Your house is on fire, your children are burnt;
All except one, and that's ragged Anne
and she's crept under the warming pan.
Good afternoon. I am your wonderworker, gentlemen and
ladies. Base truth turns to gold beneath my touch.
Actually, I am Theo Giroux, your new instructor for
this lovely autumn term. Before we start, let me
anticipate certain questions: first of all, this
class is not an introduction to the more mundane forms
of lying. The sales lie, the virginity lie, the love
lie, and other lies made tedious by their economic
necessity are covered in Ellen Whitsy's Intro to
No ethical cud-chewing allowed. No barbarous
insistence upon precedence or data. In my class,
thinking on one's feet is emphasized over an
accumulation of debris. Lying is like lighting a fire;
you need only to rub two facts together, then blow.
Like filaments of raw silk in water, the constricted
truth loosens and the individual strands spiral to
heaven quicker than any earthly prayer or cry. Lies
are powerful, terrifying in their beauty. Consider
Medea's gift to the new wife: a golden Colchean tangle
that, grazing the skin of the princess, bursts into a
fireball. Her old father runs crying and the flames
blaze higher, fusing king, princess, crown and robe
into a glassy black stump, white twigs of bone.
What do the palace attendants breathe the next
morning? A peppery ash that was once royal hair, a
greasy smudge in the shape of a human hand. The
golden robe itself lies unharmed, glowing warm;
perhaps it frightens you.
Then go. I have nothing to offer you.
But if you are eager to know the substance, stay
awhile. This is an advanced studio class in
fabrication. Not on fabrics, literally, but the
ability to weave a gorgeously dense, spot-proof lie.
Weave the shimmering lie that is rich with undertones,
subtle allusions, whose tail and head are
indistinguishably woven into the concrete links of
history and circumstance. A lie that coils in upon
itself, which, when pushed, can collapse into a domino
line of smaller winking lies that bear each others'
weight and settle into liquid plausibility. A lie that
can run a million miles beneath the same sun and never
tire, never weaken into doubt.
A lie which stretches to envelop the fantastic and
improbable while evoking the one intimate detail that
will plant the obstinate seed of credibility within
the mind of the listener. Now let's begin with a brief
review of key points.
First, you must always keep a clear head. Lying well
is like counting cards, almost impossible. If you
realize that you are not capable of remembering all
your lies, practice with simple ones and keep a
notebook. Do not try anything elaborate and keep away
So Rule One: be capable of distinguishing between
truth and lies-- your own, of course. Once you lose
this, you lose your only advantage.
The only exception to this rule (and remember that
lying, like English grammar, is full of holes) is the
historian. He creates history, his problem lies in
how to defuse the competing versions of his story; a
wonderful movie you may wish to see upon this dilemma
is Kurosawa's Rashomon. Besides the historian, the
salesman may also, within his own mind, blur the
distinctions but here my point is demonstrated: he may
tell his customer that the product can be immersed in
water, but if he actually did this himself, he would
suffer electric shock. This habit may also ooze into
his personal life and he may make use of lying to his
wife, his children.
These sorts of people are not adepts but addicts, lead
singularly cheap lives, and are not respected by their
The second rule is probably obvious by now: never lie
to anyone precious.
This is not because the fabric will eventually tear
but because it creates doubt in your own mind. The
golden rule works in insidious ways: you think people
treat you the way you treat them. Therefore, to lie to
someone you love will create the doubt within your own
mind that others are lying to you.
And this state of tenuousness, it has been proven over
and over, cannot be sustained.
You go mad without trust. Amidst the vast and rich and
icy network of fish that you net, there must be a
buoy, an island, a haven, to which you can go
immediately and recuperate. Lying is a difficult
endeavor although many go into it out of personal
weakness. This is why the advanced courses require a
mental examination as a prerequisite. We can't play if
some of the marbles are missing.
Ah, but then who do you lie to?
In the spring of 1967, as I was boarding a ship, an
accident occurred onboard and we were left stalling on
the ramp for over an hour; it was raining lightly so I
put up my umbrella. Then I realized that it was
dripping on the coat of the lady beside me so I moved
to the edge of the ramp and thus fell into a
conversation with a tall, melancholy looking man who
asked me, between spurts with his aspirator, this
Who do you lie to?
Rather flustered, I answered: those who need to
believe, of course. He then touched my sleeve,
briefly circling his fingers round my upper arm as if
he were measuring something. Through the cloth, I
could feel the cold emanating from his hand. It was so
cold that I thought he had poured lighter fluid on my
arm: it was the same swift evaporation, the cool that
stings like a cut.
Letting go, he asked, Who needs to believe?
Why did I say that? Many people don't need to believe
in anything at all. An aspirator works whether you
believe in it or not. Belief is unnecessary to most
things. I felt his hand on my arm again, cold,
tapping. He stared at me as though he were looking
through me, then, tilting his head far and above, he
covered his mouth, sucked in, exhaling onto the grainy
Without even opening his eyes, he said, And what after
you've burnt all your bridges?
