person_pin Impostors

by Arthur Saltzman

Published in Issue No. 54 ~ November, 2001

The art is in the execution. Three or four players are optimal, but in
a pinch, two are sufficient to perpetrate the game. The key here, as
in so many things, is to play swiftly and assuredly, for expertise is
its own enchantment and disguise. Cards should be snapped confidently
down and winning tricks, finesses, and all other methods of swelling
the progress announced with appropriate emphasis. As the players act
and react, weigh and inveigle, they must remember that they are
scheming centrifugally, that their apparent competition with one
another is in fact a tacit collaboration. In other words, the players
are engaged in a consensual ruse. They are playing to the house.

This is TEGWAR, The Exciting Game Without Any Rules. In truth, it is
not so much a game as a staged performance, whose fantastical
strategies are only show and whose complex flourishes matter only
insofar as they inspire bystanders to try to comprehend and, later, to
participate. For it is one of humanity’s irrepressible
tendencies to compel a chaos to come to order. Since none of us can
bear a wilderness for long, we assume an etiology. Which is what
stalwart TEGWARRIORS rely on.

TEGWAR requires that its players heed Jimmy Cagney’s warning
about acting: “Don’t get caught at it.” Unless every seam of
your sham stays sealed, even the most gullible will hang back. (In
sports, they call this “selling the fake.” The halfback charges
hardest into the line when he doesn’t have the ball, while the
quarterback steals around the end for six. With a hard jab step or a
series of epileptic feints, the basketball player sheds his defender
and opens a path to the hoop.) Emily Dickinson, that most estimable
hustler, summed up the method rather neatly: “Success in circuit
lies.” Nevertheless, if the game must not be too obvious, neither
should it be too obscure. Like those dreamy nymphs who bathe away
eternity, the players want to seduce and elude at the same time.

Properly primed, the pigeons will be mesmerized by the crusts that
fall nearby. They’ll see a club trump a heart or a pair of twos
earn an extra turn; they’ll note the surrender of everyone
else’s aces to the player who flashes the first black queen;
with fascination they’ll watch the strange, random mutations of
the game, trying to grab a handle, or at least figure out where the
handles are located. Admittedly, many witnesses, unable to grasp the
calibrated excesses on display or follow the phony reasoning behind
any lead, may recall their Thomas DeQuincey, who in his Confessions
of an English Opium Eater
predicted their confusion: “In parts and
fractions eternal creations are carried on, but the nexus is wanting,
and life and the central principles which should bind together all the
parts at the center with all its radiations to the circumference, are
wanting.” Absent enlightenment, they will stay intrigued only so long.

But there may be one, the one who has been steadily edging in from the
periphery, who thinks he might be getting the hang of it (so eager are
we to believe that there is a hang to be gotten). That’s the guy
who will be invited to sit in. He’ll even begin to win a bit,
hardly sensing why. He’ll be congratulated on being such a quick
study. He’ll be encouraged to play for higher stakes. And as
soon as he gets sucked into a sizeable pot, the trap will be sprung.
Perhaps someone will scuttle his flush by flaunting the suddenly fatal
five of spades. Perhaps someone will advise him that his diamonds are
disqualified–didn’t he see the dealer flip a black seven
after the last raise? It’s irrelevant why his hand is deemed
irrelevant. What matters is that the other players sell him
assiduously on the fact that he was in over his head, that, in the
end, he was the real impostor at the table.

Because the talk shows say that there is no past tense for “love,” not
as far as she is concerned, your concern must go further. Because the
only given is that nothing can be taken for granted, in any working
relationship, the work goes on. So you take your resolve from
Hollywood and glamour magazines. Mutt-clumsy as you are, you make an
effort anyway. In your office, under the fluorescent hum of the
spastic fixture that never gets fixed, you dream up a bit of wistful
mischief. For once, you might think, you might think outside the
cubicle, as it were, as you are, in your duty to her try to be
something more than dutiful, something other. Someone preferable.
Someone else.

