On Truth, Lying, and a Third Thing Altogether

“Of all lies, art is the least untrue.” Gustave Flaubert

Is fiction false? I’ve heard it asked (or asserted) in various forms hundreds of times in my life. But the question’s too simple.

Obviously, in any fiction, there will be false particulars-no king of Denmark ever had the name Hamlet, that we know of; nowhere does a grump named Gargamel hunt small blue eunuchs named Smurfs.

But just as obviously, most fictions have in them some particular truths-there was once a monarchy in Denmark-and some abstract or universal truths-there are grumps like Gargamel who prey on the innocent.

Jim Carrey Makes Millions… of Children Cry.

It’s a purist impulse, then, to call all fiction a kind of lie because it inevitably contains falsehoods. And purist impulses can be commendable. But by calling fiction a lie, we’re still left with a sense that in fiction we’ve decided the ends (learning universal truths) justify the means (particular falsehoods). And in doing so we blur a line that we should wherever possible seek to keep crisp, because the better we can distinguish truth from falsehood, the more we each and all thrive.

We could call fictions mixes of truth and falsehood, and this would itself be true, but would require us to examine why there need to be any falsehoods in our fictions. Why not limit ourselves to nonfictions, and limit ourselves to the universal truths we can get at from nonfictions?

We need fiction as well as nonfiction because our knowledge-the pool of things we’re sure are true and false-is so limited, so much so that to limit ourselves to certainties would be crippling, in the face of how relentlessly life calls us to make decisions. We’d be trying to swim without using our arms.

Jim Carrey Struggles with Certain Basic Concepts About Swimming

So we can’t call fiction false, and we can’t call it truth. In fiction we’re dealing with a third thing altogether-we’re dealing with the conditional, the what if, the hypothetical, the imaginary, the gedanken, the guess. Don’t worry-I’m not trying to define this third category by anything as shaky as the mere presence of a little uncertainty, or a little falsehood, mixed in with truth-after all, almost all of our truths have a hint of uncertainty to them, and “a little falsehood mixed in with truth” sounds less like a definition of fiction than like a famous Nazi recipe for making big lies.

No, the third category has a very clear calling card. You can tell you’re dealing with the third category when the teller and the person told both understand that what’s being told is not certain and pure truth. It’s mutual consent, that marks fiction as something other than true or false or a mixture of both, that frees it from being called a lie for having some falsehoods knowingly included. To illustrate: Andy Kaufman’s “Tony Clifton” routine was a lie insofar as the audience didn’t get that Clifton was an alter-ego, but a fiction insofar as the audience caught on…

…whereas Jim Carrey’s “Andy Kaufman” routine was a lie insofar as the audience thought that it deserved a prize.

(Notice I’m having to juggle two similar binaries here: truth vs falsehood on the one hand, and unwitting falsehood vs lie on the other. There’s no need for confusion, though. In the case of fiction, we all know the teller understands that some of what’s told is false, which means there’s no chance of classifying fiction as unwitting falsehood. The choices are: truth, knowing falsehood (lie), or a third thing altogether.)

Consent is the key. In fiction, two or more minds do some collaborative imagining and in doing so try to dig up an abstract truth or two. If the fiction is successful, the teller and the told enjoy a considerable consensus on which parts of the fiction are particular falsehoods, which are abstract or universal falsehoods, which are particular truths, and which are abstract or universal truths. If a fiction’s to avoid being a lie, it’s crucial that teller and told are pretty much on the same page as far as these component truths and falsehoods.

When a fiction fails at this, we say the fiction fails in terms of emotional truth, or in terms of its moral, or we say its stylistic rules don’t gel, or the world it makes isn’t convincing. In every case, we’re saying we can’t consent very fully to the artist’s proposed truths and falsehoods. Consent is the key.

Matthew Broderick Consents to Co-Star with Jim Carrey in One of Ben Stiller’s Nightmares

In talking about art (I’ve been using “fiction” as shorthand for “art that has truth claims,” which sort of includes all art, even abstract expressionist paintings and Shaker woodwork, if you consider emotional resonance as itself a truth claim about the proper relationship of certain sights and sounds to human emotions)… in talking about art, we’ve really been talking about communicable thought, meaning, memes. And whenever we talk of memes, it’s useful to check to see if what we’re talking about has an analogue in the world of genes. After all, it’s one of my main contentions that memes and genes are deeply analogous, differing only in that genes are fixed and finite while memes seem to be, lead into, and represent an infinite realm. And there does seem to be an analogy at work here. With fiction, we consent to try to collaborate imaginatively with another mind to arrive at new truths. And this consent marks the difference between a fiction and a lie.

