Most of us have, at one time or another, lied about ourselves when making new acquaintances. We may embellish on how much we have in the bank or the number of Limo drivers we employ. We may fake an accent. We may, as I shamefully admit, claim to be professional athletes when meeting a group of pretty French girls on holiday in London. While not quite so egregious, Samuel Johnson describes the identity fabrications of passengers on a stagecoach trip in Adventurer number 84. Johnson's narration reveals both the pervasiveness and the absurdity of the fibbing impulse, even when no profit comes from the lies:
But, Mr. Adventurer, let not those who laugh at me and my companions, think this folly confined to a stage-coach. Every man in the journey of life takes the same advantage of the ignorance of his fellow travellers, disguises himself in counterfeited merit, and hears those praises with complacency which his conscience reproaches him for accepting. Every man deceives himself while he thinks he is deceiving others; and forgets that the time is at hand when every illusion shall cease, when fictitious excellence shall be torn away, and ALL must be shown to ALL in their real state. [paragraph 15]
In this last paragraph, Johnson's narrative voice seems to hold two different stances: he is both a participant in the story and a detached evaluator. He includes himself in the foolishness of the stagecoach by referring to "me and my companions," but he also takes on the sage persona of someone who knows better than the average stagecoach rider, repeating the grand generalization "Every man." Johnson, sage or not, is part of "every man," an insufferable liar like the rest of us.
Questions for Discussion
1. How is Johnson's split narration, as both participant and evaluator, similar to and different from the split narrative voice in Tom Wolfe's "The Pump House Gang"?
2. Are we to believe that the narrator did not also stretch the truth of his identity? If the narrator told of his own lies, would it change the effect of the piece?
3. In Wolfe's "The Pump House Gang," the split narration presents something of a journalistic ethical problem. Wolfe gets extremely personal with his subjects, the La Jolla youths, by using their language and telling their experiences, but he also seems to mock them in the essay. Does Johnson avoid this problem? If so, how?
4. Why would Johnson begin his last paragraph with the unconventional "but"? What effect does this have on the way we read the last paragraph?
24 February 2005