Below is reproduced Dostoevsky’s 1873 essay Something About Lying – it’s extracted from the PDF link at the Internet Archive1 and OCR-ed/cleaned up with Mathematica. (I had some trouble finding a nice copy online that I could read on my kindle.)
Note that it also seems to have been referenced in one or two places under the title A Word or Two about Vranyo.
Download as a .txt (nb – no italics!)
SOMETHING ABOUT LYING
Why is everybody here lying—every single man? I am convinced that I will be immediately stopped and that people will start shouting: “Oh, what nonsense, by no means everybody! You have no topic, and so you are inventing things in order to begin in a more imposing fashion.” I have already been upbraided for the lack of themes, But the point is that now I am earnestly convinced of the universality of our lying. One lives fifty years with an idea, one perceives and feels it, and all of a sudden it appears in such an aspect as to make it seem that one had hitherto not known it at all.
Lately, I was suddenly struck by the thought that in Russia, among our educated classes, there cannot be even one man who wouldn’t be addicted to lying. This is precisely because among us even quite honest people may be lying. I am certain that in other nations, in the overwhelming majority of them, only scoundrels are lying; they are lying for the sake of material gain, that is, with directly criminal intent.
Well, in our case, even the most esteemed people may be lying for no reason at all, and with most honorable aims. We are lying almost invariably for the sake of hospitality. One wishes to create in the listener an aesthetical impression, to give him pleasure, and so one lies even, so to speak, sacrificing oneself to the listener.
Let anyone recall: has it not happened to anyone to add twenty times, let us say, the number of versts which, in one hour, horses have driven him, if only this be needed to strengthen a pleasurable impression on the listener. And, indeed, wasn’t the listener pleased to such an extent that he would start at once to assure you that a certain troika, which he had known, on a bet outran a railroad train, and so on, and so forth.
Well, what about hunting dogs? Or how, in Paris, teeth were replaced in one’s mouth? Or how, here, you were cured by Botkin? Regarding your illness, haven’t you related such wonders that you started believing them yourself by the time you bad reached the middle of your story (since by the middle of a story one always begins to believe it), but, when going to bed at night and recollecting with pleasure how agreeably your listener had been impressed, you would suddenly stop and involuntarily utter: “Eh, how I lied!”
However, this is not a convincing example, since there is nothing more agreeable than to talk about one’s illness, if only a listener can be found; and once you start talking, it is no longer possible to refrain from lying; this will even cure a patient. But, returning from abroad, didn’t you speak about a thousand things which you beheld “with your own eyes . . .”? No, I shall withdraw this example: for a Russian returning home it is impossible not to exaggerate things about “abroad,” for otherwise why should he have been journeyng thither?
But take, for instance, natural sciences! Did you not discuss natural sciences or bankruptcy cases and escapes over the border by different Petersburg, and other, Jews, understanding nothing about them and not knowing the A B C of natural sciences?
Excuse me—did you not relate some anecdote, as if it happened to you, to the very person who had told it to you as if it had happened to him? Did you possibly forget how, by the time you reached the middle of the story, suddenly you recalled and guessed this fact, which was clearly confirmed in the suffering look of your listener, who was intently staring at you (since in such cases people, I don’t know why, stare at each other with an intensity magnified ten times)? Do you remember how, despite the loss of all your humor, nevertheless, with a courage worthy of the great cause, you continued to lisp your story? And then, when hurriedly you did get through with it, you both, with nervously hasty civilities, shook hands, smiled and ran in opposite directions from each other?—So that when, for no reason, in an ultimate convulsion, some demon drove you to cry to the listener, running down the staircase, a question about his auntie’s health, he did not turn to you and made no reply—which fact stuck in your recollection as the most painful thing in the sum total of the incident that happened to you?
Briefly, if to all this anyone should answer me with a nay, namely, that he did not relate the anecdotes, did not touch upon Botkin, did not lie about Jews, did not shout on the staircase about auntie’s health, and that nothing of the kind ever happened to him—I would simply not believe it. I know that the Russian liar, time and again, lies without even noticing it himself, so that one may not perceive the fact that he is lying. See what happens: no sooner will a man tell a successful lie, than he will include the anecdote among the unquestioned facts of his personal life, and then he acts quite conscientiously because he fully believes it; besides, it is unnatural sometimes not to believe it.
