realizations concerning self-deception,
not personal opinions concerning specific events. The following passage
describes the closeted interview between Vere and Billy. The scene takes
place before Billy’s trial and contains interesting ambiguities that further
illustrate Vere’s self-deception:
That the condemned one suffered less than he who mainly had
effected the condemnation was apparently indicated by the former’s exclamation
in the scene soon perforce to be touched upon . . . Between the entrance
into the cabin of him who never left it alive, and him who when he did
leave it left it as one condemned to die. (Melville 115-116)
reader must ask himself: Is the narrator referring to Vere or to Billy?
Who is the “condemned one and who effected it?” Who is the “former?” Who
“never left it alive?” This leads to some very weighty conclusions when
you consider that the descriptions apply as much to Vere as they do to
Billy. Vere’s self-deception would definitely cause him to suffer. Self-deception,
in general, can be described as the condemnation of the truth and the killing
When Billy is hung, the narrator describes Vere’s reaction: “Vere,
either thro’ stoic self-control or a sort of momentary paralysis induced
by emotional shock, stood erectly rigid as a musket in the ship-armorer’s
rack” (Melville 87). This “momentary” paralysis is his consciousness creeping
in, but he blocks it from awareness with cognitive sensors in order to
reduce anxiety and stands rigidly defiant. Like most of us, Vere is not
a one-dimensional deviant who enthusiastically embraces evil, but as he
continues down a path of deception, he is more than able to sacrifice a
human life. Melville attempts to convey to the reader that it doesn’t have
to be this way. The novella concludes with Vere murmuring, “Billy Budd,
Billy Budd” (Melville 129) on his deathbed. He is remorseful for his actions,
and has perhaps gained insight—but much too late and at such a cost.
IV. Howard Campbell
Night, Vonnegut’s characterization of Howard Campbell, a renowned American
born playwright living in Germany during the Nazis’ ascent to power, illustrates
a classic account of self-deception. The work revolves around the repercussions
of Campbell’s decision to pose as a Nazi propagandist. The plan is that
Nazi war secrets will be encoded in his radio broadcasts, thereby aiding
allied forces. On the surface, Campbell will appear to be a Nazi, but he
is actually an allied supporter. Note that Vonnegut begins the work with
a moral to the tale: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful
about what we pretend to be” (Vonnegut V). Campbell relays secret messages
to Allied Forces, but because they are embedded in Nazi propaganda and
delivered so persuasively, he inspires the Germans. In the end, we must
ask: “Who is Campbell really helping?” The answer to that question portends
the question of identity: Which identity is the “real” Howard Campbell?
The following dialogue between Campbell and another character expounds
on this question:
“Three people in all the world knew me for what I was–” I said.
“And all the rest–” I shrugged. “They knew you for what you were too,”
he said abruptly.
“That wasn’t me,” I said, startled by his sharpness.
“Whoever it was–” said Wirtanen, “he was one of the most vicious sons
of bitches who ever lived.” (Vonnegut 138)
character, Wirtanen, poses the haunting question: If not Campbell, who
was this renowned Nazi propagandist? Campbell did not know the answer,
and did not realize the effects of his “playing a role.” Vonnegut delves
into this further in a conversation between Campbell and his proud Nazi
“And do you know why I don’t care now if you were a spy or
not?” he said. “You could tell me now that you were a spy, and we would
go on talking calmly, just as we’re talking now. I would let you wander
off to wherever spies go when a war is over. You know why?” he said.
“No,” I said.
“Because you could never have served the enemy as well as you served
us,” he said. “I realized that almost all the ideas that I hold now, that
make me unashamed of anything I may have felt or done as a Nazi, came not
from Hitler, not from Goebbels, not from Himmler—but from you.” He
took my hand. “You alone kept me from concluding that Germany had gone
insane.” (Vonnegut 80-81)
developing the self-deception theme, Vonnegut relates a dialogue between
Campbell and Adolf Eichmann that takes place in an Israeli prison following
“May I ask a personal question?” I said . . .
“Certainly . . . ”
“Do you feel that you are guilty of murdering six million Jews?” I
“Absolutely not,” said the architect of Auschwitz . . .
“Listen–” he said, “about those six million–"
“Yes?” I said.
“I could spare you a few for your book,” he said. “I don’t think I
really need them all . . . ” It’s possible that Eichmann wanted me
to recognize that I had killed a lot of people, too, by the exercise of
my fat mouth. But I doubt that he was that subtle a man, man of many parts
as he was. I think if we got right down to it, that, out of the six million
murders generally regarded as his, he wouldn’t lend me so much as one.
If he were to start farming out all those murders, after all, Eichmann
as Eichmann’s idea of Eichmann would disappear.” (Vonnegut 123-125)
having Campbell describe Eichmann, Vonnegut offers us a keen glimpse into
self-deception: The comments concerning Eichmann can easily be applied
to Campbell. If he acknowledged his actions, his false self-concept would
collapse. But he doesn’t, and the web of self-deception remains intact.
