By Doug Phillips
Familiar to first-daters everywhere are opening salvos of the truthful kind, shots fired in earnest from either side of the table, usually—and crucially—before the first round of drinks have arrived. “Above all I value honesty,” she tells him. “I’m not into playing games,” he tells her. For the less deceived, however, such protestations are both naïve and transparent, never mind potentially disastrous if honored. Nothing kills the mood quite like the naked truth—and if you don’t believe me on this account then I suggest you try a little experiment the next time you’re out a-courtin’. In the interest of honesty put everything immediately on the table, including what you know to be the catastrophe of your own character, then watch as the other hurries for the door. The first rule in the game of love is indeed to declare that you don’t play it, but not for reasons you might think. As Shakespeare knew, erotic love is much too complex for simple truth. And so, as usual, he gets it right: “When my love swears that she is made of truth / I do believe her, though I know she lies.” For his part, Clancy Martin also has important things to say about deception in relation to love, not only because he’s a thrice-married philosopher who has written extensively on the subject, but because he’s a liar too.
Or so he says.
Having first cut his teeth telling whoppers as a young child, Martin would later craft his talent for deceit during a seven-year stint selling high-end jewelry: “my graduate school in the dark arts of confabulation, prevarication, secrecy, and misdirection,” he confesses. In fact, Martin’s early experience as an arch-deceiver undergirds his much-praised 2009 novel How to Sell, and now gives authority—if we can take his word for it—to his latest work: Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love.
If the subtitle of Love and Lies sounds to you a touch ponderous, then bear in mind its likely homage to the philosophers who inform this fascinating study on deception, not least among them Kierkegaard whom Martin—himself a philosophy professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City—once set upon to write a dissertation, and whose The Concept of Anxiety has for its own this doozy of a subtitle: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation On The Dogmatic Issue Of Hereditary Sin. Incidentally, the publication of Martin’s book in the UK features a subtitle so resolutely un-Kierkegaardian that it’s pretty much destined for the Self-Help shelves in London: Love and Lies: And Why You Can’t Have One Without the Other.
That the American edition of Loves and Lies is subtitled an “essay” makes sense given Martin’s attempt—via “part memoir, part self-psychoanalytic analysis, part philosophical argument, and…part literary criticism”—to show how “genuine love” depends as much on deception as it does truthfulness. “I think the greatest threat to a mature and enduring conception of erotic love,” he writes, “is the popular, thoughtless idea that genuine love depends upon absolute truthfulness (with either the beloved or oneself).” It’s an attempt, in other words, to tell the truth about telling lies, especially where erotic love is concerned. Toward the close of his Prologue, Martin declares: “I am arguing in defense of lies in the service of truth. Let’s be honest about our lying. Then we will be better able to love.” Here Martin might go even a step further and ask, as Nietzsche does in Beyond Good and Evil, what is the good of truth if it isn’t in the service of life? If there’s a through-line to Martin’s book, this is it.
To shore-up his ruminations on the necessity of deception in the service of life—and love—Martin draws upon a range of literary and cultural reference so wide that any reader is bound to leave feeling more knowledgeable, if not a little bit more wise. In the short Prologue alone, for instance, he roams learnedly and promiscuously between philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche), novelists (Stendahl, Duras, William Maxwell), poets (Keats, Baudelaire), a sociologist (Erving Goffman), and a comedian (Chris Rock). In the following five chapters, which comprise the book’s sum, Martin offers insightful commentary on works by writers as diverse as Plato, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Chekhov, and Raymond Carver in order to unpack the nuances of what it means to lie to those we love. Interspersed among these references are the kinds of wrenched personal revelations—and I do mean personal—that will either remind readers of how painfully commonplace their own lives are, or offer consolation by showing them, in Beckett’s words, other pits, deeper down. Martin details, for example, his early sexual awakening in the hands (literally!) of a step-sister; his frequent binges on booze and crack-cocaine; his time spent in psychiatric care; his chronic marital infidelities; his childhood potty problems; and, most troubling, his recurring attempts at suicide—via a high ledge or a Glock in the mouth or slit wrists in a warm bath.
