Oscar Wilde was always saying things that made you go hmmm. Often they have the effect of making you say, “Oh yes, that is true. Wait. Is that true?”
One of his most famous aphorisms is the one quoted above. “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
This phrase seems to be both profoundly true and profoundly untrue.
There are things that people are willing to reveal only when they are able to remain anonymous. Sometimes you do not want the burden of having your particular idea attributed to your social identity. You will only reveal something when that identity is obscured and the statement won’t go down on your permanent record.
This is often the case with art. A playwright or novelist might be able to explore the negative emotions, vulnerabilities and flaws of fictional people while all the while expending enormous social energy to hide his own weakness from those who surround him in life.
So Wilde’s statement is true. Sometimes when you are hidden you are more revealed.
But only sometimes.
Intuitively we also understand that when you are hidden you are hidden.
Our “persons,” our selves, are not neatly distinct from outside observers.
“…individuals’ personalities— yours and mine included— are not as stable as we think they are. We’re more influenced by those around us than we’d like to believe. Even our private sense of identity is highly context-dependent,” wrote Sam Sommers in Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World. “..We’re easily seduced by the notion of stable character. So much of who we are, how we think, and what we do is driven by the situations we’re in, yet we remain blissfully unaware of it.”
The question becomes is there actually a stable “truth” about the person behind the mask to reveal?
One of my favorite passages from Situations Matter was this one about self-help:
How, exactly , do we get acquainted with this core self? A trip to the local bookstore suggests that the answer has something to do with chicken soup. That, plus we’re supposed to ask ourselves questions like these suggested by Dr. Phil: “ What are the 10 most defining moments of your life?” “What are the 7 most critical choices you have made to put you on your current path?” “Who are the 5 most pivotal people in your world and how have they shaped you?” Dr. Phil’s questions share a common link. And I don’t just mean the use of arbitrary digits that I can only assume were once his fortune cookie lucky numbers. Their more important shared characteristic is the assumption that introspection produces reliable self-insight. These questions imply that looking inward provides some sort of direct channel to your internal preferences, deepest thoughts, and true motivations. It’s a nice idea, that you have an authentic self lurking within, waiting to be unveiled. But your answers to Dr. Phil’s questions— like your responses to the Twenty Statements Test— change across time and location. So which are the authentic ones?
Is my true identity the person you think I am, the credentials on my resume, my credit score, who I think I am today or who I thought I was a year ago? Was the vulnerable self who suffered once from unrequited love my true self? Is the frightened self who is stressed by calls from creditors my self? Is the peaceful, relaxed self who listens to music my true self? Do those negative emotions I will only reveal when I put on a mask represent my true self? Perhaps they are simply waves in a fluid being.
I spent a lot of time thinking about different aspects of identity when writing my latest novel Identity Theft. All of the characters struggle with some aspect of identity. Please follow the link above to read more about it. I am taking orders for advanced copies through Pubslush to fund its production. I am pleased that in the first two days the project is already 21% funded. However, I need your help to push it over the top. Unless the project meets its goal, it will not be funded. You can be part of bringing this novel to life. When you go to the Pubslush page, you can read more about the novel’s characters and my inspiration for it. You will not need to make a payment today. In fact, because it is all or nothing, you only pay if the project reaches its target goal. In the event that it is successful, you will make your payment at the end of the campaign 17 days from now.
Great article and good luck with your book. I love this quote by Oscar Wilde as well and use it as an intro on my YouTube videos… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHnHFUrshG8&t=276s
That Wilde quote has nothing to do with anonymity. It’s really more positive, outlining the thin, somewhat arbitrarily defined, distinction between the subjective and the objective as it relates to art – a mask as a fully realized/actualized perspective (beyond concrete personal experiences), rather than in the vain, superficial, ego/id sort of distinction people usually apply it to (anonymity).
It plays into the themes Wilde is perhaps most famous for; questioning the concept of “authenticity” and “earnestness”, and arguing that – effectively – authenticity and earnestness are in themselves vain poses, a person constructing an idea of themselves with limitations from their own sense of the purpose of their experiences, without embracing the “inauthentic” aspects of themselves beyond that. From the same passage (in Gilbert’s voice):
“For out of ourselves we can never pass, nor can there be in creation what in the creator was not. Nay, I would say that the more objective a creation appears to be, the more subjective it really is….[…]They were elements of his nature to which he gave visible form, impulses that stirred so strongly within him that he had, as it were perforce, to suffer them to realise their energy, not on the lower plane of actual life, where they would have been trammelled and constrained and so made imperfect, but on that imaginative plane of art where Love can indeed find in Death its rich fulfilment, where one can stab the eavesdropper behind the arras, and wrestle in a new-made grave, and make a guilty king drink his own hurt, and see one’s father’s spirit, beneath the glimpses of the moon, stalking in complete steel from misty wall to wall. Action being limited would have left Shakespeare unsatisfied and unexpressed; and, just as it is because he did nothing that he has been able to achieve everything, so it is because he never speaks to us of himself in his plays that his plays reveal him to us absolutely, and show us his true nature and temperament far more completely than do those strange and exquisite sonnets, even, in which he bares to crystal eyes the secret closet of his heart.”
Funny enough, that Sam Sommers quote actually plays into a similar theme (rather than contradicting the Wilde quote)… that our impressions of ourselves (as something objective) is context-driven and in itself somewhat idealized (of who we want to be). So, per Wilde’s quote, the solution is to embrace all of that context and those external impressions and their effect on us, and construct them as a “mask” for an artist to reveal himself. Whatever external force a person gravitates toward, that “creation” is already innate in the creator (by virtue of gravitating toward it). THAT’S the “mask” (as opposed to a pose of limited heart-felt “authenticity”).
Love this! Thanks – and thanks for liking my posts!
Do you know where Oscar Wilde says/writes: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth”?
It’s from The Critic as Artist