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It would seem to be a clear-cut distinction, this distinction between telling the truth and telling a lie. But just as it was with Augustine and the nature of time, this clear distinction between truth and lying becomes hazy when we think about it. Similar to Augustine confessing (among other things) that he thinks he knows what temporality is when not reflecting on it, but as soon as he begins to think about it, he becomes flummoxed, Rabaté's work threatens to leave readers baffled as well. Reflecting upon the nature of lying is what Rabaté proposes to do in this wide-ranging book. A partial list of the diverse topics he pursues would include Arnold Schwarzenegger's film True Lies, a reading of Moliere's Misanthrope, political and media lies, ancient and modern philosophical approaches to the distinction between truth and lies, the relationship between art and the truth, contemporary American culture, ancient and modern approaches to the Liar's Paradox, and various psychoanalytic approaches to the question of the lie in the work of Freud and Lacan. Individually, many of his topics and discussions are quite interesting, but the diversity of topics can be dizzying. Sadly, in the case of Rabaté's book, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Indeed, one could go so far as to say that what this book lacks is an overarching thesis that would organize its diverse parts into a coherent whole. In the remainder of this review, I shall highlight some of Rabaté's most interesting topics from this mélange of a book.
Rabaté's book reminds us just how pervasive this problematic of the lie has been in Western thought and the continuing vexed nature of the distinction between truth and lying in contemporary America's media-saturated culture. The obvious place to begin such a discussion is with the very different experiences of our last two presidents: President Clinton, caught with his pants down and the victim of a partisan witch-hunt, attempting to parse the meaning of words and George W. Bush, who led the nation to war in Iraq based on a series of falsehoods. Rabaté's question with respect to the case of President Clinton is why he was caught in a skirt-chasing scandal when his hero John F. Kennedy (among many other politicians) was guilty of similar misdeeds without suffering the consequences. Rabaté concludes that Clinton was guilty of misreading the broad cultural shifts that had occurred during the time between Kennedy's peccadilloes and his own. Rabaté concludes that, although Clinton was innocent of lying in a technical sense when he stated "I did not have sexual relations with that woman [Monica Lewinsky]" if we understand sexual relations in terms borrowed from James Joyce's Ulysses as "complete carnal intercourse, with ejaculation of semen in the natural female organ" (cited by Rabaté, p. 59). The problem was that by telling the truth in a technical sense, Clinton attempted to deceive by covering up his relations with "that woman."
If Clinton seemed too clever by half, President Bush sought to disguise his prevarications by projecting an image as "a simple man whose semi-stupidity--or at least his intellectual limits--is often exhibited with pride" (p. 61). His heart was too pure and his mind too simple for Bush to capable of the complex deceptions that ensnared his predecessor. In contrast to Clinton's, his lies would be simple--they would project a Manichean worldview that his policies sought to make true: if you're not with us, you're against us. If intellectualism can be the downfall of an American politician, an aura of simplicity, and even at times outright stupidity, can provide a recipe for political success. All great political careers are built on a basis of myth (Bush wasn't Texas cowboy he portrayed on his Crawford ranch, just as Clinton wasn't the down-home Arkansas country boy image he sought to project). At some level, all politics is based upon myth, i.e. on a series of lies. The politician who tells the best story of herself and her origins generally wins the election.
Rabaté turns from this political discussion to a discussion of narrative and of confession, of the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell others about who we are. He focuses here on the series of media storytellers who let the search for a good story get the best of them, beginning with the case of the Washington Post's Janet Cooke and ending with the New York Times' Jayson Blair. Cooke's series on the desperate Congdon Terrace ghetto in Washington, D.C. was so well-crafted as to win the Pulitzer Prize, but Cooke had to return the prize when it was discovered that she had concocted the story of eight-year old Jimmy's heroin addiction. Rabaté focuses on the case of Stephen Glass, a New Republic reporter whose case was quite similar to Blair's: both were young reporters who simply wanted to please their editors and their public at all costs, even if it meant forsaking the truth.
From his interesting discussion of contemporary American media and political culture, Rabaté turns to what can broadly be termed an intellectual history of the lie in literature and philosophy before turning to psychoanalysis in the final third of the book. It is this second section (comprising chapters three and four of the text) that was most lacking in focus. He discusses Nietzsche's account of art (basically, for Nietzsche, humans need the artifice provided paradigmatically by tragedy so that the suffering of existence does not overwhelm them) and contrasts it with Plato's. Plato, who had initially barred poets entry into his ideal city before relenting and allowing access to those whose stories are true. At the same time, he would institute a Noble Lie to account for the origins of the political classes that simultaneously divide the citizens and unite them into one single political entity, that of the polis.
The final two chapters of the text focus on psychoanalysis through an examination of two of Freud's well-known cases of Dora and Schreber. Freud, and later Lacan, will oppose psychic reality to the real: psychic reality is that reality that each of us creates through our perceptions, desires, and memories, while the real violently intrudes upon this psychic reality (really a series of lies) that each of us manufactures for ourselves and communicates to each other: this is the reality of language and ethical society, whose placid surface is periodically ripped through the mute intercession of the Real (273).
I've provided a basic overview of the book; it should be clear that readers who enjoy their books messy will likely enjoy Rabaté's manifold meditations on the ethics of the lie. Conversely, those who like their books a bit more tidy would be advised to steer clear of Rabaté's work. Readers interested in cultural studies and psychoanalysis would potentially enjoy this book.
© 2010 Corey McCall
Corey McCall, Ph.D., is assistant professor of philosophy at Elmira College in Elmira, NY.