Convocation 2010

Lena Lencek
Professor of Russian & Humanities


Lencek image
Lena Lencek
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
—Emily Dickinson

When Professor Steinberg invited me, last spring, to give this year’s convocation lecture, I instantly accepted and reflexively reached for the title “Penelope of the 21st Century.” The words popped into my mind because in early May, years and years ago—around the time that Reed undergraduate Toni DeVito decided to name her first car “Penelope”—I found myself in Sofia, Bulgaria, a city of caterwauling cats, chestnut trees, and the remarkable poet Elissaveta Bagrjana, with whom I was working on a translation of her first volume of poetry. The association between Bagrjana and The Odyssey made sense because in 1927, when she had published her first collection of verse, Bagrjana had announced:

I am not Penelope of ancient Greece
who meekly weaves and unweaves
and waits twenty years for Odysseus—
loitering on lands and seas, spellbound
by Sirens on unknown isles—
to return, in his own good time, to me
when even the dog can barely recognize him.

A plan formed to read The Odyssey through Bagrjana’s impulse to tear Homer’s Penelope free of her home, and show her as being up to something more profound and meaningful than sitting at her loom, crying, nagging her son, and praying for sleep. I considered a philological angle: I thought maybe I should relate her predicament to the traditional folkloric motif of the husband at the wife’s wedding, But, frankly, Homer’s discreet, wise, seasoned, faithful, wary, and reserved wife, mother, and queen is a bore. The other Penelope, however, the one who strings men along, the devious sneak in no rush to marry and thereby trade in the admiration of many men for the criticism of one—as Katherine Hepburn sassed—that Penelope is another story altogether. Which is what brought me to the topic of deceit.

Deception pulses through this epic. It is the engine that drives the plot and structures the narrative into a bewildering series of digressions, flashbacks, flash-forwards, and competing versions of events. There are liars and tricksters among the Olympian gods. Among humans, there are perfidious servants, treacherous hosts, knavish guests, and bamboozling masters. Odysseus presents himself to the court of King Alcinous with the profound boast: “I am Odysseus, son of Laertes, known to the world/ for every kind of craft ” (9.21-22) “Craft”—the Greek word “dolos” names the spirit of trickery, cunning deception, and treachery who, according to myth, was Prometheus’ apprentice. In a pinch, and with a steroidal boost from Athena, Odysseus, the middle aged veteran of the Trojan war, can still martial the strength to kill men and monsters; but he needs no divine help when it comes to pulling a con. If he didn’t know the value of deception before his encounter with the Cyclops, he certainly learns it afterward. As he sails clear of Poseidon’s boorish and blinded son, he reveals that “Nobody” and Odysseus are one. Of course, he ends up paying for this act of heroic hubris with a decade of his life, because now Poseidon knows who maimed his son. Telling the truth can be dangerous.

My question for you today—and in the days you will devote to discussing the text—is this: What is a piece of fiction that champions deceit doing in the curriculum of Reed College, which values transparency, honesty, and an unflinching commitment to truth-telling? What business does Odysseus—this splendid hunk of testosteronal and superhuman steeliness, this marathon womanizer, this maniac of a recklessness that puts his family, his men, and his city in mortal peril—in short, what business does this Tiger Woods of the classical world have commandeering the master text of the Reed humanities curriculum? What positive lessons does this trickster, liar, and cheat—this “man of twists and turns”—have to offer a community such as Reed’s, which is governed by voluntary adherence to an Honor Principle that bids us not to lie, cheat, or steal. What does the Reed faculty know that Plato didn’t—the Plato—who though admiring Homer, banned him from his ideal republic because he puts forward images that are untrue?

I would propose that The Odyssey asks us to explore deceit in its root deceptiveness—as being capable of tipping either way—as leading to illumination or to darkness—and that its pedagogical merit might lie in inviting us to consider what we can learn by studying the various iterations, the uses and abuses of deceit: in literature, history, science, economics, anthropology, philosophy, medicine. Why do we need to know about deceit? And how can we use deceit in the pursuit of virtue and community?

