Wednesday, June 08, 2005

You Will Tell The Truth Or You Will Lie

"You will tell the truth or you will lie. You may lie, if you wish, about matters of fact and opinion. You will in no case lie about human relationships."

These words (more or less, I'm quoting from memory) are spoken to Lord Crudelta at the beginning of his trial. The story is Drunkboat. The author is Cordwainer Smith. If you don't know who I'm talking about, go and pick up The Rediscovery of Man, and where have you been all your life?

I've mulled these words over quite a bit in the last few years. At first I thought they were instructions to Crudelta, and as such embodied a certain statement about relative worth: Go ahead and lie about facts, what "really" happened isn't the important thing. But if you lie about people and their relationships, you are damaging and devaluing the most precious things in the world.

But I also regard these words as a warning, a prophecy: You can get away with lying about facts. In the long run, you cannot lie about people. The truth will out, and even your attempts to lie will reveal more than they hide.

Is that so? Many of us have probably had or witnessed experiences to the contrary. But then, Smith (Paul Linebarger) wasn't exactly an ordinary dope like you and me: among other things, he wrote what is still the standard text on psychological warfare. I reckon he was pretty difficult to lie to. Smith's idea of "the long run" was also a bit different than most people's: if you've read any of his stuff you'll know what I mean.

He gets a corroborating opinion from no less a personage than Dame Agatha Christie. Mystery buffs frequently criticize Christie's stories on the grounds that the plots aren't logically constructed, she doesn't give enough clues, etc. But look closely, and you'll see that her sleuths don't necessarily solve their cases on grounds of fact, but on grounds of character. "Oh, so-and-so can't possibly be the murderer, it's not in her/his character," Poirot might say.

Well, that's fine in fiction: we know Poirot's opinions always turn out to be correct in the end. In reality, would you want your life and freedom to depend on some eccentric Belgian expatriate's judgement of your character? Somewhere at the bottom of all this, there's the idea of an infallible judge: someone who, through their innate wisdom and their experience of human nature, can look in a person's face and know the truth about them. This truth supersedes fact and cannot be hidden or destroyed.

Of course, the problem is that such people are few and far between. The rest of us have to muddle along with incomplete facts and inaccurate judgements.

Last word on the subject goes to Shakespeare. Othello, act 3 scene 3:

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands:
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.

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