My New Year's Resolution

Vicki Beale 31 January 2008

On the first day of this New Year, as I sat in a car filled with silent and sullenly hung-over friends, I made a resolution. So what? I hear The Cambridge Student readership cry. It would be more unusual if a person didn’t, as they emerged from the December haze, think that something could change for the better. As I sat listening to the crackly, baleful voice of a radio presenter cajoling a sleepy Kentish population into calling in, I made my decision. I could have made a resolution to introduce something into my life that had hitherto been tragically missing. Perhaps a more mature attitude to alcohol consumption/personal finances, a boyfriend, or a work ethic; but no, these all seemed too obvious (and, too much like hard work). I also didn’t make a resolution to eat well, stop smoking, or do more exercise; in fact, my resolution isn’t featured in any Boots adverts. My resolution is simple to write, if harder to explain—it is to stop lying.

Now, I don’t mean by this to imply that I am some kind of elaborate con-artist. I have not been regularly and wilfully misleading police investigations. I don’t lie to children or small animals, I don’t lie on job applications or to members of the clergy. My lying is less complex than this, yet somehow more pervasive. I would like to lie like Becky Sharpe in Vanity Fair, who fibs to make herself more interesting; make her stories funnier, her anecdotes zippier, and to attract a dashing military husband. But when we examine Becky Sharpe’s eventual fate, or the fate of other female liars in literature who I could take as my beautifully dishonest role models; Lily Bart in House of Mirth, or Emma Bovary, there seem plenty of reasons to reconsider my, currently quite relaxed, moral stance. If the respective disgrace, death and suicide of these three women is anything to go by, lying does not pay (although it does look like fun, and they fit in plenty of shopping, gambling and flirting along the path to inexorable destruction).

The trouble is, I know all this. I know the ‘Oh what a tangled web we weave’ school of thought, i.e. that lying just isn’t worth the trouble when you realise how much you have to keep track of, and in the end it’s just easier to be honest. But frankly most people’s lives, on a daily basis, aren’t earth-shatteringly interesting. In my own (slightly misguided) mind, exaggerating for effect seems common courtesy. To take liberties with the truth is merely a function of existence in polite society; a simple rhetorical flourish in any normal exchange. Oscar Wilde, who clearly wasn’t lacking in the old conversational arts, said in his essay The Decay of Lying that lying was ‘the telling of beautiful untrue things’ and I tend (tended) to agree. Lying when the truth is so mundane, or, to be blunt, just plain boring, shouldn’t be seen as despicable.

And yet, is there really freedom in fabrication? Or do my meanderings from the truth, while they mean better stories in the short term, ultimately conceal my inability or unwillingness to do actually, genuinely interesting things that make for an engaging tale without the slightest bit of exaggeration? In Garden State Natalie Portman plays a compulsive liar, and at one point in the film her character admits; ‘OK, so, sometimes I lie. I mean, I’m weird… I don’t even know why I do it. It’s like… it’s like a tick. I mean sometimes I hear myself say something and think, ‘Wow, that wasn’t even remotely true.’ While I feel anyone with Natalie Portman’s bone structure and bank balance is free to lie to excess, in my current state I think it best to avoid such a level of dishonesty.

Ralph Waldo Emerson rakishly claimed that ‘Lying is an art… it requires careful study and absolute devotion.’ In 2008 I pledge to devote the energy I previously spent deviating from the truth to doing things interesting enough to require no embellishment. I will do what I have been too hesitant, lazy, or afraid of doing previously; I will wholeheartedly dedicate myself to leading a life that is actually worth talking about (at least until the end of January). Oscar Wilde wouldn’t have approved; he complained later in The Decay of Lying that; ‘Newspapers have degenerated. They may now be absolutely relied upon, and it is always the unreadable that occurs.’ Sadly for Oscar, and strangely for me, this article is the whole truth, and nothing but.

Vicki Beale