“Eh, rubbish!”—I will be told—“These are innocent lies; there is nothing universal about them.” Be this as it may, I agree that all this is quite innocent, and merely hints at noble traits in one’s character—for example, at a feeling of gratitude. Because if you were listened to when you were lying, it is impossible not to let the listener lie, if only from mere gratitude.
Courteous reciprocity in lying is virtually the prime condition of Russian society—of all Russian meetings, evening entertainments, clubs, scientific bodies, etc. Indeed, it is only a dull blockhead who, in cases of this kind, will suddenly begin to doubt the number of versts driven by you, or the miracles which Botkin performed when treating you. But these are heartless and hemorrhoidal creatures who themselves are forthwith punished, wondering thereafter why they have to suffer punishment. Men without talent.
Still all this lying, despite its innocence, hints at some very momentous fundamental traits of ours to such an extent that here the element of universality almost begins to reveal itself. For example: first, that we Russians are primarily afraid of truth—i.e., we are not really afraid, if you please, but we always regard truth as something too weary in our intercourse, something prosaic, insufficiently poetic, too banal; and thereby, always evading truth, we, finally, made it something most extraordinary and rare in our Russian world (I am not referring to the newspaper by this name). Thus we have totally forgotten the axiom that truth is the most poetic thing in the world, especially in its pure state. More than that: it is even more fantastic than the ordinary human mind is capable of fabricating and conceiving.
In Russia, truth almost invariably assumes a fantastic character. In fact, men have finally succeeded in converting all that the human mind may lie about and belie into something more comprehensible than truth, and this prevails all over the world. For centuries truth will lie right on the table before people but they will not take it: they will chase after a fabrication precisely because they look upon it as something fantastic and utopian.
Second, this is a hint at the fact that our wholesale Russian lying suggests that we are all ashamed of ourselves. Indeed, every one of us carries in him an almost innate shame of himself and of his own face; and the moment Russians find themselves in company, they hasten to appear at all cost something different from what they in reality are; everyone hastens to assume a different face.
Already Hertzen has remarked about Russians abroad that they don’t know how to behave in public; they speak in a loud manner, when everybody else is silent, and they cannot utter a single word politely and naturally when it is necessary to speak. And this is true: at once we observe a twist, a lie, a painful cramp; at once there arises the urge for being ashamed of everything that is actual, of concealing and effacing one’s own face, given by God to the Russian, and of assuming a different, an alien, as un-Russian a face as possible. All this comes from the firm inner conviction in every Russian that one’s own face is necessarily trivial and shamefully comic, and that if he should assume a French, an English— in brief, somebody else’s—face, something more respectable would come of it, and that in this guise he would not be recognized.
In this connection I will note something very characteristic: this miserable petty shame of one’s self and this vile self-negation are, in most cases, unconscious; this is something convulsive and unconquerable; yet, consciously, the Russians—even the most ardent self-negators among them—do not readily admit their triviality, and by all means demand respect for themselves: “I am, indeed, quite like an Englishman”—the Russian argues—“therefore, I should be respected, since everybody respects the English.”
This fundamental type of our society has been moulding itself over a period of two hundred years, in accordance with the express principle formulated two centuries ago: “Never, under any circumstance, should one be himself; one should assume a different face, bespitting one’s own face once and forever; one should always be ashamed of one’s self and one should never resemble one’s self.” The results proved most complete. There is no German, no Frenchman, there is no Englishman in the whole world, who, when meeting other people, would be ashamed of his own face, provided he be honestly convinced that he had perpetrated nothing bad. A Russian is perfectly aware of the fact that there is no such Englishman, while an educated Russian also knows that the essential point of self-respect is not to be ashamed of one’s own face, wherever it be. This is the reason why he hastens to assume the appearance of a Frenchman or of an Englishman, precisely so as to be taken as quickly as possible for a person who never, and nowhere, is ashamed of his face.