I lit a cigarette, blew it in his face. I'll find
other things to burn.
He took the hint, and eased his way back to his
luggage and wife. I completely forgot about this
until several months later, when I was paging through
a magazine: it was unmistakably him, though a bit
younger, more poised, pipe in hand. The smaller photo
beneath it confirmed my suspicion: the woman that he
had been with was not his wife.
The name he had given me was not his real name.
And what was that pipe-- a prop? He died so young:
only sixty-five. A man with a bad conscience.
Rule three--do not repeat yourself unless the person
Rule four--Do not overemphasize. A lie should always
emerge as a response rather than a statement, offhand
rather than didactic. The pleasure of the lie is
veering the conversation in a dialectic method towards
your lie. Therefore, it is always a long nudge
rather than a coup. Somebody, give me an example,
' I have a daughter in the sixth grade. '
'You have a daughter. Really? In the sixth grade? My
daughter is a year older than yours but Jeanie was put
back a grade because, well, let's face it, she's no
genius; Couldn't add to save her life. Takes after her
mother, most likely.''
Note how bitterness often exudes a whiff of truth.
Five--Do not appear overconfident. It breeds
resentment. Do not appear hesitant. It engenders
mistrust. The appearance of honesty is an art that has
often been relegated to the realm of naiveté when it
is actually the fine balance of shrewdness and trust.
Look a person straight in the eye.
Six--Always start from a moment of truth, meander,
and end with a factual statement.
For example: Did you know that today is the fiftieth
anniversary of the death of the radiant Madame Curie
who discovered a rare, phosphorescent metal and died
of it? She was born in 1867, and died at the age of
sixty-seven. She is a woman of precision. Pravda's
reporters exhumed the corpse and found her body
unfolding like a night-blooming cereus: her face was
entirely unlined and her nails had grown a eighth of
an inch. Now riddle me this: if the half-life of
uranium points to the inevitability of lead, how did
Madame Curie's half-life of thirty-four years
foreshadow Manja Sklodowska becoming Marie Curie?
Names are fascinating--I've spent the last two summers
working on the Ellis Island archives.
Now at which point in this statement do truth and lies
When do they converge?
Look at my tongue: the Pentacostal flame that dances
on the tip: Pravda is Russian for truth. Truth is an
eighth of an inch too deep.
There are other points, numbering in the hundreds,
that we will add onto these during the course of this
term. Lying is like Chess; is it the Gambit, the End
The strategies differ accordingly. While doing a brief
overview of How to Make, How to Present and How to
Correct the Lie, we will be focusing most of our
energies on examining failure; after all, the
potential for disaster is omnipresent and what we must
do when a lie fails is of larger immediate consequence
than what we must face if it succeeds. We will be
armed with certain foolproof methods of escape, both
derisive and offensive, as well as occasional forays
into historical case studies of endlösung: the
collective amnestic, schizophrenic, and, ever so
briefly, violence in the hearth and home. At the end
of this course, no truth shall evade us unscorched.
And the tourney?
Yes, of course: each year we have a tourney between
our department and the logic department and, as you
all know, we have won the tourney seven years running.
That's because their greatest theoreticians, their
prize plums,--the philosophers--are devious little
weasels; there is no objectivity possible in their
Also, guerilla warfare is superior to organized
warfare simply because it does not adhere to a fully
known set of rules; it cannot be anticipated. I will
emphasize this again and again: Rely upon instinct;
run with it. The best liars are not the organized ones
but those who, familiar with the terrain, rely on
inspiration and whim. Never be heavy-handed or adopt
a logical manner; it is wingfooted Mercury and not
Apollo who fashioned the lyre.
The last week of the semester will be spent on two
things: the philosophical necessity of lies in our
society and how to detect a lie. People shall work in
pairs to ascertain the amount of truth in one another.
It is rather subversive since we are going to now
analyze and dissect our own motives and techniques,
the underbelly of all our ventures into this field.
When people lie to us, what are we to do?
It's inevitable. You can't completely immure yourself
from pain anymore than you can predict the future. In
wartime France, the exquisite stained glass of the
cathedral at Chartres vanished. Once the bombings
ceased, the stained glass reappeared, burning in all
its glory. It was a different sort of miracle: the
villagers had painstakingly dismantled each of the
windows and buried them separately.
We too need only to secure the parts that shatter; the
rest will endure somehow. That is why we must
understand who we are and what we are made of. I
advise you all to buy a full length mirror, open your
mouth wide and see who's in there. I once saw an eye
peering out at me. A tawny yellow eye, gleaming,
A paper, twenty pages, will also be due at the end of
the term, and the topics will be discussed with your
preceptors. Any more questions?
Well then, let's end with a game of darts to see what
you've retained from your last quarter with Prof.
