The shadow of a lie: poetry, lying, and the truth of fictions

The shadow of a lie: poetry, lying, and the truth of fictions – Truth-Telling, Lying and Self-Deception

John Hollander

PLATO has it that poets are liars. Conscious of this, a great Renaissance defense of poetry propounded a canonical formulation of the relation of fiction to literal falsehood from which any discussion of the question might well start. The poet, says Sir Philip Sidney, “nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth” and continues:

For, as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false; so

as the other artists, and especially the historian, affirming many

things can, in the cloudy knowledge of mankind, hardly escape

from many lies. But the poet (as I said before) never affirmeth.

The poet never maketh any circles about your imagination, to

conjure you to believe for true what I writes. . . though he

recount things not true, yet because he telleth them not for true,

he lieth not (emphasis added).

We might paraphrase the claim here as maintaining that the propositions embodied in ordinarily indicative sentences, and thereby assessable for truth-value, are not to be extracted from indicative sentences in the language of fictions, or, in any event, certainly not in the same way. Or not telling things “for true,” in Sidney’s phrase (modern idiom might change this to “as true”). What Sidney might mean by “for true,” and what we might consider veridical truth (whether we find the dualism analytic/synthetic to be untenable or not), however, are somewhat different. While there was a common apprehension of what in fact was factual and what was not, the principal repository of truths was historiography, rather than the record of an empirical inductive process we now generally call “science” that was only beginning, locally, to develop. And, thus it was History to which Poetry would be, in Sidney’s view, misleadingly compared for verity. Admittedly, Francis Bacon would within two decades speak of “theological and philosophical truth” (by which latter he meant “scientific”) and “the truth of civil business” about which he propounds a brilliant simile, at once metaphoric and metonymic in operation: “the mixture of falsehood [in honest dealing] is like allay [alloy] in coin of gold and silver, which may make the metal work the better, but embaseth it.” Falsehood, as “working the metal” and by extension effecting a favorable deal, is a matter of rhetoric; keeping the coin pure is both prudential and moral.

In the matter of “working the metal”: a liar would seem always to perceive–rightly or wrongly, as might turn out–some advantage in telling the lie; but the false state of things that the lie itself would propose could be in fact one both wished–for or not, as in the difference between a boast and a disclaimer that, say, one did not have any money (when one indeed had) offered as an excuse for not lending some of it. Insofar as wish fulfillment, in various guises, touches the matter of fantasy or dream, it might be analogously invoked in the realm of instrumental imagination in which romantic and later theory would locate poetry. But this becomes a complex matter when, for example it is asked exactly what sort of wish is being fulfilled by the kind of lie the fiction, in any particular instance, will sound like. In an ordinarily white or pernicious lie, there is usually no room for aesthetic criteria.

Perhaps the case of pretending to lie–as whatever part of particular conversational play–may not be totally trivial. To tell a palpable (a “broad”?) lie, it might be assumed that the other party would recognize that the alternative truth was so obvious that the “lie” had to be some kind of joke. It would then bring the particular form of the lie, and its particular way of not being true, into prominence. Of such a patent lie might, like a poem for Sidney, be said that it “nothing affirms.” To treat it as if it did would be as uncomprehending of the language of conversation as assuming that a hyperbole characteristic of American speech–for example, “It’s hot as hell in there!” (when the temperature was 100 degree F.)–or a litotes equally characteristic of British talk-for example, “It’s a bit warm in there!” (when the temperature was 150 degrees)–was literal and taking exception to its obvious falsehood. A patent lie–perhaps greeted by the amused response, “That’s a good one!”–would be like an allusion to be caught and acknowledged. It could be receiving mock praise for its very patency; but under some circumstance might be admired for its ingenuity, elegance, complexity, and so on (many professional liars, such as spies, know that the best lie is the simplest one; non-professional liars do not know this; poets something else). A common instance, close to being a pretended lie, in oral (or even “folk”) literature is that of the “tall tale.” Its form is the broadest of lies whose blatant falsification is part of its literary framework, and whose capacity to entertain depends upon the audience’s knowledge of its falsity, and perhaps even of the indirect or devious quality of the boasting that the exaggeration might imply.

