Magazine article USA TODAY

Lies and Literature

Magazine article USA TODAY

Lies and Literature

Article excerpt

Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Herman Melville, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dostoyevsky are but a few of the great authors who have used lies and liars as keys to their writing.

In his best-seller, The Book of Virtues, former Secretary of Education and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy William J. Bennett describes lying as "an `easy tool' of concealment which can harden into a malignant vice." However, his central thesis is that most Americans "share a respect for certain fundamental traits such as honesty, compassion, and courage." Bennett has it wrong. As the millennium approaches, Americans, from power brokers to the lower classes, believe in lying and prove so every day by indulging in its practice. Such behavior even is rampant throughout the field I teach--literature.

Many scholars have devoted their careers to lying. There are texts that offer light reading for the layman such as Sissela Bok's Lying. Some books focus on lie detecting (Paul Ekman's Telling Lies), others on lying as a cross-cultural phenomenon (J.A. Barnes' A Pack of Lies). Ian Molho's The Economics of Information: Lying in Markets and Organizations examines the use of lies in the world of work, while an interesting psychological analysis can be found in Helen Gedimen's The Many Faces of Deceit. The essence of their arguments can be reduced to the fact that hard-core liars do so for three primary purposes: punishment, protection, and self-promotion.

One still can say, even in these days of multicultural attacks on dead white European male authors, that William Shakespeare was the greatest writer who ever lived. In his play Othello, he created arguably the greatest liar in the history of literature. Iago is a prime example of someone who lies to punish.

What motivates Iago to lie is lack of promotion. He is a soldier, and Othello has refused to elevate him from the rank of ensign to lieutenant. Driven by his rage at being held down in rank, he decides to revenge himself by lying about Othello's wife, Desdemona, insinuating that she is having an affair with the lieutenant who has Iago's desired position.

Iago's rhetorical task is formidable, for he must prove a negative--usually regarded as an impossibility. Nevertheless, a skillful liar creates an alternative reality to convince the dupe that what did not happen did, in fact, occur. The weapons used to wield deception are trust, reluctance, opportunism, and detail.

Trust is the essential prerequisite for a liar. The dupe must accept the liar as an honest person. This was precisely the situation existing between Iago and Othello. Iago states, "He holds me well; the better shall my purpose work on him," which is Shakespearese for "My boss trusts me, so I can lie to him and he'll believe what I say."

Second, an effective lie should be drawn out reluctantly, as if it is painful to come forward with such facts. Third, opportunity must be seized upon if it appears. Fourth, and most important, it is the exquisite use of detail that gives a lie the appearance of truth.

In Andrew Vachss' novel, False Allegations, Burke, the hard-boiled hero, receives an education in how to lie from a psychiatrist who tells him that liars "display a richness of detail that the average honest person might not include." This is exactly what Iago does. Challenged by Othello to produce some "ocular proof," Iago proceeds to create in his master's mind vivid scenes that make the maddened Moor "behold her topp'd."

American literature does not take a back seat in the production of liars who lie to punish the undeserving. In Billy, Budd, Herman Melville created a liar as evil as Iago.

Claggart, the master-at-arms in the novella, had it in for the young seaman, Billy Budd: "In Claggart was the mania of an evil nature, born with him and innate." Everyone on the ship loved Billy, except Claggart. Acting in the tradition of Iago, Claggart "circumstantially alleged certain words and acts which led to presumptions mortally inculpating Budd. …

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