On receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, playwright Harold Pinter began his Nobel Lecture, entitled “Art, Truth and Politics”, by saying,
In 1958 I wrote the following:
“There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.”
I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false? (Pinter 2005)
It would be hard to find a more apt introduction to the papers in this volume. It seems fitting that a speech composed by a writer (of plays) and focused on the deceptions perpetrated largely, though not entirely, through language, should headline a volume that primarily uses the written word to communicate a range of views about truth and lies in art and life. Pinter points out that in politics around the globe, ‘Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay’ – a phenomenon we have certainly become familiar with over the last decade in Australia. ‘The majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us’, said Pinter,
are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed (Pinter 2005).
Pinter’s uncompromising comments on world politics, with the United States and Britain especially targeted, is framed by incisive comments on truth in art. When the artist looks into the mirror, Pinter continues, (s)he may think that what is reflected there is a ‘reality’, but what (s)he is actually looking at is ‘a never-ending range of reflections’. Sometimes, he says, the artist ‘has to smash the mirror – for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us’. Gathering up the fragments of the mirror that (s)he has broken, a new construction is formed, a ‘lie’ to be sure as all constructions are, but one that at least seeks to say something worth hearing about what it is to be a human being. On ‘truth’ in drama, Pinter writes:
Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive … More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost (Pinter 2005).
Where Pinter writes ‘drama’ we can understand ‘the arts’ in general, and artists around the globe will recognise those thoughts. Few in today’s world still believe in the idea of a singular, monolithic ‘Truth’ such as has dominated Western belief systems for so long. Yet we are also acutely aware of the ‘tapestry of lies’ of all kinds that surround us every day.
It is this tapestry of lies in art, culture and politics that the papers in this volume of Double Dialogues seek to unpick … but also at times to weave. The essays here have been inspired by, but are not limited to, the Double Dialogues conference, ‘Lies: a conference on Art’, held in conjunction with the University of the South Pacific at the Raffles Tradewinds Hotel, Suva, Fiji Islands, July 4-6, 2007. For three days during that fascinating conference, presenters uncovered, covered up, dissimulated, dissected and stitched up a web of lies, truths and variations of all the above. For this volume and its companion, “Double Dialogues 9: Art and Lies II”, a range of other liars were invited to contribute, and the order in which the essays appear here constitutes a new composition, a new tapestry.
In the opening paper, John O’Carroll paints a broad canvas that synthesizes many of the perspectives and themes of this volume: the experience of modernity, deception and lying, the expression of loss and dislocation in art, philosophical perspectives and the history and current political landscape of Fiji and more broadly of the Pacific region. As O’Carroll explains, his essay is laid out in two broad parts: ‘The first section seek to establish, in a preliminary way, the relationship between modernity, deception, and loss. The second part of the essay works first through epiphanies of modernity and then other orders of comment on modernity in the arts in order to grasp how lies, loss, and modernity interact in Pacific writing’. In the first section O’Carroll reminds us that ‘the fabulous wealth that Europe acquired [from the Renaissance onwards] came not just from its own industry, but from voyages of plunder and later of trade’, and argues that ‘modernity, loss, and deception are closely associated’. The ‘epistemological shock’ suffered by ‘the modern subject’ all round the world ‘with the onset of modernity’ was, he suggests, ‘nowhere … more keenly experienced than in those cutting edge sites of modernity – the colonial apartheids, and then the post-colonial relations of abandonment and convenience’. Modernity has been experienced worldwide, he argues, as ‘a dispersed system – with no one place or site clearly experiencing itself as central’, and for many the experience of modernity is ‘characterised by an experience of elsewhereness’. But it is also ‘frequently at the same moment something local and unique’. Like other modern Pacific writers, the poets that O’Carroll examines in the second part of the essay, Albert Wendt, Sudesh Mishra, Vilsoni Hereniko, Mohit Prasad, and Epeli Hau’ofa, ‘explore what this feels like – creating logics that are at once at home and are other to oneself’. And although the dislocations of modernity ‘have wrought great material change in the Pacific. The pictures of these, surely, are hardly epiphanies’, it is paradoxically the epiphany in the works of Pacific writers that ‘serves as a mechanism for re-evoking and re-creating stolen worlds, albeit in compensation’. It is through ‘a phenomenology of loss and deception as realised in epiphanies and critiques in art’, O’Carroll argues, that ‘we find quite profound insights into the workings of the modern world’.
