The Spike: or, Victoria College Review September 1921
Of Lies and Lying
Of Lies and Lying.
Most Liars are born—some made—some few attain the art by dint of long practice. For that it is an Art there is no questioning, It is, or should be—which is much the same thing, though we will never admit it—one of the sorrows of the Universe that Wilde did not follow his "Complaints Upon the Decay of Lying," which first established his literary reputation, with a dissertation upon "Lying Considered as a Fine Art." Had he done so, this age in which we exist—I had almost said "live," which would have been quite wrong, of course—might have been worth the trouble of existing. Life is a terribly boring thing at any time; but life in an age of materialism is unspeakably so.
I need not say that I have a profound respect, a reverent admiration, for a really great Liar. I mean none of your half-hesitating mortals, who delicately feed you little by little with their falsehoods, giving you no more than they see that you can swallow, pandering to your sense of probability, but a thorough-paced votary of the Temple of Mercury. White Lies, and prevarications for some concrete purpose, 1 have no sympathy with. Lying for lying's sake, for the satisfaction it will give to the creator, and the pleasure it will bestow upon the listener—the deceived one, the Lamb of Jove—is the only form permissible. The majority of people annoy me with the flimsy prevarications they endeavour to foist upon me as Real Lies. There is as much similitude between their clumsy falsehoods and a real downright lie as there is. to employ an old metaphor, between chalk and cheese.
To be a good Liar it is necessary to have imagination, and imagination is rarely met with nowadays: most people are content with fancy. Not only this; but it is essential to know how to manipulate facts, to work in a plot, to create, as it were, your lie. All Novelists are Liars, though all Liars are not Novelists. The difference is obvious. A Novelist may make a very bad Liar, but a good falsifier of the trueth would invariably be a good novelist—possibly a great one. For what is lying but an extempore form of fiction, except that it deals with actual facts, while fiction only pretends to deal with them?
Liars are always good conversationalists—their natural gift will not allow them to enter into the realm of boredom. If they find themselves hovering near the border-line, a slight mental effort effectually removes the danger.
Much depends on how and when you tell a lie. Given a suitable background and a good time, there was an acquaintance of mine who would make you believe almost anything. His sabtal influence was a matter of remark for his friends, who knew him for what he was, but they were no nearer the truth at the end than at the beginning of their acquaintance. It was not to be set down to an innocent faee, an ingenuous manner, or the mere vulgar probability of the thing he retailed : something higher and less easily definable was brought into play. Even those whom he had deceived for years fell victims to his mendacity. But an unkind Fate brought him into contact with one who was a greater Liar than he. and he died, as I verily believe, from a broken heart at knowing himself outrivalled in his chosen sphere. He was possessor of the most page 24 perfect Philosophy of Lying that it has ever been my good fortune to hear, and it is with regret that I reflect that I did not meet the man who was supposed to have caused his death. Truly must he have been a Liar of Liars.
Look back upon the great ones of history: Chatterton—what a if, was lost when he died! Was there ever heard of such a deception as he practised upon literary England? And that culminating stroke, when, at the age of sixteen, he wrote the letter which fooled the astute Horace Walpole! Had he but overcome the difficulties which beset him, his genius, nurtured in the hard school ofadversity. might have fitted him for the proud position of the greatest Liar the world has ever seen. Then Pinto, whom Cervantes dubebd the "Prince of Liars;" Chateaubriand, too. who of all Frenchmen seems to have atteined perfection in this intricate art. What records has he left us of his doings in America which cannot but move one to admiration when one realises that scarcely a single word of them is truth? But greatest of all, a veritable Gulliver among the Lilliputians, stands the towering figure of Baron Munchausen—assuredly the finest master of all phases of Lying.
Why are we trained to have such a reverence for truth, when most of us lose all vestige of that respect as soon as we arrive at an age when we may think for ourselves? With only too many of us that age has never come. For what is this but the theory that a bald statement of facts is more serviceable than a Lie? And this, of course, is an utter fallacy, though a favourite one of man. We see in Truth but the bare form of Fact, a tittle disguised, and life is one struggle to escape from Fact on the wings of Fancy. What more natural than to turn to Lying as a relief?
It is an old adage, and. like many other ancient sayings, a very incorrect one, that "A Liar should have a good memory." What would you? Is this most versatile of all subjects to be pinned down by rules and regulations? Men change their opinions often, and nothing could e'er convince them that their latest opinion is not a correct one and similar to that which they have entertained all their lives. Why, then, should I not change my mind regarding what happened and to whom? Another misleading idea entertained by us is that the primary object of a Liar is to secure absolute and unquestioning belief. This is purely a sophism. Your practised Liar takes delight in raising doubts that, with the forces at his command, he may sweep them aside. This is half the pleasure of Lying. George Washington uttered the greatest lie in his life when he said he could not tell a lie. Lying, after all, is only the natural channel of a man's conversation, and must ever remain so.
Hail to thee, too, Charles Lamb, gentle conductor of that subtle "Matter of Lie" campaign which we can never cease to delight in, thou skilful Teller of Tales! Verily thou didst know the Tricks of the Trade!
I periodically weave into my letters to my friends a web of false-hood. It serves to exercise their imagination to discover the truth, and keeps the epistle from growing dull—a criminal fault in a letter. Then, when it pleases me to make a reasonable remark, it comes as a gentle surprise to them, none the less pleasant because it is unexpected.
There are a thousand ways of prevaricating, but the greatest of them all is undoubtedly the intellectual Liar. He is an indis page 25 pensable member of society; he smooths our cough way through life with his delicate Fabrications, His great natural gift of exaggeration will stop at nothing. I hold that the best friends are those of this class who mutually recognise and respect each others 'false-hoods. They Live in world of their own making, remote from any suspicion of vulgar fact, which, should it attempt to make entrance, would meet with disastrous failure. Theirs is a Philosophy worth the studying.
Hail, all ye shades of prevaricators, dead and gone! I., a lesser votary of your Art, salute you! How fares it with you, on yonder bank of Styx?—what tales did you tell poor gullible Charon on your journey over? Truly must the sour old fellow have looked for your coming to enliven his endless task! You would be cheerful shades, welcome change to the gloomy hosts 'tis usually his lot to ferry. Thou, too, G. L. H.. has given up that which was the delight of thy existence here on earth! I can picture thee lying in thy customary wholehearted manner, seeking frowning Hector and informing him that his Andromache was conducting a flirtation with the shade of Menelaus! It were not like thee to do things by halves or quarters; that was ever the trait 'I admired most in thee, this side Styx! Thy lifetime was set in palmy days. Now the world is less credible; it hath an unpleasant habit of verifying what is told to it, and a most unreasonable regard for truth. But, alas, thou art no more! The God of Lies may not venture into Pluto's dark regime, else long ago would he have rescued thee and endowed thee with immortality. Such a Liar as thee will I never meet again; but. alas, all things have endings, even the career of such a Liar as H. P. G.! Requiescation in pace.
C. Quentin Pope.