The great love and lust swindle

Canadian philosopher Clancy Martin tells John Kaag that the liar and the lover are two sides of the same coin

February 12, 2015

Some clever males – cuttlefish are masters of disguise – pretend to be female in order to sneak into the harem and copulate at will. Deception to win love

The call came as Carol and I were on our way to bed: “I’d love to do this interview, John. Thanks! But this month is a little tight,” the voice on the other end of the phone explained. “I’m on my way to Taipei for a three-week Buddhist retreat. I’ll be chanting for most of the day, so we’ll have to do the interview by Skype or email.” I hung up and for a long moment considered the sheer banality of my home life. I was burned out from a semester of teaching and our toddler (while being absolutely perfect) was still very much a toddler: I’d spent the better part of a day cleaning up her vomit. So I secretly wanted nothing more than to escape to Taipei for a bit of meditation. Of course, I didn’t say this. I just smiled at Carol, piled into bed and kissed her good night.

“Clancy Martin will do the interview,” I said. And I turned out the light.

Some things are better left unsaid.

Most philosophers are interested in truth. Martin works on lying. Not just the malignant, treacherous variety, but the innocuous stuff that greases the social wheels of our lives.

“You know, leaving something importantly unsaid is one of the most popular forms of deception,” Martin later tells me. “Lies by omission are among the most complex of the bunch.”

Much of Martin’s philosophical writing has explored the nature of deception and the way that straightforward lying can slip into the more murky territory of hypocrisy, self-deception, authenticity and sincerity. His is not some armchair study: Martin is a self-confessed liar. And a very good one.

“Of course, we’re all experts at lying by the time we’re three or four years old,” he says. “But not everybody makes the dubious decision to make a career out of it.”

After achieving tenure at the University of Missouri’s philosophy department in just five years, he set off into trade publishing. His first novel, How to Sell (2009), is a fictionalised account of Martin’s own earlier profession: a jewellery dealer who mastered the art of making worthless stuff seem very valuable. His most recent book, Love and Lies: And Why You Can’t Have One Without the Other (2015), argues that the double-dealing at the core of every great swindle is also at the heart of erotic love. So, as I snuggled down next to Carol, I wanted to know: what exactly is the relationship between love and lies?

The 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued that human beings, even when they fall in love, are a bit like porcupines. We crave intimacy, the kind of familiarity that temporarily quells our fears about being absolutely alone in the Universe, but this closeness means that we invariably stab the ones we love (metaphorically speaking, for the most part). Martin, however, thinks we are more like Australian giant cuttlefish.

“During mating season,” Martin explains, “there are few females and many males. The strongest, largest males gather up harems of females and guard them ferociously.”

This does not bode particularly well for the little guys (and nerdy philosophers like us). But Martin points out that being the alpha male is not the only way to win love.

“Some clever males – cuttlefish are masters of disguise – pretend to be female cuttlefish in order to sneak into the harem and copulate at will (they may pay an uncomfortable price for this if they catch the lustful eye of the ruling male cuttlefish). Deception to win love.

“But here’s the best part. The female cuttlefish in the harem actually prefer to mate with the smaller, weaker but clever male cuttlefish who sneak into the harem. Like the Sultana in Lord Byron’s Don Juan, they like the cleverness of the disguised lover.”

I see his point, but if I remember correctly, things don’t go particularly well between the Sultana and Don Juan. She commands him to make love to her and he spurns her. That isn’t love. Plus, Don Juan is a jerk: a player who seems to have little regard for the women he seduces. He’s no role model.

“Well, the Sultana cries crocodile tears to seduce Don Juan,” Martin replies, “an especially effective and common form of deception. And Don Juan is actually a hopeless romantic: he believes he will find true love. But that’s part of his problem. He doesn’t take responsibility for his own seductions. He tells himself he’s chasing an ideal.”

Nonetheless, he says, we can learn from the poem.

“Byron has created a kind of archetype of erotic relationships. There are certain mental strategies both the liar and the erotic lover do well to master. A good lover, like a good liar, will do her or his best to be a mind reader. To manipulate someone’s beliefs you have to be able to understand, anticipate and interpret those beliefs.”

At this moment, I realise what the true value of Martin’s book might be: to confront with chilling clarity the sociopathy that silently underpins most of our average lives. “The sociologist Erving Goffman identified that in his famous book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” Martin says. “We are always playing roles.”

So the good liar and the good lover “must be able – or must strive – to see her- or himself through the eyes of the person she or he will come to love”, Martin continues. “The kind of mind control they practise is the same: it’s not strictly coercion; it’s seduction. It’s convincing the person who is the object of the mental manipulation that he or she wants to participate in the illusion being created. Long-term committed erotic love will evolve into something different, something still more complex. But falling in love depends on these kinds of artistic illusions.”

