Photograph by Greg Martin
Adam Baer in Conversation with Clancy Martin
The following is a conversation that I had with writer and philosophy professor Clancy Martin, whose new book is Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love. Martin has also worked in the jewelry business and written fiction. His first novel, How to Sell, details the schemes of shady diamond guys—and Martin’s no stranger to confidence scams. But he gets confessional in Love and Lies, combining philosophy with stories about his romantic life, and it’s his contention that one must lie in order to carry on a successful relationship. Don’t lie to yourself as you consider the truthfulness of the discussion below, and see Martin speak in a few YouTube videos that he has provided us to prove that he is indeed someone who has been recorded while giving philosophical discussions.
I. TELLING THE TRUTH BUT TELLING IT SLANT
ADAM BAER: Let me start the conversation with a lie and say that I don’t believe in being truthful with your loved ones.
CLANCY MARTIN: You have to take the risk of being truthful with people you love. But always examine your motivations. Are you seeking the good for that person when you speak the truth? Or are you just clearing your conscience? Are you using truth as a weapon? Truth can hurt just as much as a lie—sometimes more.
AB: My loved ones generally say I’m a bad liar. They even know that I crack up when I’m telling the truth in a situation that would cause others to expect a lie.
CM: Well, you’re probably a much better liar than you think, Adam. Nietzsche writes that “lying to others, relatively speaking, is an exceptional event. We most often lie, and we learn to lie, by lying to ourselves.” So very often when we think we are being sincere, or speaking the truth, we may have already engaged in a prior convenient self-deception.
I think we must be very attuned to our own thoughts and feelings before we can feel confident that we are speaking truthfully—especially when it comes to matters of love. Sometimes, in order to care for a beloved, you might need to lie. I might ask you to lie to me to tell me what I need to hear.
AB: Seems like I should be careful. I’m not fact-checking your philosophy quotes.
CM: Put any two people in conversation for ten minutes and they will lie two or three times.
AB: Okay, but I’m not saying that I trust people most of the time. Just that I trust myself to be honest, even about not being truthful. I think most lying today happens when people choose not to respond to others. The “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” thing is kicking ass in 2015. Look at Twitter.
CM: Stendhal said, “It is a matter of almost instinctive faith with me that when any great man speaks, he lies. And most especially when he writes.” Plato also thought all artists were liars. So be careful.
AB: Remember, though, that the people presenting this conversation are Believers, and I’m supposed to be one of them with respect to the cultural work/art that I make and endorse.
CM: I believe you are a natural bare-knuckler. But that’s because I’ve read some of your edits on my own work, and you were tough. People should be Believers! Life stripped of belief is not much fun. Lonely, sickly, scary facts.
AB: Okay here I agree with you, in part. Facts are all of those things. But apart from writing nonfiction as well as the made-up, shouldn’t we stick to facts in life most of the time so that we have a generally clear idea of what’s going on around us?
CM: Then why do I spend so much time reading novels? Watching movies? Writing fiction? I like the imagination much better than much of the “factual” world. And I think a lot of where we love—and what we love—is in the imagination. When you’re falling in love, have you ever stopped yourself and asked: wait, aren’t I making this all up?
AB: I’m not sure. And that’s where memory comes into play. I haven’t fallen in love with someone in over ten years. Now, I have a wife, and sometimes she tests people for Alzheimer’s. Her work has taught me that I better be honest about what I don’t remember. On the other hand, what do you think about that oddly brilliant George Constanza line from Seinfeld? “It’s not a lie… if you believe it.”
CM: Memory—and how we misremember—is so important to how we construe “the truth.” People accuse each other of lying—lovers accuse each other—simply because they remember things differently. And yet both people feel absolutely certain that they remember “the facts.” Insisting on “the truth” as the highest good in communication is deeply confused. And that’s just the start.
AB: We all have our impressions of so-called reality. But you’re a philosophy professor (it seems, according both to facts and your ability to quote Nietzsche on the fly), and I’m curious about how philosophers have or have not been honest in their work. Maybe Nietzsche didn’t believe a word of his writing and was just trying to win some hot groupies.
CM: Now you’re just trying too hard to be funny for the sake of this interview (a lie). As you know, Nietzsche was incredibly bad at getting girls, and at getting published, and didn’t get famous until after he no longer knew what was going on around him. He also said: “The philosophy of every great thinker thus far has been the more or less unconscious autobiography of its author.” My point: when we are talking about our truths, subjective experience, we must be much more nuanced than when we are talking about facts like “the apple is on the table” or truths like 7+5=12. Have you told a lie to someone you loved?