But as I have observed elsewhere (Hollander, 1988, pp. 2-5), it remains intriguing to associate fictions and lies. Robert Browning, in the introductory section of The Ring and the Book, in which he mulls at great length over the relation of truth to historical fact, has one of the persons of his prologue speak of “Poetry–make-believe / And the white lies it sounds like.” In Catholic tradition mendaicum iocosum–the lie of fiction and amusement–is distinguished from mendacium officiosum–the lie intended to gain some good or protect someone from harm (both of these being contrasted with pernicious lying.) Another version of this is by Bacon from Of Truth again: “One of the Fathers [1], in great severity, called poesy vinum daemonum, because it filleth the imagination; and yet it is but the shadow of a lie.” Since “shadow” means any kind of representation in seventeenth-century English (picture, metaphor, and soon), Bacon is suggesting that to propound fictions tropes–but does not literally perform–an act of lying. What this may mean is that poetry is not literally, but figuratively, lying; that a fiction is a trope of a lie. “One of the later school of the Grecians examineth the matter, and is at a stand to think what should be in it, that men love lies, where neither they make for pleasure, as with poets, nor for advantage, as with the merchants, but for the lie’s sake.”

We might today associate this last instance with the life of the pure romancier, whose lies gain him or her no advantage at all, save for gratifying some need to lie for its own sake. Someone I know of was celebrated for these, for example he informed a group of acquaintances in Paris many years ago that he was going to have tea at the Ritz with the then Queen of Greece; on being surreptitiously followed there, he was revealed to be having tea with the then Duchess of Windsor. Nobody who knew could explain what he might have gained from this deception, which seemed to have a certain purity of its own. But it was hardly interesting or elegant or complex.

On the other hand, we might consider the difference between Bacon’s lies “made for pleasure” and those told “for the lie’s sake”; then the question arises as to whether the white lies that fictions sound like are of either or yet another kind. If a fiction is literally (and falsely, I believe) considered as a lie, then the production of literature (whether for favor, for fame, for money) is clearly for advantage and thus engages Bacon’s first type. But propounding a fiction, although clearly for some advantage, does not gain that advantage through the success of a particular lie or set of lies. Rather, it has to do with the pure form of the untrue account, lifted out of the context of mendacity. However poetic fiction is differentiated from lying, it might still be admitted that poetry depends upon one very simple matter: To any question of act, there will usually be one true answer and one only. But there will be an inexhaustible number of false ones.

Consider, for example, the following: You ask me, having some interest in the matter, whether I was home last night. I can lie and say that I was (having been at the opera); I can indeed tell the truth; or I can tell any one of thousands of lies. Which one I choose will usually be determined by plausibility, and by the way in which its very nature might convince you, under these particular circumstances, that I was telling the truth. (The rhetoric of lying depends not only on what Aristotle in his Rhetoric called strategies of logos–content or meaning of an argument–on those of ethos and pathos as well–the implicit appeal to the speaker’s authority and to the listener’s emotions and dispositions and so forth.(2) This holds true for lying as well as other acts of speech.) But suppose that I lied without regard to plausibility and said that (truthfully) no, I was not home, but that I had instead been kidnapped by a strange group of terrorists with complex and startling consequences until my release, all unfolded in a tale that gripped your attention and engaged your amused and even fascinated interest. After you had determined that I was not insane (and, hence, in some sense “really believed I was telling the truth”), you would conclude that this was some sort of joke or game, that I did not expect you to believe me but, as a listener, to suspend your disbelief or, put another way, to pretend you did, That, in short, this was a fiction, “a lie made for pleasure” or “for the lie’s sake.”

Given that it is epic–in opposition to historiography–that first comes to Sidney’s mind, it should be noted that the eventual progeny of epic narrative, having moved through romance, is prose fiction. The special case of the modern novel originating in the eighteenth century, with its responsibilities to verisimilitude, is a complex question I shall not engage here. I will only suggest that a number of interesting questions arise in the wake of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century historical novel. These include the notion that fiction can be adversely contaminated with too much fact, or the matter of to what degree precise and factual historical detail establishes fictional verisimilitude long before the (very different) mandates of realism and naturalism seem to be in effect. An inadvertent historical anachronism constitutes the same kind of flaw in one mode of novel that a gross mistake in contemporary representation might be in another. And, similarly, the witting and controlled anachronism or wrong detail, deliberately and artfully presented, might instead constitute a point of entry into another fictional mode entirely–the continuation, in one or another literary genre, of prose romance (Mary Shelley, Hawthorne, Melville, Lewis Carroll being among its great nineteenth-century practitioners in English).

