Fudging on truth is an art form: Odysseus was a master; Trump and company, appalling amateurs
What is more pathetic and more revealing than bad lies that implode? Consider a dodgy youngster, dripping with spilled milk, whining “Don’t look at me, blame them.” Or a brighter bulb who blames magic, a ghost, maybe that invisible mystery called gravity. A failed lie instantly exposes one real truth: behold a dolt trying to pull a fast one. As with hapless grifters, whose scams trigger guffaws or jeers, even physical rebukes, we relish the relief of not getting played.
In short, there are “good” fabrications that engage to some good end– and there are woeful lies that speak to malignity and manipulation. When savvy fabricators, like top storytellers, hit the mark, they enhance their position and serve the audience. Something is enjoyed or learned, one’s world view expands, thus we pay for standup comedy, movies or books. That’s why Aristotle complimented Homer, the poet “who has chiefly taught other poets the art of telling lies skillfully.” Fabrications that display their artifice inform the highest human creations, whether Shakespeare or Picasso – Mozart or Robin Williams.
But a noxious, unspeakable lie that presumes to represent reality – that’s a trust-busting, civilization-destroyer, a cancer at the heart of human communication. Because our survival depends on trusting diverse statements (like traffic lights, medical advice or FDA food safety), calculated lies that deceive have a status quite opposite to artistic mediums: one elevates humankind and the other shreds and disintegrates.
Words that work — and words that poison
When Odysseus, the mastermind of guile, renowned for brilliant trickery and military tactics, makes up a biography to shield his identity, that is for Greeks high virtue. The hero benefits and the recipient is not injured, even enhanced when the objective is good. When Odysseus calls himself “Nobody” to the Cyclops munching on his crew imprisoned in a cave, that’s Homer’s Abbot and Costello routine (think “who’s on first”). In pain, the blinded Polyphemus has only “Nobody” to blame – and his neighbors walk away without helping. That’s a virtuous lie, setting up Odysseus’ escape the next morning when the giant must release his livestock to pasture. Then, sailing away, boastfully full of himself, Odysseus makes a huge mistake: he identifies himself, letting the Cyclops call on Poseidon his father for revenge. That “heroic” blunder extends Odysseus’ exile another ten years. Clearly, Homer’s tale suggests a second lie would have been smarter.
Yet, despite occasional flaws, Odysseus is the smartest, most admirable Greek in Homer’s world, responsible for the invaluable Trojan Horse, the only way for the foreign invaders to sail home in glory. Odysseus is rightly renowned, the man “never at a loss,” because he knows, by hook or crook, how to resolve impossible situations. Much later, on Ithaca, preparing his revenge strategy against 108 unsavory suitors, Odysseus plays the ancient beggar, deceiving his son, equally brilliant wife, and loyal allies until the time is right. He even tries to befuddle Athena, his goddess angel, but she alone exposes his latest false biography, then laughs and compliments him on matchless guile.
The point is that humane, savvy fabrication, like many human skills, depends on context and ingenuity, both to foster plausibility and effectiveness. Adults must misrepresent now and again, usually for good reasons, and they accept the tradeoff; this ultimate Greek hero who tests all limits ends up confronting terrible foes. Yet he survives as his cleverness honors both ancient Greek and modern American values, favoring brainpower (even bluster) over mere brawn or chancy violence. Breakthrough success stories – whether artistic, scientific, sports or business – win top prices; crude, mercenary hitmen or blundering liars fall hard, to the lowest faction of humanity.
Thus, when a dimwitted hustler tries a dumb lie – like a national election was rigged, before, during and after, evidence be damned – he only brings disgrace on himself – and suckers who buy the obvious fib. Even a mediocre autocrat knows the perception (or creation) of false information is mandatory for lying to avoid being laughable. And worse still, what dumb liar repeats the same counterproductive lie for months, the duration only proving there was never ever possible evidence? That isn’t just lying but willful self-destruction of credibility, exposing bad intentions and a startling lack of cunning. Lousy liars really are their own worst enemy – and on full, mortifying public display.
The infamy of bad lying
As with insanity, repeating what’s already failed while expecting a different outcome, dishing out the same stupid lie, only further indicts the source. That Trump the Liar-in-chief doesn’t get the obvious dead end of bad lying speaks to a defective brain married to political malpractice. Only the stupidest liar in the universe keeps harping on the same failed scam without altering the terms. When Odysseus sees his fabrication falling short, he quickly shifts terms and ploys. What greater insult to the non-Trump majority but playing the same disastrous hustle, with a single, out of tune verse? Pull that bumbler, way past his due date.
Hardly a compliment to the American system of education, one-third of this country has no immunity from crude shenanigans – or so bereft of common sense to forget the meaning of skepticism, let alone proof or logic. To let a clever contriver go on allows the game to play out, with payoffs. To let a stupid scammer continue the con embraces dysfunction with irrational enthusiasm. The proof of the pudding: how many Trumpers taken in by thousands of proven lies have prospered by remaining in a hypnotic trance? If such an outpouring of transparent lying doesn’t disqualify a dismal devil, then what does? I won’t say there aren’t mysteries to human behavior, but the distinction between good fabrication and bad lies is what separates trust and progress from polarization and nightmare.
To sum up, if you do nothing else in life, get Robert Fagels’ translation of Homer’s Odyssey, and acquaint yourself (again) with a quest unique in western literature: the middle-aged sojourner whose return home demands he re-establish every basic relationship in his world – with his son, wife, father, nurse, allies, neighbors, and subjects. I know no other book that matches this range of human re-engagement – and the need to establish your humanity across such a full spectrum of human relationships. Homer shows what civilization is all about, beginning with the distinction between predatory mendacity vs. mutually-supportive, truth-based partnerships. Odysseus doesn’t lack for flaws but he displays the art of contrivance with a skill unmatched in any other western epic, whether the Aeneid, Roland, the Inferno, Spenser, Milton, Melville, or Joyce’s modern version of Ulysses.