Autobiographical Lies

cardsWatching the series House of Cards is not a “guilty pleasure.” It is often a painful exercise in examining just how corrupting, dehumanizing and (ultimately) damning political power can be. The depth of the viewers’ discomfort is a tribute to the perfectly pitched acting and writing.

It’s set in Washington D.C., and I am afraid it is more accurate portrait of that dark political environ than anyone but Mephistopheles could imagine.

Political corruption is not an American problem. It’s a human condition. Sadly, the perversions of power are replicated in capitals around the globe.

House of Cards examines the rise of a particularly evil pair, President Francis Underwood and his wife Claire.* They will stop at nothing—literally, nothing—to sate their shared hunger for power.

President Underwood is so self-consumed that few viewers will identify with his dead soul. On the other hand, he is in many ways an attractive, witty and “charismatic” man. This, of course, is the whitewash over the sepulcher that has allowed his rise to the heights of human dominance.

Despite his moral decay, there are elements of his behavior with which many can relate. I am not referring to his devotion to his wife, which appears noble but is actually a twisted symbiosis.

One way we see how a human being with the potential for true greatness has fallen to such depths comes in small sins. The ones that many of us commit without wasting a “second thought.” Such compromises often lead, as we know from personal experience, to greater transgressions.

Too often, our fall begins with a lie. We see a glimmer of this in the following scene.** The president has enlisted a popular writer to pen his “autobiography.” The author chooses to open the book with a dramatic story about Underwood’s courage and willingness to risk all for a cause.

He relates a story from the president’s youth in South Carolina. He stunned his peers by his commitment to swim all the way out to the famous Fort Sumter, at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. He did not make it the first time, and needed to be rescued by the Coast Guard. However, he tried and tried again, until he defeated the tides and waves, and rose triumphant on the island’s shore.

After the writer reads the stirring account to the president, in a dramatic aside,*** Underwood says to the audience:

I never tried to swim to Fort Sumter. Thomas probably knows I made it up. But he wrote it anyway because he understands the greater truth. Imagination is its own form of courage.

This passage is powerful. It not only displays the impulse for self-aggrandizement to which many powerful people are disposed. It also seeks to justify that compromise with integrity, by transforming the very flaw into a virtue! “Imagination is its own form of courage.” True, but given the context, repugnant.

And that sort of perversion, which had to have seemed a discordant rationale when he originally voiced it, becomes a rule for his life.

I can make up any lie that serves my purpose, because the very act of creating that new “truth” is heroic in itself. In essence, the ends (my accumulation of power), will forever justify the means.

C.S. Lewis on the Lies We Make Our Truths

One of Lewis’ lesser read theological books is The Problem of Pain. The book offers Lewis’ insights into why a loving God would allow suffering. One intriguing feature of the text is its chapter on the suffering of animals, which reveals the breadth of Lewis’ concern as well as his affection for what we now call “other species.”

The following passages suggest that when we tell ourselves the lie—that existence is ultimately about us—we are destined for disappointment. This is the tragedy being staged before our lives in the television series we have been discussing. It can be summarized in the scriptural maxim familiar even to those who never read a Bible: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26, ESV).

[Humanity] fell. Someone or something whispered that they could become as gods—that they could cease directing their lives to their Creator and taking all their delights as uncovenanted mercies, as ‘accidents’ (in the logical sense) which arose in the course of a life directed not to those delights but to the adoration of God.

As a young man wants a regular allowance from his father which he can count on as his own, within which he makes his own plans (and rightly, for his father is after all a fellow creature), so they desired to be on their own, to take care for their own future, to plan for pleasure and for security, to have a meum [personal possession] from which, no doubt, they would pay some reasonable tribute to God in the way of time, attention, and love, but which, nevertheless, was theirs not His. They wanted, as we say, to ‘call their souls their own.’

But that means to live a lie, for our souls are not, in fact, our own.

They wanted some corner in the universe of which they could say to God, ‘This is our business, not yours.’ But there is no such corner. They wanted to be nouns, but they were, and eternally must be, mere adjectives.

. . .

I have begun with the conception of Hell as a positive retributive punishment inflicted by God because that is the form in which the doctrine is most repellent, and I wished to tackle the strongest objection. But, of course, though Our Lord often speaks of Hell as a sentence inflicted by a tribunal, He also says elsewhere that the judgement consists in the very fact that men prefer darkness to light, and that not He, but His ‘word,’ judges men.

