Alonzo Fitz, and Other Stories eBook: Page2

Mark Twain (2006)


  ON THE DECAY OF THE ART OF LYING

  ESSAY, FOR DISCUSSION, READ AT A MEETING OF THE HISTORICAL ANDANTIQUARIAN CLUB OF HARTFORD, AND OFFERED FOR THE THIRTY-DOLLAR PRIZE.NOW FIRST PUBLISHED.--[Did not take the prize]

  Observe, I do not mean to suggest that the custom of lying has sufferedany decay or interruption--no, for the Lie, as a Virtue, a Principle, iseternal; the Lie, as a recreation, a solace, a refuge in time of need,the fourth Grace, the tenth Muse, man's best and surest friend, isimmortal, and cannot perish from the earth while this Club remains. Mycomplaint simply concerns the decay of the art of lying. No high-mindedman, no man of right feeling, can contemplate the lumbering andslovenly lying of the present day without grieving to see a noble art soprostituted. In this veteran presence I naturally enter upon this schemewith diffidence; it is like an old maid trying to teach nursery mattersto the mothers in Israel. It would not become me to criticize you,gentlemen, who are nearly all my elders--and my superiors, in thisthing--and so, if I should here and there seem to do it, I trust it willin most cases be more in a spirit of admiration than of fault-finding;indeed, if this finest of the fine arts had everywhere received theattention, encouragement, and conscientious practice and developmentwhich this Club has devoted to it I should not need to utter this lamentor shed a single tear. I do not say this to flatter: I say it in aspirit of just and appreciative recognition.

  [It had been my intention, at this point, to mention names and giveillustrative specimens, but indications observable about me admonishedme to beware of particulars and confine myself to generalities.]

  No fact is more firmly established than that lying is a necessity ofour circumstances--the deduction that it is then a Virtue goes withoutsaying. No virtue can reach its highest usefulness without careful anddiligent cultivation--therefore, it goes without saying that this oneought to be taught in the public schools--at the fireside--even in thenewspapers. What chance has the ignorant, uncultivated liar against theeducated expert? What chance have I against Mr. Per-- against a lawyer?Judicious lying is what the world needs. I sometimes think it wereeven better and safer not to lie at all than to lie injudiciously. Anawkward, unscientific lie is often as ineffectual as the truth.

  Now let us see what the philosophers say. Note that venerableproverb: Children and fools always speak the truth. The deduction isplain--adults and wise persons never speak it. Parkman, the historian,says, "The principle of truth may itself be carried into an absurdity."In another place in the same chapter he says, "The saying is oldthat truth should not be spoken at all times; and those whom a sickconscience worries into habitual violation of the maxim are imbecilesand nuisances." It is strong language, but true. None of us could livewith an habitual truth-teller; but, thank goodness, none of us has to.An habitual truth-teller is simply an impossible creature; he does notexist; he never has existed. Of course there are people who think theynever lie, but it is not so--and this ignorance is one of the verythings that shame our so-called civilization. Everybody lies--every day;every hour; awake; asleep; in his dreams; in his joy; in his mourning;if he keeps his tongue still, his hands, his feet, his eyes, hisattitude, will convey deception--and purposely. Even in sermons--butthat is a platitude.

  In a far country where I once lived the ladies used to go around payingcalls, under the humane and kindly pretense of wanting to see eachother; and when they returned home, they would cry out with a gladvoice, saying, "We made sixteen calls and found fourteen of themout"--not meaning that they found out anything against the fourteen--no,that was only a colloquial phrase to signify that they were not athome--and their manner of saying it--expressed their lively satisfactionin that fact. Now, their pretense of wanting to see the fourteen--andthe other two whom they had been less lucky with--was that commonest andmildest form of lying which is sufficiently described as a deflectionfrom the truth. Is it justifiable? Most certainly. It is beautiful,it is noble; for its object is, not to reap profit, but to convey apleasure to the sixteen. The iron-souled truth-monger would plainlymanifest, or even utter the fact, that he didn't want to see thosepeople--and he would be an ass, and inflict a totally unnecessary pain.And next, those ladies in that far country--but never mind, they had athousand pleasant ways of lying, that grew out of gentle impulses, andwere a credit to their intelligence and an honor to their hearts. Letthe particulars go.

  The men in that far country were liars; every one. Their mere howdy-dowas a lie, because they didn't care how you did, except they wereundertakers. To the ordinary inquirer you lied in return; for you madeno conscientious diagnosis of your case, but answered at random, andusually missed it considerably. You lied to the undertaker, and saidyour health was failing--a wholly commendable lie, since it cost younothing and pleased the other man. If a stranger called and interruptedyou, you said with your hearty tongue, "I'm glad to see you," and saidwith your heartier soul, "I wish you were with the cannibals and it wasdinner-time." When he went, you said regretfully, "Must you go?" andfollowed it with a "Call again"; but you did no harm, for you did notdeceive anybody nor inflict any hurt, whereas the truth would have madeyou both unhappy.

  I think that all this courteous lying is a sweet and loving art, andshould be cultivated. The highest perfection of politeness is only abeautiful edifice, built, from the base to the dome, of graceful andgilded forms of charitable and unselfish lying.

