Lies That Tell the Truth
In art truth is suggested by false means.
Truth is only believed when someone has invented it well.
To think clearly in human terms you have to be impelled by a poem.
THIS ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY an address to the annual conference
of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. where its title, at the
request of the organizers, was changed to 'Historical and Other Truths'
– which was deemed more appropriate for such a serious audience. For
judges Me supposed to be serious; indeed. don't they wear wigs and
gowns to convince us - and remind themselves - of their seriousness?
Serious people have little time for any form of fiction. With such a flippant
title, my talk was not likely to attract many listeners. Still, the
change left me slightly uneasy – since, strictly speaking, I am not a historian
– and I am glad to be able now to relinquish the false advertisement
of which I was somehow guilty.
My article carries three epigraphs. Most lectures, addresses – and
essays – are usually forgettable. Epigraphs should be memorable. My
readers will naturally forget this article, but they should remember the
epigraphs. The first one is by a painter, the second one by a philosopher.
the third one by a poet.
Painters, philosophers, poets, creative writers – and also inventors
and scientists – all reach truth by taking imaginative short-cuts. Let us
consider some of these.
Plato's dialogues remain the cornerstone of all Western philosophy.
Very often what we find at their core is not discursive reasoning but various
myths - short philosophical parables. Myth is the oldest and richest
form of fiction. It performs an essential function: 'what myth
communicates is not truth but reality; truth is always about something—
reality is what truth is about' (C.S. Lewis).
At roughly the same time as Plato in the West, ancient Daoist thinkers
in China also expressed their ideas in imaginative form. On the subject
that occupies us here – how do our minds reach truth – there is one
tale in Lie Zi that seems illuminating and fundamental.
In the time of the Warring States, horses were very important for
military reasons. The feudal lords employed the services of experts to
find good ones. Best of all was the super-horse (qian-li ma
), an animal
which could run a thousand miles a day without leaving tracks and without
raising dust. Super-horses were most sought after, but they were
also very rare and hard to detect. Hence the need for highly specialized
experts; most famous among these was a man called Bole. Eventually
Bole became too old to pursue his field trips prospecting for super-horses.
Thus his employer, the Duke of Qin, asked him if he could recommend
another expert to carry on with this task. 'Yes,' said Bole. 'I
have a friend, a pedlar of firewood in the market, who is quite a connoisseur
of horses. ' Following Bole's advice. the duke dispatched this man
on a mission to find a super-horse. Three months later, the man
returned and reported to the duke: 'I have found one; it is in such-and-such
a place; it's a brown mare.' The duke sent his people to fetch the
animal, which proved to be a black stallion. The duke was not happy and
summoned Bole: That friend of yours – he does not seem to be much
of an expert: he could not even get the animal's sex and colour right!'
On hearing this, Bole was amazed:
“Fantastic! He is even better than myself, a hundred, a thousand
times better than myself! What he perceives is the innermost nature
of the animal. He looks for and sees what he needs to see. He ignores
what he does not need to see. Not distracted by external appearances,
he goes straight to the inner essence. The way he judges
horses shows that he should be judge of more important things than
And, needless to say, this particular animal proved to be a super-horse
indeed, a horse that could run a thousand miles a day without leaving
tracks and without raising dust.
In reflecting on the ways by which our minds apprehend truth, you
may feel that a 2300-year-old Chinese parable is of only limited relevance.
But if so, let us consider something closer to hand: the mental
processes followed by modern Western science.
Claude Bernard, the great pathologist whose research and discoveries
were of momentous importance in the development of modern
medical science, one day entered the lecture hall where he was going to
teach and noticed something peculiar: various trays were on a table,
containing different human organs; on one of these trays, flies had gathered.
A common mind would have made a common observation, perhaps
deploring a lack of cleanliness in the room or instructing the
janitor to keep the windows shut. But Bernard's was not a common
mind: he observed that the flies had gathered on the tray which contained
livers – and he thought, There must be sugar there. And he discovered
the glycogenic function of the liver – a discovery that proved
decisive for the understanding and treatment of diabetes.
I found this anecdote not in any history of medical science, but in
the diaries of the greatest modern French poet, Paul Claudel. And
Claudel commented: 'This mental process is identical to that of poetical
writing ... The impelling motion is the same. Which shows that the primary
source of scientific thought is not reasoning, but the precise verification
of an association originally supplied by the imagination
Note that when I refer to 'poetry', I am taking this word in its most
fundamental sense. Samuel Johnson, in his monumental dictionary of
the English language, assigns three definitions to the word ' poet', in
decreasing order of importance: first, 'an inventor'; second, 'an author
of fiction'; and last, 'a writer of poems.'
