Saturday, March 27, 2004

Liar, Liar Pants on Fire

And if only it were true that a liar's pants would spontaneously combust, a sort of scarlet letter so the rest of us can beware. Given the week's testimonies before the 9/11 Commission I thought Montaigne's essay "On Liars" might be an appropriate one to read. No penises in this essay (though a certain former U.S. President could have engaged Montaigne to represent his Little Willie), but per his usual, Montaigne approaches the topic of liars from a roundabout perspective by talking first about memory. Montaigne claims to have a poor memory and so spends time explaining why a poor memory is preferable to a good one:

If, thanks to memory, other people's discoveries and opinions had been kept ever before me, I would readily have reached a settled mind and judgment by following other men's footsteps, failing as most people do to exercise my own powers.
Zing! People with bad memories are smarter because, unable to remember other people's opinions, they are made to think for themselves. True, perhaps, but I also know some people that just make things up and then conveniently forget when asked about it later. This also seems to be a common tactic among certain politicians and others in the public eye. Talking less also is a virtue of having a bad memory because "it is always easier to draw on the storehouse of memory than to find something original to say." Imagine, if you will, if people were not allowed to speak unless they had something original to say. What would be on TV, the radio, in the movie theater? Silence. Montaigne also takes a lighter approach to a bad memory, you don't remember insults, books you've read once and places you've been to are new and fresh with each visit. When all you have to read are a few select books forgetting is a good thing. And not to remember where you've been, I bet Montaigne is one of those guys who never ask for directions. Just when you wonder what the heck this has to do with lying, Montaigne hits you with what has now become a sort of proverb: "He who does not feel his memory to be strong enough has no business lying." There are two kinds of liars, the ones that make everything up and the ones that "pollute some source of truth." Seems like we have a plethora of both kinds these days. If you'd like to see one of the liars caught on tape, visit Be warned though, it isn't pretty. "Lying is an accursed vice. It is only our words which bind us together and make us human. If we realized the horror and weight of lying we would see that it is more worthy of the stake than other crimes." What a novel idea. I was raised with this concept, fed stories of "the boy who cried wolf" and told over and over by my mother that she could tell when I lied by looking in my eyes which meant, of course, that I would look everywhere but at my mother when I told a lie and so give myself away anyway. Now it seems the culture has come to believe in lying as what everyone does and some even make an art out of it. But to me there is a big difference between sitting around the Texas campfire and having a friendly game of who can tell the biggest and best whopper and sitting behind a desk in oh, shall we say, the White House (just for kicks). Telling a "white lie" was okay on occasion to keep from hurting someone's feelings or when you just can't bring yourself face the work grind and call in "sick." But Motaigne knew, and those before him, that one lie tends to lead to another and "Once let the tongue acquire the habit of lying and it is astonishing how impossible it is to make it give it up." A liar might need a good memory to keep from being trapped in a lie, but eventually memory fails and what is forgotten is how to tell the truth.