AB: Sure. I’ve told people that I’m feeling fine when I’m not. I’ve told people not to worry. I’ve told people their interviews will be great. I’ve told a deadbeat roommate that I’m sure his girlfriend still likes him. And now I must admit that I began this conversation with a lie about a lie (by telling you, “I don’t believe in being truthful with your loved ones.”). Just so you could put me in an antagonist position and respond with passion about your book’s subject. At least for a bit. I hope you don’t view this as me using lying as a weapon.
CM: Hardly. Dietrich Bonhoeffer discussed a concept he called “the living truth.” What he meant by this is that we often have psychological barriers to hearing certain kinds of meaning—he found this idea in Kierkegaard’s notion of indirect communication. Sometimes we need to “tell the truth / but tell it slant” as Emily Dickinson says. That’s how we get through to each other.
You might say that’s lying—or you might say it’s a more effective and imaginative way of communicating. And once you recognize that we can “believe before we lie,” as you say, then you really have to rethink the ideal of sincerity. And honesty.
AB: What if we spend too much time thinking about that, though? What if we’re self-conscious to a fault? I’m a big believer in going out of my way, especially in this age of texts and emails and Snapchats, to make sure that people understand my tone. I can never ensure that they will, but I’m not sure that it’s always necessary. I may be wasting my time. People may still infer something else than I intended. I may care too much.
CM: I suspect that most of us are egregiously careless communicators. We don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about what, why, and how we say what we do.
II. BETWEEN THE EXTREMES OF EXCESS AND DEFICIENCY
AB: What about the unsaid? My wife calls me “the antenna” because I often I seem to hear that.
CM: I think the first question to address all of this is: how carefully am I listening (with or without an antenna into the unknown)? Am I giving that cared-for person—we’re talking about love, now—that kind of room they need in order to be able to talk? Some people, like Thich Nhat Hanh, call this “deep listening,” and I think it’s a useful idea.
AB: That and knowing that we tend to overlay our perspectives onto whatever we’re hearing—and it’s our job to do our best to dig beneath that top level. Scratch off the scabs.
CM: Yes. This idea of “perspective” is crucial, too—that’s why real communication is a lifetime’s project, in all of our love relationships. If we could simply tell the truth all the time that would make it very easy. But that’s just not the way love works. Yet when we’re scared or upset we default to, “But You Lied To Me!” As though we’ve never told a lie. And this kind of hypocrisy can be very, very damaging in love relationships. Parents do it to their kids all the time.
AB: And sometimes to their adult children. Sometimes to conceal that they’re angry about the fact that when you visit them you plan to stay with your in-laws instead of sleeping on trundle beds in the room where you grew up. Although, to be honest, I don’t know parents who aren’t truthful about their feelings on such issues.
CM: Aristotle argued that the “arete" or virtue of any activity lay between the extremes of excess and deficiency. You can eat too much or too little. Work too much or too little. Sleep too much or too little. Be foolhardy or cowardly. Similarly, I think, you can tell the truth too much or too little. Lie too much… or too little.
AB: Okay, then, what do you think about being a “skeptic” in the vein of the stellar philosopher Sextus Empiricus. I remember this much. He wrote: “Skepticism relieved two terrible diseases that afflicted mankind: anxiety and dogmatism.” My worry is that approaching love and marriage with this philosophical operating system will increase communication problems and possibly lead me to think that the people I love are lying to me all the time. OK, maybe not. But I worry about the suspension of disbelief on intimate matters, e.g., my honest marriage.
CM: I think you might interpret Sextus slightly differently there. He is one of my favorite thinkers, and I think he is exactly right: we must suspend belief—in terms of certainty—and open our minds to the possibility of doubt. But doubt needn’t be a fearful condition: on the contrary. It is misguided certainty that creates fear and anxiety. Skepsis means “to search”: Sextus always insists that the good skeptic goes on searching. So for me this is like The Cure: “I don’t care if Monday’s blue / Tuesday’s gray and Wednesday too / Thursday I don’t care about you / it’s Friday, I’m in love.”
Best song ever written about marriage. Your commitment is to the search together, the going forward with the project of loving, even though you will never, in one sense, settle “the fact” of your love. Life and love simply aren’t certain in that way. But they don’t have to be. And we get scared and confused when we insist they should be. That’s why all of this dogmatic insistence on “the truth” is so misguided.
III. THE TRUE AND THE GOOD
AB: There’s a lot of lying in philosophical circles. I assume this has less to do with getting tenure than I think?
CM: Aristotle was the first Ancient to call Socrates a liar, and then it became a very popular claim. Because of his irony—another form of indirect communication. And I always feel like, well, if Jesus spoke in parables, and Socrates was a liar, well, we’re in pretty good company. Aren’t the most dangerous liars always the ones who insist that they know the truth?
