A lie, even the smallest lie, grants the liar a capacious cloak of privacy. In an age of increasing surveillance — our era of technological hyperthymesia, in which each tweet and call, each coming and going, every street crossing and red-light run may be recorded and kept in permanent archive — lying may be the last hope of the individual offering a shelter in which the self may know itself in solitude, unobserved, creating a space into which one can retreat to contemplate one’s life, one’s thoughts, unknown to others, the last refuge of honest men.
— E. J. Levy, “On Liars,” After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays
Knowing what to throw away, and knowing what to keep — according to the troubadour philosopher Kenny Rogers, this is the secret to surviving. Some truths are too precious and fragile to be shared. Montaigne wrote in his essays about the need to cultivate a “room behind the shop,” an arrière boutique, “in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude. Here our ordinary conversation must be between us and ourselves, and so private that no outside association or communication can find a place.” He was conceiving of it as a part of himself detached and separated from the inevitable crushing pain of loss, a safe room of Stoic ataraxia in which to retreat when tragedy and disaster struck. I like to think of mine more along the lines of a secret chamber concealed by an ordinary façade — you know, like a bookcase that rumbles aside when you move the trigger book on the shelf, revealing a hidden passageway. I might not even have anything worth hiding back there, but it’s nice to know it exists if needed.
One recurring daydream I used to have as a teenager was to imagine being able to hide myself — or my consciousness, to be precise — within a tiny part of my own body. I would sit in geometry class and look at a pore on the back of my hand, say, and entertain the fantasy of somehow shrinking “me” down to hide within it, while “my body” continued on autopilot with no one the wiser. “My body” might continue to feel insecure and foolish as events required, but “I” would be somehow insulated from all that. Sometimes my focus would turn outward — I would take notice of a nondescript strip of land or woods near a highway and imagine how great it would be to have some kind of underground shelter there where I could live, hidden in plain sight, too insignificant to ever draw attention. Obviously, this doesn’t reveal anything profound beyond the facts that, one, I was just a typical adolescent shrinking violet, if a moderately more shy and introverted one, and two, that it’s no surprise I had to retake geometry in summer school. But these strange fantasies of deception and deceit were defensive, not malicious. Like most of my peers, I suspect, I never imagined I could actually be “cool;” I just simply wanted to avoid being an object of ridicule. A false front or an escape hatch were my means of evading unfriendly scrutiny.
Still, maybe I wasn’t that weird. The instinct to find close attention threatening and frightening is deeply embedded through the animal kingdom. Sometimes I wonder how well-prepared we are, evolutionarily speaking, for the brave new social media world we’ve created in which we voluntarily expose ourselves to the possibly-dangerous attention of hundreds, thousands, or even occasionally millions of strangers on the gamble that some robust fellow-feeling will keep them from savaging us for for the sheer amoral fun of it. But then again, who’s to say that most of what we see in the online hall of mirrors isn’t mostly deceptive anyway? How many of our profiles and proclamations are unfiltered honesty with no additives or preservatives? Me, I tend toward honesty, but more out of laziness than moral rectitude — I simply don’t have the patience to weave and maintain tangled webs of deceit. But I reserve the right to keep a thief’s lockpicking kit in my back pocket, just in case. I guess you’ll just have to trust me. Ask me no invasive questions and I’ll tell you no serious lies.