Path of Vision; pocket essays of East and West/Part Second, 10

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Path of Vision; pocket essays of East and West by Ameen Rihani
Part Second
X. The Lying Oriental


X


THE LYING ORIENTAL


THERE is a parasite in man, which no amount of energy and labor can wholly exterminate. It creeps through the complex structure of modern life, clings instinctively to every available thread of human intercourse, and finally, like a silk worm, weaves its own cocoon in the heart only to emerge from it better armed.

For no matter how abounding our energy, how productive our labors, we find at a certain stage of our achievements that external agencies, often, it is true, of our own making, are unremittingly assiduous in our service. A man of fortune can not stop his money from doing his Work; a successful man of genius can not place a ban upon his reputation; an inventor is helpless against the ever increasing activities of his invention; and even a laborer, with recognized honesty and skill, can not tell how much of his savings he actually earned with the sweat of his brow.

Thus we live more or less upon our own reputation or upon the reputation of our people. And often we suffer from the reactions of moral and material forces, which, passing out of our hands, become uncontrollable or are distorted in the hands of others. We give, we produce, we create; but what we receive in return is either rediculous or fabulous. Something is abroad that contributes materially to our triumph or defeat—that makes the one grotesque, the other tragic.

A truthful man, for instance, may be of a people that is noted for lying and equivocation; a dishonest man may be of a race that has earned a reputation for truthfulness. Herein the parasite thrives. For to succeed, the one need not overtax his ingenuity, the other need not adhere strictly to the traditional virtue of his people. Both find resources or a name, at least, which they can freely utilize. The Oriental, though he be of the lowest quality of mind and soul, is credited with imagination and intuitive wisdom; while the Occidental's integrity, though he be a jail bird, is often taken for granted.

Moreover, certain Occidental minds acquire a kind of candor which is more insidious than the craftiness of Orientals. And it has the gesture of finality that characterizes the advertisement or the poster of modern times. It is an asset which no Oriental subtlety and chicanery can equal. For what is so profitable as a reputation greatly advertised? Or even so damning?

The Oriental, when he tells the truth, is seldom believed. The Occidental, when he tells a lie, is seldom doubted. The naive truthfulness of the one goes for nothing, while the specious frankness of the other seldom fails of its purpose. Thus, we pay dearly for our prejudices as for our illusions. But even though we concede that truth-speaking with the Occidental is the rule, with the Oriental, the exception, we must not fail to observe the discrepancies in both standards. We are on our guard against craftiness however cleverly concealed; but we are often duped by a frankness ingeniously conceived and practiced.

Indeed, we suffer more from the implicit confidence we repose in the slyboot who has earned a reputation for candor and straightforward dealing. We feed the parasite in him. And it is a poor and unprofitable skepticism that only works one way. Honesty itself ceases to be a virtue when it is made a means to an ignoble end. And the Oriental, whose craftiness is often practised in self-defense, negatively, seldom regards it as a positive method, a material virtue, an instrument of success.

It was Bismark, I think, who conceived the idea of sometimes speaking the truth to deceive his antagonists. An originality in political tactics which the Oriental diplomat might well imitate, and to better advantage. And when the Orienatl merchant takes to advertising, he will further realize the advantage of lapsing periodically into truth. His wonted subtlety will then become more subtle, more complex, more confounding. And the people of the West, in changing their point of view regarding his veracity, will be adding to his capital while he lounges resignedly upon his divan.

For what virtue can not be distorted by a motive, debauched by an end? To lie in self-defense is certainly more pardonable than to lie in defending or promoting our material interests. Besides, no one is capable of pursuing an unchanging course in this or that direction: neither equivocation nor forthrightness can be made elastic enough to cover our shame or our honor. Silence alone can do that. It is certain, however, that intermittent honesty is worse than unremitting rascality; for a man who now and then is truthful that he might the better palm off his pinchback on the world, is more detestable indeed than he who lies instinctively and only incidentally tells the truth.

And the parasite is active in them both, for they both depend more or less on the fiat of an assumption. Indeed, we are all disposed to sit back at times and let our reputation do our work—the work rather of a commercial traveller, a press-agent or a drudge. How much, in fact, we pay for a name. And yet, a good name is a partnership between the individual and society. Nay, it is too often a Trust whose stock is watered with gumption and gullibility.

The business man, the opera singer, the moving-picture actor, who start by making a high bid for our confidence or admiration and succeed in getting it, invariably end by boasting in electric superlatives on the house-tops of the city—they convert our confidence into cash. And in the end, we find ourselves paying more for the clap-trap and flamboyancy than the real object they herald—more for the 'blurb' than the song.

It is not so bad in the Orient, where a name is not a substantial element in values. A Persian rug, for instance, is a Persian rug and not one made by the great Mirza of Shiraz. But the Orientals, as I said, are fast acquiring the trick of sophistication. And what is worse, they are inclined now and then to make truth-speaking an overture, at least, to their dealings. But whether with them or with us, a certain degree and form only of the truth, is more pernicious indeed than falsehood itself.

Once in Damascus I saw a merchant selling an English tourist some ancient coins, which were probably made in Germany. Their patina seemed authentic and real. They even smelled of the earth. But the merchant sorted them out into two lots, carefully sifting and examining, and finally said, These are false, my Lord, these are genuine. And he swore by Allah and the Prophet that he was speaking the truth. Which was quite unexpected by the tourist, who was much impressed. He was in fact taken in. For by admitting that some of the coins were not genuine, the wily shop-keeper was able to sell to mylord some of the others, which were equally false. I spoke with him afterwards and he admitted to me—told me the other half of the truth—that the European who sold him the antiquified coins taught him also the trick.