Some Relevant Sorts of Lie

It should be useful at this point to distinguish among the kinds of lie that it might be claimed poets appear to “tell”:

1. The following events actually occurred [at a particular time and place, purportedly verifiably? But if he or she says that they occurred: “Once upon a time,” the formulaic phrase (with its archaic grammar)–we might reasonably say that the formula encodes this: “The following events never actually happened, but they are probably more interesting than whatever did indeed occur there then, and they will be recounted vividly, fruitfully, and interestingly.” This is the easiest charge of Iying to dispense with. In the case of [1A], where a good deal of the report consists in verifiably true accounts of what was occurring at place X at time Y, the added fictions will seem like violations of truthful historical narrative, and another sort of objection may be raised. It is probably equally groundless, the fictional disclaimer merely being less prominent. (The child tells a lie, or makes a promise with no intention of keeping it, and says, “I had my fingers crossed”; in “Once upon a time,” the crossed fingers are held up prominently; in [1A] are they out of sight, say, behind the narrator’s back?). In any event, this is the kind of lying against history which was the concern of Renaissance theorists.

2. A is really B, despite all obvious appearances to the contrary. There is as much of a game or trick being played with the word really here as there is with the confusion of the is of identity with the is of predication. Fictionally really encodes “not in the ordinary sense really at all, but potently, rewardingly, to consider as . . . .” This is the sort of lie which could be considered as against epistemology. In modern theory, it is popularly called a dissonance from “scientific” truth (rather than from, in Sidney’s notion, the truth of history). And yet it clearly engages what are most usually considered as matters of trope–the figurative as opposed to the literal meanings of words (pace Donald Davidson’s argument that it is never the meaning of a particular word itself that is figurative) or of phrases or sentences. It is amusing here to recall that in twentieth century casual idiom, “It was literally an inferno in there” [said, for example, of a New York City subway train in August? means, “It was figuratively an inferno . . .”, literally means not literally “literally,” but figuratively “figuratively.” Any yet it would be frivolous to suggest that the speaker in this instance was implicitly lying about the meaning of the word “literal.”

3. This particular representation has some privileged authority. Something like this has been the underlying point of persuasion in rhetorical theory since the Renaissance, when rhetoric became a theory of writing as well as of legal and political effectiveness. It involved the developing tradition of the authority of authorship (as opposed to that of systematic traditions, like those of scholasticism or, afterward, scientific method). This may be considered an unsubstantiated claim or boast, rather than a formal lie. But literature is continually making and renewing and formulating such pronouncements.

4. Some relation–elicited or made more prominent by clever verbal manipulation–between words reveals some analogous relation between the entities designated by them. This is more perhaps like a conjuring trick, an illusion, than a lie designed to deceive or delude. Those verbal relations and their sleights-of-discourse are the subject of a good deal of modern theoretical poetics. A Renaissance rhetorician, George Puttenham, implies that there is something of lying in metaphor; when discussing the trope he calls allegoria he observes that “every speech wrested from his own natural signification to another not altogether so natural is a kind of dissimulation, because the words bear contrary countenance to th’intent.” I have myself discussed these questions in considerable detail (Hollander, 1988, particularly chs. 1-7) and shall not, despite their central importance for poetry, explore them further here.

But one additional point might be made. Similes are often treated as figures of speech-metaphors with some “like” or “as” qualifying what would otherwise be an unjustifiable literal “is” of identity or predication. But similes seem to be of two sorts. One I should call expository and does not seem to touch at all on the non-literal. Consider, “A is like B, in that both exhibit property P.” This is clearly either true or false, according to whether or not P is there in both cases. How much the common presence of P can liken A and B, how much it’s worth pointing out the likeness, depends on each instance: I could say that cabbages and kings (from the Walrus’ list) were alike in that the words designating both of them in English commence with the phoneme /k/ You might be entitled to observe that this analogy was trivial and did not make them very like, but it could not be called a false statement. But if I said the same thing precisely about sealing-wax and cabbages, it would be untrue; and if I new it to be untrue, uttering it would be a lie. So-called epic similes–from Homer and Virgil through Milton and Pope–are of this expository kind. But the other kind of simile that we usually think of in connection with poetry is of a different nature.

