This month’s books newsletter has a lot to say about truth and lies, fact and fiction.
In his new book Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, Stephen Greenblatt tells us Shakespeare was constantly asking himself the question, “Why do large numbers of people knowingly accept being lied to?” — plus a whole host of follow-up questions:
Why would anyone… be drawn to a leader manifestly unsuited to govern, someone dangerously impulsive or viciously conniving or indifferent to the truth? Why, in some circumstances, does evidence of mendacity, crudeness, or cruelty serve not as a fatal disadvantage but as an allure, attracting ardent followers? Why do otherwise proud and self-respecting people submit to the sheer effrontery of the tyrant, his sense that he can get away with saying and doing anything he likes, his spectacular indecency?
In Shakespeare’s view, Greenblatt goes on to say, the answer is pretty basic: because when tyranny is ascendant, everyone, from the counselors to the mob, is complicit, a complicity brought on by maliciousness, fear, or a total failure to come to terms with what is happening — and maybe even a bit of enjoyment of the spectacle.
In her new book The Death of Truth (reviewed by Bridey Heing), Michiko Kakutani says the answer is perhaps more postmodern, citing this moment as emblematic of our times:
“When called out for claiming FBI statistics were only “theoretically true,” Newt Gingrich responded, “What I said was equally true. People feel it.”
The truth is what we feel — and, conversely, anyone who describes how we feel seems to be telling the truth. In her critical takedown of Jordan Peterson’s work, Laurie Penny writes:
In times of angst and confusion, anyone who accurately describes how you feel will briefly seem like God’s own prophet. This, as any half-decent writer can tell you, is a talent that is extremely easy to abuse.
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Storytelling looks, suddenly, dangerous — a way of creating truth through feeling rather than fact. In an interview with Hope Reese, Alice Bolin addresses this not as a practice of a single demagogue or huckster, but a whole society:
I think we need to take into consideration what stories have been told before, what stories have been told to death, and the kinds of messages that we’re sending by reusing these same tropes over and over.
In the detective stories we all love, in which a Dead Girl is discovered and her death is mysteriously unexplained, the tropes take on the status of myths, and the myths obfuscate two important truths about Dead Girls — that normally their deaths are totally explainable, even predictable:
When we frame these murder stories as mysteries, we have to excise that part of the story that makes who did it obvious. If you watch Dateline or whatever, they say, “Oh, we always have to eliminate the people closest to the victim.” And they don’t exactly say: men are always murdering their wives.
And that when many Dead Girls turn up in one place, it’s not because one person is killing them, but because everyone is:
I feel like, often, the truth — like in the stories of the Juarez murders or the Highway of Tears in Canada — is that those are a lot of different murderers. The truth is that… the murderer is almost a collective of violent misogynists.
Bolin is discussing the misrepresentation of truth in fiction — in an interview with Naomi Elias, Ingrid Rojas Contreras talks about the disintegration of truth in reality:
Your biggest worry when you’re living in a violent country is that you are not fast enough or smart enough to detangle what’s going on around you. You feel at all times like “maybe this is a dangerous situation, but I don’t have the power to know.”
She’s talking about the situation in Colombia during her childhood, under the thumb of Pablo Escobar. Stephen Greenblatt, speaking of Richard III, says the confusion cultivated by a dictator, the inability to know what is happening, causes many people living under tyranny to be unable to process facts or contemplate the obvious, even if their lives are in danger:
Then there are those who cannot keep in focus that Richard is as bad as he seems to be. They know that he is a pathological liar and they see perfectly well that he has done this or that ghastly thing, but they have a strange penchant for forgetting, as if it were hard work to remember just how awful he is. They are drawn irresistibly to normalize what is not normal.
The tyrant, the liar who spreads confusion in order to prop up his own position, can, of course, exist on a much smaller scale. In fact, the tyrant can often be found in the home. Rafia Zakaria enumerates Hemingway’s emotional abuses of his wives and mistresses. He wrote the novel Across the River and Into the Sea while married to Mary Welsh Hemingway and conducting an affair with the much younger Adriana Ivancich. The book is dedicated to Mary, but is clearly a chronicle of his relationship with Adriana. His deceit snakes into the book and worms out as a revisionist history, fiction becoming a means to assuage a guilty conscience, to perpetuate and simultaneously reveal a lie, to gaslight some women:
When memorable moments with Adriana were not enough material, he borrowed them from moments that belonged to Mary, “an absolutely perfect present” selected and purchased for the latter becoming in the book an offering to the former.
Rojas Contreras addresses the dictator or strongman’s ability not just to use language for spreading confusion — such as, say, writing a novel in which he steals his wife’s memories and gives them to his mistress — but to warp the language of others around himself:
In the novel I call him the “King Midas of words,” and that’s true. If he had a lawyer in the news, they would call that lawyer a ‘narco-lawyer,’ and if he had an estate or farm they would call that the ‘narco-estate’ — and they wouldn’t even reference Pablo Escobar, but it was understood by all the people watching the news that he had a hand in it somehow.
But Rojas Contreras also says that language will change to protect its users, to help them navigate a treacherous world:
As a writer I pay very close attention to words… There’s a way in which a very specific atmosphere of tension will give rise to new language in order to be more exact about where you are safe and where you are unsafe, in order to name the very specific situation around you.