Because your usual avowals have in recent years been sloppy, too few,
and, well, usual. “I’m here for you” has never been more
assuring than a modest savings account–a pittance you can hardly
bank a future on. As for sex, well, lately it seems as though
you’ve been entering her like a burglar, if at all (on this
point the talk shows are merciless), and even at your most devoted,
you are predictable and, frankly, unlovely, to her or any mirror. So
you deliberate, turning over each idea like a dripping chicken on a
spit, hoping to create something satisfactorily tender between you.
Romance may loom like boot camp, but you prepare, for her sake and (on
this point the talk shows are adamant) yours, the daffy extrapolations
of the heart.

You decide to sneak back on an evening you know she’ll be out
and salvage as many of the Christmas lights as you can from their
tangle on the floor of the front closet. (The unknotting alone takes
an hour, a practice she’d have to appreciate, although–on
this point the talk shows are cautionary–not as much as she would
your restraint in not calling attention to this.) You string the
rooftop with blinking braids to make for a more intimate, more
manageable heaven than the unpremeditated heavens provide.
(Didn’t some diligent lover in a film she misted over do that?
That the notion stuck somewhere in your memory must count for
something.) You wrap yourself in the rented tux that only James Bond
or Fred Astaire could keep from feeling silly in. (The gleaming
trousers bind up on you in a way that Bond never betrayed in any
adventure; wearing the same kind of cummerbund as Bond barely connects
you. And even after taking dance lessons on the sly, you cannot
choreograph a single step, much less imply Astaire. Press on anyway.)
Having never once in your life discriminated among grapes, you
complete the scene by setting out the unpronounceable wine you asked
the clerk to choose. In short, you prepare to wow her with all that
isn’t you.

And when she takes it all in, including your
puppy-hoping-to-go-for-a-walk expression, what she compliments is your
exertion, not your transformation. The problem is that it takes more
than a coat of paint to make a paragon, and no one can subsist on a
confected essence for very long. Contrivance isn’t
metamorphosis, a word that recalls Kafka, of course, in the wake of
whose extraordinary fiction the paltry changes you’ve played
ring false.

Speaking of Kafka, keep in mind that when his Gregor Samsa becomes a
bug, everyone in the family recognizes the inherent Gregor in him
anyway. No one shouts, “My God, it’s a gigantic insect! He must
have eaten our boy!” On the contrary, they wonder why he’s gone
to such selfish lengths. They fret about what to feed him, whether or
not to clear out his room, and how to conceal him from the
houseguests. They never question who he is. The creature confirms the
Gregor they know. Gregor in costume is Gregor revealed, and Gregor

Doesn’t your beloved have as much sense as a Samsa? Do you
really believe that she grieves for the health of the dashing actor
when the character he plays takes a bullet on-screen? Are you shocked
that she is not shocked to see him beaming at the Oscars months later?

Because you did not fall for a fool, you must take care not to fall
over your own footing. Remember that suicides use rooftops, too. Even
at this unaccustomed height, she does not get dizzy. You can’t
afford to, either.

In this age of cyborgs and clones, when movies and rumors scarcely
stay abreast of what’s being concocted in laboratories every
day, we don’t know how to refer to “normal” anymore. How many
people do I know who, physiologically speaking, stand as miracles of
interior decoration–who are, for that matter, standing solely
because of it? Thanks to the precise violations of surgical engineers,
some of my closest friends have all sorts of technology sewn up inside
them. An alarming percentage of them have replaced an alarming
percentage of themselves with hardware. Just a month ago, Jack’s
chest was the site of an impromptu medical conference. Half a dozen
doctors prodded about in there the way that, back in the Sixties, we
used to fish for errant crusts in the fondue pot. They inserted a
pacemaker to thrum alongside his discreetly metered heart, and then
they restrung him like a tennis racket. He’s up and walking
already, feeling more or less like his old self, he says, and in some
ways better than ever, or at least other than ever. I am perforce
pleasant about it with him, and I know that the doctors are optimistic
about a full recovery of what remains of him to be recovered.
Nevertheless, I have to admit that when I encountered him outside the
hospital, putting my arms around his retrofitted body gave me a
sensation similar to bumping into a refrigerator.