5. Names and pseudonyms: The “I” of most Iyric poetry is in various complex ways pseudonymous. But, in general discourse, is every presentation of any of a number of aliases by which one is “also known” a lie? Naming something “nothing affirms,” but a claim that said object “is named” (meaning “generally goes by the name of”) can be shown simply to be true or false. Ad hoc naming is central to poetry, but a moment of naming in a fictional context (a sort of rhetorical performative) frequently takes the form of the claim. Can one not truthfully take any name one wants, as long as one does not claim that one is known by that name in particular or general circumstances when that is not the case. The laws of many states have it that you can go by any name as long as it is not in order to defraud.

6. The major lie–a lie “against time” to put it in a sort of Nietzschean phrase–that the most ambitious poets propound. It makes claims about the power of words to outlast deeds, or material constructions. (The commonplace engaged by Shakespeare’s Sonnet #53: “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme” goes back at least to Horace.) This is a fictional game played for mortal stakes.

However, poems do certain things that do not even “sound like” lies, white or black. For example, one can expound the significance of a story, whether indeed literally “true” (historically) or avowedly (as in the case of canonical stories or myths) or of a received visual image (reading it emblematically). This interpretation (in the medieval and renaissance sense of the term “moralizing”) of previous narratives or visual images constitutes a good deal of the work of poetry. While its character as explanation is problematic (not having to be responsible to an empirical system or particular hermeneutic model), it would only be devious in pretending to be or sound like such a “responsible” explanation.

It is perhaps trivial to observe that there are indeed factual statements about fictional entities, particularly canonical fictions. These are verifiable in special ways, for example, (a) Unicorns have wings and breathe fire is clearly a false statement, any my statement to that effect is verifiable by consultation of all the unicorn citations that one feels one needs. If it could be shown that I knew what a unicorn was, I could be reasonably accused of Iying in uttering (a). (b) Moby-Dick was a green whale would either be an error or a lie; but (c) Moby-Dick was black might be a candidate for a fiction, in that it makes direct but antithetical allusion to the truth about this fictional entity, acknowledges the tremendous symbolic burden (whiteness as the kind of negativity usually signified by blackness) of the authentic formulation, and performs an interpretive revision, calling attention to all of this in so doing. There would be no such interest in the case of (b)–its falsehood would be prosaic.

True Poetry

I note here a complication that might not come up in considering matters of truth and fictionality, in the history of discourse in English, from a logical point of view. Consider the naive near-solecism: “Shakespeare wrote ‘This above all, to shine own self be true’.” Those who understand and try responsibly to talk about fictions would not be happy with this. One way to put the discontent would be to say that “wrote” being used misleadingly here, as if it meant “inscribed a particular imperative sentence directed a general reader as the `you-understood’ quasi-subject.” In fact, “wrote” has to mean here something like this: “Shakespeare wrote for the London theater of cat 1600–and with a very peculiar relation to a particular genre of play popular in the last decade and a half, as well as to other writings of his own–a play entitled Hamlet, in which matters involving fathers and sons were central; two important but secondary persons of the drama are in conversation at a particular point. One, a father, is addressing his son preparatory to setting out on a journey; after a particular list of practical moral injunctions, delivered in a particular order, the speaker concludes by saying, ‘This above all …. and so on,” Thus (obviously), when in a play or novel a person tells a palpable lie, the lie is not the author’s.

But Polonius’ conclusion raises another question perhaps of interest here. To shine own self be true” does not caution Laertes against Iying to himself (whatever we decide that could mean) but instead enjoins him to consistency, to faithfulness, to whatever we decide “self” might mean here. “What is truth? said jesting Pilate and would not stay for answer” opens Bacon’s famous essay; but whatever truth may be, the English word “true” can seem even more problematic than the condition it has been designating in these observations. The root sense of the word is “faithful,” “constant”: it reflects the Indo-European base *deru (firm, solid, steadfast) from which derive which derive tree, trust, truce, endure. Likewise, of course, the German treu = faithful, constant, but not wahr = true: the English cognate Truth confusingly comprises both die Treue and das Wahrheit. The Latin verus (*weros [OK & ON] faith, pledge, agreement; Russian vjera=”faith”; Latin verus>verray(>very), then French verite’, and soon gives English, through French, “very,” which in Middle English kept its relation to truth, “verray” meaning “truly.” We still have residues of this in “the very thing”; “I am the very model of a modern major-general,” and so forth, although “very” has withered into being a mere intensifier.(3)

Some past contention about the “truth” of poetry considers whether it involves a direct or implicit lie about what veridical truth truly is. But that contention can be shown often to be about what the English word “true” truly means: die Treue or la verite or, even more generally, “authentically.” Certainly all these meanings come into play in the celebrated exchange, in As You Like It, between the fast-talking clown, Touchstone, and the country-girl Audrey.

