The Pretender Goes to the Movies

One problem I had with writing Killing Cool is that I didn’t want to label living people as Pretenders, i.e. persons who unconsciously assume a false sense of life. I don’t think it’s nice to label people. I also did not want to open myself up to charges of libel. So what I did was to comment almost exclusively on dead public figures, like Ronald Reagan and fictional ones like Jem and Scout Finch. At first I felt bad not being completely up-to-date and relevant, but later I was glad of it.

Screen shot 2015-01-19 at 11.22.47 AM

I have come up with a list of movie and TV characters who are or are not Pretending a false self and sense of life. I didn’t want to rely too heavily on fictional examples because I wanted to make a point about the state of actual Americans. But I’ll share some of them here.

Some actors specialize in playing Pretenders. I hope that doesn’t say anything about them in real life. Examples: Humphrey Bogart, Samuel L. Jackson, Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray, Al Pacino, etc. Interestingly, they are capable of doing other things. Take Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. That character was not a Pretender. He was authentically cold and evil. My favorite female Pretenders are Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Perhaps the best example of a Pretender character of either sex isn’t American but Scottish: Jean Brodie in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Watch that movie and you will get the concept.

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Some actors specialize in playing non-Pretenders too, although the only example I can think of is Sidney Poitier. Perhaps Harrison Ford would count, at least post Star Wars.

Sometimes you get a Pretender/non-Pretender pair of characters in the same production. In Tombstone Wyatt Earp wasn’t and Doc Holliday was. In Deadwood Seth Bullock wasn’t and Al Swearingen was. It makes for an interesting dynamic. In both cases the Pretender is smarter than the non-Pretender and is either morally ambiguous (as in the case of Doc Holliday) or downright evil (as in the case of Al Swearingen). In Tombstone the non-Pretender gives hope to the Pretender. In Deadwood the Pretender sees through the non-Pretender in a cynical way, but also admires his moral character.

Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday

Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday

I don’t mean to say that Pretenderism is a smart person’s disorder. Plenty of dumb characters don their macho or torchy airs. John Wayne’s swaggering characters aren’t exactly dumb, but they’re certainly not intellectual either. But many of them are Pretenders.

John Wayne in Brothers

John Wayne in Brothers

Many characters are Pretenders by default, because nobody could authentically be like that. I am not sure their creators are aware of the Pretender concept. But other artists are aware of it, even though they haven’t worked it out as explicitly as I have. I believe Mark Twain knew that Tom Sawyer in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a Pretender, and I believe that Harper Lee knew that Scout, Jem and Dill were proto-Pretenders in To Kill a Mockingbird.

How about farther back in literary history? Julius Caesar, in Shakespeare’s play, seems to have been a Pretender, talking about himself in the third person and posturing. I think Shakespeare at some level understood the concept. Hamlet, although he pretends to be mad, is not a Pretender, because his act is self-conscious.

Louis Calhern as Caesar not bewaring the Ides of March

Louis Calhern as Caesar not bewaring the Ides of March

Sometimes I joke with my wife that I see a Pretender under every bed, like Joe McCarthy and the communists. But joking aside, Pretenders are quite common in literature and in real life. You just have to learn how to spot them. And there’s a very good chance you’ve done some Pretending yourself, especially when you were younger, even if that is not your ultimate character type.

Announcing Killing Cool

I am happy to announce the publication of my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life.

Due out September 2014

Now published

The book is about the way in which many Americans live in a fantasy, creating a fantasy self and a fantasy version of reality. This false self is often based on an artificial sense of life that is pasted over one’s real sense of life. Examples include people who try to be cool or chronically ironic, macho or ultra-femme, but there are hundreds of other types. Such people do not live in reality, often do not have a firm sense of what reality is, or possess a firm sense of the reality of other people.

I deal with many variations in eleven essays. In the title essay I treat two types of Cool and how they both depend on a mystical notion of the Zeitgeist or spirit of the age. In “Sex and Power, Hugs and Wonder” I discuss a pair of erroneous, and common, theories of values: one that says that our values are basically those of animals and one that says that our values are basically those of children. “Faith and the Bubble Universe” deals with ways in which Christianity can entail a kind of fantasy world and the nature of legitimate versus illegitimate error. “The Vampire and the Last Man” examines the troubling popularity of vampire stories and attempts to ferret out its causes. The concluding essay, “The Sleeper Awakes,” offers three ideas that could help the reader better live in reality.

