I Am a Lie That Always Tells the Truth

Jean Cocteau? Pablo Picasso?  Herbert V. Prochnow? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The life mission of an artist is paradoxical. Masterpieces are not subservient to narrow facticity. Representing truths and insights requires the imaginative transformation of raw materials. Here are two versions of an energizing maxim for artists:

  • I am a lie that always speaks the truth.
  • I am a lie that always tells the truth.

The saying above has been attributed to the French poet Jean Cocteau who has also been credited with this variant statement:

  • The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: An important precursor of this remark appeared in 1922 within “Le Secret Professionnel” (“Professional Secrets”) by Jean Cocteau. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

On a coutume de représenter la poésie comme une dame voilée, langoureuse, étendue sur un nuage. Cette dame a une voix musicale et ne dit que des mensonges.

Here is one possible rendering into English:

It is customary to portray poetry as a veiled, languid woman reclining on a cloud. This lady has a musical voice and says nothing but lies.

Another interesting precursor was crafted by the prominent painter Pablo Picasso when he was interviewed by the New York City periodical “The Arts: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine” in 1923. His responses in Spanish were translated into English:

We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.

A QI article about Picasso’s statement is available here.

Between 1925 and 1927 Cocteau composed a collection of poems published as “Opéra”. The disease of leprosy was used metaphorically to depict mental disintegration and despair within the poem “Le Paquet Rouge” (“The Red Package”) which included a line that matched the quotation under examination. An excerpt from the poem appeared in the Paris newspaper “Comœdia” in 1927: 2

J’ai lâché le paquet. Qu’on m’enferme. Qu’on me lynche. Comprenne qui pourra : je suis un mensonge qui dit toujours la vérité.

Here is one possible rendering into English:

I dropped the package. That shut me up. Let me be lynched. Understand who can: I am a lie who always tells the truth.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1953 Cocteau published “Journal d’un Inconnu” (“Diary of an Unknown”) containing the chapter “De l’Invisibilité” (“On Invisibility”). Cocteau discussed the ethics of poetry and, he repeated the quotation: 3

C’est en vertu de ce principe que j’ai écrit : Genet est un moraliste et « Je suis un mensonge qui dit toujours la vérité », phrase dont les ânes firent leur herbe tendre. Ils s’y roulent. Cette phrase signifiait que l’homme est socialement un mensonge.

Here is a translation by Jesse Browner of the passage above: 4

It is in regard to this principle that I wrote that Genet is a moralist, and that “I am a lie that always tells the truth,” a saying on which asses have grazed and frolicked with great relish. This saying was meant to imply that man is a social lie.

In 1968 “An Impersonation of Angels: A Biography of Jean Cocteau” Cocteau by Frederick Brown contained the following: 5

Governed by the sense of his own fraudulence, Cocteau made a virtue of necessity, declaring, “I am a lie who tells the truth.” Fastened to his lie, he cultivated it for its own sake. As if, born of some primitive rebuff, became for Cocteau an etiquette requiring preface upon preface, costume upon costume, lies dovetailed in lies, and exacting—for whatever freedom it afforded him—an exorbitant fee in loneliness.

In 1969 “A Treasury of Humorous Quotations by Herbert V. Prochnow Sr. and Jr. printed an entry with a variant expression attributed to Cocteau who had died in 1963 : 6

The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth. Jean Cocteau

In 1970 “The Salt Lake Tribune” published a piece discussing Cocteau that included the quotation: 7

“My invisibility, made up of ridiculous legends,” he once declared, “protects my invisibility.” Thus be could confess, in a remark which has been taken as a description of his character as well as his strategy as an artist, “I’m a lie that always tells the truth.”

In 1973 “Cocteau’s World: An Anthology of Writings” by Jean Cocteau printed an English translation of text from “Le Secret Professionnel” (“Professional Secrets”) including the following: 8

It is the custom to represent poetry as a languid lady, veiled, and reclining on a cloud. This lady has a musical voice, and everything she says is a lie.

In 1977 “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” included this: 9

The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth.
—Jean Cocteau

In 1990 “Sunbeams: A Book of Quotations” included this: 10

I am a lie that always tells the truth.
—Jean Cocteau

In conclusion, Jean Cocteau should receive credit for the expression “Je suis un mensonge qui dit toujours la vérité” which he published by 1927. Pablo Picasso delivered a distinct but semantically overlapping remark in 1923. The statement “The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth” appears to be derived from Cocteau’s statements, but there is no substantive evidence that he crafted it.

Image Notes: Illustration depicting a large number of signs displaying the words LIE and TRUTH from geralt at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Jonathan Taylor, Robert Richardson, Farhana Shaikh, Diego Basdeo, Maria Alexander, and Shaula Evans who all referred to versions of this saying within twitter threads.)

Notes:

  1. 1922, Book Title: Le Secret Professionnel, Author: Jean Cocteau, Quote Page 57, Publisher: Librairie Stock, Place du Théatre Français, Paris. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. Date: Novembre 1, 1927, Newspaper: Comœdia, Article: Jeune Poésie: II. L’autre royaume: En marge de Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, André Salmon, Author: Eugene Marsan, Quote Page 2, Column 6, Location: Paris, France. (Gallica)
  3. 1953, Journal d’un inconnu by Jean Cocteau, Chapter: De l’invisibilité, Quote Page 15 and 16, Bernard Grasset, Paris, France. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1988, Diary of an Unknown by Jean Cocteau, (Originally published in French under the title “Journal d’un inconnu”; copyright 1953), Translated by Jesse Browner, Chapter: On Invisibility, Quote Page 10, Paragon House Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1968, An Impersonation of Angels: A Biography of Jean Cocteau by Frederick Brown, Chapter 4: War Theatre, Quote Page 114, The Viking Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1969, A Treasury of Humorous Quotations for Speakers, Writers, and Home Reference by Herbert V. Prochnow and Herbert V. Prochnow Jr., Topic: Poet, Quote Page 261, Published by Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1970 September 27, The Salt Lake Tribune, Two Excellent Cocteau Biographies in Print by Giles B. Gunn (Chicago Sun-Times), (Book Reviews of Francis Steegmuller’s “Cocteau” and “Professional Secrets: An Autobiography of Jean Cocteau” edited by Robert Phelps and translated by Richard Howard), Quote Page E5, Column 6, Salt Lake City, Utah. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1973, Cocteau’s World: An Anthology of Writings by Jean Cocteau, Edited by Margaret Crosland, Part Four: Ideas and Experiences, Chapter: Professional Secrets, Quote Page 368, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Poetry, Quote Page 391, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  10. 1990, Sunbeams: A Book of Quotations, Edited by Sy Safransky, Quote Page 149, Column 1, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California. (Verified with scans)