I won’t answer any of these questions, but I will suggest some of the ways The Odyssey invites us to think about deceit.

How many of you think being deceitful is bad? Dangerous?

The Odyssey, on some level, would agree with you that not telling the truth is dangerous: it involves the risk of moral censure and contempt and the penalty of exclusion, loss of face, and shame. This is what happens in book 9 of The Iliad, when Achilles, that boy-scout among heroes, sneers at Odysseus with the words:

“I hate that man like the very Gates of Death
who says one thing but hides another in his heart” (9.378-79)

We recall these words in book 11 of The Odyssey, when the opposing heroes—brawny, truthful, and dead Achileus and brainy, deceitful, and living Odysseus—meet in hell. We hear a variation of these words in The Odyssey, in book 14, when Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, says of himself to his loyal swineherd Eumaeus:

“I hate that man like the very Gates of Death who,
ground down by poverty, stoops to peddling lies.” (14.183-84, p. 306)

These lines seem to condemn verbal acts that conceal mental acts—saying one thing and hiding another in one’s heart—and for “peddling lies,” trafficking in fictions for profit. Why do Achileus and Odysseus-as-beggar “hate” lies? And do they hate them for the same or for different reasons?

Plato, Augustine, Rousseau—to limit myself to thinkers whose works are represented in our humanities syllabi—suggest we view Odysseus’ lying through the prism of morality. Plato recoils at a picture of the world with whose flawed heroes we sympathize and whose divinities are fallible. Rousseau says in the fourth walk of his Reveries of the Solitary Walker that being truthful is a prerequisite for justice. Augustine insists on truth, because lying subverts the purpose of speech, which is given to us by God. This truthfulness of God eventually—via the 17th century philosopher René Descartes who insists that the divinity is not “malicious,”—becomes a precondition for the truth claims of modern science.

In our text, annoyingly enough, the Olympian gods are bound by no such injunction against deception. They lie like Machiavelli’s Prince. And that mere fact is enough to shift the moral compass in the world of The Odyssey and lead us to consider a regime other than ethical that would accommodate the practice of deception.

An illuminating and timely digression

A recently disgraced Harvard ethno psychologist gives us a convenient restatement of these two positions. Marc D. Hauser is the author of Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, a scientific study titled “Costs of deception: Cheaters are punished in rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta)” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 1992, and is currently at work on Evilicious: Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad. Dr. Hauser’s research, focused on uncovering a “universal grammar” of morality, was itself exposed to be immoral because his findings turned out to be based on fraudulent data. The academic was caught up in a double deceit: the entire thrust of his work is directed at locating the low side of morality in animals, and yet he himself ends up taking a walk on the wild side of ethics. It’s one thing to engage in academic misconduct when you’re studying fission, but when you promulgate deception in a study of the nucleus of human ethical behavior, then you’re setting off a bomb. For this, the academy—exercising its moral imperative as the guardian of “scientific truth”—censured him. And even as he acknowledges his wrongdoing, Dr Hauser justifies it: “I have learned a great deal from this process and have made many changes in my own approach to research and in my lab’s research practices.” The deception yielded a truth.

Back to the text

Typologically, there are three kinds—at least—of deceptive acts that drive the plot along in The Odyssey: one, those, such as exemplified by Ares and Aphrodite, in which the deceivers resort to deception to preserve autonomy of action that goes contrary to the norm of the collective; two, those, as in the case of Odysseus and the Cyclops, in which deception is a tool of self-preservation in circumstances in which the deceiver is outmaneuvered; and three, those in the case I am about to describe, in which the deceiver uses deception to ascertain the truth. In book 24, when the long lost Odysseus meets up with his grieving father, the prodigal son plays one final trick. Catching sight of the “man worn down with years, his heart racked with sorrow,” (24.258), Odysseus:

Halted under a branching pear-tree [Augustine fans: note the species of tree here!], paused and wept.
Debated, head and heart, what should he do now?
Kiss and embrace his father, pour out the long tale—…
Or probe him first and test him every way? (24.259-63)

He decides on the latter. He abuses the old man with reproaches, offers a fictional account of his acquaintance with Odysseus, and a coded curriculum vitae with punning names that conceal and reveal the truth.