None of which took, obviously.
In the long aftermath of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces such lurid hay-making on Martin’s part will likely rock any reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, especially when he repeatedly declares his lifelong trouble with telling the truth. The situation is akin, I think, to The Catcher in the Rye when Holden Caulfield boasts early in the book, “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw,” the result of which is that we are forced to filter everything he says afterwards through this blunt admission, including even the admission itself. On the other hand, I take Martin’s point about deception as “a way of asserting our autonomy.” In the case of Catcher, it’s Holden’s whole raison.
Personally I don’t doubt the veracity of Martin’s stories, all of which seem to me genuinely borne out of pain and loss and a pressing need to love and be loved. And yet I wonder at times if he’s daring me to doubt him. The polite name for philosophers who lie is “ironist,” a common moniker for heady folks like Socrates and Nietzsche and Derrida, all of whom have influenced—if not upturned—our thinking in remarkable ways. If it turns out Martin has gussied-up some of his tales for maximal narrative impact (“I’ve already admitted it many times in this book: putting it generously, I’m prone to exaggeration,” he writes), then he’s merely putting into practice one of a half-dozen rationales for deception which he outlines in his second chapter, “A Brief Introduction to the Morality of Deception.” One such rationale comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose notion of the “living truth”—derived from Kierkegaard’s practice of “indirect communication”—is vital to our efforts to communicate “our most important truths.” As Martin puts it, “the living truth introduces the idea that sometimes the successful communication of a particular way of understanding the world or interpreting a situation…may require that we use fictional or false discourse.” In short, there’s sometimes no better way to tell the truth than to tell it slant.
Confessions, like those of Augustine’s or Rousseau’s, are by their very nature both slanted and enchanted. They are a record of where one has been, certainly, but they are also a rationalization for the way one is—as well as a plea, perhaps, for who one wishes to be. For Martin, the confessional stakes are particularly high in Love and Lies, which in part makes it so enchanting. Above all, it seems, Martin wants to make good on his latest try at being a husband. But he knows it won’t be easy. If, as Samuel Johnson remarked, “second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience,” then what might the situation be for someone like Martin who has just embarked on his third? To begin, it’s safe to say that Existentialism rather than Empiricism is Martin’s guiding philosophical light. Having studied with the late Robert Solomon, whose work has done much to revitalize the importance of Sartre and Camus and the whole existentialist enterprise, Martin himself draws heavily from the existentialists—chief among them Kierkegaard and Nietzsche—to make his own case for what Kierkegaard calls the “subjectivity of truth” or, as Martin puts it, the “subjectivity of meaning.” And no area of life is more susceptible to the “subjectivity of meaning” than that of love, romantic love especially. “This book,” writes Martin, “is my attempt to make sense of my own life within the context of whom and how I have loved, the ways in which truth and deception have played into those loves, and why, at the end of the day, I believe so deeply in the value of love.” A successful love, Martin will later conclude, is sustained in part by the secrets we keep, not only from others, but from ourselves too. Some things, after all, aren’t worth knowing. And the right not to maintain a secret, Derrida reminds us, is to live in a totalitarian regime.
In his philosophical dialogue The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde regrets the absence of a book such as Martin’s, and so hypothesizes the following: “A short primer, ‘When to Lie and How,’ if brought out in an attractive and not too expensive form, would, no doubt, command a large sale, and would prove of real practical service to many earnest and deep-thinking people.” He adds: “What we have to do, what at any rate it is our duty to do, is to revive this old art of lying.” With Love and Lies, Martin delivers. Whether it will command a large sale is anyone’s guess. Whether it should is no lie.
Doug Phillips teaches English and American Literature at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.