The Happy Hypocrite: A Foxy Tale

An unfairly balanced tale for tired men

Tom Tordillo
5 min readFeb 19, 2023

Searching for “liar” on Project Gutenberg brought up this piece by Emily Dickinson:

The Preacher

He preached upon “breadth” till it argued him narrow, —
The broad are too broad to define;
And of “truth” until it proclaimed him a liar, —
The truth never flaunted a sign.

Simplicity fled from his counterfeit presence
As gold the pyrites would shun.
What confusion would cover the innocent Jesus
To meet so enabled a man!

-Emily Dickinson, from Project Gutenberg

Imagine Dickinson listening to such a preacher, frown-fixed, silent. Returning home, meditating, words flow in succinct response. Then she contemplates whether any connection to other people at all matters, given such garish arrogance.

Dickinson’s verses occasionally kicked at liars, but these days, it seems we have -

Liars, liars everywhere,
Yet all these clowns still speak;
Liars, liars everywhere
Murdering how we think.

- Tom Tordillo © 2023

Apologies, Coleridge. Liars? Here’s today’s roundup from one of the better news sources:

  • Abigail Weinberg, Tucker Carlson and Fox News Knew Election Fraud Claims Were Bogus. Of course he knew. Clowns entertain by misleading, distracting, and wearing bow ties.
  • Ali Breland, “Slander”: College Board Blasts DeSantis Attacks on African American Course. DeSantis would much rather talk about how bad the African American AP course is than talk about 1920s era racial violence in Florida. or 1950s. Or 1990s. Or 2020s. But the focus on 1920s fits most neatly: not since then has Florida seen property speculation so rampant, wealth so extreme — and education slandered. And then people discovered Florida swamplands, turning the entire state into a laughingstock for generations. Let us hope the discovery of hurricanes and climate change is less deadly — but making that so will involve others stepping in yet again.
  • James West, “Bing Is a Liar — and It’s Ready to Call the Cops.” Chatbots? Tools designed to manipulate the value of reality set prices on Wall Street for everything that makes and delivers everything most of us buy — and now those tools can talk to the rest of us, the same way they’ve been talking to one another while fixing the prices. Shocking.

So many liars, and so many journalist Scoobies unmasking such deceit! Perhaps the biggest lie of all is that we can unmask them faster than they can create or buy masks, change, and then put on new ones.

Max Beerbohm’s ‘sweet’ fable suggests some reasons why this tactic may not prevail.

Max Beerbohm — From the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, made available to the public by Wikimedia Commons.

The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik “The Comparable Max: Max Beerbohm’s cult of the diminutive” (2015) and Sanford Schwartz’s “The Tiny Grandeur of Max Beerbohm” offer contrasting profiles of Beerbohm, his place near the ‘literary canon.’

For me, when searching Project Gutenberg for “hypocrite,” Beerbohm’s novella, “The Happy Hypocrite: a Fairy Tale for Tired Men” popped up.

A “comedy of manners” — Beerbohm was still testing and developing his voice. At that stage, he emulated Oscar Wilde — but with a strange ambivalence, offering a sort of contrarian “Importance of Being Earnest.”

[Beerbohm] is generally described as an Edwardian dandy and wit, and one whose work is fundamentally “delightful” to contemplate.

Schwartz, The Tiny Grandeur of Max Beerbohm

I’m not the first to ponder Beerbohm, faces, and Fascism. When one drowns in a world of hypocrisy — and that hypocrisy can be so brutally inhumane as to grind millions of lives to death in war — perhaps parody and caricature and dandyism are not as they seem.

Image from “The Happy Hypocrite,” made available by Project Gutenberg.

Beerbohm reads “The Importance of Being Earnest” (thanks again, PG!) — loved it, laughed, then frowned. Oscar Wilde’s hilariously absurd conclusion sets up a comedic “happily ever after" that is so improbable as to disarm an entire genre.

In Beerbohm’s fable, an actual lord (very naughty, cheats at cards) falls in love with a penniless actress who rebuffs him since he lacks ‘saintly’ face (anyone ever tried a dating app, where such choices are made and monetized daily?).

“Lord Hell” finds himself a magical mask maker who sells him the face he needs to win over his “true love":

“Is the expression exactly as your Lordship would wish?” asked Mr. Aeneas.

Lord George laid it on the table and studied it intently. “I wish it were more as a perfect mirror of true love,” he said at length. “It is too calm, too contemplative.”

“Easily remedied!” said Mr. Aeneas. Selecting a fine pencil, he deftly drew the eyebrows closer to each other. With a brush steeped in some scarlet pigment, he put a fuller curve upon the lips. And behold! it was the mask of a saint who loves dearly. Lord George’s heart throbbed with pleasure.

Beerbohm, The Happy Hypocrite

Spoiler alert: the mask, and the redemptive comedic power of love, work even better than “Lord Hell” anticipated. Cute.

“Fake it until you make it.” Boast of your successes — until you become successful. Scam and clown and perform…and if one does so long enough, is it possible to actually become what one pretended to be?

Beerbohm’s answer, at least in this story, might be read as “maybe so.”

An embedded narrative ‘fable within a fable’ tells of Apollo who wanted to watch what men do at night, but was unable to do so since everywhere he looked, his face shone so bright that people acted as if it was still day. Even gods might don masks to overcome constraints imposed by their godly power.

But such masks may need constant maintenance — unless one becomes the thing the mask displays.

Carlsin, FauxNews, DeSantis, Bing — demigods proliferate, all wearing masks that empower them one way or another. But if “Lord Hell” converts into “Lord Heaven” by putting on a “saintly mask” — he also actually married a woman, threw away his fortune, paid off his debts, and repented from his “naughtiness.”

What happens when masks actually glory in ‘naughtiness’?

They say he was rather like Caligula, with a dash of Sir John Falstaff, and that sometimes on wintry mornings in St. James’s Street young children would hush their prattle and cling in disconsolate terror to their nurses’ skirts, as they saw him come…

Beerbohm maybe suggesting that our masks can actually trap us, as much as they liberate and empower.

Imagine masks donned by “lord’s" and officers of Britain, responding to masks from Germany, Russia, France, Italy…masks of manly bravery that when put on, ordered men to march into machine gun fire.

Beerbohm encountered Ezra Pound and a circle of admirers, and ponders Pound’s solution: if we ensure our masks are saintly and obliterate everything demonic, then we need not fear becoming demons. And thus, fascism.

Max drew caricatures instead. Perhaps he was attracted to Pound’s answer to Wilde’s problem — then after studying it for a decade, fled back to England.

My expectation though is that Max turned to caricature as a young man, grappling playfully with anxieties, and then as an older man, facing a world of horrifying malice in which face and Fascism trample upon us.



Tom Tordillo

Necromancer unleashing zombie hordes from Project Gutenberg to work literary atrocities. Also father/lawyer/commentator/ironic.