by Patricia Traxler
Ever since Donald Trump took office, I’ve had endless questions about truth, beginning with the most basic of them all: What is it? What the hell is it? I know what Keats said, but let’s just deep-six the whole Truth is beauty trope right now, because it’s bullshit. Judging by the revealed truths in all of our lives, who can fail to see that truth is at least as often ugly as it is beautiful? (Yeah, it’s true that Andre Gide said, “The ugly may be beautiful, the pretty never,” but if that’s the best argument to bolster Keats’ claim, then let me just stop right here and promise not to offer any more quotes. Lies have more to do with truth than aphorisms do.)
Of course I realize it was the concept of truth—idealized truth, rather than its content—that Keats was describing. An aesthetic and ethical standard. And, sure, truth as an ideal does sound beautiful—but isn’t the concept of a non-negotiable and universal truth the refuge of insecure wankers, horseshit evangelists, and reactionary control freaks? After all, who is actually the arbiter of truth in our world? Surely not the current President of the United States, who is said to have told over 3,500 verified lies during his first eighteen months in office, and yet no one in his party has seemed a bit worried about it.
There are so many pretenders to the truth that rather than defining it or elaborating on it, it might make more sense to talk about its qualities or features, its virtues and limitations. Its application. Its place in our lives, if indeed it even has one anymore.
Some say truth is a function of time. Maybe. But if that’s correct and truth is mutable, should it really hold such sway over us? Can lying be justified on the basis of truth’s temporal aspect? I’m choosing to give truth its station for the purposes of this contemplation, because otherwise our entire world would seem to be in question, and that’s far too big a bite for me to tear off at the moment. Or, okay, ever.
I’m working on a collection of autobiographical essays, and I struggle daily to be certain that I have my facts straight. Of course, I have to—there are witnesses: I have seven siblings. And one of them is a lawyer. Another a linguist. Still another is a scholarly genealogist with a formidable memory and records to back her up.
Onward. Is there a difference between truth and fact? Can you be correct as to fact and still deeply mistaken as to truth? Let me hazard a guess….Yes.
Does each of us own our personal truth, in the way that an author owns the copyright to a fictional story? Do we have the right to prevent others from learning our truth? If so, is it wrong to do that by deceiving them? Could such deception simply be seen as the editing of our truth? Or does everyone have the right to an honest reply when they question us about our personal matters? And if not everyone, then who?
My mother, who had learned the Catholic method of rationalization at around the time she learned the Catholic method of birth control (rhythm—and she ended up with eight children…but I digress) arrived at and passed along her personal standard to me: It’s only a sin to lie if someone has a right to know your truth—and very few have that right. (Even by that standard, Donald Trump is in real trouble, since many of his lies during his time in office relate to the vital interests of every U.S. citizen.)
One thing I’m realizing here is that you can’t really discuss truth without talking about lies. But then you’re back to square one, definition: Beyond the deliberate misstatement of a fact as one knows it at a particular time, what else can or should be classified as a lie? Maybe it all goes to motivation, and if so, secrets are also lies of a sort. Silences, too, can be lies of omission. (See Adrienne Rich’s marvelous On Lies, Secrets, and Silence—her ideas on how the unspoken can become the unspeakable.) It seems as if whatever sort of lie may be at issue, any judgment must be predicated on whether it is willful, and whether it is justified.
But since truth holds a position of preeminence that seems to give order to our universe, what can possibly justify a lie? Maybe the need to shelter others from learning a truth that would be harmful, disturbing, or even destructive to them? Or to protect one’s own privacy, one’s own life? Somewhere, doesn’t a line have to be drawn? And can a lie ever be justified if its primary purpose is to shield one’s own (or someone else’s) private acts from public exposure?
Sometimes now the lies of my life revisit me when I’m alone, and I weigh them individually, trying to decide which were the worst. Or which may have been avoidable. At first I sort them like Tarot cards, separating the lies that I have told from those told to me by others. Then I divide those two categories into Lies of Omission and Lies of Commission. Next, I divide each of those categories into:
- Self-protective deceptions
- Deceptions whose purpose was to protect others
- Cowardly deceptions
- Lying for the hell of it
- Habitual self-deception
Eventually, I found it pointless and dispiriting to judge the degree of wrongness in the lies that others had told me—or had told about me or others—so I settled on limiting my judgments to my own lies. Even by that measure I fail to reach a clear level of certitude, though—because, first of all, I end up settling on the rationale that most of the lies I’ve told have been lies of omission—secrecy and silence—rather than lies of commission. And I don’t think I’ve ever slandered anyone intentionally or lied just for the hell of it. (Don’t forget, I spent a certain amount of my childhood on a creaky kneeler in a dark confessional, trying to figure out such moral puzzles as, “Is it a sin to try to arouse a boy by touching his necktie?” Father Slattery’s answer to that question was, “My dear, you are what we call ‘over-scrupulous’—the next time you think something might be a sin, just go ahead and do it.” It would be difficult to overstate the degree of relief that reply brought me.)
I seem to have been most often guilty of lies I’ve told myself. Or my mother. My late mother. Now that she’s no longer alive, I always tell her the truth. But I’m still alive and lying to myself.
Yes, I realize self-deception may be the very worst kind of lie, because if truth is what gives order to the universe (and where does that leave us under Trump’s rule?), then by lying to yourself, you’re embracing chaos and pointlessness.
The thousands—imagine that: thousands—of lies that Donald Trump has told the American public during his brief tenure—the lies he seems to tell us every single day—have caused not only a credibility deficit in our society, but also a sort of incredulity fatigue. These days, it’s almost easier simply not to care—but doesn’t that suggest that his promiscuity with the facts has devalued and endangered our former standards of truth? If no one calls him on his deceits and delusions, then what do we have, really? What’s real?
What I seem to be getting around to is this: Trump has actually helped me to see that we should always be scrupulous about telling the truth in our writing—including about things to which there were no witnesses but ourselves. By his egregious and promiscuous use of lies, he has made clear that nothing excuses lying for effect or self-aggrandizement.
I’m still contemplating self-deception, though—because, really, how do you know you’re doing it?
Patricia Traxler was twice named Bunting Poetry Fellow at Radcliffe, and has also served as the University of Montana’s Hugo Poet and Ohio State University’s Thurber Poet. Her poetry has appeared widely, including in The Nation, The Boston Review, The Kenyon Review, Ms., Slate, Ploughshares, The LA Times Literary Supplement, and in many anthologies, including Best American Poetry. She is the author of four poetry collections and a novel, Blood (St. Martin’s/Macmillan), and she is completing work on a collection of essays, The Eternity Bird. See what she’s published in AGNI here.