In the first section that I have called Fabric(-ation)s Beyond Measure, vast tapestries of ‘lies’ are measured and unwoven. In the first paper, “The History of the Lie of Innocence”, Rod Le Cudennec examines the ‘lie of innocence’ in politics, Judeo-Christian narratives and literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries – a large canvas indeed. Le Cudennec argues that ‘the concept of innocence is built upon a lie, constructed as a “truth” that does not exist and employed by those who seek to legitimize their claim to power’. The innocence and suffering of the child, he suggests, will always be used ‘to discredit the political evil of the other side’, but warns that ‘one cannot find “innocence” by leaping into forgetfulness, denial or ideological compliance’.
In “Manning Clark. Writing history to understand the world we live in”, Samantha Young argues that images of national identity are always inventions, and that there is nothing unusual in a national history of the past being written and studied in order to serve the present. Manning Clarke, Young suggests, privileged narrative, aesthetics and philosophy in his writing, blurring the line between fact and fiction, art and lies, but this technique served his purpose. For Clarke wanted an answer to the question, ‘What is the identity of an Australian’, and his A History of Australia, while certainly excluding Aborigines and women from Australian history, focused on ‘the inner monologue of the nation, the guiding influence of human nature in history and his unyielding, Dostoyevskyan conviction that all history is tragedy’.
In a rather complementary way in “Multiculturalism/Impersonation/Globalization”, Michael Meehan argues for the application of multivocal narrative techniques from the Creative Arts to normative academic discourse in general, and to the analysis of culture in particular. Meehan suggests that, since culture is not static or singular but always on the move, ‘catching “culture on the run” may be more effective through various renovated forms of representation than through what Spivack calls “textbook definition”’. Creative Writing in particular, Meehan suggests, makes regular use of strategies such as impersonation, hypothesis, shifting points of view, prismatic vision and interrogation, and rather than continue to sideline these techniques in the still marginalized ‘Creative Arts’, mainstream academic discourse would do well to locate them centrally in their toolbox. In his essay, Meehan draws on the sophisticated use of such techniques in Lloyd Jones’ recent novel Mister Pip.
Tragedy and philosophy form the twin peaks of Monaghan’s essay, “Theatre and Philosophy: the lies in Plato’s closet”. There has been an assumption in much Western philosophy that if the body is involved, then knowledge is not, and theatre’s reliance on the body of the actor has generally led to its dismissal as a form of, or means to, knowledge (however that is defined). Nowhere is this dichotomy so starkly expressed as in the source of much of the West’s ‘anti-theatrical prejudice’, the dialogues of Plato. In Plato’s metaphysics, phenomenal life is a lie, and theatre is even further removed from ‘the throne of truth’. Yet the lie of his dismissal of theatre is that Plato drew heavily on existing Greek theatre, and the dialogue form of his work constituted the first example of what is now being called ‘closet drama’, a transformation of theatre-as-performance into theatre-as-literature. This attempt to eradicate the mediation of the body from, supposedly, the otherwise direct line between logos and nous, suggests Monaghan, manifests a desire to escape what the Greeks called ananke (necessity), the bounded and limited nature of human life. This same desire is expressed, so Monaghan argues, in the formation of those ‘more-than-men’, or hyperanthropoi, of myth, philosophy and history, and frequently also, despite Plato, by theatrical performance.
In many ancient societies, argues Geoff Berry, in “Manoeuvring Light: utopian urbanity and its ecological cost”, it is the ‘Fall’ from Light to Darkness that expresses this distance between the realties of human life and ‘both the immanence (or feelings of being ‘at one’ in this world) and the transcendence (or sense of liberation from or overcoming of it) they yearn for’. Focusing on the archetypical ‘grand narrative’ opposition between light and dark, Berry ranges far and wide in his essay, from the mythological frameworks of the ancient Sumerian, Hebrew and Mesopotamian societies, through Medieval Christianity to contemporary commodity fetishism. Berry sees the ‘neon sun’ of ‘the newly recreated Eden of the shopping mall’ as ‘our collective attempt to overcome our Fall from Grace in the world’, and argues that ‘the anthropocentrism placing humanity at the centre of the universe – in religious or secular terms – is the very same factor predisposing us towards the collective trauma of environmental crisis today’.
