Evangelical Outpost contains a recent article about the play Cyrano de Bergerac, the story of an ugly soldier with beautiful words. The soldier, Cyrano, is too ashamed of his appearance to make known his feelings to the lovely lady of the plot, and masks them through the mouth of a younger, better-looking man. The lady falls in love with the latter instead, to Cyrano’s heartbreak.
Having recently paid half-attention while my wife watched the film version of Cyrano, I consider myself something of an expert. The EO article draws a lesson on cyberculture from the 1897 production
… insecurity tempts us to put forth false images … It is painful to dump out our mixed bag of virtues and imperfections. Our escape from this pain is to mitigate our perceived faults to put forth a modified image. What we want most of all is acceptance. Like Cyrano, though, we fail to attain real friendship or affection, and we rob our friends or beloveds of a real person to love in turn.
There is a common refrain here: online relationships supplant “real” ones. Etc, etc, etc. But there is another point worth highlighting: False images of the self. This is a common theme in literature – sometimes comical, sometimes tragic. Medieval Europe, for example, had frequent lore of the king-disguised-as-commoner, hiding his royalty amidst escapades on the countryside. And in many Shakespeare plays (Twelfth Night, The Merry Wives of Windsor), duplicitousness actually helps reveal true information.
But Shakespeare’s comedies end in unmasking, resolving the tension, whereas the tragedies often keep reality hidden from characters – at least until it is too late. And that is why the tragedies feel so wrenchingly true. For, few people are so confidant in the ending as to unmask themselves at the right time.
There is actually a step deeper in Cyrano, though – it is the opposite of masking. Cyrano appeals because his cloaking actually reveals his endearing character flaw. He is a master of the spoken word in both public and private, and a daring swordsman – a true knight. But his love betrays a remarkable capacity for embarrassment and self-consciousness. His deepest self is not ineffable (he writes beautiful poetry to his beloved) but ineffaceable.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.