Lies, Lies, Lies

They poison the heart, they cripple friendship and love. But sometimes they are the beginning of honesty.

A friend of mine told me the following story about himself, and it occasioned the reflections on lying that are the subject of this essay. The story is so ordinary as to be practically a cliché, but perhaps that makes it all the better as a basis for discussion.

My friend is married, a father, and the owner of a beautiful house in the suburbs, an old house surrounded by terraced lawns and enormous maple trees. It was on one of these lawns, he said, on a lovely Sunday morning in early June, that the central action in his story occurred. He and his wife had held a large party the night before, and he had invited some friends from the city whom his wife didn’t know. One of them was a woman, young, very attractive, who came and left by herself, who clearly knew him well, and whom his wife naturally regarded with mingled curiosity and suspicion. He knew that eventually his wife would challenge him for an explanation. Who was she? How did he know her? Why did he ask her to the party? He spent the evening, he said, wondering when the challenge would come and how he would respond to it. The party was so large, however, and host and hostess were so busy, that the question did not come until the next morning, when they were sitting on the grass together, in the shade of one of the trees.

The interesting part of the story is that the young woman was not my friend’s mistress, to use the oldfashioned word, and he was not sure that he wanted her to be. In a sense, then, he had nothing to hide. But he clearly felt that he did. For all his success in a rather mundane business, which I had better leave unnamed, my friend has a great deal of imagination and is something of a romantic besides; and one sign of it is a tendency to see large meanings in coincidences. He had met his young woman friend in what he felt was such an extraordinary manner that he was sure it meant something equally extraordinary, something transcending the usual love affair. They had entered the same shop at the same time, each carrying the same make and model of tape recorder, each tape recorder needing repair. They both, it turned out, had to take their tape recorders to another place downtown—all of this took place in New York—and they shared a cab. Afterward they had a drink together and wound up spending three hours in a bar, talking. He said that she fathomed him—the word is his—in a way he found almost frightening; she guessed his business, his status in that business, his interest in the ideas of Carl Gustav Jung, and even his university. Before parting they exchanged phone numbers. She subsequently did some secretarial work for him, which he made up just to keep her in sight, and in a few months there developed between them what he was convinced was more than friendship, was indeed a kind of love but not at all sexual in nature, a fact, he said, it was difficult for both of them to get used to.

Perhaps he did, after all, have something to hide. Married men are not supposed to develop intense, intimate relationships with other women, even if they aren’t explicitly sexual, and if they do, ordinary prudence would seem to dictate that they not then parade these relationships in front of their wives. Nevertheless that is what my friend did, even while the relationship itself was in the process of developing, before he knew with any certainty at all what he wanted from it or what would come of it. He himself does not know why he asked his friend to the party. Possibly he was hoping that by putting the two women side by side, by juxtaposing them physically, he could clarify the emotional juxtapositions in his mind. Possibly he was trying to engineer a confrontation, a hysterical scene which would force a direction on events. With a romantic, a man who, almost by definition, does not know himself, anything is possible. As he tells it, however, there was no confrontation, for the evening passed smoothly, and no clarification, either. There was only the morning after, and the inevitable question.

When the question came it was right on the mark. His wife did not ask who is she, or what is your relationship with her, which are the obvious things to ask. She wanted instead to know how they had met. That was the heart of it for him; it was the beginning that had made the relationship so meaningful, that had given it its lasting sense of portentousness. To protect that meaning, the perhaps divine intention he thought he saw in the circumstances in which they had met, he lied. Any other question, he told me, he might have answered with something approximating the truth. Certainly the scene, he said, was an occasion for simplicity, the soft June morning shedding a kind of pastoral innocence on everything, so that whatever he said was likely to have been taken for the best. But that particular question obliterated all possibilities of innocence. She was filling in at the office, he told his wife, and he liked her and thought it might be nice to have her out to the party. Why? he then smilingly asked her; did she think he was having an affair?

My friend claims not to be a good liar, and in this instance, he said, sweat broke out on his brow even as he smiled and he could not meet his wife’s eyes. Much more interesting, however, is the contempt he said he felt almost immediately afterward for his wife, because she took his explanation at face value; she believed him, and this filled him with a kind of loathing, directed not at himself but at her. Loathing and disappointment, too: in a way he wanted to be found out, wanted his wife to see through his deception, wanted her to recognize the possibility of his being interesting, a complicated person with more to him than she imagined, a dangerous person even; certainly not the solid, stable businessman he seemed to be on the surface. Although he did not say so, he probably wanted an audience as well. What use was his unusual relationship with his young friend, after all, if no one knew about it? Few of us become involved in serious stories—and an affair, even a platonic one, is nothing if not a story—without wanting others, at least one other, to watch. Every tragedy needs its chorus. That may be why, his wife failing him, he told me.

