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Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 11:40 am
In praise of lying

As a man who's just published a book with an aphorism in big letters on the front saying "Every lie creates the parallel world in which it's true", I'm obviously interested in reports of British comedian Ricky Gervais' new film The Invention of Lying. According to reviews (like this one by Xan Brooks in The Guardian), Gervais has created a parallel world in which lies don't exist. "It is set in an America that is not so much a bright, shining lie as a blunt, bruising truth," writes Brooks, "inhabited by people who are pathologically honest, both in their opinions of others and about their own crippling lack of self-esteem. A TV advert for Coca-Cola confesses that "it's basically just brown sugar-water". The rival brand shoots back that Pepsi is perfect "for when they don't have Coke"."



Gervais plays Mark Bellison, the first man to "say something that wasn't". This use of a virtual margin radically transforms his life, making all sorts of things possible that weren't possible before. He gets the girl, persuades his dying mother that dying isn't so bad after all because there's a heaven, and as a result becomes the prophet of a new religion which tells people what they want to hear. Gervais' point is both anti-religious (since religion is clearly the biggest lie of all) yet also pro-lying (since lies make life bearable) -- which makes it pro-religious again, in a sense. Religion is untrue, but legitimately comforting.

From the glosses I've read in reviews so far, it sounds to me as if The Invention of Lying melds the themes of The Misanthrope and Tartuffe, both by the great 17th century French dramatist Moliere. The world of the early part of the film, a world without lying, is very much the world of Alceste, Moliere's "misanthrope", who's unable to lie to spare anyone's feelings, unable to flatter to capture the heart of a lover, and unable to compromise to advance his own career. In the end he decides to retreat from society altogether. The second part of Gervais' film is more Tartuffe-like, and concerns the hypocrisies of religion.



Since this is a comedy aimed at -- and set in -- America, The Guardian thinks its presentation of religion as a big lie is "rather radical... It's one thing for Gervais to air his atheism on the standup circuit. It's quite another to do so in the guise of a glossy, user-friendly sitcom pitched squarely at the huddled masses in the American multiplex." It's rather a depressing thought that things that were vaguely subversive in 17th France are still considered subversive in 21st century America, but worth remembering that the Alceste character in The Misanthrope may be Moliere's auto-critique (Alceste's honesty gets him tangled up in various lawsuits, which Moliere also was at the time), but also that he may be a parody of the protestant and puritan attitudes which at the time were just beginning to chafe against Catholicism.

You can see how Protestant and Catholic attitudes to lying might be rather different. Just seventeen years before The Misanthrope was produced, for example, a puritan dictator called Cromwell had seized control of England and closed all the theatres, because plays were dangerous "lies". In the Protestant, puritan imagination we have a direct personal relationship with God, and make accounts of our conscience to Him. In the Catholic imagination, there's more room for slack and embellishment. We can do bad things -- everybody does -- then confess them through the mediating machinery of the church, and be absolved. Post-catholic cultures, as a result, go in more for compromise, for private confession, for compassion. They're more forgiving of "hypocrisy", for keeping a split between public and private life. They're less keen on direct confrontation, litigation, condemnation, and moral witch-hunting. There's a reason Arthur Miller did not set The Crucible in France.



As Ricky Gervais' film shows, lying gives you a particular edge in a world where everyone tells the truth. In a world where everybody lies, clearly the playing field is effectively leveled and the advantage of lying much reduced. Even in that world, though, there might be good reasons to lie. First, lying takes a bit more effort, a bit more ingenuity and a bit more work than telling the truth. And (dis)honest hard work is of course a prime value in itself. Secondly, as Bellison shows when he softens his sick mother's death, lying can be compassionate. We tell people -- and ourselves -- lies every day to soften hard blows and generally be kinder, something puritan truth-telling prigs might do well to consider more important than simply stating harsh, bare facts. Thirdly, as Gervais also points out, lying can be creative, productive, dynamic, transformative. Lying isn't just "saying something that isn't", it's a way to propose a new and different arrangement of things, one which occurred in your imagination rather than in the real world. Once you've proposed it as a lie, you can work on making your lie true.

