I am writing this in my apartment on the upper Upper West Side, 110th Street between Broadway and Riverside, six blocks down from Columbia University, where I went to college and graduate school, in a neighborhood that I inhabited for many years before I moved away to another part of the city, and to which I returned last November. I am writing now on a morning saturated with a fog that seems manufactured by the river just down the street. The fog swells, expands, shrinks, thickens. It conceals everything.
It's a good morning to put out a bowl of milk for Maya, my imaginary cat. I invented Maya a few years ago because, first of all, I had just been divorced, and two months of "dating" had convinced me that, to paraphrase a Russian proverb, half an imaginary loaf is better than no loaf at all. Also, I operate in complete solitude most of the time, and I am allergic to real cats. Truth to tell, I like the idea of a cat more than the actual feline entity.
The cool aloof self-sufficiency of cats gets to me. They're like those cool beautiful aloof self-sufficient women a fellow who operates in complete solitude encounters when he steps out into the world. He projects all sorts of longing onto them, and then, having eroticized reality into a vapor, is nearly undone by his own fabrications.
Poor fellow! Poor cool beautiful aloof woman! Anyone who works alone all day accompanied exclusively by his imagination is used to ordering his thoughts around and making them do what he wants. When a real person comes along, the solitary worker obeys his reflexes, and starts treating that other person like a thought. That's why Auden said that poets, given political power, would always behave like tyrants. When a lover idealizes so tyrannically, the idealized beloved can't help but lie to the idealizer, just by being true to her own nature.
Lying and betrayal are on my mind today because they're all over the news and all around the culture. Of course, there's Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who made his facts up out of whole cloth. And then there's Stephen Glass, who made a disgraceful attempt at acomeback this week with a novel and an appearance on 60 Minutes. But there are less acknowledged phenomena: There's the whole world waiting to see if Iraq's weapons of mass destruction really exist or were a lie used as a pretext by the Bush administration to invade that nation. And there's the whole country waiting to see if Scott Peterson, the handsome fertilizer salesman—he sold shit for a living!—is lying when he says he didn't kill his pregnant wife, Laci. Obviously ... what's that, Maya? Oh yes! There's the Internet "dating" culture, an arena for prevarication the likes of which humankind has never seen. I'd almost forgotten about that. Thank you, Mayissima. Have a little milk.
For one thing, Internet daters make out itemized summaries of what they are looking for, so people often—surprise, surprise—appear who fulfill every requirement: "Dear Eternalbliss520, This is your lucky day! I have the brain of Sigmund Freud, the body of Brad Pitt, the creativity of Byron, and the fortune of Ronald Lauder! I seek someone funny, smart, self-hating and obsequious, who can remain silent and motionless for long stretches of time as I continue to conquer the exciting new world of disposable footwear. ..."
But it gets worse, much worse. There are plenty of dark stories about the Internet dating services being used as field operations for adultery—mostly men cheating on their wives. A friend of mine in New York, whom I'll call Diane, met a guy named Warren on the Internet. After a while she started to see him, fell in love, and began making plans to move in with him.Then one day she got a phone call from a distraught enraged helpless woman. It turns out that Warren had a wife and another life; in fact, he was a newlywed, married less than a year. He even had a newborn baby. More and more, people seem to be lying in both directions, to the official partner and to the unofficial adventure. Psychiatrists call that personality "splitting"; pop culture calls it "compartmentalizing." I call it selfishness and greed.
I'd heard a few stories like that—one Internet adulterer was a rabbi who hustled his victim into a closet when his wife unexpectedly came home. Happy Pesach, everybody! So it brightened my outlook to hear a lighter outcome of Internet untrystfulness. I traveled yesterday by train along a mist-shrouded Hudson river up to a little town just past Riverdale where a wonderful new friend and her warm, generous parents were having a little party. Two other friends of hers were there and one of them—I'll call her Sarah—told the story of her parents.
Her mother and father divorced in their fifties, and, having trouble finding new relationships, each of them resorted to the Internet. Some weeks went by and they both struck gold. He was online all day long; she was online all day long; he was hopeful and expectant; she was happy and excited; they had both found ... each other, once again. The father, whose real name was Morris, went by "Antoine" on the Internet. He, actually, discovered that his newfound soul mate was his former wife long before they finally met in person. In order to have some fun, he would instant-message her as Morris while she was corresponding with "Antoine"—just to see if Morris still had a little of that old black magic. Finally, they met and went out for two weeks before calling it quits for a second time. They now knew with a sense of absolute rightness that their marriage was a verifiable wrongness. It was like getting a second opinion for the diagnosis of a disease. In this case, an Internet lie had produced an indisputable truth.
As for the dark Internet tales, maybe Stephen Glass has his finger on the viscera of the time. He has sensed that in a commercial society that constantly stimulates the libido and makes satisfaction the highest criterion of success, any shortcut to satisfaction is permissible. Lies become a consumerist tool. Their effectiveness as a tactic earns them the quality of truth. And the libido makes no distinction between past, present, and future. It exists in an eternal present, in which each successive lie displaces the previous one and becomes the only reality. In a different age, Glass would be like one of Nabokov's madmen, deranged frauds who have an artistic temperament but not the artist's rational will. In our moment, the Glass-type is becoming more and more common. The Internet must be full of them.
Oh, Mayita, Mayachka, Mayissimissima! Yes, it's time for a walk. Cats don't go for walks? This one does. Sometimes when it's dark, she also enters the living room with soft brown hair and big dark eyes and eats dinner with me at my table by the window and calls herself "Soleil." And now the fog is lifting just as I write these last words. It seems too good to be true.
Lee Siegel is a contributing editor of the New Republic and Harper's, a contributing writer for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, and the recipient of the 2002 National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism. He is at work on a book about New York.