Courtney Chatellier

On Giving the Lie

ISSUE 7 | LIES | AUG 2011

Ad for Fraud Fighters, 1949

In my last semester as an undergraduate I took a non-fiction writing class with the former star of an enormously popular late-nineties Chinese nighttime television drama. To make a point once about cultural relativity she said, Ask me if you can borrow my iPhone, which was sitting on the table between us, and when I asked, said I don’t have an iPhone. I said Okay, and looked at the iPhone. Because if we were in China, she explained, and you were Chinese, you would never tell me, “Yes, you do, it’s sitting right there.” You would not even acknowledge that there is an iPhone there. It would be incredibly rude for you to indicate in any way that I was not telling the truth.

In English, we used to have an expression for that very constative that has since fallen from common usage, leaving us with only circuitous paths to get at what might be happening (or not happening) between disbelief and refutation: to give the lie (to) : to accuse (a person) to his face of lying, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Today, to give the lie to has been subsumed by its derivatives, “to belie” or “to prove to be false.” If heard at all now, the phrase is usually devoid of human agents: evidence gives the lie to claims; new studies give the lie to former scientific beliefs. To call out on (or, basically, to rebuke) performs a more generalized and colloquial function in our language. To call (someone) a liar is rarely done outright—normally in the second person interrogative, “Are you calling me a liar?”—and then only in a mode of disbelief and negative suggestion. With the decline of giving the lie, the artistry and etiquette of lying—conjoined to its complement, the ritual of giving someone (back) the lie—have fallen into the obscure territory of the unnamed.

This may be symptomatic of modern and increasingly moderated times. As the OED specifies, giving the lie is always performative, a kind of gauntlet-throwing, a moment of making-official. One cannot give the lie over the phone, in an email, on Blogger or via Gchat; and then again, possibly through Skype; like a handshake or a vow, giving the lie requires the formality of (sort of) physical human presence: to his face. And whereas lying may lie dormant during a long incubation period, with telling and receiving separated by many minutes or years, giving the lie occurs only in the singularity of the speech act itself. Or, as William Faulkner wrote in Absalom, Absalom!, the giving of the lie might instantly ricochet off of the lie itself: “percussion and repercussion like a thunderclap and its echo and as close; the statement and the giving of the lie, the decision instantaneous and irrevocable.”

This notion of the irrevocable may also be outmoded, as we endlessly revise and rehearse our messages, with so much anxiety and yet, finally, with so little finality. Our communications seem predicated on their very open-endedness; with the ever imminent possibility to “send” to an illimitable number of recipients, there is no respect to time, or material cost (there is none of either); and our face-to-face meetings, when they are personal, have less pressure for resolution or closure. (I’ll call you later.)

“Giving the lie,” with its old-fashioned air (apparent even when Faulkner uses it in 1936; even when his speakers speak it in 1910), is a vestigial holdover from ancient speech practices and codes. Tracing the idiom to its origins in the 16th century taps into a moment of fracture in the process and politics of speaking and signifying; we can see that in its earliest uses, to give the lie may have had little or nothing to do with lies or fact-checking, and much more to do with sovereignty and the Word. As Richard Bancroft wrote in 1593, in his anti-Reformist tract defending the bishops and monarch,

[…] [T]he Queen Regent made a Proclamation of her Deſire of Peace, and that the State of the Realm might at the laſt be quiet : But they confuted it: And did animate thoſe of their Faction (with all their Might) to be always ready, and to ſtand upon their guard. They gave the Queen the Lye divers times, and uſed her with moſt deſpiteful Speeches. And at the Length they came to that Boldneſs, as that they termed the Queen’s Part a Faction: And renouncing their Obedience unto her, proteſted, that whoſoever ſhould take her Part, ſhould be puniſhed as Traitors, whenſoever God ſhould put the Sword of Juſtice into their Hands.

