Quotes out of Context

Dear Bob,

You posted the quote,


This has been one of those lifelong trending topics of interest for me – the whole faking it until you make it business, and whether it is at odds with authenticity, since it implies you are not being who you are. But also whether being who you are is overrated and a certain amount of pretending is what we all do to become the person we want to be, and maybe my refusal is why I am sooo delayed. Maybe.

The quote has a foreboding ring to it though, so maybe that’s not what it’s about and I am once again projecting to a quote out of context and missing what the author intended. Well, here I go.

It’s part of his book Mother Night and I didn’t have to get very far – it’s the third sentence. Goes like this:

“This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral, I simply just happen to know what it is. We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Unfortunately he doesn’t expound. The next line goes:

“My personal experience with Nazi monkey violence is limited…”

So I listened to the rest (of the audiobook). It’s about an American who pretended to be a U.S. defector-turned-Nazi to spy on the US during WWII for no reason other than that he was approached and could use his skills as a playwright to write brilliant propaganda and such. “I would fool everybody with my brilliant imitation of a Nazi, inside and out” he says, “and I did fool everybody. I began to strut like Hitler’s right hand man. And nobody saw the honest me I hid so deep inside.” But when the war was over, he found it was not so easy to resume an authentic life.

So in context, the quote refers to this man who has adopted a pattern of behaviour that didn’t reflect his attitudes and how and how those behaviours followed him past the point he dropped them off. This is the lesson that put the quote in the context I think it was meant to be in, and not the one I was projecting – that our reality is determined by our behaviours, not our thoughts, and compartmentalizing the two is not so easy. That’s why we must be careful we aren’t leading anyone astray in either direction about who we really are via our behaviours, because it will come back to haunt us. Maybe not in the form of influencing our thoughts and muddying our authentic self on the inside, but like in this case, being unable to lead an authentic life on the outside because of the reality he has created with his behaviour (in the form of his worshipers tracking him down).

Maybe it’s why he kills himself at the end, despite having his name cleared after nearly being exposed. Maybe the cognitive dissonance was too much to bear, or maybe he knew he couldn’t escape the life he’d pretended to have. In any case, he severely underestimated the difficulty of separating one’s thoughts from his actions.

But when people pretend it’s usually to be someone less despicable. So what to make of pretending to be someone better, more noble than they actually are?  If it’s true that we are what we pretend to be, what’s to distinguish someone acting and someone’s being, so long as they act consistently? So long as they never let on to anyone what their true feelings are.

Do feelings change with behaviour? Is that what transformation actually is?

Comments welcome!








Top stories from “Columbia Journalism Review”

English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the N...
English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper. Reporters and rewrite men writing stories, and waiting to be sent out. Rewrite man in background gets the story on the phone from reporter outside. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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Submissions? Ephemeris, Undergraduate Journal of Philosophy

Call for undergraduate papers

Ephemeris is an undergraduate journal of philosophy that is student-run and dedicated to publishing exceptional undergraduate writing grounded in the distinct value and interest of the philosophical endeavor.

Contributions: Contributions are solicited in all areas of the philosophical discipline. Contributions should take the form of essay, article, or short note. Review articles are welcome. Please include a short abstract describing the thesis of the paper and main conclusions.


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Ephemeris 2018 wIll include a special section on the topic whether it is justifiable in a democracy to implement public policy motivated by personal conviction with an eye to such topics as whether religious citizens and politicians may vote or legislate their religious convictions, whether the state may subsidize religious schools and related topics. We will publish the three best papers we receive in this field.

 Submission: Be sure to include your name, postal and email addresses, and the university or college in which you are enrolled as an undergraduate.

Please send your work and any correspondence to <Ephemeris.ephemeris.uc@gmail.com>. You should receive a confirmation of receipt shortly thereafter. 

​Submission Deadline: January 15th, 2018.

For more information about Ephemeris and submission guidelines, please visit our website at <http://punzel.org/Ephemeris>.