Homer gives Odysseus a formula of testing that signals the epistemological function of deceit to determine the truth. Some variation of the words “probing with winging words” frames each episode in which Odysseus conceals his identity to meet up with various members of his Oikos, his family, on Ithaca. His fictional autobiographies—the “winging words”—are a tool of analysis, exploratory instruments, “pious lies”, probes for getting at the truth.

What is fascinating is that in all three of these instances—however they differ in their social dynamics and ethical weight, one thing is constant: all three involve a high degree of self-consciousness and self-knowledge: in the instance of adultery—covert transgression—the possession of a social moral conscience or knowledge of the norm; in the instance of self-preservation in the face of overwhelming threat, the knowledge of one’s limitations and weaknesses; and in the case of determining truth, the possession of a standard or criterion of certainty, of a calculus for distinguishing the real from the false.

Odysseus’ lies throughout his travels have a cumulative effect: they erode his sense of self. Giving himself a series of different biographies, divided between heart and libido, thrust among strangers, he is indeed “Nobody.” And, by the way, because he reveals himself to be a liar (as in the Cretan Liar paradox) he has a crucial need for material signs that will confirm the truth value of his words—hence, the scar and the rooted bed.

This subversion of the self through the lie is what, in the view of Immanuel Kant, makes it wrong to lie. No lie of any sort is permitted, Kant says, because in telling a lie one denies one’s own humanity, given that humanity hinges on one’s right to one’s own truthfulness. Is this what ultimately drives Odysseus home? Not just the desire for his Penelope, his son, and his Ithaca. But also the desire to speak the truth and recover his true identity by regaining his membership in his Oikos, his community.

Socrates, in Plato’s Lesser Hippias, argues that the person who is most competent to speak truthfully is also the one who is most competent to speak falsely. How does Homer, the fabulist, teach us to lie our way to the truth, and to appreciate the epistemological and ontological debts we owe to deceit? The answer, I think, is signaled by one of Homer’s many formulas, those repetitions of phrases and words and passages that Milman Parry, in 1934, and other scholars of the genre finger as the feature that distinguishes the oral from the scripted epic. I love the formulas because they signal not the author’s momentary lapse of creativity or energy, but his desire to add stress and emphasis to a particularly important element. Think of them as the oral equivalent of italics. Here’s the one that seemed to me key in unraveling the conundrum of deceit. Three times we hear:“…Odysseus is my father—/ there was a man, or was he all a dream?” (15.267-68); Penelope’s “There was a man, or was he all a dream?“ (19. 363, p. 400), L “There was a son or was he all a dream (24.322, p. 477). This recurrent formula, uttered by the members of Odysseus’ Oikos, formulates the epistemological and ontological doubt that lies at the core of The Odyssey. This is the doubt as to the relationship between reality and report, surface and depth, appearance and substance. It is a doubt expressed by Prince Telemachus about his paternity:

“Mother has always told me I’m his son, it’s true,
but I am not so certain. Who, on his own,
has ever really known who gave him life?” (1.249-251)

This is also the doubt that is spawned by distance—spatial and temporal—that separates experience from memory.

This is also an uncertainty springing from the nature of a consciousness that shuttles between the empirical realm, the stuff of the senses, and the oneiric—of dreams, imagination, hallucination, myth. Both are represented in the epic in a series of paired planes of reality: the fantastical adventures of Odysseus vs. the quotidian routine of Penelope; the duality of spirit and body ;the martial past of Troy vs. the pastoral present of Ithaca; the image of Ithaca itself as point of departure and point of arrival; and the supernatural traffic of the gods vs. the natural traffic of humans; the historical or “documentary” biography of Odysseus vs. the “fictional” reconstructions given by the hero.

