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2 March 2022

From the NS archive: Against Honesty

23 August 1974: “To be perfectly honest, I'm something of a liar myself. I admit it. I enjoy it. But honest liars are a dying breed.”

By James Fenton

In this article from 1974, the poet and journalist James Fenton discusses his issues with honesty. For Fenton, who would later work as the New Statesman’s political correspondent, the need for honesty is a symptom of a world changing during an “Age of Openness”: “an erratic manifestation of a wider, more pernicious campaign for self-revelation”. In defiance of traditional or religious teachings, for Fenton there is an immorality inherent in being “perfectly honest”. His particular view on honesty is surmised in his distaste for the Truth Game, where players are allowed to ask whomever they like whatever they are interested to know, “all must answer, and answer truthfully”. An evening playing the game always ends in misery and discord as “each awful confession must be capped by an even worse one, but then each confessor, having painfully punished himself, turns with renewed savagery on the next person when his turn comes to inflict a question”.

“To be perfectly honest,” said someone I know to a group of us one day, “to be perfectly honest, I’ve deceived you about this.” Quite right. To be perfectly honest, I’m something of a liar myself. I admit it. I enjoy it. But honest liars are a dying breed. We live in the Age of Openness (as opposed to the Age of Reason, the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Innocence or any of the other Ages that historians and novelists are wont to thrust upon us) and a dreadful fashion for revealing all has swept across the globe, infecting the most unlikely sections of society.

Diplomats, for instance. The profession of diplomacy has traditionally attracted only the most mendacious and close-fisted spirits. So it is odd that 100 per cent of recorded streaking incidents in the Far East over the past 18 months have involved members (and I use the word advisedly) of the diplomatic corps – as if it had all suddenly become too much, as if the Byzantine ethos had collapsed. In their primitive, inarticulate way, these frustrated second secretaries were attempting to say something about society, to protest about the world they had helped to create.

There were two such incidents. The first took place in Peking, formerly Peiping, at an ambassadorial garden party. The second was a Cambodian affair, involving an Australian. The political nature of the act was underlined by the streaker’s choice of “accessories”: a GI helmet-liner, webbing belt and the modern style of US military wide-cleated jungle boots. Reticence, however, had sullied the full glory of the act. The streaker also wore a nylon stocking over his face. This is what diplomats refer to as a non-attributable, or off-the-record streak.

But streaking is only the thin end of the wedge – an erratic manifestation of a wider, more pernicious campaign for self-revelation, which is being promoted by sadistic unscrupulous people in the name of Honesty. Were I a Victorian painter of an allegorical bent I would make it my life’s work to portray this version of honesty on canvas. The painting would be entitled The Confidante. It would show a beautiful, faintly smiling lady sitting at a fireside. In the opposite chair, a slighter figure, also female, slumped forward so that her face is concealed from our view, her left hand dangling at her side. A pearl-handled pistol lies between them on the floor.

And what is the story? Well, if you look closely you will see the whole thing. Notice first the scraps of paper strewn on the hearth. The remains of a letter? Right. And look at the notebook in the hands of the smiling figure. A diary perhaps? Clearly a confidence has been exchanged – or rather not exchanged but handed over (for these transactions are seldom mutual). But what could have induced the unfortunate young woman to do away with herself in the drawing room? For the answer to this question you must look again at that smile on the confidante’s face. Is it really a smile? The main source of light in the picture is the fire, which, illuminating the features from an unusual angle, has wrought upon them the most horrible distortion. Is it a smile or a triumphant sneer? Notice the pattern on the confidante’s brocade dress, which looked at first like entwined branches, but is in fact an ingenious design of writhing snakes.

Anyone who has played the Truth Game will be able at once to see what has happened: a treasured and intimate secret has been extracted, and a vulnerable heart laid bare. But this act, instead of binding the two friends more closely together, has given the one a chance for which she has long been waiting – the chance to deal a lethal blow, whether by a remark or a look, to the other unfortunate’s self-esteem. The latter has committed suicide of course. The perfect murder.

I do not know which evil person invented the Truth Game, or when it was first played. But I have never heard of, or witnessed, a case of its being played without some dreadful casualty. It may be Russian in origin, for it is certainly similar to Russian roulette. For those fortunate enough to be ignorant of its rules, this is what happens.

A group of friends are sitting around over the remains of a meal; the conversation has rather dried up; there is boredom and a little irritation in the air, but everyone is too lethargic to move, and afraid of lapsing into a healthy, natural silence. At this point, some Lamia-like creature suggests the company should make a pact that, on the understanding that none of the information given shall escape the four walls, each of those present is allowed to ask whomever he likes whatever he is interested to know. All must answer, and answer truthfully.

To refuse to play the game appears like moral cowardice. And so a vile avalanche of probings and revelations begins. Little actual truth is told on important matters, of course, for to tell the truth about oneself it is necessary to have perfect self-knowledge. What takes the place of truth is a form of self-abasement. Amazingly, each player feels that he must, in order to be honest, equate his own feelings or views at their lowest. Each awful confession must be capped by an even worse one, but then each confessor, having painfully punished himself, turns with renewed savagery on the next person when his turn comes to inflict a question. The evening ends in discord and misery.

One might justly remark that only a very idle and sick society would have invented such a pastime (it is very popular, I am told, in isolated French diplomatic circles). But the Truth Game is only the manifestation of the grotesque modern philosophy of friendship, according to which one’s friendship can be rated according to the number of confidences shared. The real you is the secret you, so a real friend is one with whom you air your dirty linen.

But why should this be so? Is it not possible that the real you is as much, or rather more, the public you, and the real friend the companion with whom such notions of self-revelation are unnecessary; that we reveal ourselves much more surely in our unselfconscious opinions than in our “confessions”? The confessional booth was never a great place in which to hear the truth. If you invite me in, to be perfectly honest, I shall lie to you.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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