Not long ago I read a New Yorker article by John le Carré in which he fondly recalled hobnobbing with Richard Burton on the set of A Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the movie version of le Carré’s Cold War spy novel. Burton, who starred in the film, had been dissatisfied with his lines, which had been crafted by a Hollywood screenwriter. Le Carré was summoned to write some additional dialogue. I never read the book, but I remember that my wife and I saw the film on TV with my mother in a New Haven hotel room decades ago. My mother, who was highly intelligent but not always highly attentive, quickly got tangled up in the film’s many plot twists. Burton played a burned-out station chief for the British spy agency in Germany after the Berlin Wall went up. He pretended to defect to the other side in order to falsely incriminate an East German counterpart as a double agent for the British. As it turned out, the East German really was a double agent, and the plot to expose him was deliberately blown to make it look like he was innocent. However, Burton’s character, who supposed himself to be the linchpin of the operation, was essentially a dupe in this larger scheme, which was cooked up by his superiors in London and the East German double agent without his knowledge.
Time magazine, in naming The Spy Who Came in from the Cold one of its top 100 English-language novels, described the book as "a sad, sympathetic portrait of a man who has lived by lies and subterfuge for so long, he's forgotten how to tell the truth." In spy novels, of course, no one is who he or she initially appears to be. Nor, for that matter, was John le Carré, the pen name of David Cornwell. He was ostensibly a junior-level diplomat in Germany during the 1950s and early 1960s who wrote spy thrillers on the side. But he was actually an intelligence officer for MI6 and adopted his pen name at the insistence of his superiors. “I was a secret to my colleagues, and much of the time to myself,” he later wrote. His sense of leading a double life extended even to his role as a spy novelist. Once it came out that he had worked for MI6, it was assumed that le Carré was writing about genuine spycraft, when in fact “nothing that I write is authentic.”
As le Carré himself has acknowledged, his abiding sense of leading a double life may be as much personal as professional. In Britain’s class-conscious postwar world, he was an arriviste, an Oxford-educated son of a small-time con man and war profiteer who was once jailed for insurance fraud. His father, Ronnie Cornwell, “was another secret I felt I had to keep to myself,” le Carré later acknowledged. The elder Cornwell became the model for Rick Pym, the scheming father of the protagonist in A Perfect Spy.
When le Carré was hobnobbing with Richard Burton on a movie set, he may not have realized how much he had in common with the hard-drinking Welsh actor. Burton, of course, also earned his living by pretending to be someone else. By then, Burton was a major Hollywood star, married to Elizabeth Taylor, but he had earned his chops as a stage actor, playing all the great Shakespearean roles. Like le Carré, he had adopted another name for professional reasons. And like the writer, his double life was as much personal as professional. He was born Richard Walter Jenkins, the 12th of 13 children born to a hard-drinking Welsh coal miner. He later renamed himself to honor Philip Burton, a local schoolmaster who inspired him to seek a better life in the theater.
If you are an actor or a spy--or even just a regular person—you may assume there is a “real me” that exists apart from any particular role you are called upon to play in life. All of us are called upon to play multiple roles: child, parent, sibling, friend, enemy, co-worker, boss and many more – some of which bring out traits that are at odds with traits required to play other roles. Actors with great range, like Richard Burton, are able to draw on a broad array of personality traits within themselves to flesh out a character. But even method actors, who may fully inhabit a role while playing it, do not confuse the part they play with the person they regard as the “real me.” Those who do are likely to be diagnosed with what was once called multiple personality disorder.
A core belief among Buddhists is that the self we regard as the “real me” is essentially an illusion. By illusion, they do not mean there is no ego or personality; there is just no connective tissue binding our disparate personality traits together into a permanent self. Thoughts and feelings come and go like clouds blowing by on a windy day, with nothing behind them but empty sky. Identifying with these shifting formations becomes our principal source of suffering, and learning to see through them leads to liberation. Le Carré said of his undercover life that he was a secret to his colleagues and even much of the time to himself. It is a secret we all share. Once you strip away all our many guises, there is no real me.