“Innocent things; old stuff; it has been told a thousand times already,” people will say again. Be that as it may, but here is something even more typical. There is one point on which any Russian of the educated pattern, appearing in society or in public, is extremely exacting, and which he will yield under no circumstance. This point is intellect—the desire to appear more clever than he is, and—this is remarkable—this is in no sense a desire to seem more clever than the rest or even more clever than anyone in particular, but merely—not more stupid than anyone. “Concede,” he means, “that I am not more stupid than anyone, and I will concede that you are not more stupid than anyone.”
Here, again, we have something on the order of reciprocal gratitude. As is known, for instance, a Russian bows before European authority with happiness and haste, even without permitting himself to analyze: in such cases he is particularly opposed to analysis. Oh, it’s different if a man of genius should descend from his pedestal, or merely cease to be in vogue: then, and with regard to such a person, there is no one harsher than the Russian intelligentsia; then there is no limit to its haughtiness, contempt and scoffing. Later, very naively we wonder if somehow we happen to learn that in Europe people still continue to look with respect upon the person who descended from his pedestal and to value him according to his merit. Yet that same Russian who had bowed before a genius in vogue, even without any analysis, nevertheless, under no circumstance and never, will admit that he is more stupid than this genius before whom he had just bowed, no matter how ultra-European he may be. “Well, Goethe—all right, Liebig—now then, Bismarck; why, all right; nevertheless, I too, am a somebody,”—so it necessarily seems to every Russian, even from among the most miserable and rascally, if it should come to that. And not that he may be pretending, because here there is hardly anything conscious, but only that he is pulled in that direction. There is an incessant feeling of idle ambition, knocking about the world, an ambition in no way justifiable. In a word, a Russian of the upper classes will never, and under no circumstance, reach that level— perhaps, the highest level—of the manifestation of human dignity, where a man admits that he is more stupid than another, when the latter is, in fact, more intelligent. I even do not know whether there are exceptions in this respect.
Let people refrain from laughing at my “paradox.” Liebig’s rival may not have terminated his high-school term, and, of course, he will not start arguing about his supremacy over Liebig should he be told and shown that this is Liebig. He will keep his mouth shut but, even so, he will be tempted even in Liebig’s presence. . . . It would be different if, let us suppose, he should meet Liebig, without knowing it, somewhere in a railroad car. And should there ensue a conversation about chemistry, and should our fellow succeed in getting into the conversation, he would keep up the most learned dispute, knowing but one word in chemistry: chemistry. Of course he may surprise Liebig, but—who knows?—in the opinion of the listeners he might turn out the victor. Since in the Russian there is virtually no limit to the arrogance of his scientific language.
At this juncture there develops a phenomenon encountered in the soul only of the Russian educated classes: in that soul, the moment it feels itself in public, not only is there no doubt about its intellect, but even about its supreme learnedness, if only it comes to erudition. One may, perhaps, understand such an attitude toward intellect, but it would seem that as regards one’s erudition every man must possess the most accurate information on the subject. . . .
Of course, all this transpires only in public, when strangers are around. But at home, in one’s mind . . . Why, at home, inwardly, no Russian ever troubles himself about his education and erudition; he never even raises a question regarding them. But even if he should raise it, most probably at home, too, he would decide it in his favor, notwithstanding the fact that he would have most accurate knowledge about his erudition.
Not long ago I personally, while sitting in a railroad car, chanced to listen during two hours of the journey to a whole treatise on classical languages. One man was speaking and all the others were listening. The speaker, unknown to the other passengers, was a middle-aged man, of an imposing, reserved and seigniorial appearance, who dropped his words weightily and slowly. He aroused everybody’s interest. It was obvious from his very first words that not only did he speak but probably, had thought about this theme for the first time. So this was merely a brilliant improvisation.
He emphatically rejected classical education, and its introduction into our schools he termed “historical and fatal folly”; but this was the only sharp word which he had permitted himself. He had adopted too lofty a tone which restrained him from flying into passion, from contempt itself for the subject. The grounds on which he stood were most primitive, permissible, perhaps, to a thirteen-year-old schoolboy—practically the same ones which up to the present are being adhered to by some of our newspapers campaigning against classical languages, to wit: “Since all Latin works have been translated, Latin is not needed,” and so forth and so on, along these lines.
