There is a famous speech in Hamlet, the advice of a father to his son including the often repeated phrase, “To thine own self be true.” The wisdom of Polonious’ advice is self-evident; truth so obvious that many portions of his talk can be found embedded in legislative orations and tattooed on youthful flesh. Serious words for serious people.
Of course, Shakespeare never intended such respect for his wisdom-spouting character. Polonious is a buffoon. Every bit of wisdom he imparts to Laertes, is in complete contradiction to who he is. That such a fool is trying to be smart by repeating aphorisms of intelligent philosophy is what makes it funny. The idiot raises a serious point.
Yesterday, I wrote a cute, sweet romantic tale. That aspect of the story was an incidental structural requirement. You can’t tell a story without something going on in the process. My goal, however, was quite apart from the romance. Rather, I took extreme joy in setting up my narrator with statements of self-definition. Yet as he told us who he was, in no uncertain terms, everything else he says is in direct contradiction to the standard he sets up for himself.
How people see themselves and how we see them are a wonderful source of cognitive dissonance. As a fiction writer, the ability to expose this distorted perspective is a wonderful source of drama. We expose the tensions that motivate our characters when we dissect the difference in their self-image from their public persona. We create the opportunity to laugh, even in otherwise difficult situations. Some of the best tensions are internal.
This is a special version of the standard unreliable narrator who typically lies to us. In the abused narrator, the character lies to himself. All his credibility crumbles in this scenario, for someone who lies to themselves in such obvious ways can hardly have a reasonable grip on the rest of the world.
Of course, in the long run, as people wander about haphazardly quoting Shakespeare, Wilde and the Beatles – any of so many other sharp, often ironic cookies, we get a new opportunity to laugh. First we laugh at Polonious for being such a buffoon. Then we get to laugh at the guy who quotes Polonious seriously.
In the words of Homer Simpson, be smart.