The contempt he felt for his wife is not hard to understand. The criminal inevitably feels contempt for his victim; otherwise he could not do to him what he does. No one would want to call my friend a criminal, but the pattern is the same. It is a question of knowledge. What the liar conceals is knowledge per se, a secret, the bifurcated secret of what he knows and his intention to conceal what he knows. The forked tongue is indeed an appropriate image for it. He feels for his victim the contempt of someone in the know for someone out of it, someone who does not even suspect there is something to know. His contempt is, of course, mixed with envy. The liar cannot help but be jealous of those whose minds are uncomplicated by duplicity, and he is capable of hating them by virtue of this fact. He sees them enjoying their innocence, reveling in guiltlessness, and this gnaws at his soul.

As I say, it was a commonplace lie. Thousands like it must thicken the air every day. Husbands and wives are constantly deceiving each other, as are friends and lovers, parents and children, salesmen, mechanics, poets, and every other sort of human being. This is no reason to excuse it, of course. Lying may be an everyday occurrence, but that does not diminish its capacity to damage or destroy love, intimacy, respect, to cripple human relationships. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor”: it is the very word of God. “Thou shalt not raise a false report. . . .” Moralists ever since have been repeating these commands. Practically every culture we know about includes a ban on lying in its moral code. Montaigne, that most relativistic of moralists, is absolute on the matter:

Lying is an ugly vice. . . . Since mutual understanding is brought about solely by way of words, he who breaks his word betrays human society.

He is obviously right. Society could not exist at all if we could not take veracity in the constant interchange which constitutes society more or less for granted.

The “more or less,” to be sure, is a question of judgment. We are almost all liars socially, complimenting hostesses on their inedible meals, assuring our sick friends that they look much improved, but this is convention and disturbs only the fanatically honest. Since, however, lying of this conventional sort, as well as more serious kinds, is so common, most of us recognize the need for caution in taking other people at face value. The social system institutionalizes this caution; the standards of evidence in courts of law, the law of contracts, the checks and balances we place on politicians, the elaborate bureaucratic safeguards with which we surround programs to help those who claim to be helpless: these are but systematic attempts to ensure veracity. In those social interchanges where there are no institutional safeguards, we must depend on the assumed good will of others to reassure ourselves that we are being told the truth. Even in interchanges which are regulated by law a great deal has to be taken on trust. We cannot investigate everybody. We are all liars, but if everybody were always a liar, society would be in very serious trouble.

Nor does one want to excuse lying on the basis of motivation. My friend was too honest to claim that he lied to his wife in order to protect her feelings, but one could easily read such a motive into the situation. He had not, after all, come to any conclusion about his relationship with this young woman; he honestly did not know what he wanted from her. To make his wife privy to his own uncertainty, doubt, and inconsistency could only amount to making her life miserable, perhaps for nothing. Why not let sleeping dogs lie?

The quantity of proverbial lore on the subject indicates that this is, in fact, a common justification; but it just won’t do. As my friend made clear, he lied to protect himself, not his wife. If we may take the liberty of attributing a full range of human emotions to him, he lied for a whole variety of reasons, all centered on his own advantage. He lied to gain time, to keep his options open, to avoid a scene. He lied to prolong the excitement of leading a double life. He lied to see if he could do it well, to see just how good an actor he was. He lied to humiliate his wife, to belittle her without her knowing it. He lied to feel guilty, with all the perverse satisfaction that that entails. He lied for the sheer pleasure of it, the rush, the frisson. All of these reasons were selfish. So it is with most of us. We seldom lie altruistically.

The curious thing is, however, that when we consider the alternative—telling the truth—and look at the motives for doing that, they often turn out to be equally self-serving. Suppose he had sat there on the lawn and said, “Well, to tell you the truth, I met her in an extraordinary way,” and had gone on with the whole story, coming out at the end with, say, “She’s very special to me, and I don’t know what’s going to come of it. I thought you ought to know.” There would be questions, anxious, angry, and hurt all at once, and further explanations: “It doesn’t mean that I don’t love you anymore, not at all. It’s just that it seemed destined, it seemed meant to be”; or, “Don’t get all upset about it; we’ve controlled ourselves so far, and I’m sure we can go on controlling ourselves”; or other attempts to mitigate the impact. Eventually it would all be up front; and there is no question but that my friend would have gained enormously by his confession.

