What do you know about your lover? What secrets might he be hiding? Or maybe this is more important: What does your lover know about you? Which of your sins does she know yet keep silent about? For that matter, what do you know about love?
“Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love,” Clancy Martin’s spirited attack on standard notions of romantic love, argues that most of us know little about this coveted emotion. Love isn’t, Martin argues, a refuge of crystalline honesty. What love is, at best, is mutually assured deception — and deep satisfaction. The satisfaction depends on the deception, and we ignore that at our heart’s peril. Make no mistake, Martin believes in the power of love. Deceit just interests him more.
“To claim that when we love, we lie, is almost tautological,” Martin writes. “What’s more interesting, perhaps, is that we are so insistent on the connection between love and truthfulness.” To illuminate this, Martin, a novelist and philosophy professor, offers a mash-up of philosophy, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, and raucous personal anecdote. In chapters anchored to the philosophy of deception, childhood, first loves, mature love and marriage, he argues against the blind faiths of people deeply enthralled by love.
On one level, Martin’s argument is so true as to be silly: The smile you give your partner despite the irritation you feel when they are, say, audibly chewing is mild domestic deceit. Martin touches on such banalities but reserves the bulk of “Love and Lies” for deeper deceptions and self-deceptions. Some of this is the lying that aids affairs — those about inappropriate emotional attachments to a sexy friend, about where you go at night. Yet more corrosive than this — what initially destabilizes relationships — are the stories we tell our partners and ourselves about our relationships’ perfection. Love often seems all or nothing, and when the illusion of perfection fractures, Martin thinks that most of us feel like love is lost. Honesty won’t resolve that, so we need more self-aware deception. As he writes, “Let’s be honest about our lying. Then we will be better able to love.”
What does that mean?
Martin often writes things like “[s]ubjectivity is meaning.” By this he means love both creates and feeds on fantasy and illusion, but when we abstract ourselves from the living moments of life — and the illusions and fantasies that sustain the moments — we embrace a remote and unsustainable idea of love. “We suppose that ‘the truth’ is somehow more important that we are as individuals,’’ he writes. For true love to exist, we must keep “the truth” at bay.
“Love and Lies” is a delight to read. Martin is erudite without being pedantic, and when he slips into raconteur mode the book adopts a conspiratorial tone. We learn that he’s on his third marriage, having destroyed his first two with infidelity. He’s a con artist, a reckless drunk, and he seems to have spent a fair amount of time smoking crack and snorting cocaine. In other words, Martin seems to have a habit for blowing up his life, so it is easy to indict “Love and Lies’” as a rationalization for bad behavior. That wouldn’t be entirely off base, or entirely fair.
Strange as it sounds, “Love and Lies” offers a sophisticated, sometimes overly sophisticated, defense of long-term monogamy. Martin never doubts the viability of “true love,” just its durability. The lies and deceptions we practice in our love lives should be defenses against the boredom and familiarity in long-term relationships that threaten true intimacy. As long as we lie right — and keep in mind that we’re always lying — love might just remain vivid.
Although Martin tips his hat to intellectual heavyweights like Kant and Kierkegaard, he draws inspiration for his central point from the Cure: “I don’t care if Monday’s blue . . . Thursday I don’t care about you/ It’s Friday, I’m in Love,” meaning that “[o]ur feelings change from day to day, and . . . if we are patient with our feelings . . . we will remember that Friday will come around again, and we’ll find ourselves once more in love.”
Michael Washburn is director of programs at the New York Council for the Humanities. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.