In the end, the reader is left at precisely the same point as Campbell
himself: with a question, but no answer, as to which is the “real” identity.
considering Coleridge’s dark nineteenth century ballad, “The Rime of the
Ancient Mariner,” we organize our treatment of the title character’s self-deception
around two central questions. First, exactly what is the Mariner’s “fault?”
And second, how does that fault relate to both his and the reader’s perception
of reality? In answering these questions, the ballad’s classic interpretations
of “sin and redemption” or “crime and punishment” are helpful, but not
exhaustive. A deeper analysis of the Mariner’s self-deception hinges on
four themes: the Mariner’s insistence on continually relating his story
(even after his redemption), the reader’s desire to hear it, the significance
of vision, and most important, the concept of relatedness (between the
Mariner and fellow beings).
To begin, the bird appears and is greeted with unmitigated enthusiasm:
if it had been a Christian Soul,
We hailed it in God’s name (Lines 65-66).
paints a portrait of relatedness that is positive and glowing, ending with
the literal sheen of the moon: “glimmered the white Moon-shine” (78).
It is at precisely at this point that the listener interrupts and asks:
“Why look’st thou so?” (81). And it is with no hesitation and no explanation
that Coleridge’s ancient Mariner responds: “With my crossbow I shot the
Albatross” (81-82). The following lines illustrate the Mariner’s failure
of interpersonal relatedness:
[the spirit] loved the bird that loved
man who shot him with his bow (404-405, italics mine).
Mariner’s real fault lies in the senselessness of the act: Lacking
any apparent motive, he slays the bird just the same. This act stems from
his will, yet lacks conscious intention. It was committed not as an expression
of self, but for reasons unknown. The Mariner’s fault is rooted in self-deception,
which, in his case, is rooted in perception.
The subtlety with which Coleridge conveys self-deception becomes apparent
because even at the moment the Albatross falls away, the Mariner remains
spring of love gushed from my heart,
I bless them unaware:
my kind saint took pity on me,
I blessed them unaware (284-287).
Mariner’s fault lies in his unawareness. But a shift in perception does
occur, and the Mariner perceives the beauty of the water snakes, whereas
only moments before he saw “a thousand slimy things” (238). Consequently,
this shift causes the Albatross to fall from his neck. But, as the ballad
continues, the Mariner confronts the voices within or his “inner self”:
But ere my living life returned,
heard and in my soul discerned
voices in the air. (395-397)
voices point to disassociation—a failure of integration—on the part of
the Mariner. Ignoring these “inner voices” allows him to act out without
Jung believed that the demon we fear the most lies within the psyche,
and Coleridge captures this view in the Mariner’s continued fearfulness—even
after the Albatross had dropped from his neck:
one, that on a lonesome road
walk in fear and dread,
having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
he knows, a frightful fiend
close behind him tread. (446-451)
accurate perception of self can be upsetting. The Mariner has gained insight,
but has not achieved an integration of self. According to Freud, the price
of repression is repetition. The Mariner, though absolved of shooting the
albatross, must nevertheless repeat his narrative to keep from repeating
his horrible deed:
then, at an uncertain hour,
till my ghastly tale is told,
heart within me burns. (582-585)
as long as there are inner voices, there is a possibility for the Mariner—and
for us—to change. It is here that Coleridge answers the critical
question: How does the Mariner’s “fault” relate to readers of his tale?
He answers this for us by placing the tale within the framework of a recountance
told by the Mariner to an “innocent” wayward guest, who, upon its conclusion,
leaves the Mariner in the same way as should readers: “sadder and wiser.”
Like the guest, readers are now wiser because, grasping the same insight
as the Mariner, we now perceive reality more accurately. We depart
sadder, however, because we recognize that the path from self-deception
and toward self-integration is long, painful, and fraught with obstacles:
discordant voices within are not so easily harmonized into a cohesive arrangement.
More to the point, the sadness of the wedding guest, and the reader,, stems
from a stunning recognition: I am that Mariner.”
went like one that had been stunned,
is of sense forlorn:
sadder and a wiser man,
rose the morrow morn. (622-625)
began this essay with an assertion that everyone has experienced insight
that altered some prior perception. As we began to question false ideas
concerning self-insight, the complexity of our task grew exponentially.
Having turned to literature as a potential source for illumination, what
have we learned? Answering this question requires working towards a theory
of self that not only allows for the possibility of mistaken or deceptive
beliefs, but also embraces them as fundamental to the construction of a
self-concept. Although a completely accurate reading of all dimensions
of self is impossible, our literary characters suggest that relative degrees
of accuracy are attainable. Therefore, the dilemma of self-deception is
best approached not as a phenomenal thing, but as a phenomenal process
(much like consciousness itself). At every moment of existence, we are
flooded with information that potentially challenges our current perception
of self. We say, “potentially challenges” because, as our literary characters
instruct us, we ignore a large amount of information that conflicts with
Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance (1957), for example,
addresses the way individuals avoid potentially discrepant information
in order to avoid discomfort. Festinger shares a presupposition with many
identity theorists: consistency of self and world is a primary motivational
attribute. We briefly register new information in sensory memory, giving
primacy to information that matches what is already stored in long-term
memory, while simultaneously blocking information that contradicts with
that which we already know. Jean-Baptiste illustrates most vividly the
role memory plays in self-deception: If he “did something of the sort,”
he has “forgotten it” (Camus 92). There are, however, problems
with Festinger’s theory: it addresses the “discrepancy” test (information
is perceived that conflicts) without adequately considering the “validity”
test (issue of whether that information is accurate or not). Here is a
rather mundane example. Consider an advertisement that states: “You are
what you wear.” A consumer named Charles hears this message, tests it against
his own belief system, and then rejects the proposition as false.