Aud. I do not know what ‘poetical’ is. Is it honest indeed and

word? Is it a true thing?

Touch. No, truly; for the truest poetry is the most feigning, and

lovers are given to poetry; and what they swear in poetry may be

said as lovers they do feign.

“True,” “feigning,” “honest”–a number of different meanings of these words are being juggled here with great skill, but the stakes for poetry are quite high. At work simultaneously here are: faining=joyful or affectionate+feign=simulate or even dissimulate + feign = artfully contrived, imaginative and honest = open, true, honorable + honest = chaste.

And so at first reading, a paradox built on simple reductive meanings (“The most genuine poetry is the most phony”) resolves itself into something much more complex, embracing in its way the received form of the Platonic anti-poetic agenda and poetry’s own most vigorous rejection of such an attack. The most (authentic, faithful, constant, and “true”) poetry is that which is most (joyful, glad, contrived, artful, highly wrought, deeply imagined). When the additional common play among meanings of “honest” is factored in, the wit about poetry and life, truth and dissimulation, faithfulness in word and deed, art and life, becomes all the more serious as it becomes less solemn.(4)

There is a trivial case in which a lie can “be true”: I profoundly believe that X is the case in a certain suggestion, and for whatever reason, when asked is X or Y the case, I answer “Y.” Clearly a lie. And if I have been in fact mistaken about X, and it is indeed true that Y holds, I have unwittingly told the truth while intending to lie. One might say that Nature (or Reality, or “Was der Fall ist” [Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicals, 1.1], or whatever) had itself undone my lie and forced me against my will to speak the truth. As I say, a trivial case in the logic of lying but not perhaps so for the realm of poetic fictions. Perhaps one of the greatest of modern theorists of fictions, Oscar Wilde, used unwitting truth-telling with great brilliance in The Importance of Being Earnest. He had previously set forth in “The Decay of Lying” an outrageous elevation of the authenticity of trope, of fiction, of representation, over fact. It insists, among other things, that art invents life. Wilde’s great play is to some degree a commentary on his essay. In it, a central character employs for social purposes a major lie about his identity, purporting of the time to be a fictional “Ernest.” By an intricacy of plot, this is revealed to have been a telling of the truth (Jack Worthin’s name, “Ernest,” turns out to have been–unbeknownst to him–his true one after all), and his lie about his name had been unwittingly in earnest.(5)

Encrypted Truth

What can be literally a falsehood, and thereby possibly a lie, can–in some medieval theory of allegory–be “true” and perhaps in several different ways (as in the celebrated layers of allegory in Dante’s Letter to Can Grande, figuratively, allegorically, and anagogically). One popular and easy image of this relation is that a husk of fiction contains a kernel of truth, with the consequence that knowledgeable apprehension depends upon heeding the injunction of Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest to take “the fruyt and let the chaf be stille.” We usually do not think of an outright lie as “concealing” or “hiding” the truth in just this way; the parable’s burying of truth in a mound of fiction is more like the concealment of a treasure-hunt than of a frightened miser.

The notion of truth in allegory seems to suggest an analogy with encipherment. What about a cipher message that would read as follows (and composed by an informed agent): “June has 41 days” is not a lie. Unlike the loop of Epimenedes’ paradox in the simple, This statement is a lie, there is no problem here: the writer clearly knows that “June has 41 days” is untrue. But remember that this is a cipher message; suppose that deciphered it propounds the true statement, I am now in Connecticut.(6) We could say, of course, that the falsehood was only notional, that there was no more of a proposition than another encipherment of the same plain text would be “nonsense.”(7)

Consider another lie: “June has 31 days.” If in my private calendar “June” meant “June plus the last day of May,” then I might be deceiving you if I did not let you know this. You would thus be deceived into thinking I was Iying, when in fact I was not. There are many kinds of deception–just as there are many kinds of morally questionable uses of language-outside of direct Iying. A full theoretical pursuit of the nature of fiction and its relation to truth-telling would have to do into various ways of what we call “bending” the truth. Telling the truth but telling it “slant”–in Emily Dickinson’s phrase–has been cited often in recent decades as a characterization of poetry generally. But what are the angles, even the planes, through which it can be slanted? In ordinary discourse, there are lies of omission as well as commission, of course. But the sorts of thing that can go wrong, whether by design or not, with telling the truth unslanted are of the greatest interest for rhetorical inquiry (I think here, for example, of what H.P. Grice called “conversational implicatures” and his categorization of them by quantity, quality, relation, and manner). [Grice, 1975].