The Riddler, Violating All of Our Collective Epistemological Boundaries

The genetic analogue is sex. With sex, two creatures consent to let their guard down in order to collaborate on making a new creature, and/or making mutual pleasure, and/or making a social bond. Both creatures consent, and both stand to benefit. Over the last few millenia, our intuitions about the nature of genetic life have led us to draw a very sharp and increasingly unanimous distinction between consensual sex and rape. We understand that consent is vital to the legitimacy of a sexual act. It’s probably due to our less well developed understanding of memetic life that we haven’t already seen the parallel between sex vs rape and fiction vs lie.

Kate Winslet Consents to God Knows What with Jim Carrey

Part of our confusion stems from the fact that the consent which defines fiction is tacit-we assume our listener can tell we’re telling a joke, and that a priest, rabbi, and robot didn’t actually walk into a bar together. We also confuse ourselves by referring to the third thing altogether, and to the consent which defines it, by a variety of overlapping terms… instead of fiction, we say “art,” “hypothesis,” “literature,” “gedanken,” “thought experiment,” “work of imagination,” “fabrication,” “fable,” “fantasy,” “legend,” “myth,” “story,” “tale,” “yarn,” “conceit,” “invention,” “extrapolation,” “figment,” “allegory,” “parable,” and so on. And instead of “consent,” we refer to the “willful suspension of disbelief,” or of the audience being “in on” a joke. In weighing the cost of our confusion, it’s maybe helpful to notice the parallel confusion that often erupts when consent-to-sex is either tacit or expressed in unclear terms. Few people propose that we rob consensual sex of all joy by requiring an explicit consent form in standardized legalese to be filled out for each sex act. But a careful lover does make a good faith effort to make sure he or she has his partner’s consent each time, and we should probably expect the same courtesy each time we decide to tell not truth, nor lie, but that third thing altogether.

As fragile and crucial as the line between lie and art is, however, there are some line-blurring habits we should quit cold. For instance, 99.999% of Americans decide it’s OK to ignore the distinction between fiction and lie when dealing with small children. We do so for two very weak reasons: one, we presume the child’s season of awe is worth the later ice bath of disillusionment-the same sort of “means justify the ends” argument that leads adults to sieze short-term pleasure of all kinds in spite of long-term pain of all kinds. Two, we tell our kids that Santa, the tooth fairy, and the Easter bunny are real because everybody else does the same. This isn’t far from saying we do it because we do it. Or, worse, we do it not out of social herd-inertia but because we don’t want to have to tell our kids that almost everyone else is lying. Those are our reasons, and I invite anyone to give me better ones. Meanwhile, we owe it to our collective sanity to remember: If one were to try to design a cultural rite of passage to kill in the cradle each person’s ability to remember and value the difference between fiction and lie, between mutually consensual and cooperative and beneficial imagining, and coldhearted deception and betrayal of confidence, you couldn’t do much better than the triple whopper with cheese our culture has concocted:

Santa: the Lie that Keeps on Raping

Not that Santa need be a lie.  You can tell your kid he’s pretend!  After all, if anyone knows how to really drink up a good game of pretend, it’s a child.

Oh and by the way, Jim Carrey:

Jim Carrey Still Has Trouble Grasping Pen Fundamentals

Maybe you should stay off the pens.

And also, just so don’t have to keep living a lie,

Jim Carrey Contemplates Will Ferrell’s Ascendancy

everyone and their mother knows you can’t swim.


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2 Responses to “On Truth, Lying, and a Third Thing Altogether”

  1. Katharine says:

    So, what about the role of “author” in creating fiction? What responsibility might the author bear if he/she does not receive consent from the audience member(s) before the storytelling? ie: What if you are a child and you see a horror movie, and you believe that it’s real because you’ve never seen a horror movie before and don’t understand the conventions, especially in the case of those that mimic documentaries, and then you spend many terrible nights paralyzed in fear and anguish, certain that you have seen real death and the monsters really are under your bed? Does the filmmaker or author have a role to play? What if it’s not really fiction after all, but something like a snuff film? Yet, the audience believes that it’s fiction. What about fiction that we all collectively agree upon in order to preserve some sort of national sense of pride; ie: Washington and the cherry tree or, you know, *cough* 9/11? This really interests me.

  2. [...] With fiction, the audience knows that what it’s being fed isn’t purely factual.  I’ve written about this in depth. A world without lying therefore WOULD already have fiction, but no willfully deceptive Blair [...]

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