There is also the key complication that generates plot suspense and action, the completely existential and marital status of the protagonists that is so beautifully and delicately plotted in space. Penelope repeatedly makes her appearance in the public section of the house, standing at the threshold of the great hall, with the pillar behind her and a serving maid on either side. She is literally situated at the limen, at the border between two antithetical social roles of wife or widow, each of which entails a different configuration of social obligations and rights. Similarly, Odysseus, returning to his home in the guise of a beggar, positions himself at the threshold of the hall where the debauched suitors revel, also situated at the border between dead and living, beggar and king.

On the level of language, The Odyssey constantly pushes up against the tension between experience and its transformation into narrative. The shadow of the homecoming is constantly present in The Odyssey, which, of course, can be read as the endless story of a return that can only be achieved through its repeated telling, and which exists in a prerequisite form even before the adventures begin.

And finally, there’s the element of language itself, the language whose very existence creates duality, equivocation that is signaled over and over again through the metaphors and similes of the text (for example, culinary metaphors for revenge, p. 423; and gastronomy and murder, p. 414; and, in the prophecy of Odysseus’ final journey, the oar that is also a fan to winnow grain). The language forces us to reflect on the possibility that language itself is the precondition to the lie.

And if language is taken to be the unique and celebrated property of humanity, then lying would seem to be the distinctive species feature of humanity. The world of the text, multi-dimensional, composed of parallel constructs of reality, whose primary and secondary and ternary fictions draw into themselves the entirety of the Mediterranean world—the same world through which freshmen will journey in the new humanities course, and reach across time from the mythical forever of the Olympian gods to this moment of our involvement with the text.

Let me at least gesture toward an arbitrary, formal closure. What point and profit can we take from Homer’s fiction, a text that we take as a privileged site for the inquiry into the epistemology, morality and pragmatics of lying? Because fiction achieves its aim by impersonating the real without claiming the real for itself, it takes, as Emily Dickinson tells us, the curved path to arrive at “The Truth’s superb surprise.”

The act of inquiry into the world, the act of understanding itself, involves a duplicity, a doubling, that is a kind of lying. Fictions can mislead and charm and can tell the truth. Vladimir Jankelevitch, the Russian Jewish moral philosopher writing in France before and after World War II, pointed this out when he said, “The power to deceive is given at the heart of the power to make oneself understood, not as a secondary effect of it, but as its ransom—the other side of the alternative.” This view coaxes out of lying the profoundly creative function of deepening consciousness, of finely calibrating the ethical barometer, of making one more deeply human. Marcel Proust goes one step further: the lie is the fundament of learning, it is “one of the few things in the world that can open windows for us on to what is new and unknown, that can awaken in us sleeping senses for the contemplation of universes that otherwise we should never have known.” And, of course, Oscar Wilde in “The Decay of Lying” warns against falling “into careless habits of accuracy . . . or frequenting the society of the aged and the well informed” since “Both things are equally fatal to…[the] imagination.”

Here, at Reed, we take up the curved path of Odysseus toward the truth—the path refined into a method of inquiry by Socrates that bears his name—the Socratic method. By devious means we come to the truth. And by trial and error we continually put in place some solution to the problem of whom to trust and on what basis.

We meet today to inaugurate the last semester of the last year of the Decade of Deceit, a decade during which we’ve been spun silly by bamboozlers and hustlers and flim flam artists that range from Enron’s Ken Lay to Bernie Madoff to the Titans of securities and hypocritical prelates, and span scams that run the gamut from the sublime (the Weapons of Mass Destruction and sub prime mortgages) to the silly (Balloon Boy!). Surely there’s a benefit for all of us today, who are steeped in propaganda and advertising and stewing in deceit, to study and know its ways, its pitfalls, and benefits. Odysseus: lead the way!