Clancy Martin is a philosopher, novelist, professor, and journalist whose new book, Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love (2015), has recently been published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Before becoming a philosophy professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2004, specializing in existentialism, Martin worked in the fine-jewelry business, where he found that selling was in fact a form of storytelling. Deception was the subject of his dissertation as well as his first novel, How to Sell, about a high school dropout who finances the good life by working at a Texas jewelry emporium. In Clancy’s new book, the author makes use of philosophy, memoir, and literary analysis to examine his subject. Clancy’s work is remarkably, sometimes painfully, candid and personal, but in spite of its intimacy, and in spite of my having known him for several years, Love and Lies inspired several questions that I was compelled to ask him.
LARY WALLACE: This project has had a very long gestation. I first talked to you about it in 2007. Can you tell us what took so long?
CLANCY MARTIN: The written project began in 2001, when I first started work on a dissertation called “Nietzsche on Deception.” Then from 2003, post-dissertation, until 2007 or so, I worked on various academic articles about deception, self-deception, and their connection to ideas I was worrying over. Are we right to prioritize truth in the way that we do? Is it the highest good? Or might it at times be one good among many — might it even, at times, run contrary to the good (or, at least, the good for human beings)?
I was particularly interested in the question of truth as viewed from the perspective of truthfulness and deception: that is, truth in communication. I spent a lot of time looking at the philosophical literature on meaning, and found that the area that really captured my attention was what I consider to be the most central question for meaning in human life — the question of love. What is it, how does it work, how do the various types of love relate to each other? So then I had three concepts or areas of inquiry running around in my head, roughly speaking: the question of how communication relates to meaning, the question of how meaning relates to truth, and the question of how love is contingent upon or informs our thinking about the previous two questions. I had to acquaint myself with all three of these very large literatures. I had to do a lot more reading than I had done to prepare for and write my dissertation, and a lot more reading than I had done in doing my research work for tenure. It was, in a way, my first earnest scholarly endeavor. So much reading — a way of stalling the writing, of course — and trying to keep track of it all. Notebooks and notebooks of ideas and sources. [I tried out] many different approaches to the book, all of which sounded impersonal, bloodless, loveless, dishonest.
Then, in a monastery in the Himalayas in 2012, I had a breakthrough, and I wrote a short memoir about love and lies. I rewrote that into a short novel: the story was too potentially harmful to people I cared about to be published as a memoir. (That short novel is coming out this fall: it’s called Bad Sex.) And suddenly I saw a way of writing Love and Lies. I couldn’t take a straight academic approach or a straight memoir approach. I reread Stendhal’s On Love — for the umpteenth time — and thought, well, maybe I should learn from the manner of those great old French (and Roman) stylists who mixed memoir, other people’s stories, literary criticism, philosophical analysis. I’ll try to let the ideas guide the writing and not worry so much — or at all, frankly — about audience or genre. Then it started to come together quite quickly, and it was a matter of distilling the manuscript I arrived at, around 500 pages, down to the manuscript I wound up with, about 250.
Now lots of friends of mine — academics who helped me along the way with Love and Lies — are wanting to work together on various “deception” kinds of projects, and I’m tempted, because I’d like to think I did make some headway on certain difficult questions about meaning and how it emerges in truthful, deceptive, and self-deceptive contexts. But there are lots of other interesting things to write about it too, and you know how it is, there’s only so much time in the day. So, having spent more than 10 years thinking and writing about meaning and deception and love, I’m wondering about some other subjects (like self-knowledge, self-doubt, compassion, and certainty, for instance). It’s hard for me to get very far away from these “existentialist” ideas about the meaning of life, I suppose.
You were working on a memoir several years ago, in addition to this project. Do you still have plans to publish a memoir?
I have been writing a memoir — not the short one I mention above — for about eight years now. Some of it has been serialized in the journal NOON, and some of it has been in Harper’s and in Men’s Journal. The working title is Lisa and Bill. (My stepsister and my father, both of whom died prematurely, at least one of whom was, and probably both of whom were, murdered, and in both cases I was in a way responsible for their premature deaths.) Two of the greatest influences on my life. It is a memoir about my childhood, roughly age two to 21. Diane Williams, my editor at NOON, has done most of the real work on it, in terms of shaping the writing. We had planned on it appearing in NOON for 10 years and then, on looking at the whole thing together — I am hoping that she still plans on this — at that point figuring out what the holes are and filling them in. So with luck, I’ll have a rough manuscript when I’m about 50, and maybe have it finished before my 51st birthday. I’d like to have the manuscript of Lisa and Bill complete in my 50th year. Funny how old that sounds, and suddenly it’s not so far away. (I’m 47 now.)
You begin this book with a chapter introducing us to the “tools” we’ll need to properly understand what it is you’re talking about when you talk about deception. I think it ultimately works, this chapter, but did you or your editors have any trepidation about beginning a general-interest book in this way?
Well, an early version of the manuscript didn’t have the chapter on deception. But then it felt like I hadn’t given the reader enough orientation in the kind of thinking we were going to be doing when it came to these questions of lying, self-deception, and meaning. When I gave it to my older brother — who is a very good first reader when it comes to gauging the reaction of an educated popular audience — he said, “Man, Clance, that first chapter is a killer.” So we knew it was risky. But I think people want to feel like they have the tools they need as they make their way through a book that often dumps a bucket of cold philosophical water over your head. I think some people could skip the first chapter if they wanted to do so, but the stuff on self-deception and subjective truth in there is pretty important to why I think the imagination is crucial for grown-up, sustained erotic love. I don’t know, we’re all already experts at loving and lying both, so a little bit of philosophy on these subjects is probably pretty approachable for most readers.