Truth is grasped by an imaginative leap. This applies not only to
scientific thinking but also to philosophical thought. When I was a
naive young student in the first year of university, our Arts course
included the study of philosophy - a prospect that excited me much at
first, though I was soon disappointed by the mediocrity of our lecturer.
However, through family acquaintances I had the good fortune to
know personally an eminent philosopher of our time, who happened to
be also a kind and generous man. On my request, he drafted for me a
list of basic readings: one handwritten page with bibliographic references
of a selection of classic texts, modern works, histories of philosophy
and introductions to philosophy. I treasured this document; yet,
over the years, wandering round the world, I misplaced it and, like
many other treasures, eventually lost it. Now, half a century later, I
have long forgotten the actual items on the list. What I still remember
is the postscript the great philosopher had inscribed at the bottom of
that page - I remember it vividly because, at the time, I did not understand
it and it puzzled me. The postscript said (underlined), 'Most
important of all, don't forget: do read a lot of novels.' When I first read
this note, as an immature student, it shocked me. Somehow it did not
sound serious enough. For, naively, we tend to confuse what is serious
with what is deep. (In the editorial pages of our newspapers, leading
articles are serious, while cartoons are funny; yet quite often the cartoon
is deep and the leader is vapid.) It took me a long time to appreciate
the full wisdom of my philosopher's advice; now I frequently
encounter echoes of it. And to the observation I have already quoted
elsewhere, that one should prefer a medical practitioner who reads
Chekhov, I would add that, if I commit a crime, I hope to be judged by
a judge who has read Simenon.
Men of action - people who are totally involved in tackling what
they believe to be real life - tend to dismiss poetry and all forms of
creative writing as a frivolous distraction. Our great Polar explorer
Mawson wrote in a letter to his wife some instructions concerning
their children's education. He insisted that they should not waste their
time reading novels, but should instead acquire factual information
from books of history and biography.
This view - quite prevalent, actually - that there is an essential difference
between works of imagination on the one hand, and records of
facts and events on the other, is very naive. At a certain depth or a certain
level of quality, all writings tend to be creative writing, for they all
partake of the same essence: poetry.
History (contrary to the common view) does not record events. It
merely records echoes of events - which is a very different thing - and,
in doing this, it must rely on imagination as much as on memory. Memory
by itself can only accumulate data, pointlessly and meaninglessly.
Remember Jorge Luis Borges' philosophical parable 'Funes the Memorious'.
Funes is a young man who, falling on his head from a horse
becomes strangely crippled: his memory hyper-develops, he is deprived
of any ability to forget, he remembers everything; his mind becomes a
monstrous garbage dump cluttered and clogged with irrelevant data, a
gigantic heap of unrelated images and disconnected instants; he cannot
evacuate any fragment of past experiences, however trifling. This relentless
capacity for absolute and continuous recollection is a curse; it
excludes all possibility of thought. For thinking requires space m which
to forget, to select, to delete and to isolate what is significant. If you cannot
discard any item from the memory store, you cannot abstract
generalize. But without abstraction and generalization, there can be no
The historian does not merely record; he edits, he omits, he judges,
he interprets, he reorganizes, he composes. His mission is nothing less
than 'to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by
bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every
aspect'. Yet this quote is not from a historian discussing history writing;
it is from a novelist on the art of fiction: it is the famous beginning of
Joseph Conrad's preface to The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'
, a true manifesto of
the novelist's mission.
The fact is, these two arts - history writing and fiction writing -
originating both in poetry, involve similar activities and mobilize the
same faculties: memory and imagination; and this is why it could rightly
be said that the novelist is the historian of the present and the historian of
the novelist of the past. Both must invent the truth.
Of course, accuracy of data is the pre-condition of any historical
work. But in the end, what determines the quality of a historian is the
quality of his judgment. Two historians may be in possession of the
same data; what distinguishes them is what they make of their common
information. For example, on the subject of convict Australia, Robert
Hughes gathered a wealth of material which he presented in his FatalShore
in a vivid and highly readable style. On the basis of that same
information, however, Geoffrey Blainey drew a conclusion that is radically
different – and much more convincing. Hughes had likened convict
Australia to the 'Gulag Archipelago' of the Soviet Union, but Blamey
pointed out that whereas the Soviet Gulag was a totally sterile machine
designed solely to crush and destroy its inmates, in Australia, out of a
convict system that was also brutal and ferocious, a number of individuals
emerged full of vigour and ambition, who rose to become some of
their country's richest citizens. In turn, they soon generated a dynamic
society and, eventually, a vibrant young democracy What matters most
in the end is how the historian reads events - and this is where his judgment
is put to the test.