For Charles, a person is not reducible to what he wears. A couple of hours
pass and he simply forgets about the message. Is he guilty of self-deception?
No. Later that day, someone walks up to Charles and says: “You are wearing
Flash sneakers, which were manufactured in a
in Indonesia. You are supporting the oppression of innocent people.”
Charles acknowledges that the sneakers are of that brand, and that he is
wearing them, but he quickly rejects the accusation of being an “oppressor,”
because it is discrepant from his self-identity. As for the information
regarding the sweatshop, he eventually “forgets” that information, acts
as if he never “knew” that information, and reminds himself that millions
of people wear Flash sneakers. Is he now guilty of self-deception? Assuming
the validity of the information regarding the origin of the sneakers, yes.
The first case may be seen as an act of self-affirmation, while the second
case clearly suggests self-deception.
Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance and Freud’s model of defense
take an important step toward understanding self-deception: They describe
a cognitive mechanism by which individuals unconsciously reject information
that is dissonance-producing. The problem is that one can reject information
that is both dissonance producing and threatening (“you are what you wear”)
and not practice self-deception. How, then, are we to distinguish?
Sartre’s “bad faith” and Fingarette’s “disavowal” move us toward a
theory framed by “integrative” or “harmonizing” motifs, while both Festinger’s
and Freud’s theories suggest a dissociative element implicit in self-deception.
In a sense, the two sets of theorists provide a glimpse of opposite sides
of the same coin. To act in “bad faith,” to “disavow” some facet of our
engagement with reality, creates conditions of incongruence and dissociation
within our psyche. The disparate elements are buffered, are separated,
by lacunae—blind spots that literally block perception of self, or of reality.
Sartre’s concept of “bad faith” can be understood as a full-view mirror
for the psyche. To understand the self accurately, we must be aware of
our motivations—a process that requires absolute attention to consciousness.
While it is possible to split the consciousness, or hide from oneself,
we may choose not to do so. Sartre describes this as unity of consciousness,
Jung as integration of self. The
mirror, however, is not sufficient: we also need a full-view window to
the outside world, because self emerges when reality is accurately perceived.
The crucial question, then, and the problem that our literary characters
each faced in his own way, is this one: Is it possible to look
both into a full-view mirror and out of a full-length window at the same
The complexity and elusiveness of the integrative task, it would seem,
is that it demands a bi-directional gaze: accuracy of both self-perception
and world-perception are required, all from a cognitive system that first
seeks “consistency” with what knowledge (of both self and world) already
exists. At each moment, we are presented with a range of stimuli that far
exceeds the capacity of our selective attention. As our focus shifts, the
contents of consciousness also imperceptibly shift in pursuit, transferring
awareness to our memory. And, as memory researchers warn, when we attend
to material previously stored, we reconstruct it in a manner more fitting
to our current attentive gaze. Perceiving reality of self and world is
no simple matter. We can understand why Jean-Baptiste begins to remember
the night of the woman’s suicide only to relegate it to a matter of lesser
that must be forgotten; how Vere can become so immersed in his position
that he perverts the very justice that he is supposed to uphold; how Howard
Campbell can assume a role, pretending to be a Nazi, only to become so
immersed in the part that he “forgets” that he is pretending; and why the
ancient Mariner must maintain vigilance for “a frightful fiend,” and shoot
the bird that loved him.
To speak of complexity and difficulty, however, is not to speak of
impossibility. If cognitive psychologists are correct, human beings are
capable of “divided attention”; it is possible to gaze into both a full-view
mirror and through a full-length window simultaneously. Awareness, attendance
to self, and articulation of engagement with the world frees the mind from
self-deceptive tendencies. Both attentiveness to deception and maintenance
of attention become the prime prerequisites of integration. The puzzling
paradox of self-deception is that it bestows short-term benefits to self
by helping us maintain consistency in order to avoid anxiety. But this
comes at a great price to ourselves in the long-term, as well as to others—in
both the short-term and long-term. If our literary characters are instructive,
the greater an individual’s proclivity for self-deception, the more pronounced
is that person’s capacity to harm others—without even perceiving his or
her actions as harmful. In this
cruelty becomes deceptively camouflaged. By the time our literary characters
witness the suicide of another human being, the hanging of an angel, the
murder of six million Jews, or the killing of something that only loves,
they have inadvertently turned their attention to the fatal acts themselves
and ignored their cause. It may be that the telling of their stories, and
the consequences implicit therein, constitute essential first steps for
the re-direction of our own attentive processes.
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