Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Two Truths Told to Adults

An article I haven’t been able to get hold of promises to contemplate children’s literature’s obsession with lies—which is to say, adults’ obsession with children’s lies, in contrast to their own. Prepubescent children would seem to be the only group whose lies still possess transgressive power outside the courtroom. In “Two Lies Told By Children” (SE XII, 305-309), Freud assumes that the usual “serious mistake” is “to read into childish misdemeanors like these a prognosis of the development of a bad character” (309). Rather, in the case studies he reads, lies foretell an unhappy character, as they symptomize inadmissible love for and idealization of the father. Lies are not rational manipulations, but performances and disavowals that reflect irresistible passion and unbearable loss. That sheds light on Freud’s cases’ lies, but not on adults’ pervasive and pointed intolerance of children’s lying. The focus on character would suggest that in children’s lies adults repudiate their sense of their own moral damage; yet, people are rarely so disturbed by their own moral damage, and this hypothesis doesn’t explain the epistemic frenzy that suffuses the scene of the pre-pubescent lie. Michael Haneke’s Seventh Continent contains typical dialogue between mother and daughter: “Just tell me! I promise I won’t harm you,” the mother lies. This kind of line says: “Do you imagine that your small foibles and embarrassments can possibly shock me? I’m only bothered that you could think I’d be bothered. Your secrets are nothing we haven’t thought of a long time ago. Who do you think you are, the master criminal? And who do you think I am? You think I can’t handle the slightest disturbance?” To which the child’s lie says, No, you can’t handle the slightest disturbance. And If you could, you wouldn’t be asking me this.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Jason W.

Image: Yeondoo Jung,
Three Brothers Riding the Rainbow Wave, 2005; photographs based on children's drawings at

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