The Pseudonym, The Mask, The Lie
Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.
– Oscar Wilde.
From the day we’re old enough to take our childish feet, along with our childish minds and fantasies into the outside world, we’re told not to talk to strangers. Aside from the immensely interesting effects of no human ever speaking to another, there are a slew of things we are told to do and not to do at the (mostly) well intentioned guidance of our parents. Another of these things is do not lie. Lies are dastardly, they’re evil, and every time a lie is told, somebody gets hurt. You can rationalise lying in a number of different ways, whether you’re lying to protect somebody, or you think like Crime & Punishment’s Razumikhin and rationalise that every lie eventually leads to the truth and therefore we must lie to uncover truth.
No matter how you choose to rationalise your lie, they’re something we can’t escape, from the simplest to the most complex, they serve a purpose. In essence, we need lies in the same way we need stories about cute animals in the news. Reality, truth, is hard to deal with.
But there seems to be a lie that has slipped beneath the radar for the most part of existence, a lie that’s deemed so important, so purposeful, that it’s existence and use hardly causes one to bat an eye lid.
The lie of pseudonym.
The name change, the secret identity, the pen name, the veil of anonymity.
It’s a favourite among writers, every one from Oscar Wilde who became known as Sebastian Melmoth, to Charles Lutwidge Dodgson as the beloved Lewis Carroll and George Eliot who is none other than Mary Ann Evans.
They are only some of the writers we’re brought up on as children and adolescents, and it seems that they have turned out to be some of the most devious liars to ever grace the face of the earth (I’ll admit, I did feel a twinge of disappointment after finding out Carroll was indeed a pseudonym). With ideas such as ‘don’t lie’ and ‘always be truthful’ well and truly planted in the minds of the children, the encouragement to read the words written under pseudonyms seems to run counter to everything we’re taught. After all some (if not most) people wouldn’t consider giving a false name to a person they’ve just met (who, only minutes ago could have been a stranger, I know. But the argument itself is essentially a paradox).
Pseudonyms seem to have become an acceptable and accepted way for writer’s to communicate, regardless of their reasons for using one. There are websites based around creating the best pseudonym for you or your purpose and wikipedia flaunts an impressive list of the authors that have used pen names in such away that it seems almost proud that they’ve done so. And of course, the wiki list doesn’t come anywhere to including the explosion of assumed names on blogs and social media networks.
In the case of a pseudonym being used for social networking or blogging, we can generally accept that people are doing so out of concerns for safety or out of concerns for losing their jobs (among the many sinister reasons). In these instances, the pen name, the veil, seems to have become the most accepted and to degrees, encouraged form of a lie.
Because with reasons and justifications put to the side, the simple truth is that to give any name other than your own, is to give incorrect information and to taddle a tale, so to speak. Am I saying we shouldn’t use them? No. There are countless good reasons for people using them and some of them are simple, such as not confusing readers when genre hopping, and other’s not so much.
One of those good reasons is the Oscar Wilde quote I’ve opened with. Of all the truths he talks about, giving a man a mask is one of the most resonating truths. Aside from living in an age of keyboard warriors with various handles and anonymous computer hackers, there is something the writing pseudonym allows that Twitter, Youtube, Facebook and hacking handles don’t. The exploration of a much greater truth, through a lie that allows a writer to step back, to separate themselves from their content and discuss some of the greatest concerns of people who don’t know how to raise them.
The main difference between computer handles and writing pseudonyms is the touch of humanity and ever present feeling of realism. When one looks at 19th century female authors, who wrote under men’s names, one still feels a connection to the author through their work (especially if they are unaware of author’s true name). The name, represents the human, the human that, to paraphrase Hemingway, bled over their typewriter. There isn’t the absurd combination of letters with misspelt words and letter/word replacements (such as; Red0ne469 or D@v3H_292). For a more contemporary example we can look toward the less than literary, but still best selling work of E. L. James. A pseudonym that follows the formula of keeping the author’s gender hidden in order to entice a greater breadth of readers.
Che Guevara himself assumed one of his many nicknames, the Sniper (in reference to his quick and sharp tongue), when writing articles during the Cuban revolution, as a pseudonym. While it does lack the level of humanity given by the use of a name, it still, to degrees, separated Che’s writing from his revolutionary activity. While the revolutionary army was hidden Che’s writing spoke of their goals, achievements and the vision he shared with Fidel Castro for how Cuba should be. His words, at the time, were apart from the man that would become a great political figure. It seems as though to delve into a painful truth (whether it be political like the Sniper or a social commentary) a writer must first adopt another name and step back from society in order to see it from the outside.
Even though writers may employ these masks to tell a greater and more painful truth, they are only human and with that comes a restriction on knowledge. ‘They’ (the ominous and possibly omnipresent) say that writers write what they know. And to an extent, as a writer, I agree. What we know is where we start and as we research, we know more and we write more. But there is a great luxury that we are afforded with the pseudonym mask. The luxury to say what we think. Not only in the guise of fiction, but also under the security of not having social or political affiliations prejudice our work.
A nome de plume may be the reverse of the hopes that we will never lie, but through it, we are brought further away from what we’re commenting on and closer to the way our characters react. Characters are, after all, an extension of the mask. An embodiment of the author’s own thoughts and feelings. Through fictitious scenarios and situations we’re able to apply our knowledge of humanity and our emotions, then watch our characters grow as they adapt to the situation.
So, perhaps, in a profession or passion that requires imagining and alternations to what we call life, accepting something such as a pseudonym comes with the territory, yet, one still can’t escape the brilliance of a twisted logic, that says; ‘don’t talk to strangers/ Santa Clause delivers presents to good boys and girls/ don’t tell lies/ read this book which happens to be written, by a stranger, who has lied about their name.’ It makes you wonder if Razumikhin was right and that we do indeed need to lie in order to get to the truth. After all, the truth isn’t so easily told it seems as though it finds itself existing hand in hand with the lie.