The Lie Department

I mentioned the other day a fanciful idea of setting up an academic unit around the question of “What is True?” (Spandrels). I rather like the idea of bringing together people from various disciplines to address one great big question. There might be a mathematician, a historian, a sociologist, and maybe a philosopher or two in this department. All of these disciplines wrestle with truth, although they use different modes of inquiry and standards of evidence. The one group you wouldn’t want in the department is English professors. They need to be housed somewhere else, the Lie Department perhaps.

Fiction is by definition a lie. There never was a Madame Bovary, Huck Finn or Lemuel Gulliver, the latter a character who voyaged to an island populated by rational horses that abhorred the very idea of ever “saying the thing that was not.” Indeed, Swift’s Houyhnhnms have no word for “lying” because the idea of doing such a thing would never occur to them. I like to pose a question to my students whenever we’re reading Gulliver’s Travels. I ask whether human beings need lessons in lying or if they take to it quite naturally with no need for instruction. Swift’s point always hits home. Any fair appraisal of our nature must include the idea that we are all natural born liars who painstakingly have to be taught how to tell the truth.

On the other hand, Swift’s rational horses live in a society with no imagination or storytelling, and the ability to lie is intimately bound up with our ability to imagine, which is intimately bound up with a capacity to empathize. Con artists always score high on empathy tests, but apparently so do readers of fiction. I happened across something the other day about a researcher in Canada who has found a correlation between empathy and reading fiction. So maybe Gulliver is wrong to admire the horses in Houyhnhnm Land. After all, they could never have written as truthful an indictment of human nature as Gulliver’s Travels.

Because there is truth and there's truth. Scientists, historians and journalists have to minimize subjectivity to obtain a clear view of the facts, but such an approach merely captures the surface of life, what the critic Isaiah Berlin called the "outer accidents, the unimportant aspects which lie outside the soul.” For Berlin, equally important truths could only be revealed by bending facts into fiction, a lie that more honestly captures
the individual experience, the specific relation of individuals to one another, the colors, smells, tastes sounds, and movements, the jealousies, loves, hatreds, passions, the rare flashes of insight, the transforming moment, the ordinary day-to-day succession of private data which constitute all there is—which are reality.
So we’ll probably need a good Lie Department at my hypothetical university. It would be staffed with plenty of English professors, a few poets, maybe a painter and a few other assorted swindlers, charlatans and con artists.

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