Lying is one of these terms and ideas that compels me to think, since it is so well understood that we no longer give it any thought. In particular, I’ve been trying to situate the lie as such, and understand not only where it exists, but how.
First, let me draw your attention to a few things in orbit around this post, none of which I’ll quote, but all of which inform my thinking:
- My ideas about bearing witness and giveness in Reading Open Data
- These two posts on slacktivist about lying
- This post by Luke on conversation
What can we say of the lie? Most discussions of lying will begin with the idea that a lie is the utterance of an intentionally false statement. The most significant aspect of this definition in our modern understanding is the idea of a false statement, of language containing an untruth. However, three things are interesting in this definition and require a second look: that it is connected with intentionality; that it is tied up in a relationship between the one who would utter and the one who would listen (and believe); and that it is somehow connected to language.
We get closest to what the lie is doing when we see it discussed in the ten commandments. Here, in the ninth commandment, we are warned against lying:
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour
But notice how it names the lie. We are warned against bearing false witness. The real demands of the lie are much more clear in this formulation. After the words have escaped our lips, the lie is not done. It is only then that we are made aware of its weight, as we carry it forward. Notice too that the lie relates to my neighbour. It is always relational, always between you and me. The lie is not what is false. The lie is saying what is false to you. And because the speech will be believed, must be believed in order for there to be the possibility of speech, I am obliged to make the lie true. This is a heavy burden to bear.
A lie is speaking what is false. Can we say, then, that the lie is the speaking of what is-not? And do we understand the truth to be speech that is about what is? In either case, the utterance itself is disconnected from the world outside: “I left at 9:00 pm” is not capable of being right or wrong, but is always a repurposed tool used to point in a direction. It is always a way for you and I to relate right now. The language can and will be used again, and will point in an opposite direction. “I love you” is not filled with love. It is simply available.
The language moves between us. It comes from and goes to. It is meant for. But since the language itself cannot contain truth, it must become something lived between us. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The lie requires truth because it passes between us. It can’t simply be spoken into being, can’t be evoked through magical incantations. What passes between me and you is the announcement of how I will live henceforth. It is the commandment I give myself, for the lie demands to be made true. I cannot deposit it in language and then free myself from it. It does not go out from me, like a plague into the world. I must live it in order that it might become true.
The lie is not what I say, or don’t say. The lie is lived. It is not in language, it is not language. The lie is not true or false–it is always true: I promise to make it so by telling it. I promise you. The utterance of the intentionally false statement is a pledge to live for its fulfillment. I simply mark the beginning of my new lifestyle by speaking it to you.