AB: I think the most dangerous liars are the ones who insist that they always know the truth, have access to terrorist groups, and then set your house on fire. But as I am accustomed to not-knowing, I see where you were headed there. Would you mind being called a liar?
CM: What I find fascinating is that everyone hates being called a liar, despite the fact that everyone does it. That deep cognitive dissonance is something we should worry about. That should show us that we aren’t being honest with ourselves, that the emperor has no clothes.
AB: But what about the people who are lied to? We want to think of ourselves as sensitive souls who don’t hurt others, but if we’re always lying than how can we know if we’re not? And then isn’t it incredibly difficult to repair a relationship with someone who feels deceived?
CM: If people were more honest about their lying, I think a lot of grand, collective, truly dangerous lies would be less widely accepted, less easily accepted, more carefully scrutinized.
AB: For example…
CM: Let’s take the case of the “lied to.” First, we aren’t always lying…we’ll try not to exaggerate. We are sometimes lying, and when we are lying, we should examine our motives. Now let’s suppose you’ve been lied to and you find out you’ve been lied to. Once my mother lied to me when I was in terrible pain—it was a real whopper—she said: “Life gets easier, Clance. This is the hardest part.” Now that was total b.s., and she knew it. But it was a lie I needed to hear then, and her motivations were very good.
Now if the “lied to” discovers a lie that has merely served the interest of the liar, of course he will feel hurt and betrayed. As well he should. But he might feel just as hurt and betrayed by being told an inappropriate, cruelly motivated truth. The True and the Good are not the same thing.
AB: Sure, but that’s parenting. It’s also sometimes growing up. It’s the rare child who doesn’t instinctively learn that it’s his or her role to lie back, perhaps in one smile, and say to the desperate parent, “Oh, good, I knew the universe was kind and life will be pure pleasure. Thank you for confirming my dream world.”
CM: We expect our children to lie to us all the time. We teach them to lie to us. And it’s the same in our other love relationships. There’s a wonderful passage in Robert Trivers’ terrific book about lying when he says, "I suddenly realized, in my marriage, that my wife was storing up my lies for future use.” Isn’t that great?
Very, very often, we know we are being lied to, and sometimes we want it and participate in it, and sometimes we use it for our own duplicitous ends, and sometimes those ends are unkind, but sometimes they may be very desirable ends. This is again why we should consider self-deception, because we do exactly the same thing with ourselves. We can either do it with open-eyes—try to be honest with ourselves, so we don’t get hopelessly confused—or we can be hypocritical and pretend it’s not happening and then often create judgmental, intolerant, destructive situations and relationships.
AB: But here’s what I’m most interested in: the fact that the people who are lied to often know that and respond with lies. It’s not just a childhood game with your parent. It’s like we’re all just rolling ourselves up in endless layers of wool army blankets. Anything to know the truth. But at a certain point we have to get real with each other. And that is about good, about caring. I want my wife to really know the “darkness within,” as she and I like to playfully say. When a very close loved one dies, people often are saddest when they feel that the person was one of the few who “really knew” them. I want my wife to really know me—bad truths and good lies, and everything in between. She says that she wants that, too…
CM: Okay, you’re right, intimacy. Truth and intimacy—sharing the scary parts—that is very important. You have to be willing to risk saying things that are scary for you to confess while respecting the fact that you must try not to harm the person you love, so we should never say that the truth doesn’t matter—of course it does.
AB: If you’re not trying to harm the person you love, why even try a relationship?
CM: Proust says, “And by love I mean: reciprocal torture.” I think Proust is wrong. I think Sextus Empiricus is right. Love is a venture. It’s a risk. But you know, it’s worth it. We could all just be Buddhist monks, and it might be easier. But we’d still be in love relationships. Just different sorts. And I think marriage, the daily choice to love this person in a particularly intimate way, as difficult as it can be, just makes your life much richer. Like having kids. They aren’t easy. But they really enrich your life. It’s been my experience—at the end of the day, when it comes to love, we have to fall back on personal experience, we should do so—that being in love is simply much more fun than living alone. Even though it’s also more work. But I feel the same way about writing, and teaching, and meditating, and all of the things that matter to me. Hard work but more fun.
AB: Okay, have we beat love and lying to death yet?
CM: Well, the straight dope is that my wife is yelling for my attention at the moment, so I am called by a higher power.
AB: Thank you for being honest. By all means, go.
Adam Baer is a writer in Los Angeles who has contributed to The New York Times, NPR, Rolling Stone, Harper’s, and other publications.