Topical Guide 4
Pseudonyms, Aliases, Disguises
writing letters, as “Mary Strong,” to lonely men who from time to time could be persuaded to send the unfortunate Miss Strong some money.
Little Follies, “My Mother Takes a Tumble”
In the third volume of the Personal History, Kraft has Peter say this about Matthew Barber:
MATTHEW never takes notes in a restaurant. That’s one of his cardinal rules: Never take notes. He’s worried that if he were seen taking notes he’d be identified as a reviewer, and it’s important to him that he not be identified. He’s also a little worried that if he were identified as a reviewer there would be some kind of scene, a row. He knows that that’s not likely to happen, but still it does worry him at times. Worries aside, he enjoys feeling that he’s not himself when he’s reviewing. He signs his reviews B. W. Beath, a short version of Bertram W. Beath, an anagram of his own name, Matthew Barber. No more than five or six people in the world know that Matthew is B. W. Beath, and there’s no reason why anyone who doesn’t already know would connect a toy company executive with a restaurant reviewer. He’s rather proud of his pseudonym; there is no apparent connection with his own name, but, if he chose to, he could easily demonstrate their correspondence.
The assumed identity, the disguise, is part of the pleasure. He has a theory that most of us are in disguise much of the time, a theory not original with him, but one he came to independently and therefore feels a proprietary affection for.
Here’s a brief but penetrating discussion from George Steiner:
Pseudonyms, noms de plume, anonymities, and every mode of rhetorical mask are as old as literature. Motives are manifold. They extend from clandestine political writing to pornography, from playful obfuscation to deadly serious personality disorders. The “secret sharer” (Conrad's familiar), the supportive or threatening “double,” is a recurrent motif—witness Dostoyevski, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Borges. . . . Multiplicity, the ego made legion, can be festive, as it is in Whitman, or darkly self-ironizing, as it is in Kierkegaard. There are disguises and travesties that the most minute scholarship has never pierced. Simenon was unable to recall either how many novels he had begot or under what early and multiple pseudonyms. In late age, the painter de Chirico stormed through appalled museums and art galleries declaring famous pictures long attributed to him to be fakes. Did he do so because he had grown to dislike them or because he could no longer identify his own hand? As Rimbaud proclaimed, in his instauration of modernity, “‘Je’ est un autre”: “‘I’ is another.”
George Steiner, “Foursome: The Art of Fernando Pessoa” The New Yorker, January 8, 1996
Here is Detective Guerchard quoting his colleague Ganimard on the trait or technique that was the secret of of Arsène Lupin’s success as a “gentleman thief,” and of Dudley Beaker’s success in advertising and epistolary flim-flam:
“There seem to be no limits whatever to Lupin’s powers of disguising himself. My colleague, Ganimard, has come across him at least three times that he knows of, as a different person. And no single time could he be sure that it was the same man. Of course, he had a feeling that he was in contact with some one he had met before, but that was all. . . . Ganimard declares that Lupin is so extraordinarily successful in his disguises because . . . he actually becomes for the time being the person he pretends to be. He thinks and feels absolutely like that person. . . . He must be awfully trying to live with,” said Guerchard.
Maurice LeBlanc, Arsène Lupin: An Adventure Story (translated by Edgar Jepson)
And here is Erasmus of Rotterdam on disguising oneself, assuming a false identity, as a strategy for living one’s life:
If anyone tries to take the masks off the actors when they’re playing a scene on the stage and show their true, natural faces to the audience, he’ll certainly spoil the whole play and deserve to be stoned and thrown out of the theatre for a maniac. For a new situation will suddenly arise in which a woman on the stage turns into a man, a youth is now old, and . . . a god is shown up as a common little man. To destroy the illusion is really to ruin the whole play, for it’s really the illusion and make-up which hold the audience’s eye. Now what else is the whole life of man but a sort of play? Actors come on wearing their different masks and all play their parts until the producer orders them off the stage, and he can often tell the same man to appear in different costume, so that now he plays a king in purple and now a humble slave in rags. It’s all a sort of pretense, but it’s the only way to act out this farce.
Erasmus of Rotterdam, Praise of Folly (1509)
The Topical Guide continues after Episode 5 of the Personal History.
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