1. If you are Theban and I am not, which of us is
2. What are the three forked and unforked lies in our
3. In your expert opinion, who is the father of lies?
4. Is the examined life worth living? What role do
axiomatic lies play in this statement?
5.What is the relation of lying and truth to
happiness? Which is nearer?
6. Are lies undoable?
7. Are lies remarkable?
8. Is trust expendable or can we burn it like a dollar
9. Is it necessary to conserve our lies or is the
10. How could you lie to me like this? What have I
done to you?
When you've finished, hand in the papers to the person
right of you. If you are the person at the farthest
right, gather the papers and place them on the ledge
of the window. Let the breeze fan these oracles onto
We shall meet again on Wednesday. It is wan autumn
itself, and no Indian summer. Already autumn. Really
lovely weather, too lovely to stay inside. Class will
be held outdoors beneath the riotous foliage. I shall
not be present. Attendance is not required. You are
on your own. The tangibility of lies nets the
intangibility of desires. Go now. I am going to go
lie down in the next room. I am feeling sick at heart,
collapsible. It's the weather, the violent change in
the leaves; everything is gold and yellow--it's
barbaric, unsettling. The barometer says a storm is
stirring; I can feel it in the moistness, in the wind;
I can see a blackness in the sky blotting out the
blue, extinguishing the sun. This morning, my
physician saw dark clouds as well: on my X-rays, the
backbone appeared as a white fusion of molten glass
from which ribs pulled outwards and curved into a
fragile, unearthly cathedral of light. But above, an
enormous black stain smeared the plate: this was my
Why is it so dark? I asked.
The radiologist shrugged: Sometimes it is, sometimes
it isn't. I tap my lungs occasionally, you know, and
I think that I have been exposed too long to this. My
teeth and clumps of hair will fall out, my cell count
dwindle and my skin turn black beneath my fingers;
truth, repelled by my cynical exterior, is now gnawing
me hollow. I have here in my pocket the perfect
specimen of a nut: large, brown, glossy, but, when I
crack it open, look: nothing but a giant, pasty grub:
Is truth ever bearable? Shall we give it a go? Let's
use the example of the daughter again: I lost my
daughter yesterday. I lied to her. It was a terrible
mistake. Is this believable? It's worthless as it is:
it needs more texture, more cruelty, a touch of viva
voce from which it springs up as searing as the moment
when one first sees, in the face of one beloved, the
childish features that have long laid dormant: a
wavering, singed smile.
I'll tell you about my daughter. Last Saturday, I come
home from work and I catch her on her way out: she's
dressed up in a fringed skirt, pearly pink lipstick
and drop earrings; the earrings are her mother's. Her
hair is newly cut at a slant. How do I look? she asks.
You look -- I venture, then drop my voice, exhaling
softly. Why? Perhaps it's the earrings: I'm under a
spell and I do things against my will. Or perhaps it's
simply my nature; it's what I do well.
Stop it, she screams, You're trying to make me crazy
aren't you? Why can't you ever say anything nice to
me? You probably drove her crazy too. You think I'm
going to run away, don't you? Why don't you just say
it? You hate me. Just say it. I hate you too. I wish
you were dead.
It's not true, I say quickly, Don't be angry. I love
you. I just -- can't help it. It's what I am.
What is the relation of lying and truth to happiness?
Which is nearer?
I reach out to still her, to calm her, to shut her up,
to still her dry heaves and hiccuping. The neighbors
call. I don't say anything and eventually they hang
up. She's stopped crying. Already there is a silence,
a sudden drop in temperature.
Do you want to know what happened?
The moisture of her breath freezes into a glittering,
suspended mass of metallic flecks, and her hair
stiffens into dense clumps of shining wire. Gold
rivets her spine and she stands upright, solid, limbs
outstretched in a dull, reflective sheen. Her
breathing comes quick and shallow. A whimper. And then
it's over. Various doctors have examined her; they
took samples, careful shavings. An allergic reaction
to loss? Haemorrhage? Jewelers are already offering
But there is still hope: her arm moves
imperceptibly--a few degrees each hour. This morning,
I heard her sneeze, pause, then sneeze again. Last
night, as I carried her up to the second floor, I saw
that her skin had a rosy incandescence: just as there
veins of gold in the earth, there were veins of blood
discernable beneath the gold. The metal was warm to
An afterglow trailed behind us, encrusting the carpet
and stairs with a thin river of light that pooled at
the foot of her bed. I leaned over and cupped my hands
in this pool. My fingers glistened but the light pulls
away. When I put my head down to drink; the river
vanishes, the lights go out. For a few seconds, I saw
her shaky amber outline, then a thick unbreathable
blackness filled the room. I was suffocating; on all
fours, I found my way to the door, then to the stairs
then to the entrance where I lit a match and another,
to watch the boards rippling in a reddish heat,
turning into gold for hours and hours.
One, two, three--
Snap out of it.
I have no daughter.
Your house is on fire, your children are burnt;