We are therefore at liberty—since the two conceptions, in the long run, mean the same thing—to think of this bad man’s perdition not as a sentence imposed on him but as the mere fact of being what he is. The characteristic of lost souls is ‘their rejection of everything that is not simply themselves.’

Our imaginary egoist has tried to turn everything he meets into a province or appendage of the self. The taste for the other, that is, the very capacity for enjoying good, is quenched in him except in so far as his body still draws him into some rudimentary contact with an outer world. Death removes this last contact. He has his wish—to lie wholly in the self and to make the best of what he finds there. And what he finds there is Hell.

Lewis’ description of his “imaginary egoist” ably fits the fictional President Underwood and his First Lady. Their lives are consumed by self. The fiction derives its power from the reality. The Underwoods are not simple cartoons. They reveal the life choices of real people in our world.

Men and women who have clawed their way onto the throne in their lives, find in the end, that it crumbles beneath them. Only a miracle can rescue them from their terrible chosen destinies . . . and gloriously, that redeeming miracle awaits their cry for mercy, so long as they have breath.


* Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright play their tragic characters so well that both have won Golden Globe awards and a variety of other accolades.

** From “Chapter 34,” season three, episode four.

*** An “aside” is a device where a character speaks directly to the audience, revealing some private thought or knowledge. It can easily be overused, but is quite finely tuned in this series. The writers of House of Cards are definitely talented.

12 thoughts on “Autobiographical Lies

  1. After we started watching “House of Cards,” I almost gave up because the asides irritated me. I’m glad I stuck with it, although there are so many odious characters on the show beside the Underwoods that sometimes it can be quite a “downer.” We just finished the most recent season on Netflix. (I don’t want to post a spoiler for those who haven’t seen it, so I’ll simply say that Claire’s last action of the season was something I wished she would do! It’s rare that a TV character actually does something I want them to do.)

    What I really, really want is for all the lies and evil to finally come home to roost and for there to be justice for all the wrongs done. I’m holding my breath, hoping we will get to see that house of cards come tumbling down . . . I also truly hope that this is a highly exaggerated and cynical picture of what goes on in D.C.

    1. A thoughtful response. Allow me to respond in turn to a couple of points you raise. The last first. I am sure that it is the minority of our presidents and their spouses who have been murderers.

      As for the consequences of their actions being felt… I don’t think we will need to wait until the final episode for that. There have been numerous instances of them receiving blows (such as political betrayals) from which they must rebound.

      Yet the greatest “justice” is this, whether they recognize it or not: They are empty. Not empty in terms of lacking in success or exaggerated ego. Empty in the sense of being utterly devoid of true life or meaning. Thus the whitewashed sepulcher reference. They are dead. They have turned so completely inward that they have diminished near to nothingness.

      The word of hope, however, is that there is One whose breath can reignite even the tiniest ember before it is forever extinguished.

  2. Quite a riveting piece and there is much food for thought here (I’m still chewing!) The Kevin Spacey character’s magnetic appeal in the series fits well with his quasi-Satanic role and being a great deceiver, he would certainly be impressed with the power of imagination – for all the wrong reasons, of course!

    1. Yes, he plays it to the extreme, but it is a valid representation of those who would willingly exchange their immortal souls for the transitory trappings of this world. Spacey is masterful in his portrayal of this great sorrow.

  3. Sounds like an interesting show I need to catch up on. (When tv talking heads are wondering if the real president will be influenced by this fictional on in this series…I just don’t know. Backwards World.)
    Adjectives, not nouns. I liked that one.

      1. I’ll say a prayer for the German. Gotta take good care of the canine members of our families… they sure take great care of us. Just saw a decal on the back of a car coming home from church today. It was in the shape of a paw print and said “Who Rescued Who?”

  4. Israel Project Writer

    I was watching a documentary about Greece and the crisis in economy a few days ago, and I find terrifying similarities between Underwood and people in organizations like IMF. Guy Debord once wrote “The fact that the practical power of modern society has detached itself from that society and established an independent realm in the spectacle can be explained only by the additional fact that that powerful practice continued to lack cohesion and had remained in contradiction with itself.”

    1. I am suspicious of anyone in the government who supports deficit spending. I think–aside from genuine emergencies–that leaving a huge debt to be paid for by the next generation is reprehensible. Yet, those in power, like Underwood and various privileged economists, don’t seem to care about fundamental morality.

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