To reach the truth of the past, historians must overcome specific
obstacles: they have to gather information that is not always readily
available. In this sense, they must master the methods of a specialized
discipline. But to understand the truth of the present time, right in
front of us, is not the preserve of historians; it is our common task. How
do we usually cope with it? Not too well, it seems.
Let us consider just two examples - still quite close to us, and of
colossal dimensions. The twentieth century was a hideous century
filled with horrors on a gigantic scale. In sheer magnitude, the terror
perpetrated by modern totalitarianisms was unprecedented. It developed
essentially in two varieties: Stalinist and Hitlerian.
When we read the writings of Soviet and East European dissidents
and exiles, we are struck by one recurrent theme: their amazement,
indignation and anger in the face of the stupidity, ignorance and indifference
of Western opinion and especially of the Western intelligentsia,
which remained largely incapable of registering the reality of their predicament.
And yet the Western countries were spending huge resources,
both to gather intelligence and to develop scholarly research on the
communist world - all to very little avail. Robert Conquest, one of the
very few Sovietologists who was clear-sighted from the start, experienced
acute frustration in his attempts to share and communicate his
knowledge. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, his publisher
proposed to reissue a collection of his earlier essays and asked him what
title he would suggest. Conquest thought for one second and said, 'How
about I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?’
Interestingly enough, the name of one writer appears again and
again in the writings of the dissidents from the communist world – they
pay homage to him as the only author who fully perceived the concrete
reality of their condition, down to its very sounds and smells – and this
is George Orwell. Aleksandr Nekrich summed up this view: 'Orwell is
the only Western writer who really understood the essential nature of
the Soviet world: Czeslaw Milosz and many others made similar assessments.
And yet, Nineteen Eighty-Four
is a work of fiction - an imaginary
projection set in the future of England.
The Western incapacity to grasp the Soviet reality and all its Asian
variants was not a failure of information (which was always plentiful); it
was a failure of imagination
The horrors of the Nazi regime have long been fully documented: the
criminals have been defeated and sentenced; the victims, survivors, witnesses
have spoken; the historians have gathered evidence and passed
judgment. Full light has been cast upon this entire era. The records fill
In all this huge literature, however, I would wish to single out one
small book, extraordinary because of its very ordinariness: the pre-war
memoir of a young Berliner, Raimund Pretzel, who chose to leave his
country in 1938 on purely moral grounds. Written under the pen-name
of Sebastian Haffner, it carries a fittingly modest and unassuming title:Geschichte eines Deutschen
(Story of a German), which was badly translated
for the English edition as Defying Hitler
. It was published posthumously
only a few years ago by the author's son, who discovered the manuscript
in his father's papers.
The author was a well-educated young man; the son of a magistrate,
he himself was entering that same career; his future prospects were
secure; he loved his friends, his city, his culture, his language. Yet, like
all his compatriots, he witnessed Hitler's ascent. He had no privileged
information; simply, like any other intellectual, he read the newspapers,
followed the news, discussed current affairs with friends and colleagues.
He clearly felt that, together with the rest of the country, he
was being progressively sucked into a poisonous swamp. To ensure a
reasonably smooth and trouble-free existence, small compromises
were constantly required – nothing difficult nor particularly dramatic;
everyone else, to a various extent, was similarly involved. Yet the sum
total of these fairly banal, daily surrenders eroded the integrity of each
individual. Haffner himself was never forced into participating in any
extreme situation, was never confronted with atrocities, never personally
witnessed dramatic events or political crimes. Simply, he found
himself softly enveloped into the all-pervasive moral degradation of an
entire society. Experiencing nothing more than what all his compatriots
were experiencing, he faced the inescapable truth. Since he was
lucky enough to have no family responsibilities, he was free to abandon
his beloved surroundings and to forsake the chance of a brilliant career:
he went into voluntary exile, first to France and then England - to savehis soul
. His short (unfinished), clear-sighted and sober memoir raises
one terrifying question: all that Haffner knew at the time, many millions
of people around him knew equally well. Why was there only one
Earlier on, I suggested that artists and creative writers actually
develop alternative modes of access to truth – all the short-cuts afforded
by inspired imagination. Please do not misunderstand me: if I suggest
that there are alternative approaches to truth, I do not mean that there
are alternative truths. Truth is not relative; by nature it is within the
reach of everyone, it is plain and obvious – sometimes even painfully so.