Next time you hear someone spitting contemptuously the word "Liar!", try this thought experiment. Imagine that same person, in a parallel world, cooing the word in a truly impressed, admiring voice. Now you're in a parallel world where liars are heroes. Look around, try things out. What's it like there? Is it better or worse than the world we know? Or is it exactly the same? Do we perhaps already live there, and just not admit it?

40CommentReplyFlag

faunflynn
faunflynn
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 10:04 am (UTC)
In praise of lying

I have always found Mr Gervais rather underwhelming.
Perhaps here he will exhibit some real ideas and some real comedy .
You are the god of satires ,I saw yr book the other day that seems much funnier and far more trenchant.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 10:22 am (UTC)
Re: In praise of lying

Thank you. In a parallel world we sell the film rights to The Book of Jokes, which is then filmed, pretty much verbatim, in the static, serious, classical framing of the Straubs. In black and white, naturally. Despite its austerity, or because of it, the film is hilarious and breaks all box office records. I retire to a luxuriously austere wooden house overlooking the Inland Sea.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 10:36 am (UTC)

The movie is not a lie it's a fantasy an utterly lame one at that. No wonder your closing this dump down. Now am I lying or not?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 11:01 am (UTC)

Thank you, caller. By the way, I am returning the goat you lent me. It is an honest animal, but its egg yields have proved disappointingly meagre.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
writewrongs
writewrongs
That's not a name, it's a colour!
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 11:33 am (UTC)

Can I can get your book in Berlin somewhere?

Also this movie looks total guile.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 11:43 am (UTC)

You have the sexiest usericon ever!

You can get The Book of Scotlands at Pro QM. The Book of Jokes isn't out in Europe quite yet.

By the way, I might write in praise of lying from time to time, but I lie a lot less than people I read on my Friends List, like Harvey James. I read that post and totally believed it!


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 11:51 am (UTC)

Jorge Luis Borges wrote in his "Fragments of An Apocryphal Gospel" something like this: "Don`t give so much importance to Truth. There's no man that, at the end of a day, hadn't tell several lies, with good reasons".

Greetings, Momus. Here, in Argentina we will miss Click Opera too!


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 12:35 pm (UTC)
¿Is there truth?

This theory of yours presupposes a very "hard" theory of truth.
What if truth is the most sofisticated of lies?
A lie is a easy creation. But truth is a very complicated and interesting one that manages to convince others.

That is a theory of truth that goes very well with what mathematicians do. There the liar is the impostor, the wannabe. The one who tells the truth is the one who risks the most, the one who goes beyond, and that lie he invent is very difficult to get to. But also the most beautiful of all.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 01:06 pm (UTC)
Re: ¿Is there truth?

Well, I tend to square the circle with the idea attributed to (amongst others) Picasso that "art is a lie that tells the truth".


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thomascott
thomascott
Thomas Scott
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 12:35 pm (UTC)
Lies make baby Jesus cry..

To be honest (?), the main problem l have with lying is recollecting which lie I have told to whom..

I think I remember reading somewhere that there is a direct correlation between a child's intelligence and how early the infant begins telling lies.
It does of course make sense, the child is evincing the ability to conceive abstract thought, to realise that they can manipulate the world around them by lying and to perhaps realise that lies can create a more convenient version of the truth.


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reflejos
reflejos
erasmo spicker
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 12:45 pm (UTC)

Also,
The quote, which seems to be the "real" tittle of your book, seems to be the theme of many many movies, in particular Good bye Lenin.

But also Truman Show gets a very interestin twist of it. It makes you think about the contest and its relation to truth (and the context of the context). That is why fiction is not lie, because it frames it.

And finally there was a show in Colombia where people where forced to tell the truth in order to win money. It was very radical, but there you could see clrearly why lies are common and necesary (that was the point of Liar, liar also).

Nada más que la verdad:
http://www.psiquiatria.org.co/BancoConocimiento/R/revista_4_psiquiatria_2007_-_articulos_originales_6/revista_4_psiquiatria_2007_-_articulos_originales_6.asp

Alejandro


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pay_option07
pay_option07
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 02:14 pm (UTC)
Ricky does puppets to!

Brit Teli can be. Or is it exactly the same?


