We now come to the crucial issue of identity as understood and articulated by T.S. Eliot in his play “The Elder Statesman.” For previous posts in this short series click here and here.

Lord Claverton is a politician by profession. And like a politician, he has tried to play the role of the responsible, admirable father to earn the love of his daughter. Sadly and predictably, this has pushed his daughter away. In a moment of inspiration he reflects on his life and who he has become.

The worst kind of failure, in my opinion,
Is the man who has to keep on pretending to himself
That he’s a success – the man who in the morning
Has to make up his face before he looks in the mirror

I’ve spent my life in trying to forget myself,
In trying to identify myself with the part
I had chosen to play. And the longer we pretend
The harder it becomes to drop the pretense,
Walk of the stage, change into our own clothes
And speak as ourselves.

I’ve had your love under false pretenses.
Now, I’m tired of keeping up those pretenses,
But I hope that you’ll find a little love in your heart
Still, for your father, when you know him
For what he is, the broken-down actor.

Claverton speaks of a new self-awareness that has come through suffering and pain. In the pang of loss, the false self is distanced from the present, suffering, true self so that he can see clearly the folly of who he was. Note the contrast here – Claverton does not mourn his present loss; the broken-down actor is the only one that loves and sees things clearly. Rather he mourns the successful actor who aspired for greatness. It is both easier and burdensome to keep up the façade, the illusion, than it is to see life as it actually is.

Eliot understands that life is marked by the tension between delusion and honesty, between the active life and a received reality. The bridge between these opposites is death. Identity is not found through its realization, but through its demise. Real love does not come to those who demand to be loved by becoming lovable, but the passive, unlovable.

Parenthetically, it’s common to say that the enemy of self-fulfillment is an external enemy like the artificially constructed online reality of Facebook or twitter. As the saying goes, digital reality obscures us from true reality. This wrongly presumes that life is a series of obstacles (tests) to overcome on the path to greatness. Eliot would argue that the enemy of ourselves is not an external threat, but our very selves:

I’ve been freed from the self that pretends to be someone;
And in becoming no one, I begin to live.
It is worth while dying, to find out what life is.

To read the fourth and final installment, go here.