In our car he produced an extraordinary effect; many people, when parting with him, thanked him for the treat he had given them—especially, the ladies. I am convinced that he departed with the greatest respect for himself.
Nowadays in public (be it in railroad cars or elsewhere) conversations differ very much in comparison with olden times; now people are eager to listen and are craving for instructors in political and social subjects. True, our conversations ensue with but great effort; all keep back for a long time before making up their minds to start talking, but, once they have started, they will be seized sometimes with such a pathos that one almost has to hold their hands. More reserved and solid, so to speak, more elevated and isolated conversations pivot on stock exchange and governmental topics, but from a secret, travestied point of view, claiming knowledge of the highest mysteries unknown to the uninitiated public. The latter listen meekly and respectfully, while babblers gain in their demeanor. It stands to reason that few of them believe each other but, as a rule, they part quite content with each other and even in a somewhat grateful mood.
The problem of making a pleasant and joyous trip on our railroads consists in the skill of letting others lie and of believing as much as possible; then you, too, will be given a chance to tell a lie impressively if you, also, be tempted to do so. Thus it is a reciprocal advantage.
However, as I have stated, there are general, burning, pressing topics of conversation in which the whole public takes part, and not only for the purpose of enjoying their time. I repeat: they are thirsting for knowledge, for explanation of contemporary difficulties; they are craving for teachers, particularly women and especially mothers of families.
It is noteworthy that despite all this extraordinarily curious and most significant thirst for social advisers and guides—notwithstanding all these noble impulses, people are too easily satisfied, sometimes in a most unexpected manner; they believe everything; they are very poorly prepared and armed—much more weakly than one’s most flaming fantasy could have imagined several years ago when it was more difficult to form a precise judgment on our Russian society than at present when more facts and information are available.
It can be positively asserted that every chatterbox with but moderately decent manners (our public, alas, up to the present has a prejudicial weakness for good manners, despite the ever-expanding education disseminated through feuilletons) may win out and convince his listeners of anything he pleases, receiving thanks and departing with deep respect for himself. It goes without saying—one doesn’t even have to mention it—that he has got to be liberal: this is a condition sine qua non.
Another time, also in a railroad car, and also recently, I happened to hear a whole treatise on atheism. The orator—a man of a socialite and engineering, though gloomy, appearance, and with a pathological thirst for an audience—began with monasteries. About the monastery problem he understood nothing at all, not even the A B C of it. He regarded the existence of monasteries as something inseparable from the dogmas of faith, imagining that monasteries are maintained by the state, and cost much to the crown. Forgetting the fact that monks constitute an altogether voluntary association of persons, just like any other association, he insisted—in the name of liberalism—that they be abolished as a sort of tyrannical institution. He wound up with absolute and unlimited atheism on the basis of natural sciences and mathematics; to these he made abundant references without, however, citing in the course of his whole dissertation a single fact from these disciplines.
Again, this man alone talked, while all the others were merely listening. “I shall teach my son to be an honest man—that’s all,”—he uttered in conclusion, with the full and obvious conviction that good deeds, morality and honesty are something given and absolute, depending upon nothing whatsoever; something that can always be found in one’s pocket, whenever it be needed, without labor, doubts and misunderstandings.
This gentleman, too, scored an extraordinary success. Here there were officers, old men, ladies and grown-up children. When parting with him, the people thanked him warmly for the pleasure he had given them, and one lady—a mother of a family, smartly dressed and quite good-looking, with a charming giggle—declared that now she was fully convinced that in her soul “there was nothing but vapor.” This gentleman must have gone away with a feeling of unusual self-respect.