And this is only the most recent example. Somewhere below and behind
the belt, Bill is held together by a special mesh; although the
reality is far more elegant and complex, I can’t help but
picture his renegade innards being caught in the webbing of an
infielder’s glove. Definitely I am at the age when I am
surrounded by friends who because of sports injuries sport joints
alloyed with polymers or bend plastic knees, who, having worn away
shoulder sockets and gnawed sugars for fifty years, now lick, speak,
and kiss through silver and shoulder steel. You could count enough
pins in the ankles and wrists at the gym to practice voodoo against
half of Congress if you wanted to. In all of us still going around,
there isn’t all that much of us still going around.

You may have heard about the prospective medical student who had a
computer chip installed in the side of his head as a kind of upgrade
of his natural RAM. It’s a cognition switch of sorts. During a
test, he might scratch above his ear to access relevant binomial
equations, wince to trigger an annotated display of the human skeletal
system for private viewing by his mind’s eye, or blink on
keywords flashing against his cortex to download crucial histories.
Both university officials and board exam manufacturers have tried to
prohibit these tactics, just as they once outlawed the use of
calculators during SAT tests when I was taking them and the way they
still police casinos to detect and remove blackjack players who
illegally count cards. The student himself maintains that he is not
cheating at all since the answers are, quite literally, in his head.
Furthermore, he suggests that as a practicing surgeon someday
he’ll be all the more effective if he can review thousands of
procedures on the spot simply by having a nurse deliver a couple of
well-aimed pokes along his hairline. He goes so far as to predict that
some day these chips will become mandatory accessories–a day he
eagerly awaits. Thus may we eventually become multiple: fastidious,
aswarm, and perpetually involved in consultation.

Paradoxically, there is no more reliable source of credibility than
the fear that one is a fraud. My friend John, who, like me, teaches
college English, is particularly and quite vocally committed to this
argument. Unless someone occasionally wonders whether or not the
professional jig he dances, however deftly, is up, he is simply not to
be trusted with his station. In fact, John maintains, we are all of us
impostors; integrity is a matter of not succumbing to one’s own
pose. (Heed the warning label on the package: Be advised– swelling is
common.) Even as we accept the prize, the promotion, the appreciative
batter of glad hands, we must not neglect our daily dose of chagrin.
However much worth is urged upon us, we should always be subdued by
the prospect of exposure and if we rise, rise with our heads held low.

Actually, I am rather fond of the word “impostor,” from which I detect
the scent of dinner theatre. You know the sort of play I mean: one of
those conventional whodunnits whose doer’s undone by the timely
revelation of the detective-hero. “That man, the man who calls himself
`Uncle Basil’ … is an impostor!” he booms
accusingly, detonating gasps from the rest of the bewildered cast.
Just enough artifice to seem quaint, but not so much as to put you off
your feed, as dinner theatre by definition demands. Somehow, in
retrospect, we realize that the clues were right in front of us all
the time, apparent as the silverware. An impostor? Obviously. We knew
it all along.

Unfortunately, certain literature leads us astray when it tells us
that we may be remade entirely each day like the disheveled beds we
dream in and desert the memory of ourselves altogether. George
Orwell’s narrator in “Shooting an Elephant” pondered how one
“wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.’ But
notwithstanding the metaphor, there is no denying that the next
morning would find Orwell’s sahib shaving the same stubble from
the same chin. Similarly, when Kurt Vonnegut opened Mother
with what he asserted to be the moral of the novel–”We
are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to
be”–he was only half right. While we must take pains to resist
our own prevarications, it is because they are likelier to deceive
than determine us.

