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.

Continue reading I Am a Lie That Always Tells the Truth


  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)