One has only to question the nature of confession to understand the nature of the gains. A confession is an admission of weakness or fault; it is also a release, it gets something out of one’s system; and it is a plea for forgiveness. By admitting oneself to be at fault one humbles oneself and automatically gains a virtue which the other cannot deny: the virtue of being human, all too human, no better than anybody else, a common sinner. One thereby gains equality with all mankind. By getting it out of one’s system one frees oneself from an internal defilement, places it outside in the open where it can be purified and forgotten; one cleanses and absolves oneself, rids oneself of guilt so that one becomes free, temporarily, of this restraint and may sin again, in the recurrent cycle of sin and confession that is so familiar to theologians. The confession also shifts the burden of consciousness, to borrow a phrase from Susan Sontag, onto the other; she must now somehow suffer the knowledge that she has been deceived even while she is being asked to forgive the deception. Should she refuse to forgive, however, that would only be evidence that she was proud, vindictive, or, worst of all, a hypocrite, for who has not been tempted, and given in to temptation? He, on the other hand, has a clear conscience. He has done “the right thing.”

Is this any nobler than the motivations for lying? Is it more honest? The deeper we penetrate into people’s reasons for either telling the truth or lying, the less clear it becomes that one mode of dealing with a situation is less self-serving than the other. Honesty is the best policy. But of course it is not always the best. We do not need Emily Post to tell us that if we are honest on all occasions we may gain an incredible reputation for honesty but lose every friend we may have had. As soon as we recognize that honesty is a policy, it is only one step further to see that it is exactly equivalent, in that respect, to lying.

One does not have to be conscious of these strategies to employ them. George Steiner observes that “our outward speech has ‘behind it’ a concurrent flow of articulate consciousness”; there is our outward talk, and then there is the flow of words in our minds, our talking to ourselves, our “thinking.” Between them, Steiner goes on, there is never anything more than partial congruence. But behind that, behind the thinking, the articulate consciousness, there is the flow of feeling, while behind that there is still more feeling, deep, abiding patterns of feeling; and the more layers we peel away the more difficult it becomes to see how to put into words all that is going on inside, how to be anything but dishonest no matter what we say. Anything we say is a selection from the flow of consciousness; it is a construct, something we build up from certain elements and not others; it is a consistency chosen from among numerous apparent inconsistencies, from the general mess of imprecision of feeling; in short it is, or at least it follows the same principle of selectivity as, a work of art.

It is interesting that works of art, real works of art, quite often take as their subject matter the distance between what people say and what they think and feel. The literary critic Christopher Ricks, in an essay on the prevalence in English literature of the pun on lies/lies, in which the one means telling untruths and the other means lying prone or, more specifically, lying with someone, quotes Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138:

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do beleeve her though I know she lyes,
That she might thinke me some untuterd youth,
Unlearned in the worlds false subtilties.
Thus vainely thinking that she thinkes me young,
Although she knowes my dayes are past the best,
Simply I credit her false speaking tongue,
On both sides thus is simple truth supprest:
But wherefore sayes she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O loves best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love, loves not t’have yeares told.
Therefore I lye with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lyes we flattered be.

Here multiple falsehoods both reinforce and cancel each other out to create a relationship which is full of lies and truth at the same time, in the same breath. It is certainly not “true” love but it is love, love mixed with bitterness and selfishness but love nevertheless.

It is love, in other words, in its most earthy, its least transcendent, attitude: on its back, taking what it can get; and no one is fooled. Each knows that the other is lying and knows that the other knows. There is this solace for the liar: he is conscious of the profound difference between inner and outer, the private grimace and the public smile. Lying may sometimes be more honest than telling the truth. The liar is not more truthful, but he has more and better opportunities to approach the truth than the “honest” man; for the liar must, in order to lie at all, know himself in a way the “honest” man never imagines. The “honest” man, the man for whom honesty is a career, who is militantly honest, sees no gap between inner and outer. He believes his words are a direct expression of his intentions. He speaks spontaneously, without hesitation, and stands by his word. He is upright, righteous, good. He holds to principles at all costs. But doesn’t the “honest” man run the most terrible risk of all, that of deceiving himself ? Isn’t it possible that he may be mistaking his own motives completely, acting unconsciously out of an aggression and arrogance that he may never recognize?

