(Roughly) Daily

“Lying is done with words, and also with silence”*…

The redoubtable John Bayley deconstructs deceit in his 1990 review of Philip Kerr‘s The Penguin Book of Lies

Kipling’s unspoken criterion, that if a thing is well done enough it must be the case, has caught on in a big way. It is all made up by the media, and by those faithful camp-followers of art who tell us on radio or TV what they were ‘trying to do’ when they wrote, painted or composed. The fashionably perceptive novel, like Julian Barnes’s memorable Flaubert’s Parrot, cannot find out what it is looking for, or what is going on inside itself. The fashionable thriller does not know the answers, or which side is which. These reactions against realism discard, often to great effect, the idea of truth as solution. So, fortuitously, did Henry James in The Turn of the Screw, and Stendhal’s Fabrice when he could not find the battle of Waterloo, or be sure that he had taken part in it. That truth is a lie shows that life is stupid: once art could fix that, but now this is not so certain, even of the best art.

As Philip Kerr has perceived, and embodied in his choice of extracts, a self-consciousness about truth goes with scepticism about it to produce the modern science of propaganda. Truth is the first casualty in war, whether hot or cold; when Churchill remarked that truth in wartime was ‘so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies’ he was not just being cynical, like Bacon’s jesting Pilate, but assuming that truth, like right, must be on one’s own side: enemy truth, attended by her SS bodyguard, must be a false creature. As Orwell saw, faith in the truth leads to lying. Since the Party is always right, the concoction of deliberate lies is a moral duty. The victims of the show-trials in Moscow and Prague found relief in the lies they were made to utter. In 1940 Orwell supposed – which is interesting in the light of what happened later in the Soviet Union, and indeed in 1984 – that ‘already there are countless people who would think it scandalous to falsify a scientific textbook, but would see nothing wrong in falsifying a historical fact.’ Today science can appear just as much ‘the father of lies’ as Herodotus himself: not because of our appetite for wonders, but because the scientist has become much more aware of the possibilities of propaganda, whether personally or ideologically motivated…

More on the forms of fabrication: “Art’ll fix it,” in @LRB

(Image above: source)

* Adrienne Rich, Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying


As we ponder prevarication, we might rejoice in the naively and nobly inventive: it was on this date in 1605 that El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (or The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha— aka Don Quixote), the masterwork of Miguel de Cervantes (and of the Spanish Golden Age) and a founding work of Western literature was first published. Widely considered the first modern novel (published in the Western world), it is also considered by many (still) to be the best; it is in any case the second most translated work in the world (after the Bible).

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