Fiction Is Not (Intrinsically) A Lie

In 1923, Pablo Picasso, for The Arts: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine Covering All Phases of Ancient and Modern Art, said, “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies. If he only shows in his work that he has searched, and re-searched, for the way to put over his lies, he would never accomplish any thing.”

The filmmaker Jean Cocteau said something similar in Le Paquet Rouge (Comœdia, 1927), wherein he wrote, “I am a lie that tells the truth.”

On January 9, 2009, at the Rochester Jewish Community Center Book Festival, the journalist and novelist Abraham “Abe” Rothman, said, “Serious fiction is a lie that tells the truth.”

It would be Rothman’s reformulation of the sentiment which would prove out over Cocteau and Picasso’s and has since been widely circulated, in various further permutations, prominently and predictably by men and women of letters (such as John Dufresne, author of The Lie That Tells the Truth).

The persistence and popularity of this adage is curious, given its spuriousness (when taken literally).

All lies are fictions, but not all fictions are lies.

To lie (from the Old English legan) is to attempt to convince some person or persons that a thing or things is true, even though one knows the thing or things asserted are false. To lie is to communicate to one’s interlocutor(s) with deceptive intent.

Rothman defined the word at the end of his aforementioned speech, “a lie–that is, a made-up, imagined untrue creation.”

This is not an accurate description of the fiction author, nor is it an accurate description of a lie. A imagined untruth may be a lie, or it may be a mistake, or it may be madness; one cannot say with certainty, as Rothman’s description elides the centrality of intention. Further, it is erroneous to conflate the “made-up” and the “imagined” with the “untrue.” Consider this from Terrance Klein of America Magazine, “Pablo Picasso once famously said that art is a lie that tells a truth. He’s right. There is something artificial about a work of art.”

Klein is, I contend, mistaken.

To explain: All extant houses were imagined (made-up) before they were built and are yet as real as their creators. And so it is for the fiction writer. Huysmans’ Durtal is not a real person, but he is a real fictional person, and is only ever presented as such. Verne’s Nautilus was no more false than a draftsman’s architectural sketch. Yet, given that fiction writing is an art, it is artificial, and not “natural” which, due the squamous vitiations of contemporary philosophy, is, as if by providential decree, conflated with falsity / deception / inauthenticity, even though the acquisition of truth, of authenticity, requires the intensification and extension of artifice, not its minimalization; for one cannot attest to the truth or falsity of a phenomena which evades the congenital senses without first developing new senses (ie. telescopes, infrared cameras, Geiger counters…) and concepts to interpret, govern and implement them, and such apparatuses emerge only through the invention, or rediscovery, of grounding and controlling concepts, which fiction, in no small measure, can, readily and guilelessly, provide.


Sources

  1. — (—) Art Is A Lie That Makes Us Realize Truth. Quote Investigator.
  2. — (—) lie. Etymology Online.
  3. Abraham Rothberg. (2010) Fiction is a lie that tells the truth. Edteck Press.
  4. Terrance Klein. (2012) The Assumption: A Lie That Tells The Truth. America: The Jesuit Review.

4 thoughts on “Fiction Is Not (Intrinsically) A Lie

  1. You have applied prescriptive definition and scientific epistemology to the statements of artists and aestheticians — perhaps a bit… I don’t know… beside the point? You’re contrasting different spheres of discourse and appealing to the authority of the dictionary to judge them. I find it absolutely impossible to conceive that you understand art better than Picasso — however clever you are with dictionaries. He just wasn’t concerned with the same set of authorities that you have apparently internalized to such an extent as to feel emboldened to judge artists with vastly more experience. I am very curious as to what moved you to create this post. I generally enjoy your thoughts, but there has been a trend of polemical arrogance that is… as the kids say… not a good look. I get that this sort of thing gets you reactionary clout — that is, misunderstanding other people who don’t appeal constantly to tradition to source 100% of their definitions in order to defeat your caricature of their thoughts. If that’s your platform, I don’t judge. But, you know what the adage means — if you’ve any intelligence at all —, and the issue you’ve taken with it is purely pedantic.

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    1. I appreciate the time you’ve taken in laying out your criticism (one of the best comments I ever recieved was from a gentleman who was irate over my use of “thee’ve” instead of “thou hath”). Certainly Picasso had more experience than I (the same could be said of Cocteau and Rothman), I said nothing to the contrary. Regarding your query concerning motivation: I was motivated to write the article because of the effects of a belief in the verity of the slogan that lies can tell the truth; I do not believe they can and view that as consequential (ie. if someone believes lies can tell the truth then they’ll be more apt to lie; if one treats fictional works as ‘fake’ [as opposed to ‘artificial’] then there is a inherent devaluing). I was indeed “contrasting different spheres of discourse” but was not simply appealing to the authority of the dictionary, but to the objectively verifiable effects of fictive concepts (as an aside, I don’t think art should be secluded from other “spheres of discourse” precisely because it leads to the kind of sloganeering I was contesting). I’m unsure why you assume I’m writing for “reactionary clout” – which doesn’t interest me. I should perhaps also mention that I’ve never required anyone to “appeal constantly to tradition to source 100% of their definitions.” Lastly, I’d be interested to know whose thoughts you believe I have caricatured, as the three principal artists and one critic cited were all directly quoted.

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      1. I must admit, my reaction has a certain personal source: I myself enjoy saying things that don’t make a whole lot of sense — in full knowledge that my meaning relies on context to be grasped. I recall posting something akin to, “not being a boor always comes at the risk of being an asshole”, and a dear friend replied with, “that’s not always true”, which completely missed the point — I wasn’t trying to say something true. I was expressing in over-generality and imprecision a particular state of affairs. It’s a mode of writing of which I’m rather fond— granting that the reader isn’t prone to literalism. This brings us to caricature and what I think is my fundamental issue: you have directly quoted, yes, but quotes are the surest means of caricature. I can quote three lines of any writer and straw man them to high heaven very easily, and that’s with my rather meager prowess. “Straw man” implies too much intentionality, however, and I don’t think you have had any diabolical intentions with this post. Slogans do not have verity; they have in-group significance, and are, in my humble opinion, not something to be critiqued without thereby showing that one “doesn’t get it”. When one speaks in those ways, one is not doing analytic philosophy — one is being brief and general to communicate a point in a very specific context, and when you misunderstand the idiom of a saying or the context within which it is nested, you create caricature. “Objectively veritable facts of fictive concepts” — myself, I try and keep ‘objectively veritable’ and ‘fictive’ as far away from each other as possible. I don’t have your desire to prop up art, however. An artwork will speak for itself, or it will fall. It will force its values upon me, or I will not value it.

        I appreciate your good humor.

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