I am not suggesting that lying is anything but a risk, that it is not costly and treacherous, that it should ever be easy, much less habitual. In some sense lying is simply and plainly “bad.” What I am suggesting is that conscious, intentional lying is one way of becoming self-conscious in the fullest sense of examining and knowing one’s motives, knowing the “truth” about oneself. I am suggesting that one simplifies one’s speech only by recognizing and coming to terms with its inescapable complexity: that before one can be honest one must lie. I am suggesting that “true” honesty, innocence, simplicity, directness of manner are not traits to be practiced by always being good, honest, and simple, by always, in situations of moral choice, choosing “rightly”; rather they are a residue, what remains after a life has been purified by anxiety and suffering. Such traits are not real except to the extent that they have been tested, and the only real tests are those terrifying, transforming experiences which pit us against our own most powerful impulses, experiences where simple moral choices are impossible and tragedy is inevitable.

What lying teaches us, I am suggesting, is that special sort of humility born of humiliation, whether it be the humiliation of being caught or the greater, internal humiliation of not being caught, of having to live with the lie, elaborate it and sustain it, perhaps over a period of months or even years, all with complete consistency, as if one were a criminal matching wits with Lord Peter Wimsey. Such an exercise of vice could not help but build our moral intelligence. It would teach us first of all just what we were capable of, how far we were willing to go. It would tell us something about self-disgust. And it would remind us that, just as we were lying, so might others be lying to us. This last lesson would be especially valuable, for nothing sharpens the faculties like distrust. One becomes a detective oneself, suspecting everyone, looking for the least hint of duplicity, reading volumes into the movement of the eyes, minor inconsistencies in a story, an uneasy facial expression. All these are necessary steps in the process by which one learns to live with uncertainty, to develop what Keats called “negative capability,” the capacity to hold two, three, or a dozen possibilities in mind at once without having to settle on any of them.

If I had to choose a word to sum up the results of such an education it would be “irony.” Irony affords a way of noticeably backing off from what one says so that it is clear that one probably doesn’t mean it, at least not wholeheartedly, but that needn’t mean that one means the opposite, either; in any case both parties know that what’s going on superficially, in one’s words, is not what’s going on underneath.

Situations may be “ironic” too; they may “say” one thing but “mean” another. Take the situation of my friend, sitting on the lawn with his wife in the dappled shade of his old maple trees, sipping his morning coffee, the children playing nearby. He is clearly not yet an ironist, his education is incomplete, for he has neglected an essential aspect of the situation. Wrapped up in his own thoughts, in the meaning, the internal drama, of his lie, he has failed to consider the possibility of a duplicity superior to his own. He has assumed, because she did not say she didn’t, that his wife believed him; and she may not have believed him at all. She may have seen through his rather pathetic little act from the beginning but chosen to seem to believe him and done that so well that it never occurred to him that he had not been convincing.

If this is true, what a wealth of strategic possibilities it opens up. She sees this man laid out before her like a blueprint; she knows, how well she knows, his proneness to romance. She has already figured out what has been going on between my friend and the girl. Knowingly, then, she asks the one question that might provoke a lie. Knowingly she creates the situation that will test his wits and his spirit, his capacity for truth and/or falsehood, for devotion, for love. She notes the sweat breaking out on his brow, the unpersuasive smile. She sees, and she seems to believe. But she does not believe him at all, and all his strange loathing and disappointment are misdirected. He is the fool, not she, and she can afford to bide her time; she can wait for his patched-up dreams to fall down around his head; wait and prepare.

Is this love? It looks more like something from Machiavelli’s book of political infighting than love. It is certainly not honesty. Yet Shakespeare tells us that “love’s best habit is in seeming trust.” Somewhere in our minds we hold back belief. We see the possibility, even probability, of deceit in the most intimate relationships. We look askance at all promises, assurances, and vows. At the same time, some other part of us wants to believe, and believes. When someone speaks to us, then, we hold belief and disbelief in uncertain balance; we believe, we disbelieve, ironically. When we must speak to others we speak ironically, holding truth and falsehood in balance, knowing that nothing we say is strictly true, that the best we can hope for is a vague approximation, and that no matter what we say, seeming true or seeming false, the ones inevitably most deceived by it will be ourselves. □