In Defense of an Honest Liar

ONE of the memorable sermons of my childhood was on lying. I was a precocious child and developed at a very early age a talent for the imaginative interpretation of commonplace events and a gift for creative narrative that distressed, more often than charmed, my environment. My failure to entertain these matter-of-fact people who surrounded and cramped my childhood, was more discouraging to me then than it would be now. I did n’t realize then as I do now, that lack of appreciation of my rare quality is merely evidence of the superiority of my imagination and humor.

The theme of this sermon was the inescapable depravity of man in his relation to absolute truthfulness. No man had ever been absolutely truthful. It was said to be impossible for anyone to be scrupulously, religiously truthful. We strayed from the narrow and literal path, however ardently and reverently we devoted ourselves to the spirit of probity. I was comforted and elated to hear authoritatively from the pulpit that my obliquity to truth was a common failing of all humanity. I did n’t analyze the degree to which one might indulge this original sin without becoming a moral offender. I was satisfied to know I was normal and I planned to develop my talent intensively and refine its artistic expression.

My composure was completely upset by the discussion that took place during dinner. My mother made the surprising statement that the sermon was quite wrong, that absolute truthfulness is a congenital virtue in some people and that perfection could be achieved. My moral point of view changed immediately, my background shifted. I was again a sinner, a liar. My mother then gave her definition of a lie—a malicious intent to deceive. I was again morally reinstated, absolved. Of course I had no standards of my own. I was perfectly obedient to all forms of discipline and subordinate to every form of recognized authority. I was not a liar for I never intended to deceive. My desire was to entertain. I was never malicious.

Then my mother did an overwhelmingly gracious and courageous thing.

In preference to two infinitely more deserving, though undeveloped, examples, she chose me and said she would tell the preacher that to her mind he had preached a wrong and questionable sermon; for I, her son, who was already a local celebrity as a perverter and colorist of truth, had never told a lie to her, nor to any one else as far as she knew. I was a notorious prevaricator, yet I had never told a lie. The strict moral aspect of the question has never been settled in my mind and my concern as I grew up was more in its technique than in its principle.

I still do not tell malicious lies with deliberate intent to deceive. The facts of a situation or incident interest me only as the outline of a plot. The facts are rarely important, certainly not sacred, and their usefulness depends only upon the way in which they are employed artistically for the development of the plot. Details and all the tricks of embroidery and elaboration must be spontaneous, inspired by the interplay of the story and the audience, and for this reason a story should never be told twice to the same audience. I never tell a story the second time if I can avoid it, for my memory is as poor as my scientific and moral attitude is weak. I can’t remember just how I told it the last time and it is the details, the emphasis upon exact incidental facts, quotations, and precise figures, preferably odd numbers, that give my stories plausibility.

The risks I sometimes take with figures are not worth the reward. I am oftener checked in the matter of figures than in facts. Incidental facts can be made so picturesque and their origin so obscured that it is a mean person indeed who will aggressively contradict them. I never trust a person the second time who fails to grasp the humor of a shade, a touch, or a tone that, even though it varies the truth considerably, still compensates by an appreciable heightening of interest.

Of all the elements that go toward the making of a good story, figures are invariably the most dangerous. An honest liar should never use figures conspicuously or thematically. Round numbers are, of course, safer than exact figures because of their very roundness, by which I mean their elasticity. But in their tendency to inflate, increase, collect, or propagate a nought, they are treacherous, slippery, and unreliable. A nought, in itself harmless and negligible, may multiply your intention ten times — and without warning.

My most shameful betrayal by round numbers was in connection with an enthusiastic account I was giving in behalf of propaganda for a summer camp my cousin had just opened. I said he had fifty boys and since his tuition was $1500, he ought to have a profitable summer. If some one had made this perfectly unselfish statement to me, merely in the interest of creating a belief in his cousin’s prosperity, I should never have maliciously multiplied 50 by 1500 mentally and arrived at an incredible figure. The fact that I can’t do mental arithmetic that involves more than two figures has nothing to do with the consideration of the incident. The fact that the number of boys may have been generously doubled and the tuition accidentally multiplied by five, has nothing to do with the motive, which was a friendly desire to convince a skeptical person of a successful enterprise toward which we should have been mutually indulgent and moderately sympathetic.

This discussion of technique will illustrate the only real problem the honest liar has, after the moral phase has been settled, his principle defined and his limits set. This illustration does not include a very treacherous objective condition and I should explain how this trap is avoided. It is very simple. I never indulge a matter-of-fact person with a sheer piece of imagination, however elementary. For example: our grocer, though honest, writes an illegible hand, and all his clerks have been trained likewise to concentrate upon the figures in the right hand column of his slips to the utter neglect of the appearance or legibility of the items for which the figures stand. I discovered once that an article of our extremely simple diet that happened to end in a ‘ y ‘ was charged to us and added to our account as if the ‘y’ had changed into a ‘6’ in the figure column, and this winning indifference had cost me six dollars.

So I said we would have to cut from our diet all foods ending in ‘y’ and we must try to avoid any that might be written with a terminal flourish. The response I got was genuine but disappointing. It was: ‘ What foods end in y?'