Berry’s environmental concerns and ‘newly recreated Eden of the shopping mall’ dovetail neatly into the next section, The Lies We Live, and Scott Rawlings’ essay, “The Last Economist: Adam Smith and the transvaluation of value – cyber capitalism in DeLillo’s Comospolis“. Rawlings locates the origins of economics in the moral philosophy of Adam Smith, who ‘recognised that economic growth must be one pattern in a system that includes equity and social responsibility’. But, he suggests, ‘the energy for social change inspired by revolutionary thought is often lost by the generations that follow’, and Smith’s values were soon degraded into market fundamentalism of the kind that is ‘now prevalent in First-World economies’. Rawlings explores this ‘transvaluation of values’ – what Nietzsche called ‘the pretentious lie of civilisation’ – in Don DeLillo’s novel, Cosmopolis (2003), whose protagonist, Eric Packer ‘lauds neoclassical economics as the “truth of the future”’. With DeLillo, Rawlings argues that ‘more neoclassical economics is not the answer to the frenzy and mass convulsions of our economic system’. Berry would surely agree.
A rather different cultural lie – but one that stirs up a good deal of passion in Australia – is examined by Stephen Alomes, who suggests that Australia’s own national code of football ‘should be seen as a cultural form of significance and even as an art’. The twin lie examined by Alomes is ‘first, that sport is inferior to all forms of art and, second, that the “Australian” and the Australian game are inferior to sports, as well as art forms, derived from overseas’. Suggesting there is a kind of Berlin Wall between art and sport in Australia, Alomes argues that the Australian game – ‘the finest form of football ever invented’ – is aesthetic, poetic, culturally significant and even ‘a metaphor for the seasons of experience, invoking the fluctuating fortunes of life, the impact of the Fates….’ The wry smile of the writer may be glimpsed here and there, but his analysis of Australia’s ‘social and cultural myopia’, perhaps the product, as he suggests, of ‘a peculiarly Australian capacity for a kind of colonial self-assessment and sometimes self-denigration’, is real enough.
The third paper in this section, “Aporia Australis: Lies and Responsibility”, responds to Pinter’s invocation that the citizen demand a distinction between truth and lies in public life. Beginning with the infamous statement by former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, that ‘Truth is absolute, truth is supreme, truth is never disposable in national political life’ – he may even have believed it … then – as well as the even more notorious lie of terra nullius on which the Australian nation was founded, Grayson Cooke examines the making of false statements ‘in good faith’ in recent Australian politics. The (recently deposed) Howard government in Australia, Cooke argues, became thoroughly adept at the use of this technique, as seen for example in the ‘Children Overboard’ scandal, the Tampa incident, and the Cole Inquiry into the Australian Wheat Board’s rorting of the UN oil-for-food program and payment of kickbacks to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Using Hannah Arendt’s notion of the ‘modern mode of “defactualization”, wherein the political liar comes to believe their own lies when these lies circulate and are amplified in the public domain’, Cooke argues that ‘the possibility of an intention to lie, and thus mislead, have been outsourced to a ministerial unconscious which can remain eternally hidden in an accountability vacuum’. Cooke further suggests that the pressing issue of Reconciliation with Indigenous Australians is a matter not of guilt, but responsibility for ‘collectively imagining the future as a differential guide for the present’.
