Reading at a masquerade ball

Reading, one sometimes feels like a wallflower at a masquerade ball. Who are all these characters wearing masks and costumes hiding their true identities? They introduce themselves with some action or voice and the reader wonders if their claims are credible and reliable. And perhaps the author, the inventor of these identities, has also assumed a figmental identity. The author may slip into this new identity unintentionally, or as some sunken impulse surfaces, or intentionally, drawing the new personality with care, proofreading, editing, and revising. Perhaps these authors are unsure of themselves, so they adopt a mask; or maybe they want to forget themselves, and seek a renewal, a makeover; or maybe, for some unknown, paranoid, or disingenuous reason, they simply don’t want to reveal their true identity to their reader, whose identity, after all, they may be equally unsure of. Maybe they’re afraid of critics, and use the pen name as a shield; but critics also house mixed identities. Yeats experimented with masks. Literature is one gargantuan masquerade ball.

Readers aware of the nature of the ball may ask if an author’s opinions resonate with tuning fork frequency, if the tone of a character’s voice reveals real experience, if the happiness or suffering of the protagonist is real or contrived, if the author is a real person or an invention, planned or improvised. An author’s pen name might be employed as self-promotion, a marketing device used to attract a new readership, or to avoid having to talk again to an old reader with fixed expectations. Herman Melville wrote a book about fidelity called The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. Melville didn’t use a pen name for his book. He didn’t need to. The once popular writer was already forgotten. The prolific and still popular Joyce Carol Oates has written with a pen name, and, under her real name, wrote an essay titled “Pseudonymous Selves.”

Browsing an old copy of The Believer last night, and re-reading the Greil Marcus and Don DeLillo discussion on Bob Dylan, we found an instructive paragraph on the subject of identity. Attempting an explanation of the various makeovers in Dylan’s career, Marcus says: “…there is a challenge for any artist – particularly a popular artist…to test himself or herself against an audience that he or she doesn’t know, that isn’t familiar. The question comes up whether or not you can speak in your language and be understood, and listen to the language of people who are responding to you and understand them” (p. 72).

Or perhaps what triggers a makeover is as simple as T. S. Eliot’s mannered, parlor room reasoning: “There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;” Or is there another clue, one that comes just before those lines: “And indeed there will be time / For the yellow smoke that slides along the street, / Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;” Do you see the cat in the image? It’s the cat that was introduced in the previous stanza. But Eliot never calls it a cat; the image of a cat emerges from the description of the fog. The cat is dressed in a costume of fog.

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