The Habit of Lying

Sacrificial Studies in Literature, Philosophy, and Fashion Theory

The Habit of Lying

Book Pages: 256 Illustrations: Published: March 2002

Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Theory, Theory and Philosophy

Lying appears to be ubiquitous, what Franz Kafka called "a universal principle”; yet, despite a number of recent books on the subject, it has been given comparatively little genuinely systematic attention by philosophers, social scientists, or even literary theorists. In The Habit of Lying John Vignaux Smyth examines three forms of falsification—lying, concealment, and fiction—and makes a strong critique of traditional approaches to each of them, and, above all, to the relations among them.
With recourse to Rene Girard, Paul de Man, Theodor Adorno, Leo Strauss, and other theoreticians not usually considered together, Smyth arrives at some surprising conclusions about the connections between lying, mimesis, sacrifice, sadomasochism, and the sacred, among other central subjects. Arguing that the relation between lying and truthtelling has been characterized in the West by sharply sacrificial features, he begins with a critique of the philosophies of lying espoused by Kant and Sissela Bok, then concludes that the problem of truth and lies leads to the further problem of the relation between law and arbitrariness as well as to the relation between rationality and unanimity. Constructively criticizing the work of such philosophers as Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty, and Nelson Goodman, Smyth shows how these problems occur comparably in fiction theory and how Paul de Man’s definition of fiction as arbitrariness finds confirmation in analytic philosophy. Through the novels of Defoe, Stendhal, and Beckett—with topics ranging from Defoe’s treatment of lies, fiction, and obscenity to Beckett’s treatment of the anus and the sacred—Smyth demonstrates how these texts generalize the issues of mendacity, concealment, and sacrificial arbitrariness in Girard’s sense to almost every aspect of experience, fiction theory, and cultural life. The final section of the book, taking its cue from Shakespeare, elaborates a sacrificial view of the history of fashion and dress concealment.


"[A] beautifully written, many stranded theoretical book. . . ." — Laurence M. Porter , SubStance

The Habit of Lying contributes importantly to a new understanding of a variety of issues and texts, literary and philosophical. Smyth deploys a flawlessly elegant style, ample range of research, analytic precision, and a restrained but confident sense of humor. The overall achievement is remarkable, even stunning.” — Andrew McKenna, Loyola University, Chicago

The Habit of Lying is a highly original, exceptionally sophisticated, continuously illuminating work of literary and cultural theory, and an intellectual feast of the first order. There seems no facet of Smyth’s topic that escapes his careful, immensely intelligent attention.” — Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Duke University


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

John Vignaux Smyth is Chair of the Department of English at Portland State University. He is the author of A Question of Eros: Irony in Sterne, Kierkegaard, and Barthes.

Table of Contents Back to Top


Part One. Philosophy

1. The Liar as Scapegoat: Rationality and Unanimity

2. The Analytics of Fiction

Part Two. Literature

3. Lying for No Reason: Lying and Obscenity in Defoe

4. Lies and Truths: Mimetic-Sacrificial Falsification in Stendahl

5. Fundaments and Accidents: Mimesis and Mendacity in Molloy

6. The Violence of Fiction: Concealment and Sacrifice in Malone Dies and The Unnamable

Part Three. Dress

7. Fashion Theory


Appendix: One Rene Girard and Paul de Man



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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2821-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2809-4
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