- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2001

On books

By Evelin Sullivan
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25, 334 pages

In the prologue to her fascinating survey of the lie in history from the Garden of Eden forward, Evelin Sullivan confesses to an early bit of dirty work (the Anglo-Saxons called telling lies "hiding's work," as I recall) of her own. She was three and a half, and in a playground altercation with a small boy pushed him to ground, where he lay crying. When adults ran up, little Evelin had the presence of mind to take hold of her upper arm and burst into tears. The boy had hit her, she said — but he hadn't.
Several days later the boy, no doubt burning with the injustice of it all, threw a stone which almost took out Evelin's eye, striking the bone above her right eye and making a bloody mess. Now she writes, "That I bear to this day, a scar attributable to my first lie may or may not be meaningfully connected with a lifelong fascination with deception that finally crystallized into this book."
The writer had the bad luck of that episode becoming her "first coherent and sustained memory." My own first lie of any social consequence also left its scar, a psychic one all the more lasting because the action from which I, like little Evelin, lied to extricate myself was committed in a church. Christianity has come down harder on the lie than any belief system in the history of the world.
Honesty is one of the main props of our Western way of life, but the matter is so much more complicated than that. A jotting in my commonplace book years ago from George Steiner's book "After Babel" provides plenty to go on with:
"We need a word which will designate the power, the compulsion of language to posit 'otherness.' That power, as Oscar Wilde was one of the few to recognize, is inherent in every act of form, in art, in music, in the contrarieties which our body sets against gravity and repose… . whatever their bio-sociological origins, the uses of language for 'alternity,' for mis-construction, for illusion and play, are the greatest of man's tools by far. With this stick, he has reached out of the cage of instinct to touch the boundaries of the universe and of time."
Lying, as Evelin Sullivan explicates so elegantly in her book — she is a novelist who teaches technical writing at Stanford — is cousin to make-believe, and even the writing of fiction, an honorable occupation on the whole, is a blood relation.
"Father, I cannot tell a lie." Everyone knows that one, but is there any among us who can claim never to have told a lie? And if there is, can that sainted soul also say that he or she never has been lied to by another? No. The lie in its multiple forms is endemic to life in society and nature too.
Miss Sullivan devotes insightful discussion to the crucial moments in Iago's lying to Othello, which ultimately prompts the brave but insecure Moor to, invoking Wilde a second time, "kill the things he loved." Touchstone in "As You Like It" does not make an appearance in these pages, but reading the book sent me back to the play and the clown's witty exposition for the Duke Senior of seven different kinds of lies, that and his cheerful disdain, bantering with his intended, Audrey, of so-called truth in the dealings between lovers:
Aud: Would you not have me honest?
Touch: No, truly, unless thou wert hard-favored; for honesty coupled to beauty is to have honey a sauce to sugar.
Yes, lies come in all shapes and sizes, some less easily recognizable than others. To the ancient Greeks, irony was a form of lying, their word "eiron" meaning a dissembler in speech. Sometimes facts can be laid out in such a manner as to invite the listener to draw a wrong conclusion. In the Hindu "Mahabharata," Krishna advises the Pandavas to lie to their more powerful enemy the Kauravas on the plain of Kuruksetra. To discourage the Kauravas' chieftain Drona from wanting to fight, he is told by Yudhisthira, a man known for his truthfulness, that Asvatthama — the name of his beloved son — has been slain. Yudhisthira's out, such as it is, is that the Asvatthama actually killed was a large elephant.
The book's opening chapter, in which the author reviews lying in the Bible, has for its epigraph a thought from the "Mahabharata," that "By telling a lie to save a life, one is not touched by sin." Such questions have been of great concern to Christian thinkers, St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas and so on. The issue was of particular difficulty for Jesuit operatives in Elizabethan and Stuart England. They were forbidden to lie on the one hand, but on the other hand, to tell the truth meant certain failure of their mission and a grisly death. Great pains went into the effort to state matters in a form that while true so far as it went, omitted a key aspect of the truth and so misled an adversary.
Coming back to Krishna, he is one of the great tricksters — liars in action, if you will — he "steals hearts and seduces … in order to transport." Teutonic myth has Loki, one of the three creator gods and "a charmer and seducer of all creatures." In Shintu lore there is Kitsune (the fox), and our Western culture boasts the Titan Prometheus who stole fire and gave it to mankind. Hermes (inventor of the "lyre") was forever pulling some stunt or another. Our tricksters are notorious, but at the same time beloved, people tending to enjoy them so long as they are taking advantage of someone other than themselves. Examples in more modern lore would be Till Eulenspiegel and the English Punch.
One of the Bible's great trickster stories is that of Jacob's deceiving Esau out of his birthright, which brings the conversation back to the seriousness and evil of lying in all but the most extraordinary circumstances. As the author writes, deception "can safely be said to be more complicated than anything else we do that carries a moral cargo." In the Bible, it is worth noting that for Old Testament characters lying as a means to a good end (foreshadowing Machiavelli's thought) occurs more commonly than in the New Testament, for by that time the idea of a God who sees into our hearts required a more scrupulous view of the uses of dissembling.
In a section of her book on "The Anatomy of Lying," Miss Sullivan ranges the motivations that prompt people to tell lies, including lying "professionally," an obvious example of which are politicians who, arguably, sometimes lie of necessity. She reviews the tactics of lying, starting with Montaigne's reflection that "no one who is not conscious of having a sound memory" should get into the game. And there is a chapter on the high cost of lying to the liar, be he or she in the normal range of the conscious-stricken. Lying also is harder work than being honest.
A chapter considers the lying mind from the psychiatrist's standpoint, and readers familiar with the shrinks' bible (DSM IV) will encounter the usual range of personality disorders in which lying is a prominent factor — antisocial, borderline, narcissistic, histrionic and in its own way obsessive-compulsive. Discussion here is not without its mite of pathos, as for example the thought that narcissistic personalities can be formed by too little empathy and attention from parents, and that except as they deceive other people the narcissistically disturbed "cannot function."
A most wistful conclusion is that the truth is "possibly anything that gives us peace of mind," and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgentstein's question, "Do I really love her; or am I only pretending to myself?" cuts to the core. The suggestion that some personal truths are best left buried in the subconscious brings to mind the suffering of Marilyn Monroe, the actress, at the hands of her psychotherapists.
Chapters on attempting to discover the truth through the ordeal old and new — dipping pools and hot irons in the Middle Ages, polygraph tests today — deception in wartime — Sun Tzu opined that "all warfare is based on deception" — dissembling in circumstances of extreme social hostility, such as the case of American slavery, and deception among lower-order creatures to improve their chances in the Darwinian struggle for survival, complete a thoroughly engaging book.
(For the reader unable to get enough on this troubling subject, there is another book forthcoming this month, from W.W. Norton, "The Liar's Tale: A History of Falsehood" by Jeremy Campbell. I plan to read that one next.)

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