The approach of the book is autobiographical and compassionate. My observations grow out of my own experiences and I share those experiences in an effort to make philosophy, psychology and culture criticism approachable. And although Killing Cool is technically a work of ethics, I do not moralize or condemn, but instead offer understanding for the people who trap themselves in boxes–and try to light the way out of them. I point out a lot of problematic character types in American society, but I suggest methods for growing out of them, too.

If real reform is to come to society, I believe that Killing Cool is a good place to start. Arguing about politics is to little avail when the arguers are living in a fantasy world: They will not hear the arguments anyway. The way to break the logjam is to entice people into choosing reality. Then we can have a real discussion.

Killing Cool is available on Amazon as both a paperback and a Kindle ebook. You can preview the book there.

Please feel free to leave a comment with any questions and feedback. If you are interested in reviewing the book, please contact me for a reviewer’s copy at

Drawing from Experience

Killing Cool is a personal book for me. Almost every part of it comes from my own experience or the experience of others I knew first-hand. When I wrote some of the original drafts I used an impersonal, almost academic style, and as a result it wasn’t accessible and inviting. I realized, with the help of my best critic, my wife Stephanie, that I had to put more of myself and my discovery process in the essays.

The reason that I didn’t do this in the first place is that I learned to write and think from Ayn Rand. She sometimes injected a personal note into her essays, but most of the time her style was, well, objective. It worked for that writer and that audience, but not for me and mine.

And I have something different to say. As I wrote more essays in my new style, I realized that I was implicitly making a point: we all have things in our experience that would be interesting, perhaps even unique, if we tried to identify them. I don’t think Rand’s approach, for all its value in other ways, encourages people to get in touch with their impressions. So it was fortuitous that I came up with another approach that I hope will let me convey my observations effectively. I am also excited by the prospect of hearing about some of my readers’ original perceptions!

Killing Cool

My forthcoming book, Killing Cool: Slaying the False Self and Finding True Awareness, is a bit of a mongrel. On one level, it’s culture criticism. I identify reasons why people like vampire stories and what is the nature of cool.

On another level, it’s psychology. I describe the personality type that Theodore Roosevelt has in common with the major characters from Quentin Tarantino movies.

But it’s also philosophy, as I offer a worldview that would help one stay true to oneself. For example, I discuss how the world does not contain any spiritual forces outside of those in human consciousness.

Lastly, there is a personal development component to it, insofar as I not only talk about the things that hold people back, but also discuss what to do about them. On this subject I give an example from a 75-year old self-help book, among other things.

This mixture may seem to make the book eclectic, but it does have a unified theme as reflected in the subtitle. It certainly makes it hard to classify. I suppose it belongs in the philosophy section, alongside Ayn Rand and Nietzsche. If there was a general category of “essays,” it might belong in there with George Orwell and Paul Fussell.

Except for purposes of marketing the book, the question of how to classify it does not trouble me. I regard it as a multi-faceted look at one aspect of a single subject: authenticity, that is, being who you are. The diversity of its topics is just a consequence of the complex nature of human life.

The Upward Path

Why do so many people not reach their potential? This is a question I have thought about for decades.

I believe that people obscure, deny and fragment themselves. In my forthcoming book, Killing Cool, I contrast the false self with the authentic one. The problem is that most of us do not know how to think or to let ourselves feel. Religious people substitute a kind of wishful thinking for reason and “hip” people hook into an imaginary zeitgeist. Living with a false self prevents the true self, the core self from realizing itself. In the book I try to illuminate an upward path.

In another book on the drawing board, I plan to write about how one achieves freedom from self-imposed limitations. The scope of our free will is so much larger than the scope of things we would ever seriously consider doing. To some extent this is appropriate, since otherwise we would be robbing banks and walking down the street making bird noises, but there are many things we should try that we don’t because of our assumptions, such as “real men don’t do that,” and false dichotomies, such as reason versus playfulness.

Still another book, way on the back burner for now, is about the integration of mind and body. I believe that many people take themselves to be just a mind, a soul or a body, with the other part regarded as a mere appendage. How to achieve wholeness is first of all a philosophical task, but it is also a psychological one, and I hope to bring both together. I have been working on this book, off and on for about five years. What is holding me back is the problem of how to make it accessible to a general audience, but I hope to solve that soon.

In between other projects I plan to write a little literary and film criticism and just have some fun with my writing. I hope you’ll follow along with me on my adventure and share your own.