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.