Tartuffe

Molière by Pièrre Mignard. Photography: Jebulon, Paris

Molière by Pièrre Mignard. Photography: Jebulon, Paris

In 1664, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, or Molière as he was better known by his stage name, wrote a theatrical comedy which dealt with the themes of hypocrisy and charlatanism. In 1984, I had the pleasure of watching Anthony Sher perform the lead role, which he did with his customary brilliance and panache. Had I been alive when Tartuffe was written, I would have had little opportunity to see the play before King Louis XIV censored it – a state in which the play remained for a further five years.

So convinced was he that the play drew parallels between religious devotion and those unsavoury traits just previously mentioned – the apparent links between vice and virtue – that at the suggestion of the Archbishop of Paris, the king forbade all further performances of Tartuffe under threats of excommunication from the Catholic Church. Interestingly, the king did not ban private performances for the French aristocracy. The privileged, as we all know, are immune from hypocrisy.

So this article is about similar associations to those epitomised so dazzlingly well on that night I watched enthralled by Mr. Sher’s depiction of the impostor Tartuffe. I have chosen to do this as there are so many such charlatans around today in the world of spiritual endeavour. Much of this terrain has been commoditized, and with but a tenth of Mr. Sher’s dramaturgical capacity, the deluded spiritual pedagogue, armed with all the right words, makes for themselves a semblance of a living.

Tartuffe. 1739 English Edition

One need not turn professional though, for one may just as well dwell in the amateur dramatics of one’s own social circles, and there too give vent to a spiritual hypocrisy. The phenomenon of holier-than-thou-ness, or the feigned physiognomy of the supposed spiritual visionary, may at times be seen portrayed in the congregations of our local churches, yoga studios and meditation halls. So from what psychological tendencies do such spiritual hypocrisies derive, beyond any egocentric imperatives?

Here, we enter the enchanting world of self-deception, in which the psyche’s hall of mirrors may succeed not only in hoodwinking its own self-construct, but possibly the uninformed observer too. The process subsists in post-hoc fabrications of the mind which lend credence to the adoption of assumptions as to our spiritual progress. The desperation to receive a pay-off for our devotion and practices, leads us to fabricate pseudo-evidence that serves to satiate this otherwise oppressive need.

The whole of this construct is perpetuated and sustained by means of what psychologists call ‘confirmation biases’. Here, the deluded spiritual aspirant interprets experience falsely in an unconscious bid to support both their wishes and any imagined signposts as to their state of advancement. Further, there’s an overt pursuance of what could be, though seldom is, evidence as to the level of their insight or knowledge, the entirety of the biasing being held in all such spurious validations.

This is far from being a universal situation, and many aspirants with humility content themselves in the knowledge that devotion and endless hours of practice may only find reward in realms beyond their ken, or perhaps at best, in brief glimpses of self transcendence. In such a person, the balance of accumulated knowledge leads to the recognition that truth has a sliding floor, and that to seize upon this or that experience as indicative of spiritual terra firma is simply desire hedging its bets again.

Returning to those cleaving to a station not rightfully inherited, she or he will face their comeuppance in time should the biases persist unabated. Wisdom prevails in a tremor of the psyche, the floor slides, and though a freefalling is sensed, in fact a higher ground is reached. The alternative, if pursued in defiance of gravity, makes of the seeker another in the mould of Tartuffe – a hypocritical imposter, an ass of a charlatan. And just as with Molière’s creation, the ass must be revealed.