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On Truth and Lying: An Excerpt

[This is an excerpt from something else I’ve been working on.  Sorry if it seems abrupt.  I’m curious to hear what others might make of this approach to truth and lying.]
So it goes. 
That’s something Vonnegut used to say before he died.
Vonnegut, by the way, had things pretty well figured out.  He was able to negotiate a dialectic that most people cannot sustain.  That is to say, he was able to remain both appalled and horrified by the multitude of death-dealing ways in which people treat other people, and he was still able to prevent this full-on confrontation with death from crushing the life, love and laughter within him.  Most of the rest of us aren’t able to do this.  We either face the death-dealing elements of life and burn-out or blow-up in that confrontation, or (more often) we refuse to face this part of our existence and so the life, love, and laughter we pursue is often tinged with desperation, superficiality, and dishonesty.
Speaking of dishonesty, the reader should know this: I am not a particularly honest person.  However, I should clarify what I mean by that: I believe that I am quite honest with myself, I just don’t think that I need to be nearly as honest with others.  I have found that lying, more than truth-telling, is often the only way to pursue ends that I believe are good and moral.  In contradistinction to the kind of lying I just mentioned, I lie not in order to avoid a confrontation with death, but in order to win that confrontation.
So, I’m not particularly bothered by observing this about myself.  All of us are liars or, to reframe that discussion, all of us are daily engaging in the creation of fictions.  In a world bereft of certitude, wherein “truth” and “lies” are simply the products of language games created by people (wherein all truths are tautological), I’m not entirely sure of the value of continuing to employ this terminology.  In many ways, we are quite literally creating the worlds in which we live.  We all create or buy-in to systems of value, meaning, and significance that we ultimately have no way of knowing are actually true.  Thus, living life meaningfully is an ongoing process of creative fiction writing. 
Further, like all good fiction, it isn’t very useful to refer to this as something that is either “true” or “false”.  When I read Dostoevsky (or any other talented author), I don’t think, “man, what a liar, this guy is making all this shit up.”  That would be an exercise in missing the point.  The Brothers Karamazov is no less true than any work of non-fiction – any historical narrative or any “true story”.  Further, “true” stories, histories, biographies, or whatever else, are just as “made up” as The Brothers Karamazov, in that people choose to highlight certain things, leave other things out, connect certain events to other events, ascribe value to some things and not to others, and so on and so forth. 
All stories are fictions and anyone who imposes a narrative structure on his or her own life, or onto the world, is a liar.
So, with that in mind, I am not interested in telling stories in order to capture some “truth.”  Rather, I tell stories in order to pursue that which is life-giving.  If lying is more life-giving than truth-telling (and it often is), then I will lie.  These lies then actually alter the world – by creating life, they become “truer” than that which we perceive of as “factual.”  Like I said before, we are all in the process of creating the worlds in which we live.  Some lies – the real good ones – are “false” before they are spoken, and “true” afterwards.
For example, I may work with a homeless man who others have described as “worthless,” “bad,” or a “piece of shit,” and that person may have internalized these markers into his own self-identification.  Indeed, the evidence offered for this description might be compelling: maybe this guy sexually abused his sister, maybe he is selling crack to kids and single mothers, maybe he beats people up for money.  Whatever, you get the idea. 
However, when I go on to describe this person as “valuable,” “good” and “beloved,” and when I treat this man as such, my description often ends up becoming more definitive of who he becomes.  Thus, while others might be inclined to call me a liar for describing the fellow they knew in that way, all I’m doing is speaking a truth that has not yet become true.  I am engaged in the process of world-creation, which involves participating in the creation of the characters around us.
However, I  do not engage in this process alone.  Everybody is creating the world in which they live, and most people are trying to impose their world onto the worlds that others are trying to create.  Those with wealth, status, power and control of the means of communication are particularly successful in having others accept the world that they want to create.  The problem here is that these people tend not to be concerned about the lives of others.  They treat others as pieces of shit and ensure that those others actually (factually, truthfully) turn into pieces of shit.  This is a death-dealing way of creating the world. 
I say fuck that world.

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  1. ‘speaking a truth that has not yet become true’
    this is the most compelling part of what you have written and for me captures the heart of what you describing elsewhere as ‘lies that alter the world’ and ‘lying to win the confrontation’ which is less compelling language
    cheers, Geoff.

  2. Check out Paul J. Griffith’s theology of lying. I used to share a home with this guy, somewhere in the north of England, while he was writing it!
    Also, if you’re going to pursue that line of thought, get into “performativity” theory, it might yield some interesting insights…
    On a more mundane note, I really believe that those who most need compliments and praise are those who don’t deserve them at that point in time.
    The reverse is if that you call someone a dog they can’t live it down, this is about the most disempowering thing you can do.
    In Germany, they make these kitchy little wooden heart frames with a message which they sell at beer festivals. My favourite one says: “love me when I don’ deserve it, that’s when i need it”.

    • Yes, it really does come down to performance. The only “truths” that matter are actions. That’s why, at the end of the day, I don’t care so much about what people say, think, or feel — I care about what they do (and those other things only matter to the extent that they impact what is done).

      • Hey I said performativity, not performance! Performativity is about how something said or done can transform the world and bring about a tangibly new reality.
        By saying “I declare you man and wife” you bring about a marriage. Similarly by declaring someone beloved, you are bringing about the possibility of the state of belovedness.
        No issue with your statement on performance though. This has been brought home mightily forcefully for me just today, as you can tell from my last post.

      • Ah. I see. I’m much more skeptical about this. Reminds me of theologians who go on and on about the “power of the Word”… as though this somehow justifies them living lives of detached privilege because they muck around with letters all day.

  3. Hey Dan,
    Good post. You might enjoy checking out Christian Salmon’s “Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind”
    It would offer the counter-view here, in essence:
    “The art of narrative—which, ever since it emerged, has recounted humanity’s experience by shedding light on it—has become, like storytelling, an instrument that allows the state to lie and to control public opinion. Behind the brands and the TV series, and in the shadows of victorious election campaigns from Bush to Sarkozy, as well as in those of military campaigns in Iraq and elsewhere, there are dedicated storytelling technicians. The empire has confiscated narrative.”
    Also worth considering would be Michel De Certeau’s “Practice of Everyday Life”
    a few quotes:
    “From morning to night, narrations constantly haunt streets and buildings. They articulate our existences by teaching us what they must be. They “cover the event,” that is to say, the they make our legends (legenda, what is to be read and said) out of it. Captured by the radio (the voice is the law) as soon as he awakens, the listener walks all day through the forest of narratives from journalism, advertising, and television, narrativities that still find time, as he is getting ready for bed, to slip a few final messages under the portals of sleep. Even more than the God told about by the theologians of earlier days, these stories have a providential and predestining function: they organize in advance our work, our celebrations, and even our dreams.” (pg 186)
    “On the one hand, the modern age, which first arose out of a methodic effort of observation and accuracy that struggled against credulity and based itself on a contract between the seen and the real, now transforms this relation and offers to sight precisely what must be believed. Fiction defines the field, the status, and the objects of vision. The media, advertising, and political representations all function in this way.” (pg 186-7)
    I’d be the first to affirm that in dealing with reality we are dealing with narrative structure… and the first to admit that in dealing with narrative structure we are also playing with fire.

  4. Vonnegut is my hero. “Palm Sunday” and “A Man Without a Country”, two of his non-fiction works, are a couple of the best books I’ve ever read (probably because they seemed so full of truth to me).