To correct the impression that one’s intrinsic self may be
burked or buried without a trace, consider The Wizard of Oz.
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” thundered the
bloated, floating head, through which subterfuge the wizard hoped to
keep his littleness hidden. Had Orwell and Vonnegut been accurate,
Toto would have nosed out nothing more than a distracting flounce of
drapery, for there would have been no disappointing center to refute
that imposing circumference. Yet even in the absence of an
undisciplined dog, there will be some inevitable slip, some peeking
through the seams of our seeming so. Ultimately, the fumbler will
emerge from the appurtenances he crouches behind.

No one over five is really surprised that the wizard’s wizardry
is solely a product of public relations. Outside of expensive special
effects, authentic magic has always been hard to come by and
accomplishment an occasion to inspect the deck. Maybe it began when as
children we saw Mom post our latest drawings on the kitchen cabinets,
drawings whose quality came from mother-love alone; and as she
proclaimed our giftedness to dinner guests, we came to question her
taste in everything from then on. Even as they guarantee our
advancement, we sense that letters of recommendation are
formulaic–their authors merely tweaked the templates in their
hard drives to suit the institution we’re after and left all the
old adjectives intact. We doubt the positive reviews in the
, thinking them more advantageous than true, while the real
proof us is in the pan. Downing the heady wine of success, we know
that everyone else does not get drunk when we do. For the sake of the
sober, we sober up; and if we do occasionally gush, we gush on guard.

To his credit, John does not exempt himself from his own philosophy. A
successful college professor by most standards–he has earned
promotion at a university prestigious enough that its name does not
contain a compass direction–John regularly effaces himself with
the diligence of a teenager treating his acne. He asks his students to
refer to him by his first name, feathers his office door with cartoons
that playfully denigrate his profession, and often quotes his most
humbling student evaluations. At times, his humility is so extreme as
to seem a sort of hubris all its own. “Look,” he says, “I never kid
myself,” and in saying so, he implies that you, too, would do well to
be consistently in on your own joke.

If commencement ceremonies teach us anything, it must be that our
allotment of pomp far outstrips our circumstance.

The cardinal sin is swagger. For we know deep down that we are getting
better mention than better but unmentioned men. Sir Edmund Hillary may
have planted the flag and the fable in the British papers, but his
virtue came by virtue of Tenzing Norgay, the inconspicuous Nepalese
guide who helped to make Everest surmountable in the first place. The
videotape report on ESPN proves that the winner of the Iditarod
actually finished twelfth, only after his pack of forgotten dogs had
crossed the line; afterwards, heaped in a drafty kennel, the dogs did
the only valid gasping there was to do. Research shows just how seldom
renown is founded or vanity fair. Modesty must stay the best of
us–it is what makes the best of us the best of us–who in our
guilt-ridden, sleepless nights secretly count ourselves among the
sheep we count.

Now I am not counseling legal counsel to abandon his clients in the
throes of Latinate courtroom debate because he has suddenly come down
with an inconvenient case of shame. Having binged on improper
fractions, irrational numbers, and empty sets, a given mathematician
may be prone to purge, but not, I trust, to cut all sums permanently
from his diet. Let the surgeon who wonders mid-bypass if, career-wise,
he has taken a wrong turn, who plunges his hand up to the wrist in an
open bowel and, following W. H. Auden’s instruction, stares,
stares, in that corporeal basin and wonders what he’s missed,
delay his contemplation for later, when he’s washing off the
blood. John is quite right when he says that hesitation marks the
exemplary professional. But that does not mean he should cancel his
appointments or fail to meet his office hours. He should not let his
clients, patients, or students founder without him in the hall.