Here, giving the lie seems to represent a more generalized impertinence or insubordination. Giving the lie—perhaps here, already, used almost figuratively; are they even speaking directly to the Queen herself? (and to her face?)—is an assault upon the autonomy of another speaker, on the near divine providence of another person to make meaningful speech. Presumably the Reformists do not literally give the Queen the lie, in that they do not call her, to her face, a liar; giving the lie, as employed in Bancroft’s text, seems rather to epitomize “deſpiteful Speech,” speech used not merely to converse or convey information but to degrade another speaker, disrupting a former status quo by elevating oneself above her. Assaulting the Queen’s absolute authority—not to tell the truth, but to be believed unquestioningly and automatically, and so obeyed with no spacing between the giving and the execution of the Do as I say—and staging their assault via speech acts that “use,” “term,” “renounce,” and “protest,” the Reformists prompt the formation of a radical, new kind of insult, one that fundamentally subverts another’s ability to participate in the very signifying economy by which she might answer back or redeem her reputation and authority to do things with words. Hence the urgency introduced by giving the lie: unless rectified, immediately, the act has the power (like saying Jinx!) to eliminate a speaker, casting him from society in a state of disgrace that can only ensue from the special impotence of speechlessness.

Irrevocably changing the relationship between the giver and receiver, giving the lie seems also to implicate a public. In giving the Queen “the Lye,” the Reformists assault the Queen’s authority to govern not only them but also all of her other subjects. As private and personal as giving the lie may have become by the 20th century, it remains intrinsically linked to influence, publics, and performance. To publicly and “Bold”ly renounce one’s loyalty to one’s sovereign lingers as giving the lie’s inherent transgression. Irrespective of the presence or absence of witnesses, and though the threat of making one’s accusation public may remain theoretical or wholly absent when giving the lie, answering to it always reinscribes the possibility of a fundamentally public disgrace as the underlying stake, as though to succumb to the insult just once—like, say, losing one’s virginity—were enough to permanently and symbolically ruin all future prospects of claiming one’s former social space.

Notice Bancroft’s outrage that the factious Reformists, in giving the Queen “the lye,” perform a remarkable inversion, promising that those who obey the Queen will “be puniſhed as Traitors”; further, by claiming “the Queen’s Part a Faction” they instate themselves as the hegemonic majority—which, as we all know, is the part that generally officiates over the threshing of the truth from the lies. The potency and combativeness of giving the lie, inasmuch as we might consider it an affront to sovereignty, begins, at its historical foundation, as a challenge to the sovereign ruler herself. The giving of the lie then does not necessarily refer to a (particular) lie—rather, the lie that one gives refers always to the same performative giving, the reiteration or citation of the practice of insubordination. Joseph Addison, writing in 1711, seems to concur with Bancroft and with late 20th-century China that to give the lie is an insult so grave in and of itself that it forecloses any analysis of the accusation, the purported lie itself:

The great Violation of the Point of Honour from Man to Man, is giving the Lie. One may tell another he Whores, Drinks, Blasphemes, and it may pass unresented; but to say he Lies, tho' but in Jest, is an Affront that nothing but Blood can expiate.

Though a touch facetious, and basing his intellectual authority on medieval chivalric codes that establish Courage as the greatest “Point of Honour” in men (and Chastity, of course, in women), Addison nevertheless reinforces the solemnity of giving the lie; it seems only moments, and degrees of tightly-wound self-restraint, removed from the even more ritualized and definitive confrontation of dueling. (Sir Walter Raleigh goes so far as to observe that, conventionally, “[…] to give the lie/ Deserves no less than stabbing.”) As Addison explains,

The Reason perhaps may be, because no other Vice implies a want of Courage so much as the making of a Lie; and therefore telling a man he Lies, is touching him in the most sensible Part of Honour, and indirectly calling him a Coward. I cannot omit under this Head what Herodotus tells us of the ancient Persians, That from the Age of five Years to twenty they instruct their Sons only in three things, to manage the Horse, to make use of the Bow, and to speak Truth. [emphasis added]

