Art and lies, damned lies

I enjoy reading insightful and provocative commentary. But how do I know a piece of writing deserves such accolades? Often because its ideas mirror my own.

Case in point: I just stumbled across this interesting passage in the book “The Immortalist.”

Martin Buber said that “The lie is the specific evil which man has introduced into nature.” Why evil necessarily? Lying helps us to deal with an unsatisfactory reality. Its purpose is to improve somebody’s chances of surviving.

Lying as a device of survival? I made the same point in my piece “The Devil Paints” in which I argued the skills of deception were rewarded by evolution. I stated:

Some years ago I read about one scientist’s observation that the world of birds was full of deception. The primary example was a breed of birds who would use a high-pitched squeal to warn each other when predators were lurking. Birdwatchers observing this breed began noticing that if an individual bird found a bush rich with berries, he or she would emanate this squeal. The other birds would fly off in fear and this bird could eat all the berries for him/herself. Thus, this bird was more likely to survive and pass his or her genes on through reproduction.

But as time went on, the other birds started to figure out the trick. They realized that they had to be a little more critical every time they heard this squeal. And, as these birds wised up, they increased their chance for survival and thus passing on their genes. So the trickster birds had to get even more clever in their tricks, and the birds being tricked had to get even smarter. As such, trickery was essential to these birds evolving into more intelligent creatures.

It’s not hard to extrapolate this anecdote to human beings — we too have used deception to increase our odds for survival. And in fact, lying, or at least glossing over the truth, is still part of our mating ritual. A guy buys a fancy car to imply that he has a big bank account and can easily provide for a mate. Women use makeup and hair products to maintain the look of youth, youth being ideal for childbearing. Duping someone into sleeping with you is a great way to ensure that your genes last another generation. (I’ve long blamed all my romantic failures on the fact that I am inherently an honest person.)

From there I argued that these skills for deception were used in the creation of art.

So how does this relate to art? Well, art is a kind of deception. Let’s look at the written word, particularly fiction. Fiction is largely the act of describing events that never actually happened. Fiction is lies, albeit well-intentioned lies. As evolution rewarded good liars, it was helping propagate the genes capable of writing good fiction.

And check this out, dawg. “The Immortalist” makes the same point a few paragraphs after the one I quoted above.

Reflecting upon is, the lie is an amazing device. To think that members of our race should actually go to so much trouble as to invent what does not exist. Consider the provocation, the enormous anxiety weighing on our species for thousands of years, that could produce such an extraordinary breakthrough as the decision to reject one reality and substitute another. Of course it was the same dimly realized obsession that created our myths and poetry.

Myths and poetry my friends. That’s what it’s all about.

  1. No Comments