I grew up down the street from a pathological liar. He was a year or two younger, friends with my brother. To give you an example, one time he told me that outside his house he had thrown his baseball glove through his bedroom’s second story window, and the glove landed in his toy chest, which I guess is possible, but then he said he tossed a baseball into the air and swatted it with a bat and the ball arced through the same window and landed in the glove in the toy box.
In those days the word “bullshit” was not in my vocabulary – I was eight or nine — and in fact, I didn’t call him out on his lies because I didn’t want to embarrass him. However, his lying made me want to avoid him because not calling him out made me feel as if I were complicit, a liar by proxy. At that age, I didn’t contemplate what compelled him to construct such outrageous tales. Now it seems obvious that he found something lacking in himself and needed to compensate.
However, don’t we all sometimes “stretch the truth” to make our experiences seem, well, more notable?
Richard Wilbur assures us that
To claim, at a dead party, to have spotted a grackle,
When in fact you haven’t of late, can do no harm.
Your reputation for saying things of interest
Will not be marred, if you hasten to other topics,
Nor will the delicate web of human trust
Be ruptured by that airy fabrication.
However, he implies that embroidering reality shouldn’t be necessary, given the wonders surrounding us:
In the strict sense, of course,
We invent nothing, merely bearing witness
To what each morning brings again to light:
Gold crosses, cornices, astonishment
Of panes, the turbine-vent which natural law
Spins on the grill-end of the diner’s roof,
Then grass and grackles or, at the end of town
In sheen-swept pastureland, the horse’s neck
Clothed with its usual thunder, and the stones
Beginning now to tug their shadows in
And track the air with glitter. All these things
Are there before us; there before we look
Or fail to look.
But we do fail to look. And our memories can be faulty: there may or may not been tiny swastikas tattooed between each finger of the man I worked with in 1974, but details enhance verisimilitude, and I can see those jailhouse tats as I’m retelling the story. I could pass a polygraph I’m so sure he had a tiny little swastika between each finger.
* * *
In Heart of Darkness, Charlie Marlow confesses, “You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies – which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world – what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do.”
Marlow does, however, end his narrative with a whooper-and-a-half when he tells Kurtz’s fiancée that his last words were her name.
Let’s have Brando playing Kurtz deliver his actual dying words.
As the Kurtz’s “Intended” collapses into tears, Marlow gets the hell out of that house with its grand piano and its ivory keys:
It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadn’t he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn’t. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark—too dark altogether….”
Of course, we forgive Marlow that lie. Not lying in that situation would be like Stephen Dedalus’ not praying for his mother when she asked on his deathbed.
In that case, to hell with integrity!
* * *
That leaves us with two more categories, the lie to try to get out of trouble (been there, done that) and the despicable lie, for example, impugning someone’s integrity for spite.
Our president is, of course, guilty of this type of lie mongering when he calls Comey “a liar” and “sleezeball,” words of projection I think. Trump’s a terrible role model for sure, what Marlow would call “a papier-mâché Mephistopheles,” hollow to the core.
Does this sound like someone we know:
He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. [. . .] He had no learning, and no intelligence [. . .] He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going – that’s all [. . .] Perhaps there was nothing within him.
Like the boy with the magic baseball glove and ball, it seems obvious that Trump finds something lacking in himself and needs to compensate.