constellations #78: lies and language
Are you a good liar? A loaded question, as in: Do you use lying for good? But also, are you good at telling lies? As in: Are they believable? Do you get away with it?
I read an essay about lying recently that was also a review of a book about lying. The book is by the Spanish writer Juan Jacinto Muñoz-Rengel, and it’s called A History of Lying. The essay was by Lucie Elven. Elven says that in Muñoz-Rengel’s book, he essentially argues that “lying is not, as conventional morality might have us assume, a practice to be avoided whenever possible but, rather, an innate and inevitable element of language and life.” (Can’t it be both? I wondered, half kidding.)
As a matter of habit, I don’t lie. (Maybe as a matter of principle, but let’s not get into that.) I have a number of beloved but untruthful people in my life; one of my closest loved ones believes fiercely in the centrality of little white lies to general harmony. I’ve watched that practice burn her so many times, but her commitment remains unwavering. (To be fair, though, perhaps all the times the lying has worked out for her have been so smooth, so seamless, that I’d have no idea.)
A friend of a friend got caught in a situation with a pathological liar recently. Perhaps I shouldn’t say that; I’m no clinician, I don’t have the authority to call anything “pathological.” It was extreme, though — a whole foundation of a life torn up, metaphorically speaking. Anyway, I heard of all the happenings third-hand over the course of months, and felt kind of disturbed by my own curiosity. But a good lie makes a story more interesting, makes a life more cinematic, and certainly these lies did.
I mean, I like to say I don’t lie but of course I have, somewhat begrudgingly and in a face-saving way, lied about little things. No, I’ve never heard that before; yes, I remember that weird thing your ex said; of course, I’d love to see all those photos of your cat. My erstwhile crush was on a podcast? I had no idea (and definitely haven’t listened to it already)! Oh sorry, I just saw your text. No, I don’t mind meeting up near you. Sure, I’ll add that to my reading list. Etc.
In the scientific literature, pathological lying is called pseudologia fantastica. (It’s also sometimes called “mythomania” — what a great word!) There isn’t actually a ton of research about pathological liars. Pseudologia fantastica is not coded in the DSM 5, the so-called Bible of psychological disorders, though it’s considered a symptom of, or associated with, a bunch of other disorders: borderline personality disorder, Munchausen syndrome, psychopathy, etc.
Some psychological researchers say pathological lying is a way to improve low self-esteem; others say it’s a defense mechanism against the cruelty of reality — a way of making a new, better reality. Wish fulfillment. Patients don’t usually call it that, though. They don’t really call it anything — it’s usually unconscious.
One of my favorite lies I was ever told: a now-dear friend saying, at the beginning of our friendship, that she was also a fan of a band I loved and was also planning to go see their upcoming show, just as I was. In reality she hadn’t really listened to them but just thought it would be fun to go to the show together — which ended up being a marvelous, friendship-affirming night. She only told me the truth years later. A memorable and heartwarming lie.
Have you considered the difference between lying and being a fabulist? another friend asked recently when I told her I was writing about this subject. I asked her to explain. Well, she said, I’m a novelist, so I consider myself a fabulist. As in: She’s always making things up; it’s part of the job. As in: Of course she’ll embellish a story in the telling if it makes the story better. But she isn’t a liar. I asked the difference. “Being a fabulist is like lying, but in a chic way,” she said. Naturally.
Muñoz-Rengel’s book, on the other hand, argues that every story might be a lie, more or less. “Some of the most exaggerated portions of Muñoz-Rengel’s book,” Elven writes, “are those in which he claims that, because language uses signs to represent real things, it, too, is a sort of deception, and that all understandings reached through metaphors are therefore ‘based on speculation, projection, lies.’ ” It reminded me of a taking an introductory linguistics course, where we heard all kinds of answers to those age-old questions: What is the relationship between words and the concepts they represent? What kind of crisis is created in the space between those two things? (Is it a lie?)
“Before we met,” Maggie Nelson writes to her beloved in The Argonauts, “I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein's idea that the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed. … Its paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.” Maybe she and Wittgenstein are arguing the exact opposite of what Muñoz-Rengel is saying — the truth, not a lie, is buried within every word, any metaphor.
But Nelson’s beloved disagrees: “Once we name something, you said, we can never see it the same way again. All that is unnameable falls away, gets lost, is murdered”; chalk it up to the “cookie-cutter function of our minds.” It’s not the same as saying every metaphor is a lie, exactly — maybe just an acknowledgement of some kind of consistent, omnipresent overreach that constitutes language.
It’s a timeless argument. But I think you know already what side I’m on: the one that feels compelled to keep writing.
Or is that too tidy an ending? (Another kind of lie?) I don’t think all words are deception, but I know how it feels to have something unnameable slip away. I know how it feels when a word is technically true but feels like a betrayal, and I know how it feels when the unnameable feels named. And I guess all of that is part of why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing. And that is, at the very least, true enough for me today.
Here are some other things I have been consuming lately: “Blues Run The Game” by Jackson C. Frank on repeat for like a week straight; “Miami” by Caroline Rose; the new Pile record, which I talked about on All Songs Considered, along with the new Caroline Polachek record; Chicago on Broadway, featuring Jinkx Monsoon (!), who was wonderful; MJ Lenderman live in front of an incredibly chatty crowd; Ui live at Public Records (thanks to Marianela); Central Places by Delia Cai; The Menu (Anya Taylor-Joy’s character being from Brockton, Mass. — impeccable); this great profile of SZA; a really nice trip to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden; a King Cake kolache roll from Brooklyn Kolache; a lot of loops around the track at Boys and Girls High School in Bed-Stuy
Thanks for reading. Hope all your lying is really chic this month. (Please tell me about your favorite lies!) Talk to you soon.