Haffner's example illustrates it well.
At the time of the Dreyfus Affair - the most shameful miscarriage of
justice in French modern history - one of the eminent personalities
who came to Dreyfus's defense was a most unlikely figure. Marechal
Lyautey, being an aristocrat, monarchist, Catholic, third-generation
military man, seemed naturally to belong to the other side – the side of
rightist, anti-Semitic, clerical, militaro-chauvinistic bigots. He became
a supporter of Dreyfus (who was falsely convicted of the crime of treason)
for only one reason: he himself had integrity. The pro-Dreyfus
committee gathered to discuss what to call itself; most members suggested
the name Alliance for Justice. 'No,’ said Lyauter 'We must call itAlliance for Truth.
’ And he was right, for one can honestly hesitate on what
(since justice must always take into account complex and contradictory
factors), but one cannot hesitate on what is true
Which brings me to my conclusion. My conclusion is in fact my
unspoken starting point. When I was first invited to speak on the subject
of truth, it was a few days before Easter. During the successive days
of the Christian Holy Week, we read in church the four Gospel narratives
of the last two days in the life of Christ. These narratives each contain
a passage on the trial of Jesus in front of the Roman governor,
Pontius Pilate; the concept of truth appears there in a brief dialogue
between judge and accused. It is a well-known passage; at that time, it
struck me in a very special way.
The high priests and the Sanhedrin had arrested Jesus, and they
interrogated him. In conclusion, they decided that he should be put to
death for blasphemy. But they were now colonial subjects of the Roman
empire; they had lost the power to pronounce and carry out death sentences.
Only the Roman governor possessed such authority.
Thus they bring Jesus to Pilate. Pilate finds himself in a predicament.
First, there is the problem inherent to his position: he is both head of
the executive and head of the judiciary As supreme ruler, he is concerned
with issues of public order and security; as supreme judge, he
should ensure that the demands of justice are being met. Then there is
his own personal situation: the Jews naturally see him for what he is –
an odious foreign oppressor. And he distrusts and dislikes these quarrelsome
and incomprehensible natives who give him endless trouble.
During his tenure, twice already there have been severe disturbances;
the governor handled them badly - he was even denounced in Rome.
He cannot afford another incident. And this time, he fears a trap.
The Jewish leaders present themselves as loyal subjects of Caesar.
They accuse Jesus of being a rebel, a political agitator who tells the people
not to pay taxes and who challenges Caesar's authority by claiming
that he himself is a king. Now, if Pilate does not condemn him, Pilate
himself would be disloyal to Caesar.
Pilate interrogates Jesus. Naturally, he finds Jesus' notion of a spiritual
kingdom quite fanciful, but it seems also harmless enough. The
accused appears to be neither violent nor fanatic; he has poise; he is
articulate. Pilate is impressed by his calm dignity, and it quickly becomes
obvious to him that Jesus is entirely innocent of all the crimes of which
he has been accused. Pilate repeats it several times: '1 can find no fault
in this man.' But the mob demands his death, and the Gospel adds that,
hearing their shouts, 'Pilate was more afraid than ever.' Pilate is scared:
he does not want to have, once again, a riot on his hands. Should this
happen, it would be the end of his career.
In the course of his interrogation, as Pilate questions Jesus on his
activities, Jesus replies: 'What I came into the world for, is to bear witness
of the truth. Whoever belongs to the truth, listens to my voice.'
To which Pilate retorts: 'The truth! But what is the truth?' He is an
educated and sophisticated Roman; he has seen the world and read the
philosophers; unlike this simple man, this provincial carpenter from
Galilee, he knows that there are many gods and many creeds under the
However, beware! Whenever people wonder 'What is the truth?' usually
it is because the truth is just under their noses – but it would be very
inconvenient to acknowledge it. And thus, against his own better judgment,
Pilate yields to the will of the crowd and lets Jesus be crucified.
Pilate's problem was not how to ascertain Jesus' innocence. This was
easy enough: It was obvious. No, the real problem was that, in the end -
like all of us, most of the time – he found it more expedient to wash his
hands of the truth.
Excerpted from The Hall of Uselessness by Simon Leys; with a foreword by the author. Copyright © 2013 by Simon Leys; with a foreword by the author. Excerpted by permission of NYRB Classics, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.