Some matters of Iying and deception are less relevant to a mimetic theory of fictions but more to an expressive one. Consider a grotesque instance but perhaps interesting here: I shout, “Ouch!!!” when no sudden pain of any kind grips me. Am I lying? I have asserted nothing; whether intentionally or not, I shall be deceivint those around me. But an ejaculation is no more an assertion than an imperative or a question is. We would ordinarily say that this is a matter of pretending–in the easiest and most obvious and perhaps the most effective way–to be experiencing the sudden onset of pain. And perhaps this is more relevant to the concerns of J.L. Austin in his essay on Pretending than to the matter of fiction. Obviously, though, a fictional actuality might involve (say, in an eighteenth-century novel) not so much pretending to be recounting fact, but pretending (in a formal, fictional way) to be pretending (in an ordinary, ad hoc, casual way) to do so. Another version of Browning’s “white lies” might be “pretending to deceive.”

Intending to do so is another matter. Whether an intent to deceive is a necessary or contingent condition for Iying has been open to some philosophical question (Aquinas and Augustine, for example, differing on this issue),(8) and I would raise it here only with respect to the rhetoric of fiction. The intention of poetry is to engage and maintain a reader’s informed attention and, in the case of the best writing, to draw deeply on it without exhausting it. But this is not really like a means–if not an end–of Iying (deceiving listeners about the truth of a statement) or of classical rhetoric (persuading them to praise, blame, convict, exonerate, vote for or against). A common instance of oral (or even “folk”) literature whose form is the broadest of lies is the “tall tale,” whose blatant falsification is part of the literary framework, and whose capacity to entertain depends upon the audience’s knowledge of its falsity, and perhaps even of the indirect or devious quality of the boasting that the exaggeration might imply.

Poets, Prophets, Liars

Poetry has been traditionally linked in various ways to prophecy. We might consider this for a moment: What about prophecies possible frauds or lies? Predictions turn out to have been true or false, but making a false prediction is not Iying (whereas pretending to predict might establish that possibility: if you knew an outcome in advance, and predicted–for whatever advantage might accrue to you–the opposite, something like a lie might be lurking here). Like poetry itself, prophecy has both an expressive and an interpretive component: prophetic insight reads signs and wonders, on the one hand, and receives inspiration from within, on the other. This reflects the relation between the more expository and the more concealed and oblique material in poems, which themselves are like the kinds of dream material that come from “above” as well as from “below”–alluding to recent daily experience and deriving more mysteriously from older, repressed matters.

“X will occur when A is seen. Well, that indeed might happen–substituting will for could or even for might well occur: this looks rhetorically like bending, rather than breaking, the truth, and yet its consequences can be dire. Or–both X and A can be systematically ambiguous, so that when Y does indeed take place, having previously been “signalled” by B, the former can be claimed as a case of X, the latter of A. This is why oracles and prophecies are so often riddles. The implicit and devious claim about their riddling nature is that the solution has to be locked up to protect its truth. More significant is that as many keys as possible will open the lock. And this has some deep relation to the rhetorical forms of prophecy (for example, why the Delphic oracle delivered its utterances in hexameters) and, hence, to the matter of form, of linguistic device, in poetry. But prophetic enigmas seem to be designed in order to appear to have been predictive under the widest variety of outcomes. Poetic enigmas are an entirely different matter. Their use hovers between the fragile power of the engima itself–to fascinate, puzzle, charm–and the force of the “solution” or “answer” which annihilates it. Perhaps there can be–for the audience to “the shadow of a lie”–an analogous hovering of the charm of the particular falsehood and some concern for what the truth might be.

