Tuesday, June 30, 2009

deep truth

Though I do hate him as I do Hell pains, . . .

I must show out a flag and sign of love,

Which is indeed but sign.

-- Othello

If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth.

-- Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics


It seems that in the Renaissance they discovered the interior life. We know this because they obsessed over the exterior. They watched the exteriors of others for signs of what might lie within. They adorned their own exteriors with signs of what might not be within.

The inner life becomes obscurely visible when differing from the outer. I acquiesce but inwardly I seethe. You smile but inwardly you weep. I tell you of my sorrow at your loss but inwardly I gloat. You say my funds are safe with you but inwardly you plan their misappropriation. When we think this way of our behavior, we assume that inner is real while outer is false, and this trope becomes the way we symbolize reality and appearance, being and seeming. Elizabethans, displacing their fear of self on a foreign author, called the expert faker “Machiavel,” and made of him a theatrical type, of which Iago is the best-known instance.

“Integrity” is a eulogistic term, implying that a person’s inner and outer life are one and the same – an integer, indivisible. “Duplicity” is a dyslogistic term, implying that a person’s inner and outer life are two quite different things – an antinomy, fractured. The numbers “one” and “two” connote virtue and vice. In usage, there is no bad integrity or good duplicity.

People of duplicity are hard to read, by definition. They are opaque to us. Duplicitous behavior is a screen, a surface to be read against itself. Unless you are a rube just off the farm, you never take it at “face” value – you assume it is a “mask.” You brush off the manifest message and probe for latent ones. You search the ocean not for waves on its surface but for signs of its depth.

People of integrity are easy to read, by definition. They are transparent to us. Integral behavior can be taken at face value – it does not mask its depth. Its latency is manifest. The waves express the depth. This promise can be trusted because there is no hidden purpose to betray. “An honest man's word is as good as his bond.”* How boring! Othello never holds the stage against Iago.

Iago knows well the flags and signs of love. He raises a banner of honesty on his tower of deceit, and lures an honest man into his keep. He knows how to become trusted without being trustworthy. He feigns good faith, corrupting the naïf who trusts him. Like Belzebub in service to the devil, Iago takes duplicity as raison d’être. Destruction of soul and body is his métier. He loves his falsehood: not far behind him lurks Richard III, who is “determinèd to prove a villain.” Such people do exist. Today we call them sociopaths: they’re very talented. But how to find them out? how to know the depths?

The notions of deep truth and shallow falsehood, true face and lying mask, now seem philosophically dubious. Depth is a myth; we know depth only when it comes to surface. Even Freud admitted that the dream presents itself only in a form already written, the “secondary revision.” We know each other, and are known, in comparison of our various surfaces. Do these surfaces add up to an object? As I present myself to client as a chaplain, I must learn the boundaries of that presentation: Hollis/chaplain differs from Hollis/colleague, Hollis/teacher, Hollis/ student, Hollis/writer, Hollis/friend, Hollis/father, Hollis/husband, Hollis/some other role that’s yet to learn, for which there is no name. All these presentations differ: I must not mix them up (though some who know me in several ways will learn of several presentations). Yet all these presentations must, as Ben Franklin said, “hang together” – or else, eventually, they’ll all hang separately. There has to be a way to move from each act to the others, a way that though not always logical is always – after the fact – correct. My integrity is that of a mobile, each item turning in the draft, shifting in relation to the others, shifting all the others by its movement, moved in turn by all the other movements. To the extent that I lack integrity, it will all be coming apart. To the extent that I have integrity, it will all go on . . . in all its shiftiness . . .

How can you trust me? I might be lying. My flag of virtue – my oath, my clerical collar – is no guarantee. Everything that can signify truth has been used for lies. But sooner or later, you have to trust someone. I cannot give a transcendental pledge of honor, only an immanent one. I promise that I’ll keep the show going. I didn’t betray you today. I won’t tomorrow. Day after tomorrow . . . we’ll get there when it comes.

This much is clear. If you ask me to trust you with my money, you’d better not be stealing it. If you’ve based your public life on claims of Christian faithfulness to wife and children, you’d better not fly to Argentina and your mistress. These men are duplicitous. Each of them is two, and there’s no joining the two. Let them hang separately.

*Ray's English Proverbs (1670)

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