A Reputation Is Like a Death Mask. I Wanted To Smash the Mask

Graham Greene? Doris Lessing? Erica Jong?

Dear Quote Investigator: An artist who has achieved a distinctive reputation with critics and the general public is placed into a metaphorical strait jacket. Newly fashioned artworks are expected to be similar to previous artworks. Change and innovation are frowned upon. This notion can be expressed using a harsher analogue:

A reputation is a death mask.

A death mask is a rigidly fixed depiction of an impassive human face obtained via a wax or plaster mold after death. This vivid phrase about reputation has been attributed to three literary figures: Doris Lessing, Graham Greene, and Erica Jong. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: Graham Greene acquired a strong literary standing with works such as “Brighton Rock”, “The Power and the Glory”, and “The End of the Affair”. Yet, he did not want his creativity to be constrained by this series of successes. So he changed his style and released a light-hearted work titled “Loser Takes All” in 1955. He described this pivotal episode in his autobiography “Ways of Escape” in 1980. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The mood of escape . . . took me . . . to Monte Carlo . . . to write what I hoped would prove an amusing, agreeably sentimental novella—something which neither my friends nor my enemies would expect. It was to be called Loser Takes All. A reputation is like a death mask. I wanted to smash the mask.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1996 the phrase was highlighted in the academic treatise “Graham Greene’s Conradian Masterplot: The Arabesques of Influence” by Robert Pendleton: 2

While The Quiet American (1955) signals the beginning of Greene’s mature political era, the same year also marks the publication of a very different work, Loser Takes All, which displaces the Catholic interior narrative into the genre of romantic comedy. Declaring that ‘[a] reputation is like a death mask’, which he ‘wanted to smash’ (Ways of Escape 216), Greene describes the book as ‘an amusing, agreeably sentimental novella, something which neither [his] friends nor [his] enemies would expect’.

Author Erica Jong participated in an interview conducted via mail between 1999 and 2001. The interviewer, Charlotte Templin, asked Jong about the changes in her writing over time. Jong attributed the remark under investigation to the Nobel laureate Doris Lessing: 3

CT: You made the comment in an early interview that self-consciousness is the enemy of art. Is it harder to avoid self-consciousness as you get older?

EJ: YES! Doris Lessing said somewhere “a reputation is a death mask.” People think they know your limitations and that can be discouraging. You want to break limitations—or why write?

At this time, QI has not located the phrase within the writings of Lessing.

In conclusion, QI believes that Graham Greene should receive credit for this expression. Erica Jong used an instance by 2001, but she disclaimed credit.

Image Notes: Depiction of a spirit mask from geralt at Pixabay. Image has been resized.

(Great thanks to the anonymous artist whose inquiry back in 2014 led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Addendum: There is a match for the target phrase in the Google Books database within a book dated 1970. QI believes that this year is misleading. It refers to the starting publication year of a multi-volume collection of Graham Greene’s works. The volume titled “The Third Man; Loser Takes All” contained two works, and it was published in 1976. This volume apparently included the target phrase. The phrase might lie within the new introduction Greene penned for this volume. QI has not yet verified this match:

Year: 1976
Series: The Collected Edition (of Graham Greene)
Book: The Third Man; Loser Takes All
Author: Graham Greene
Quote Page 123 (GB match)
Publisher: William Heinemann & The Bodley Head, London

[Begin excerpt]
… and to write what I hoped would prove an amusing, agreeably sentimental nouvelle – something which neither my friends nor my enemies would expect. A reputation is like a death mask. I wanted to smash the mask.
[End excerpt]

Notes:

  1. 1980, Ways of Escape: An Autobiography by Graham Greene, Chapter 7, Quote Page 224, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1996, Graham Greene’s Conradian Masterplot: The Arabesques of Influence by Robert Pendleton, Chapter 5: “Dissolving into Laughter”: Comedy and Carnival in the Final Chapter, Quote Page 139, St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  3. 2002, Conversations with Erica Jong, Edited by Charlotte Templin, (Interview with Erica Jong conducted by Charlotte Templin; interview was conducted by mail between September 1999 to October 2001), Start Page 193, Quote Page 197, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi. (Verified with scans)