Poetry and Self-Deception

There are many ways in which poets might be said to be deluding themselves, aside from Iying against time (see above), and perhaps willing self-delusion about the importance of what they are doing or about the nature of their ambitions (the burden of origination being a strong one, the heavy weight of one’s forbears is always there). But perhaps poets lie to themselves about what they are doing in particular ways at particular points. A notable instance is the mode of self-delusion about influence, a matter discussed by Harold Bloom in a number of studies.(9) A poet may be conscious of a particular relation to a prior text at a particular moment of allusion of any kind and at any level, while yet remaining unable to “hear” what seems a palpable echo of another earlier poem.(10) Then there may be self-delusion about intention, for example, and the kind of literary self-delusion that leads a writer to think he or she is in total control of what nonetheless seems afterward to have taken on a life or will of its own. And while a sincere statement that contradicts factual knowledge that has been repressed could not, I think, be called a lie, it might be admitted to that strange condition of Iying to oneself.(11) But in this matter, poetry is no more Iying than dreaming or, for that matter, than shelving for day-to-day purposes the domain of the unconscious. Poems are like jokes in that they are contrived (Touchstone’s “most feigning”); and they are like dreams in that they may be shaped by unwitting agendas (Touchstone’s “most feigning” in the sense of most deeply imagined). Dreams are unwitting fictions, and the question of whether there is an intent to deceive the dreamer’s self by the dreamer is a knotty one, requiring early in this century the design of a complex structure of sub-selfhoods (conscious/ unconscious; ego/id/superego; and so on

But, ultimately, any self-deception that may enter into the composition of a literary work will be redeemed by the self-knowledge, in perhaps different areas of experience, that will be gained in the process. That fictions can teach in all sorts of oblique ways has been long acknowledged, whereas lies can be instructive to only the most limited degree (for example, if the motives for a particular lie are investigated). The telling of a fictive “story” (whether a narrative, a metaphoric use of some literally expository mode or device, an assertive trope, and so forth) can teach the teller of the tale much about life and his or her particular art, and the more “feigning,” the truer to art it is, the more to be learned.


(1) Possible referring here to Augustine in Confessions I.xvi (2) See Aristotle, 1947, I.ii.3. Freese and other translators give “proof” instead of “strategy” the Greek pistis. (3) The Germanic root for “lie” (falsehood), interestingly enough, seems always to have meant just that. One can imagine a pious post-Derridean attempt to undermine some of the distinctions I have been considering by arguing that “lie” descends from the IE *leg, along with lex, logos, and their modern derivatives. But this is not the case (the base is *leugh. Pity. (4) See Sonnets #138 and the direct play on false love + false statement: “When my love swears that she is made of truth/l do believe her, though I know she lies,” which will come down to the inevitable punning on copulation and mutual prevarication in the penultimate line: “Therefore I lie with her, and she with me….” The full resonances of the pun in modern English on the lie=falsehood/lie= recline are elegantly discussed in a fine essay by Christopher Ricks (1984). (5) Nietzsche’s sensational essay, “On Truth and Lie in an Ultra-Moral Sense,” is also of great interest here. (6) In fact, if enciphered in a simple Vigenere tableau, with “BUBRTEKSMDGMKLLVYEZ” as an improbable keyword, we could say, of course, that the falsehood was only notional, that there was no more of a proposition than another encipherment of the same plain text would be “nonsense.” (7) For example: JUXYGDQLDIYYXJBBDOE which in fact enciphers IAMNOWINCONNECTICUT using the keyword BULLSHIT. (8) And see Mary Mothersill in this issue. (9) Particularly in Bloom, 1975a, 1975b, 1976. (10) See a detailed discussion of this question in Hollander, 1981. (11) See Aristotle, in Nicomachean Ethnics, 5.11.1-6, on the matter-perhaps analogous here, perhaps not–of treating oneself unjustly, which, he argues, is not possible. Also, elsewhere in this issue.


Aristotle, The “Art” of Rhetoric, J.H. Freese, trans. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Loeb Edition, 1947).

Bloom, Harold, The Anxiety of Influence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975a).

Bloom, Harold, The Map of Misreading (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975b).

Bloom, Harold, Figures of Capable Imagination (New York: Seabury Press, 1976).

Grice, H.P., “Logic and Conversation,” in Donald Davidson and Gilbert Harman, eds., The Logic of Grammar (Encino, CA: Dickinson Publishing Co., 1975).

Hollander, John, The Figure of Echo (Berkeley, CA:` University of California Press, 1981).

Hollander, John, Melodious Guile (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988).

Ricks, Christopher, “Lies,” in The Force of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 369-89.

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