Clancy Martin, professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri, describes Love and Lies as a compound of memoir, self-psychoanalysis, philosophical argument, literary criticism and science, ‘because much of the most interesting recent research on deception is being done in experiments and laboratories’. His essential purpose is to reveal the value of self-deception and deception in loving relationships. ‘I am arguing in defence of lies in the service of truth. Let’s be honest about our lying. Then we will be better able to love.’ The enemy of such creative relationships is the unquestioned assumption that ‘genuine love depends on absolute truthfulness’.
Initially, Martin examines philosophical attitudes to deception and its justifications, ranging mightily from Plato to Kierkegaard, Kant, Machiavelli and Nietzsche, and then providing us with an example of uninformed, naive self-deception in a photograph of Bush and Blair during the Iraq War, arm in arm and smiling beneath the caption ‘Self-Deceivers’. Self-deception here has lost its way, but it is still ‘the most powerful force in human psychology’, laden with its corollary, the deception of others. But why does anyone lie in the first place? Apparently bright children tell lies more easily than others; parents promote the practice by threatening punishment and withdrawal of affection for misdeeds. But ‘every lie we tell is itself a small separation, an assertion of loneliness, a reminder that you know the contents of your own mind and the other person does not’. It is also a way of separating from the parent and an admission of consequent loneliness.
Fear of loneliness permeates this book. It is to be resolved only by love, despite love’s concomitant anxieties and paradoxes; how to achieve this state is the book’s secondary theme. Martin refers regularly to his personal experiences, which he presents with attractive and modest geniality, occasionally lapsing into eccentricity, as in his speculations about the giant Australian cuttlefish and its transgender activities (deliberately deceitful, of course) or the baby pelican’s simulation of ‘grievous need’ to gain its mother’s attention. The mother pelican, like all mothers, is essentially promiscuous, and like all infants the offspring will learn their lesson: ‘We will never have her back.’
There are chapters on first love, on erotic love and on marriage. James Joyce beautifully describes very youthful love in his story ‘Araby’: ‘I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes … my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running up the wires.’ The fear of being alone reappears, but with it the need to admit degrees of intimacy, truthfulness, illusion and deception. Like tennis, says Martin, love needs practice before the early lover may graduate to adult eroticism and the real nature of the kiss. Alas, then comes the dreaded question, ‘What do we mean by loneliness?’
Ultimately, the complexity of it all is wearing, though one cannot but admire Martin’s panoramic reading and his effortless summoning of philosophers past and present to bear witness. The book’s mantra is best expressed simply: ‘Love requires both truth and falsehood and one is no more necessary than the other.’ Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138, quoted here in full, has it all in fourteen lines, beginning:
When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor’d youth,
Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.
But philosophic and even literary testimony is multifarious, and how can anyone choose which sort of lie or self-deception may be appropriate for the moment or the person, supposing that conscious choice is a possibility? How does one recognise the limit for robust and constructive self-deception, or the time when the sustaining ‘good lies’ of mutual admiration, commitment and shared romantic experience may be swivelled into the deadly weapons of marital breakdown?
Martin describes his own marriage – his third – as a state the success of which depends on mutual recognition of the reality of deception and self-deception and on the shared desire ‘to create some truth together’, to take the risk of love: what Dr Johnson called ‘a very noble form of daring’. And he no longer feels alone.
How strenuous it all seems, and how arbitrary. One might prefer to turn to St Augustine and his Dilige et quod vis fac (‘Love and do what you will’), which may be variously interpreted. Or not.