Before we ruminate on Clancy Martin’s Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love, let’s consider this tale of love and lies, told to me some years ago:
A young business executive goes to a conference in NYC. She’s mid-twenties, never married and charmed by a sales executive from London, mid-thirties. He’s funny, quirkily handsome, and after a three-day seduction, they’re in his hotel room’s Jacuzzi tub. He’s already asking when they can get together again; she’s falling for him, imagining a future. She’s amused as he adds bubble bath to the tub and lavishly bathes her. He rubs shampoo into her hair, then styles it into several shapes that he announces with a Don Pardo boom: “Bride of Frankenstein,” “Poodle-Do,” “the Classic Spike.”
She looks at him and says, “You’re married, aren’t you?” His eyes give everything away. She’s just young enough to remember her own father’s creative shampoo-dos, and this British exec is definitely a father. His stammering denial— “divorced,” he says— doesn’t cut it. The seducer’s caught in a lie and stunned to be discovered.
But wait a minute. Clancy Martin would say that the female executive was merely deceiving herself from the start. Why did she presume he was available? Maybe because she wanted him to be? Both parties were engaged in deception. According to Martin, all love relationships are full of both deceptions and self-deceptions. A philosophy professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Martin’s dissertation work and the theme of his previous novel How to Buy are about deception. Here, he’s frank right away:
But let me be honest, there’s more to my interest in love and deception than my philosophical fascination with the subject. I’ve long had a practical interest in deception because I spent seven years of life a professional liar.
Martin’s novel was inspired by working in the luxury jewelry business, where he admits lying is a practiced art. Of course, in this book, Martin’s tongue-in-cheek admission that he’s going to be honest should set off alarm bells. In this extended 248-page “essay,” Martin, in the interest of full disclosure, becomes a little too transparent. After some rigorous front-loaded philosophical theory on lying, we learn about his separation anxiety from his mother, his excruciating case of anal retentiveness (which includes some graphic b.m. adventures), his cruel manipulation and outright revenge on one of his first loves, the adultery that severed two marriages, and his psychiatric stays after suicide attempts (fueled by alcohol). He comes clean, but such admissions taint the brew. When he prevaricates for an entire chapter over whether or not he passed the sociopath test, it’s difficult to “buy” Martin’s claims. Love and Lies purports to be a book on the experience of love, but really it’s Clancy Martin’s attitude toward love.
To solidify his case on love and deception, Martin provides some illuminating glosses on the works of philosophers Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Machiavelli, and Nietzsche, with a lot of pop culture—like Jim Carrey’s character in Liar, Liar—thrown in. He does some exacting analysis of love and deception in literature. There’s Proust, Joyce’s “Araby,” Shakespeare (a sonnet and Much Ado About Nothing), Turgenev’s Woldemar, and Raymond Carver’s “symposia,” What We Talk about When we Talk about Love. These are of interest primarily in the way they appeal to Clancy’s emotional experiences with love.
To his credit, he puts the kibosh on the overplayed cliché from Plato that there’s just one other out there who will complete us. Aristophanes was a playwright, Martin points out, and so the mythical tale of conjoined men and women—“some of us are men sewn to men, some men sewn to women, and some women sewn to women”–and our desire to find our other half is a fiction. If we accept the fiction—repellently present in many rom-coms still—that our other half is bereft without us, we’re in for hard times. To me, the idea is made grotesquely apparent in the song “Miserable” by Lit: “You make me com, You make me complete, You make me completely miserable.”
For all Martin’s certainty that love is a game of deception, I would beg to differ. Maybe it’s a matter of definition. He does prove that young love is full of illusion, if not deception. His literary references and his life story illustrate that we spend enormous amounts of time (and money and sanity) creating illusions about ourselves and those we love. And chasing those illusions. Perhaps we have to get over the feeling of rejection from our mothers, as Martin did. Developmentally, however, let’s hope we get real. Daniel Levinson, in The Seasons of a Man’s Life, says that after the mid-life transition (or crisis if you want it that way), we should be in the process of “de-illusionment,” and our attitude toward everything, including love, should be more reality-based and Icarus-like—down to earth. “The loss of illusions,” he says “is thus a desirable and normal result of maturity.” Living an illusion is ubiquitous in early adulthood, when we are constantly grasping. The challenge becomes to get beyond such grasping after idealized images.
Martin’s tempting subtitle “the growth and care of erotic love” holds out the promise that he’ll provide the reader with some guidance, yet that only occurs in the last chapter. Having arrived at his third marriage, Martin is at his most optimistic, yet still maintains that a certain amount of deception is expected—needed—in marriage. “To lie to yourself—” he writes, “to be willing to lie to yourself and, when required, to be willing to lie to the ones you love—might not be, as Adrienne Rich thinks, an expression of unutterable loneliness, but on the contrary, an assertion of your love.” He shores up his idea: marriage is a creative act that is served by Coleridge’s “suspension of disbelief” so as to engage in a “living truth.” And yet, what Martin calls lying may just be great kindness. Is his wife lying when, post-coitus, she looks dreamily into the distance and doesn’t tell him what she’s thinking? Maybe she’s just being kind. Or private.
While it would be delusional to love as Aristophanes recommends—constantly seeking our other half as if he or she can complete us—do we have to love delusionally? I hope not. Though he rejects Rich’s conclusion about love in the just-quoted passage, Martin often highlights the poet’s deep perceptions; she writes: “An honorable human relationship—that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’—is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they tell each other.” Refining, in Martin’s view, involves deception; in Rich’s view, maybe it’s about a de-illusioned and kind wisdom toward the one you choose to love. And the genuine joy that can be found there.