Conspiracy theories will prosper in any field. A tasty one that has
recently sprouted in mine is that modernist literature may have been
composed as military code. Wouldn’t that to some extent explain
its inexplicability? We might forgive Wallace Stevens his sludgy verse
if it turns out that An Ordinary Evening in New Haven was
devised to convey troop movements or that James Joyce was really
working in Zurich to transmit information to the Allies under cover of
Finnegans Wake. Had the literary canon proven as crucial behind
the lines as cannons at the front–imagine Eliot ensuring through
matchless assonance as many victories as superior artillery did, or
Faulkner, via The Sound and the Fury, laying successful siege
to the Siegfried Line–then it would all make sense. So to speak.

As it happens, I have discovered no foundation for these suspicions,
so there must be another reason behind the pleonasms and opacities
perpetrated by the most elevated members of my syllabus. Nor are they
the worst culprits. For truly repellant specimens of style, browbeaten
readers would have us look to recent critical theory.
“Poststructuralism” is the brush we typically use to tar such
untouchable prose. Writing smothered in austerity, writing stripped
clean of felicity–it would be painful to rehearse the symptoms
further. “Language most shews a man; Speak, that I may see thee,”
wrote Ben Jonson. Centuries ago, he never dreamed we would one day
have to look through lead.

How dismaying or gratifying–depending on one’s
mood–to learn about the Sokal Hoax. In that infamous coup of
1994, a theoretical physicist from New York University, Alan Sokal,
submitted to Social Text a Trojan Horse of an article, a work
so sublimely impenetrable that infiltration of that journal was
assured. He had milked and mingled the vaguest vocabularies, combined
“hermeneutics” and “hegemonies” like a tenure-driven witch out of
, and the plausible, intimidating haze that rose from that
vile broth sufficiently impressed the noses of the editorial board
that they published it.

The surprise is not that impostors pass through customs but that we
have grown so accustomed to it. We are pretty much convinced that
barbarians bar the gates that were established to keep the barbarians
out. Pundits and apologists are still stumbling over the rubble left
after the academic tempest Alan Sokal caused. Incidentally, this
parodic impulse continues to thrive on a website called Postmodern
Generator, whose randomizer program enables anyone to construct
instantly his own estimable gibberish. He may then set loose his
subaltern, neo-narrativized, postcritical, nickel-and-paradigmed
Frankenstein monster of jargon upon submissions editors and seminar
leaders, as his conscience dictates.

When things get too dense to endure, I have found that the best
respites are found in the dark.

For me, the most satisfying moment in Invasion of the Body
comes when we discover that Leonard Nimoy, who plays a
psychiatrist in the film, has already been supplanted by a soulless,
pod-spawned double. I get a kick out of the idea that in this case the
alien replica is more or less impossible to differentiate from its
human counterpart. I am not sure whether this is meant as a comment on
psychiatrists or on Leonard Nimoy, but the ambiguity does not dampen
my pleasure.

I do not mean to minimize the political implications or the more
notorious horrors in this film. As Kevin McCarthy devotes himself to
outing the pods, he finds himself part of an ever-shrinking minority.
(“I’m not crazy. Make them listen before it’s too late.”
Who hasn’t been there, or thereabouts?) Imagine our planet
completely populated by Uncle Basils. A chilling prospect. (“I’d
hate to wake up some morning and find out you weren’t you,” our
hero jokes, when it is still fairly early in the film and the prospect
still unbelievable.) And so the question arises: in a false world,
what does it mean to be genuine?

Film buffs will realize that I’ve conflated the 1956 version of
Invasion of the Body Snatchers with the 1978 remake, the latter
which is generally agreed to be inferior, the Leonard Nimoy bit
notwithstanding. Certainly it has proved far less memorable and less
moving than the original. Remakes have ever been the opportunistic
pods of the industry.

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Arthur Saltzman is Professor of English at Missouri Southern State College and the author of seven books, most recently This Mad Instead: Governing Metaphors in Contemporary American Fiction and Objects and Empathy, which won the First Series Creative Nonfiction Award from Mid-List Press.