It seems only natural to move from Cooke’s politicians to John Jacobs paper, “Perverse Performances by Skilful Liars: Shakespeare’s Iago and Mamet’s Billy and Mike” with which the third section in this volume, Lies and Liars Uncovered, begins. Here the notion of ‘in good faith’ is replaced by the ‘natural faith’ of St Thomas Aquinas (via Derrida), that is, our propensity to take people at face value. Without this ‘natural faith’, Jacobs suggests, ‘no relationship is viable; and so, of course, it is this “natural faith” that makes deception possible’. In the performing arts ‘we expect the performer to portray or pretend to be someone else (the character), to play a character which the performer herself or himself is not; and we, the audience, consent to this seduction’. Two famous deceivers are examined (Billy in David Mamet’s film House of Games and Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello), as well as more briefly a range of ‘perverse liars’ in film and tv. The Ern Malley affair, a notorious Australian literary hoax, is also discussed, and Jacobs concludes with a short cameo appearance by ‘professional chameleon’ Campbell McComas, whose impersonations fooled Australian audiences for years.
In “Re-inscribing the Historic Film Frame”, Dirk de Bruyn applies phenomenological and neurological perspectives to his analysis of the techniques by which two contemporary Austrian avant-garde ‘found footage’ film-makers uncover and relive partially buried film trauma. The paper focuses on Martin Arnold’s Alone: Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998), which reprocesses sequences from the Andy Hardy series of movies (1937-58), and Peter Tscherkassky’s Dreamwork (2001) which re-configures sections of the 1980’s horror feature film The Entity, starring Barbara Hershey. De Bryun suggests that ‘the use of found and stolen images and their re-processing’ in such films ‘can be experienced as transforming the originating material and emphasising aspects previously hidden’. In this way ‘submerged’ aspects of trauma in the original films can be uncovered, ‘perceptually re-performing the pre-reflective moment of a trauma’ and made immediate in a way that is very ‘real’ indeed.
In “Documentary Deception”, Ian Gaskell finds striking similarities in two apparently very different films, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Larry Charles’ Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006). Suggesting the films are ‘two sides of the same coin’, Gaskell offers ‘some observations on the nature of deception in art, the complicity of the audience in the creation of meaning and the general operations of irony’ in film. While The Passion, with its documentary-style depiction of the life and death of Jesus Christ, ‘pretends to tell the truth but actually presents a lie’, Borat, a ‘mockumentary’ that is in reality ‘a documentary of “social representation”’, ‘pretends to tell a lie but actually presents the truth’. Both films are ultimately deceptions, argues Gaskell, but ‘in Borat deception is depicted; in The Passion the depiction is the deception. The difference between Boratand The Passion is the difference between a hoax and a fraud’.
The documentary also features in the first paper in the final section of this volume,Genre Lies, in which artist-scholars ask what it is about their own work and art form that might constitute distortion or deception. In “Documentary Facts and Lies”, a court case testing ‘continuing connection’ to land by Indigenous elders prompts documentary-maker Simon Wilmot to reflect on whether documentary techniques and the physical characteristics of the camera – and the way that it ‘performs’ – are ‘lies’. ‘The Court’, he argues, ‘seeks to take evidence, weigh it and interpret it on its own terms to produce a single interpretation of facts that can stand alone. This is not what a film does. What films can do is make available for consideration and contemplation those aspects of life that the Courts discards’. Film is inherently fragmented; its ‘assembled form is entirely in the audience’s minds’. Moreover any documentary is an interpretation of, and statement about the world. Are these ‘cinemagraphic demands’ lies? In “‘Stop telling me stories’ (she said)”, Steven Goddard tells a story about the lies that stories tell; he wonders, as perhaps we might, whether his own autobiographical stories – told in video format – are reliable. And finally in “Pseudologia Phantastica: Performance, Discursive Lies and Critical Fictions”, Barry Laing examines the problems associated with ‘performance’ as ‘keyword’, that is, a term in which ‘meanings are inextricably bound up with the problems they are being used to discuss’. The lies of performance in all its (dis)guises are probed both theoretically and … performatively.
To round off the volume where we began, the Australian con-man, Peter Foster, onlyapparently apprehended in Fiji early in 2007 before being taken back to an Australian prison, makes a cameo appearance … or does he?
The papers in this volume might well have been organized along different lines, for there are many cross- and inter-sections throughout. Constructions can be limiting, expansive or both; they are certainly ‘lies’ of a kind. I hope you find the papers in this volume as perceptive, or at least deceptive, as I have while working on its construction.
Harold Pinter (2005). “Art, Truth and Politics”, Nobel Lecture (December 7, 2005): June 5, 2007