You also make the decision, less risky but just as jarring and conspicuous, to write about sex in some of the most explicit terms possible. I assume this is because, often when we talk about love, it’s as an abstraction, while this choice renders it specific and immediate.
As far as discussing my personal love and erotic experiences, I felt it was important I be as honest as possible, so long as I wasn’t harming anyone else. When I thought I might harm someone else — like an ex-wife, for example — I maintained a discreet silence. That’s why there is relatively little discussion of my previous two marriages: I didn’t want to cause pain to my ex-wives or my daughters. But otherwise, I thought, well, hell, this is what we’re talking about — erotic love — so don’t be bashful, Clancy, tell it like it happened. The whole project is really a kind of “Emperor’s New Clothes” endeavor: we all already know that we lie about love, and to our lovers, and to win love. That’s not news. But we refuse to talk about it — that’s what’s interesting. So I don’t care to be prudish, that would really be pointless and hypocritical.
In reading your ideas on the uses of deception, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the books of Robert Greene, such as The 48 Laws of Power and The Art of Seduction, titles which attract — I believe — a lot of undeserved contempt. Have his ideas had any influence on you, at the very least as something to avoid?
Well, Robert Greene, whether you love him or hate him, is trying to call it like he sees it. And I admire his honesty. He and I have very, very different views about love, including erotic love, which I think is evident from my book. And he would probably describe me as naive (and indeed some critics have said that I’m a bit of a naive optimist when it comes to erotic love). In class the other day — this is a class mostly about Proust and Bergson — we were talking about jealousy and memory. One of my students said: “I understand that this whole love thing is just a big competition.” And I said: “No, no, that can’t be right. You’re not competing for your parents’ love, or the love of your children, or the love of your siblings.” Of course erotic love is game playing, fictionalizing, creative, imaginative: so is all love, at some level, and erotic love more so than any of them. (Read the Kama Sutra on this — it’s not just a sex manual, it’s probably the best book ever written about love.) But that doesn’t mean it’s a competition. I think the idea that we are in some kind of weird battle to mate with the best partner is wrong in so many different ways that I don’t quite know what to say about it.
Read Robert Greene! Why not? The pages won’t burn your fingers. If you’re a Christian, read Nietzsche’s The Antichrist! I was afraid to read that book for a long time, when I was young and a very ardent Christian. Then I realized that if we’re scared of a book, sheesh, what else are we afraid of? That’s something else I’m very interested in now. How does love relate to fear? How can overcoming fear make us better lovers? I think I’ve been a coward all of my life, and I think I might become a better person, and a better lover, if I can learn to be less fearful.
Speaking of people who receive a lot of undeserved contempt: You come to the defense of Freud in these pages, doing your part to reposition him among those thinkers who should be taken seriously. Can you elaborate on what’s been done to Freud’s reputation in recent decades, and which of his ideas should be taken seriously?
Speaking of people we should read and don’t: Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud and read the whole thing. He’s a splendid, hugely entertaining writer, and one of the greatest philosophers of the past 100 years. All of his ideas should be taken seriously — which is not to say that they are all correct. He raises very, very smart questions — especially about how love develops, and how it relates to what we understand to be meaningful in our lives. People say that in Freud it all comes back to sex. For Freud, it all comes back to love. While you’re at it, read the smartest person writing in a Freudian way today, the mighty Adam Phillips.
Writing about one’s lying — like writing about one’s alcoholism — can, I suspect, do a lot to help keep one honest in day-to-day life. But there’s also a belief that the opposite is true. Since you’ve written quite a bit about both your own lying and your own alcoholism, have you found that this kind of exposure encourages relapse or the straight-and-narrow?
The best thing I ever did to help me recover from my alcoholism was to write about it. Even in AA, they tell you: keep a journal. The best thing I ever did in order to begin to learn how to be more honest with myself and others — and hopefully, to be a better listener, a better communicator, a more thoughtful speaker, a more loving person — was write about my lies and self-deceptions. Sobriety is one thing — for me, that is simple: I can’t drink alcohol. Being a person who communicates, who speaks and listens in a loving way, is a much more complex project. Don’t cheat: that’s easy. Don’t break your promises: tougher, but also clear, and clearly right. Don’t lie? That’s like saying: don’t tell the truth. That’s the story of my book. If you want to learn how to love well, I think, you have to practice thinking about how, what, and why you communicate in a very deep and searching way. That’s a lifetime’s project. Even being honest with yourself all the time is impossible and, if it were possible, undesirable. But thinking about it, writing about it, asking yourself tough questions about how you conduct yourself with the people you care about, your friends, your lover or lovers, your relatives: that we can do, and it’s urgent that we do it. For me, I suppose because I’m a writer, that means writing about it. So yes, it has helped a lot. And hopefully it at least hasn’t harmed anyone else. I’m grateful to say that I’ve had a lot of emails from people struggling with issues like the ones I talk about in my book. So that makes me feel happy about the project. Readers: I’m very grateful to them.