  What I bemoan is the growing prevalence of the brutal truth. Let us dowhat we can to eradicate it. An injurious truth has no merit over aninjurious lie. Neither should ever be uttered. The man who speaks aninjurious truth, lest his soul be not saved if he do otherwise, shouldreflect that that sort of a soul is not strictly worth saving. The manwho tells a lie to help a poor devil out of trouble is one of whom theangels doubtless say, "Lo, here is an heroic soul who casts his ownwelfare into jeopardy to succor his neighbor's; let us exalt thismagnanimous liar."

  An injurious lie is an uncommendable thing; and so, also, and in thesame degree, is an injurious truth--a fact which is recognized by thelaw of libel.

  Among other common lies, we have the silent lie--the deception which oneconveys by simply keeping still and concealing the truth. Many obstinatetruth-mongers indulge in this dissipation, imagining that if they speakno lie, they lie not at all. In that far country where I once lived,there was a lovely spirit, a lady whose impulses were always high andpure, and whose character answered to them. One day I was there atdinner, and remarked, in a general way, that we are all liars. She wasamazed, and said, "Not all!" It was before "Pinafore's" time so I didnot make the response which would naturally follow in our day, butfrankly said, "Yes, all--we are all liars; there are no exceptions." Shelooked almost offended, and said, "Why, do you include me?" "Certainly,"I said, "I think you even rank as an expert." She said, "'Sh!--'sh! thechildren!"

  So the subject was changed in deference to the children's presence, andwe went on talking about other things. But as soon as the young peoplewere out of the way, the lady came warmly back to the matter and said,"I have made it the rule of my life to never tell a lie; and I havenever departed from it in a single instance." I said, "I don't mean theleast harm or disrespect, but really you have been lying like smokeever since I've been sitting here. It has caused me a good deal of pain,because I am not used to it." She required of me an instance--just asingle instance. So I said:--

  "Well, here is the unfilled duplicate of the blank which the Oaklandhospital people sent to you by the hand of the sick-nurse when she camehere to nurse your little nephew through his dangerous illness. Thisblank asks all manner of questions as to the conduct of that sick-nurse:'Did she ever sleep on her watch? Did she ever forget to give themedicine?' and so forth and so on. You are warned to be very careful andexplicit in your answers, for the welfare of the service requires thatthe nurses be promptly fined or otherwise punished for derelictions.You told me you were perfectly delighted with that nurse--that she hada thousand perfections and only one fault: you found you never coulddepend on her wrapping Johnny up
half sufficiently while he waited ina chilly chair for her to rearrange the warm bed. You filled up theduplicate of this paper, and sent it back to the hospital by the hand ofthe nurse. How did you answer this question--'Was the nurse at anytime guilty of a negligence which was likely to result in the patient'staking cold?' Come--everything is decided by a bet here in California:ten dollars to ten cents you lied when you answered that question." Shesaid, "I didn't; I left it blank!" "Just so--you have told a silent lie;you have left it to be inferred that you had no fault to find in thatmatter." She said, "Oh, was that a lie? And how could I mention her onesingle fault, and she so good?--it would have been cruel." I said, "Oneought always to lie when one can do good by it; your impulse was right,but, your judgment was crude; this comes of unintelligent practice. Nowobserve the result of this inexpert deflection of yours. You knowMr. Jones's Willie is lying very low with scarlet fever; well, yourrecommendation was so enthusiastic that that girl is there nursing him,and the worn-out family have all been trustingly sound asleep for thelast fourteen hours, leaving their darling with full confidence inthose fatal hands, because you, like young George Washington, have areputa--However, if you are not going to have anything to do, I willcome around to-morrow and we'll attend the funeral together, for, ofcourse, you'll naturally feel a peculiar interest in Willie's case--aspersonal a one, in fact, as the undertaker."

  But that was all lost. Before I was half-way through she was in acarriage and making thirty miles an hour toward the Jones mansion tosave what was left of Willie and tell all she knew about the deadlynurse. All of which was unnecessary, as Willie wasn't sick; I had beenlying myself. But that same day, all the same, she sent a line to thehospital which filled up the neglected blank, and stated the facts, too,in the squarest possible manner.

  Now, you see, this lady's fault was not in lying, but only in lyinginjudiciously. She should have told the truth there, and made it up tothe nurse with a fraudulent compliment further along in the paper. Shecould have said, "In one respect the sick-nurse is perfection--when sheis on watch, she never snores." Almost any little pleasant lie wouldhave taken the sting out of that troublesome but necessary expression ofthe truth.

  Lying is universal--we all do it; we all must do it. Therefore, thewise thing is for us diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully,judiciously; to lie with a good object, and not an evil one; to liefor others' advantage, and not our own; to lie healingly, charitably,humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously; to lie gracefullyand graciously, not awkwardly and clumsily; to lie firmly, frankly,squarely, with head erect, not haltingly, tortuously, with pusillanimousmien, as being ashamed of our high calling. Then shall we be rid ofthe rank and pestilent truth that is rotting the land; then shall we begreat and good and beautiful, and worthy dwellers in a world whereeven benign Nature habitually lies, except when she promises execrableweather. Then--but I am but a new and feeble student in this graciousart; I can not instruct this Club.

  Joking aside, I think there is much need of wise examination into whatsorts of lies are best and wholesomest to be indulged, seeing we mustall lie and do all lie, and what sorts it may be best to avoid--and thisis a thing which I feel I can confidently put into the hands of thisexperienced Club--a ripe body, who may be termed, in this regard, andwithout undue flattery, Old Masters.