Not all illusions are created equal. Some are truly nefarious, others are not. In The Republic, for example, Plato argues that a “noble lie” is at the foundation of the ideal state; the philosopher king is a grand manipulator who tricks his subjects into acting in their own self-interest. There is another way to interpret Plato’s statesman – he tricks others into becoming different, indeed better, people. The Republic is based on a fiction that eventually becomes a reality, or better yet, an ideal. Love, according to Martin, is very much like that.

Feature illustration (12 February 2015)

“Nietzsche said that we are at our best when we are lovers precisely because that is when we become the most brilliant liars, when we become artists, when we both transfigure our beloved and are ourselves transfigured. Both liars and lovers are rarely cold-blooded manipulators: those are outlying cases. In most cases, both the liar and the lover themselves want to believe the story that is being told. Who among us, when falling in love, hasn’t stopped and thought: but wait, am I just making this all up? Is this all an invention? And what about the object of my love? Is he or she doing the same thing? But if it’s all made up, what are we doing?”

It is a very good question. Love allows us – requires us – to envision possibilities that at one point seemed impossible: the possibility of becoming a person who is capable of making promises that stick, the possibility of creating a lasting home of our own, the possibility of understanding another person’s inner life. But at the beginning of love, none of these possibilities has been actualised so we work together to create the illusion.

And this, according to Martin, is where the work of self-deception comes in. He doesn’t sugar-coat it.

“We become like Don Quixote: the question of what we believe becomes hopelessly interwoven with what we want to believe and what we want others to believe.”

A skinny twerp on a donkey, convinced that he is the strongest thing in the world – this is not what we usually think of when we envision the romantic hero. But it may be rather closer to the truth than we would like to believe.

“Sometimes we tell lies to ourselves in order more effectively to persuade others: because it’s much easier to lie to another if you have first persuaded yourself of the truth of the lie. Other times we lie to others in order to persuade ourselves: each time we tell a story that began as semi-fictional it becomes more and more truthful.”

I knew all about this self-deception, but I also knew that mutual reinforcement does not always result in a happy or healthy union. Indeed, it can turn out to be a horrible mess. Carol is not the first person I married. Clancy is remarried. Twice over. So I asked: “When does this cycle of deception turn really ugly?”

The answer, according to Martin, is not at all simple.

“The common goal in this deception is love, a good goal, which depends on deception from the time we are very, very young. Our mothers are our first lovers and our first liars.”

Hang on a minute – now I can’t trust my own mother?

Some of the very best philosophers are the ones who appal us, who encourage us to recognise truths that we have spent our entire lives assiduously avoiding. Here is one: I now realise that during the trials and tribulations of parenting there must have been moments when I was so infuriating that my mother must have wanted to do me in. I know this because I am now a parent. We are only human. But my mother never harmed me or told me that she wanted to do so. Instead she lied to me. She told me, quite convincingly, that I was loved unconditionally, always. (“A very common, very useful lie that parents tell children,” Martin reassures me.) I lie to my daughter not out of some diabolical plan for her, or even a well-meaning paternalism. I lie because I want to maintain the story that we are somehow better, more patient, more loving, than we actually tend to be. Some things are better left unsaid.

Of course, Martin admits that all of this can go too far. “My friend [the novelist] Jonathan Franzen says that trying too hard to be liked turns into terrible loneliness, narcissism, or both; to be loved, he argues, means taking the risk of exposing yourself, including the scariest parts of yourself, and the terrifying prospect of being rejected. I think that’s right: but it’s not an off-on switch. The process of coming to love in a long-term way – romantically or otherwise – is something we slowly learn, and the truths we are willing to expose about ourselves are deeply interwoven with that fear of loss, of separation.

“Who is the first person you lied to? For the vast majority of us it was our mothers. And why? Because we feared the truth would cost us her love – if only for a few hours. So we ‘made up a story’ rather than risk her love.”

While the stories that we tell to each other in love can quickly become self-serving, it is equally possible for manipulative seductions to blossom into full-fledged and reciprocal love. This is the fragility but also the sanctity of love. What is impossible, at least according to Martin, is for human beings, so messed up and fallible, to be, from beginning to end, entirely honest with one another.

“It’s a goal, to slowly, tentatively become more and more honest, more open, but we are dangerously confused if we insist on pure transparency or absolute honesty as the highest value in the relationship. Very often care is more important than truth,” Martin argues.

This may come as a deep disappointment to those who would rather believe Thomas Merton’s claim in Love and Living that “the beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image”. This is, after all, what we like to tell ourselves on Valentine’s Day, the most happily self-deceptive day of the year. But that is not a bad thing, says Martin.

“If you can’t lie to yourself a little, you’ll never fall in love. ‘When my love swears she is made of truth, I do believe her, though I know she lies,’ Shakespeare wrote. Let yourself believe it. It’s Valentine’s Day.”

On other days of the year, though, is it better to acknowledge the truth about love and to accept where the truth actually lies?

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