The wag would respond, when is the literal truth not a lie? The usual approach to the discovery that the literal truth is a lie is to examine motives. The person who professes the literal truth but is telling a lie has motives, which, if we knew them, would point like a spotlight to the lies. The person who believes the truth literally has motives, too, which, if she knew them, would reveal the lie. (Why does the recipient of the literal-truth-as-a-lie resist her intuition that things are not as they seem?) But motives are not a condition of literalness or of truth. Motives don't create the logical situation in which the truth lies; rather, motives are just a juicy Spanish soap opera that entertains us about the human situation in which truth-telling is involved.
In politics and the pursuit of sexual gratification, to take the two most universal arenas of literal-truth-telling-as-lies, analysis of motive is a standard mode of operation. You can't understand what is said and what is going on in politics without understanding the motives of the operators. Their motives are key to what claims they make as to the literal truth and the lies that are packed inside them or are hidden behind them. In the game of sex, everybody tells the truth and for everybody the truth is a lie. The only reality is the goal. The goal is the motive for the truth and the lies; so we have to analyze--endlessly!--motives of the actors to tell the truth and to lie. In politics and sex, literal truth-telling and telling lies are not a complicated game. Most persons figure them out with a little experience on the playing field.
But there is at least one other kind of literal truth telling that is a lie, in which motive is nonexistent and for which, therefore, motivational analysis is an empty exercise, revealing nothing. This kind is when literal-truth-that-is-a-lie is an existential structure. By existential structure, I mean a way of knowing that you are alive that gives you a sense of the reality of yourself and the world in which you live. The structure is a pattern of behavioral interaction and pattern of appearance to the world that makes you, yourself, and the world real to you; i.e., the structure is the realism of your reality. It creates a sense of reality so powerful that you do not question that the reality is reality. This condition is quite different from literal-truth-that-is-a-lie in political and sex games. In politics and sex, you are tipped off that the literal truth is a lie; then you initiate a process of discovery to uncover a motive (goal). In this sense, politics and sex are games in the ordinary sense of the word. But when literal-truth-is-a-lie is an existential structure, there is no goal and there is therefore no motive.
Family life is sometimes (especially in families we call dysfunctional) a literal truth that is a lie. In the reality of the family construct, there is no motive, that is, no goal, for the truth/lies. No one is aware of their own motive to lie or to tell the truth, or to tell the truth through a lie, or to lie through the truth, because they have no motive. Rather, in psychoanalytic terms, the existential structure is a (suppressed) wish. The wish is always unknown to the person who expresses the literal-truth-is-a-lie; because if the wish were self-conscious, the realism of the existential reality being constructed would evaporate. I do not want to emphasize the psychoanalytic interpretation here, however, because it makes existential structures sound psychological, which they are not.
The process of living in which the actors in this family reality come to discover what is true and what is a lie, and to which of these constructs the wish attaches itself, is one of the favorite themes of novels. In my childhood biography, nearly everything about my family reality was a "lie". My mother, God rest her soul, was an expert practitioner of the literal-truth-is-a-lie. Her practice was, I believe, a transformation of her reality. (Maybe transfiguration is a more accurate word; she wished to transform dross into gold, to radiate.) She was a beautiful young woman, whose beauty was destroyed a dozen years into her marriage by a disease and the treatments for that disease. She came to loath herself. My father was an alcoholic. He drank his way through the Army in the second world war, through his work for his father, through the downward spiral of his life in the 1950s. Because of his alcoholism, he was emotionally unavailable to me, though he was present. (In terms of the existential literal-truth-that-is-a-lie, my father was "present" without being present; but this "presence" was the basic reality of my childhood life.) I knew none of these facts when I was a child. My reality was the literal truth that my mother constructed, in which none of these facts existed. Freud would have had a field-day with my mother and father, but their dilemmas were too common to offer him clinical insight.
The false reality that was the true reality of my childhood family life was made known to me only as I moved sufficiently far away (psychologically, geographically, experientially) to see them. Far enough away, I could turn around and see the volcanic maelstrom that constituted my childhood. I was like "Lucy". On her journey across the African plain, holding a small child by the hand, walking beside her, volcanic ash falling like warm snow around them, covering their footsteps in the sand, she stops walking, turns around--we see the fossilized imprints--, and looks at the erupting volcano behind her. (Certainly one of the greatest moments cast in hominid history.) We can see the world she walks away from through her proto-human eyes; it is a startling moment of our realization.
Certainly there were resistance structures in me that prevented me from turning around, even when I had the opportunity. The true reality that was the false reality of my childhood life was an existential structure, after all; I couldn't give it up until I had alternative existential structures in place to give me a new reality when the old reality collapsed in self-recognition. Self-recognition of the past has not been a psychological process, but an existential process of constructing a new reality from within which the old reality might be visible. I became un-old, I became new. In the old, which I was no longer, I could recognize my self. In the new, because it was (it is) an existential structure, I have no consciousness of self. "I am" is "hidden" from me. I am who I am, but not who I think I am because I cannot be aware of who I think I am, only who I was.*
*Note this rendition is not party-line existential ontology or phenomenology.
Revised. February 14, 2009.