But for the purposes of this essay, Addison is invaluable for introducing the notion of the touch that occurs in giving the lie. Much like the handshake alluded to earlier, or the slap, or the stab, the giving of the lie occurs 1.) once; 2.) in time; and 3.) unmistakably. Intimately violent, the giving of the lie temporarily and temporaneously closes distance between two persons, allowing a direct (and so absolutely unequivocal) transfer of information. There is no possibility of misinterpreting a giving of the lie, or of revoking it once it is given; like a touch, it impels two distinct organisms to experience and process, simultaneously, the same information, the same set of shared sensory and symbolic data. Two animals, however briefly, cease to be discrete, closed systems. The giving of the lie disrupts normally sacrosanct separations. And perhaps even more so than the information transferred via touch, the exchanges that occur in the giving of the lie are specifically codified and inscripted, with preordained reactions and consequences. However briefly (thunderclap—echo), the narratives of two lives synchronize, passing through the same point.

It is unsurprising then that absent from the texts above is any mention of the lies themselves—in Faulkner’s novel, importantly, the purported lie isn’t one—or the question of when and how giving the lie may be warranted. Today we love giving the lie (although we wouldn’t call it that), giving it lightly and loudly; whistleblowers, though their accusations may have more to do with “exposing the truth” than with “giving the lie,” are our champions, and calling someone a liar pales in comparison to the offense of telling her she “Whores, Drinks, Blasphemes” (although we love these accusations too—they are the great democratic levelers, felling our loftiest politicians and pop stars and lowliest local news lowlifes alike). Yet this penchant is not historically unique; in the essay whose title (in its English translation) is borrowed for this one, Montaigne meditates on why we get so especially riled up over being “given the lie” when it is so banal. Describing his contemporary France, with its vogue for lying, he writes in 1580,

Men form and fashion themselves to it as being an honourable practice; for dissimulation is among the most renowned qualities of this age. Consequently, I have often considered whence could arise this habit, which we retained so religiously, of feeling ourselves more bitterly injured by being charged with this vice, which is so common with us, than with any other […]

(Montaigne’s attentiveness to the practice of lying, his concern with the “vice,” reveals even to the novice francophone that we are lost in translation; Montaigne never wrote about “giving the lie.” “Du démentir,” the essay’s original title, translates more literally as “on refutation.” Despite the plethora of phrasal verbs involving the French “to give” (donner), and notwithstanding Derrida’s obsession with the gift, the French have no equivalent to the English idiom.)

As Robert Pinsky put it, writing about today, but as an introduction to Raleigh’s invocation to “give the world the lye,”

Denunciation abounds, in its many forms: snark (was that word invented or fostered in a poem, Lewis Carroll’s "The Hunting of the Snark"?), ranking-out, calling-out, bringing-down, blowing-up, flaming, scorching, trashing, negative campaigning, skepticism, exposure, nailing, shafting, finishing, diminishing, down-blogging. Aggressive moral denunciation—performed with varying degrees of justice and skill in life, in print, on the Web, in politics, on television and radio, in book-reviewing, in sports, in courtrooms and committee meetings—generates dismay and glee in its audience.

The very proliferation of synonyms seems reflective of why our modern, much-mediated moments of denunciation bear little relation to giving the lie, with its definite article, its unmistakable gravity, its singular irreplicability and irreversibility, its irony-foreclosing seriousness: to say he Lies, tho' but in Jest, is an Affront that nothing but Blood can expiate.

Today, with the expression’s archaism and unfamiliarity—and its strange disjuncture with its more common uses (as “to belie”)—it conjures an oddly literal transaction. Here is your lie; I see what it is, and no longer want it; take it. Yet what one is giving in giving (someone) the lie is not a lie at all; we might ask what, if anything, is given? And how is the giving being given? Obscurely, to give may mean to attribute (as in the phrase, “The translation of the Diatribe against England, which has been given to the pen of M. de Tallyrand”); to give you the lie, then, means to ascribe—to you—the lie that was told, to accredit your authorship or ownership of the lie. Presupposed here is that the lie is already known for what it is; it is out; it is no longer fooling anyone: it is simply waiting to be returned to its creator in order to definitively conclude its circulation.