Now, this self-respect is the thing that confuses me. That there are fools and chatterers is, of course, not surprising; but this gentleman was obviously no fool and certainly, also, neither a villain nor a swindler; it may even be that he was an honest man and a good father. Only, he understood nothing about the problems which he ventured to solve. Is it possible that an hour, a day, or a month later the thought would not occur to him: “My friend, Ivan Vasilievich (or whatever his name is)—now, you have argued, but you understand nothing about the things you discussed. You know this better than anyone. You referred to natural sciences and mathematics, but you know better than anyone else that you long ago forgot the scanty mathematics which you learned in your technical school and which, even then, you did not know thoroughly, while about natural sciences you never did have any conception. How, then, did you venture to talk? How could you teach?— Indeed, you must realize that you were only lying, and you feel proud about yourself.—Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”
I am sure that he could have asked himself all these questions, notwithstanding the fact that, perhaps, he is engaged in “business” and that he has no time to spare on idle questions. I am quite certain that these questions, though in passing and mincingly, have visited his brain. But he was not ashamed! He did not blush!
Now, this dishonesty of a certain kind in the educated Russian is, to me, a decisive phenomenon. What is there in the fact that with us it is so common and that all of us got used to it and it seems so familiar? Even so, it remains an astonishing and extraordinary fact. It bears witness to such an indifference for one’s judgment of one’s own conscience, or—which is the same thing—such extraordinary disrespect for one’s self, that one is seized with despair, one loses all hope for something independent and salutary for the nation—even in the future—from such people and such a society.
The public—that is, the exterior—European appearance, the law once and forever enacted by Europe—this public produces in every Russian a crushing effect: in public he is a European, a citizen, a knight, a republican, with conscience and with his own firmly established opinion. At home, to himself: “Eh, what the devil do I care about opinions! Let them even whip me!” Lieutenant Pirogov, who forty years ago, on the Bolshaia Meschanskaia, was whipped by the locksmith Schiller, was a dreadful prophecy—a prophecy of a genius who had divined so terribly, since of the Pirogovs there is an immense quantity, so many that it is even impossible to whip them all. Please recall that after the incident the lieutenant forthwith ate a puff-paste patty, and that same evening, at a saint’s day party of an important government official, he distinguished himself while dancing the mazurka. What would you think: when he capered that mazurka and exhibited, while performing the steps, his so recently offended limbs—did he think about the fact that only two hours earlier he had been whipped?—Unquestionably, he did. But was he ashamed?—Unquestionably, he was not!
Waking up next morning, he no doubt said to himself: “Eh, what the devil! Is it worth starting something if no one is going to find out! . . .” This “is it worth starting”—of course, on the one hand, suggests such a predisposition to accommodation to anything whatsoever, and at the same time, such a breadth of our Russian nature that, in the face of these qualities, even the unlimited is dimmed. The two-hundred-year disuse of the slightest independence of character and the two-hundred-year spitting upon our own Russian face have expanded Russian conscience to such a fatal boundlessness, from which may be expected . . . well, what would you think?
I am convinced that the lieutenant was, perhaps, capable of reaching such limits, or such an unlimitedness, as to avow his love that same evening and make a formal proposal to his partner in the mazurka—the host’s elder daughter. Infinitely tragic is the image of that young miss fluttering with the fellow in a lovely dance and ignorant of the fact that only two hours before her cavalier had been whipped and that he does not mind it a bit. Well, and what would you think if she were to learn this fact, and the proposal, nevertheless, had been made anyway? Would she marry him (of course, on condition that no one would find out)?—Alas, unfailingly, she would marry him!
Even so, from among the Pirogovs and, generally, “the boundless ones,” it seems, the overwhelming number of our women should be excluded. In our women one observes more and more sincerity, perseverance, seriousness and honor, sacrifice and search for truth, and in Russian women all these qualities have always been more pronounced than among the men. This cannot be doubted, notwithstanding all present-day deviations. The woman lies less, some of the women do not lie at all, whereas of the men who do not lie there are hardly any. I am speaking of the present moment in the life of our society.
The woman is more persistent and patient in work; she seeks, more seriously than the man, work for work’s sake, and not merely for the sake of pretending. Perhaps it is from her that we must expect great help!
The Citizen, 1873, No. 35.
See for translation information, etc. Pages 155-164. ↩︎