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  • Masks of the Unconscious: Bad Faith and Casuistry in the Dramatic Monologue
  • W. David Shaw

Many of the best dramatic monologues are sustained exercises in what W. H. Empson calls “double irony,” the simultaneous endorsement of contradictory codes. 1 Because the speakers in such monologues are pulled two ways at once, their incapacity to pursue wholeheartedly any single course of action makes them unsuited for their roles. Far from alienating us, however, the indecision and vulnerability of Browning’s Andrea del Sarto or his lover in “Two in the Campagna” often make us oddly intimate with them.

Since the essence of a deception is to mask the truth, a liar has to possess the truth he is hiding before he can lie. In bad faith, by contrast, the truth is hidden from the liar himself: his deception is no longer grounded in a consciously embraced truth. The anguish of Browning’s Andrea del Sarto or his austere Victorian Prufrock in “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” may merely be a mask of anguish. In order to escape the genuine anguish of acknowledging his guilt for crimes against King Francis and his parents, Andrea may only pretend to be disturbed by Lucrezia’s refusal to stay at home with him. And in order to avoid the despair of facing his own mortality, the chilly moralist in “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” may merely pretend to be distressed by Galuppi’s failure to commemorate a less frivolous beauty in his music. In each case bad faith takes the form of unconsciously lying to oneself. Though a lie posits the duality of deceiver and deceived, bad faith implies the unity of a single consciousness. Whereas the priest lies to the woman in Browning’s “Confessional,” Andrea del Sarto lies to himself. In bad faith the deceiver and the dupe are one and the same person.

As Jean-Paul Sartre explains, to be in bad faith I “must know in my capacity as deceiver the truth which is hidden from me in my capacity as the one deceived . . . Better yet I must know the truth very exactly in order to conceal it more carefully.” 2 Chaucer’s Pardoner, Andrea del Sarto, and many of Browning’s casuists both know and do not know they are liars. As self-deceivers they are more dangerous than a simple liar like the priest in Browning’s monologue, “The Confessional,” because if [End Page 439] they deliberately and cynically try to lie to themselves, they will fail completely in their attempt to deceive their auditors.

Sartre’s analysis of bad faith provides a new model of single and double irony. As Adena Rosmarin has argued, a dramatic monologue invites its readers to see that a characterized speaker’s meaning is different from the poem’s meaning: it is an instance of single or double irony. 3 In single irony, the poet as ventriloquist, momentarily entering into the consciousness of Porphyria’s lover, functions as a censor. But if the censor himself becomes an object of censorship, like the moral critic of the life-loving Venetians in “A Toccata of Galuppi’s,” and if it seems possible to make a case for the dear dead women with the golden hair, whom the speaker censures, then the result may be double rather than single irony. The monologue is then inviting us to endorse simultaneously two apparently contradictory codes. Examples include “The Grammarian’s Funeral” and “Bishop Blougram’s Apology,” where Browning invites us to side with both the scholar and his satirists, with both the pragmatic theologian and his skeptical critic, the journalist Gigadibs. If there is no discernible trace of irony (either double or single), then the monologue is probably what Ralph Rader calls a “mask lyric” rather than a full-fledged dramatic monologue: it is a mere mouthpiece for the poet rather than a genuine species of ventriloquized lyric. 4

Sartre offers an intriguing model of both single and double irony. 5 If another person is looking at me and I am too ashamed or guilty to return her look, then she reduces me to a censored object. Nothing in a stage play is quite so touching or dramatic...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 439-460
Launched on MUSE
1999-06-01
Open Access
No
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