Yet giving the lie attributes not only the lie to the liar, it also attributes the lie qua lie: in the giving of the lie, “the lie” is what reveals itself to be one. The lie has no natural existence of its own; it does not lurk in minds or mines waiting to be unearthed. Notwithstanding good and bad information, true and false belief, knowledge and ignorance. But “giving the lie” implies that a lie is not, or does not exist—it happens. Giving the lie suggests that rather than absolute, lies are relational, contingent, and occasional: flashpoints, like Faulkner’s thunderclap, of an indelible and instantaneous meeting of two people on equal terms—however volatile or unstable that instant of equalizing. Somewhat anachronistically, we might then speak of the intimacy of giving the lie.

In Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! “giving the lie,” employed by two of the novel’s several narrators, refers exclusively to the moment between father and son, when a lie is not told but rather a truth denied and also definitively refused by the son’s giving the father the lie.

Because Henry loved Bon. He repudiated blood birthright and material security for his sake … So much so that he (Henry) could give his father the lie about a statement which he must have realised that his father could not and would not have made without foundation and proof. Yet he did it, Henry himself striking the blow with his own hand, even though he must have known that what his father told him … was true. He must have told himself … I will believe; I will. I will. […]

Evoked again in terms of physical contact (striking the blow), here giving the lie impels the physical presence not only of the face, but the hand to strike, the body to receive the blow. In giving his father the lie, in repudiating kinship (“formally abjur[ing] his home and birthright”), Henry disowns his father Sutpen, and his inheritance; the novel is unequivocal that this is only just and inevitable and natural consequence. Yet the deferral of answering for the giving of the lie—the web of other persons and repudiations that must coalesce before not Henry but Bon and Sutpen die for the giving of the lie—implies a more complex economy of giving the lie, a familial and class and national genealogy predating Henry’s (or even Sutpen’s) lifetime.

The interiority projected onto Henry by his narrators also implies a privacy in giving the lie that predates and predicts the violent and intimate collision of two persons in one giving the other the lie. Publicizing his (volitional) belief, he simultaneously cements it in the privacy of his own mind. Importantly, the narrators who attribute Henry’s act as “giving the lie” are commentating at a half century’s remove. As Mr. Compson explains, driving the novel’s self-consciousness nearly to explosion, “performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable,” these characters are all larger than life,

simpler and therefore, integer for integer larger, more heroic and the figures therefore more heroic too, not dwarfed and involved but distinct, uncomplex who had the gift of loving once or dying once instead of being diffused and scattered creatures drawn blindly limb from limb from a grab bag and assembled, author and victim too of a thousand homicides and a thousand copulations and divorcements.

In other words they, purposive, focused, coherent (despite the fact that we in our clumsy attempts at reconstruction might render them incoherent), could give the lie—whereas already, in 1911, another modernity, an act of such singularity and decidedness was no longer possible.

The Hypocrite Reader is free, but we publish some of the most fascinating writing on the internet. Our editors are volunteers and, until recently, so were our writers. During the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, we decided we needed to find a way to pay contributors for their work.

Help us pay writers (and our server bills) so we can keep this stuff coming. At that link, you can become a recurring backer on Patreon, where we offer thrilling rewards to our supporters. If you can't swing a monthly donation, you can also make a 1-time donation through our Ko-fi; even a few dollars helps!

The Hypocrite Reader operates without any kind of institutional support, and for the foreseeable future we plan to keep it that way. Your contributions are the only way we are able to keep doing what we do!

And if you'd like to read more of our useful, unexpected content, you can join our mailing list so that you'll hear from us when we publish.