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scribbled_mess
scribbled_mess
scribbled_mess
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 03:43 pm (UTC)

A+ on including the Kermit the frog clip. I have nothing else of merit to say.


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slawmusic
slawmusic
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 03:49 pm (UTC)
City of Truth

This sounds suspiciously like James Morrow's excellent 1993 book City Of Truth:

http://www.sff.net/People/Jim.Morrow/city.html

In Veritas, the City of Truth, people have been brutally conditioned to always tell the truth, no matter how unnerving (or droll) the truth may be. It will come as no surprise, then, that elevators in Veritas carry the notice THIS ELEVATOR MAINTAINED BY PEOPLE WHO HATE THEIR JOBS. RIDE AT YOUR OWN RISK. Or that cigarette packs say WARNING: THE SURGEON GENERAL'S CRUSADE AGAINST THIS PRODUCT MAY DISTRACT YOU FROM THE MYRIAD WAYS YOUR GOVERNMENT FAILS TO PROTECT YOUR HEALTH.

Jack Sperry leads a rather routine life as a "deconstructionist," destroying "mendacious" old works of art, until his beloved son, Toby, is bitten by a rabbit at Camp Ditch-the-Kids and contracts a rare disease. Jack must now somehow learn to lie if, as he believes, only falsehoods can give Toby enough hope to effect a cure.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 04:16 pm (UTC)
Re: City of Truth

There are certainly some sight gags in the trailer which sound like the elevator notice you quote: there's a homeless man, for instance, who holds up a sign saying I CAN'T UNDERSTAND WHY I'M HOMELESS ARE YOU ARE NOT.

Good, simple, big ideas are the gift that keeps giving, anyway. Everything hinges on how you tell them, in what context, with what incidental details, and to what audience. Morrow was possibly also influenced by Moliere or, for all I know, Aristophanes or Plautus or whoever -- fairly irrelevantly -- "had the idea first". It's an idea which is continuously made necessary by our insistence that "honesty is the best policy".


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 05:55 pm (UTC)
milton+orwell=gervais-gravitas

speaking of religion, the devil himself is known to delight in making wrong right and right wrong, truth lies, lies truth, freedom slavery, slavery freedom, etc etc.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 07:37 pm (UTC)

"Every lie creates the parallel world in which it's true"

This is like the 20th time you've written this phrase on a post.

It was already trite the first time.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 07:53 pm (UTC)

I actually find it mind-blowing, but perhaps my mind works differently from yours.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 08:14 pm (UTC)

I saw the film and enjoyed it. It is nothing radical. The atheistic part is the most astonishing thing about the film and a daring move for the American market - but as it is a rom-com it is somewhat neutered. For me it actually shows how radical it is to tell the truth.

I see your point about lying being necessary for the artist in order to tell the truth; however after 8 years of living in a country that has been lied to and where the lies still are being spun by the Republican party ( i.e. the "birthers" thing ) I think that truth is something we desperately need.

Richard


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 08:25 pm (UTC)

Now that Click Opera is going the way of the Dodo, I have started compiling a list of things that are better than momus.

1) go carts

2) '80s pornography

...that's all I got so far but I will keep working on it.


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 08:32 pm (UTC)


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
milky_eyes
milky_eyes
milky_eyes
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 08:45 pm (UTC)
grey areas

its fun to dice it up a bit and look at the many different possibilities, functions and results that are procured from 'lies'...
Often times when I'm seeing a disagreement on this blog (for example), what is happening is, there are two different points of views, both of which actually have space for each other... if only the the people owning them would stop for a moment and realize. (Of course that would make a less exciting debate.)
that is to say, often there is much space for many different truths, and following that line of thought a bit further... room for many different 'lies' to be true... which I think in part is what you were allowing for in this post.
there is a kind of famous saying which I like that goes: "a goal is just a dream with a dealine"

so a lie is just a truth that hasnt happened yeah... ah, I'm no poet.

:( anyways. ...
nice post and heres to dreaming !!!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Oct. 2nd, 2009 08:58 pm (UTC)
Re: grey areas

a lie is just a truth that hasnt happened yeah

Yes, we could make lots of these. "Every enemy creates the parallel universe in which she's your friend", and so on.


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