In Praise of Liars

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“Tell it by the fireside or in a marketplace or in a movie, almost any story is almost certainly some kind of lie… What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I’m afraid the pompous word for that is “art”.

– Orson Welles, F for Fake

We tell stories every day. We lie every day. We lie to our friends, our lovers, our family, our neighbours, our co-workers and our enemies.

It is tempting to think of ‘Professional Liars’ as politicians, lawyers, and other unscrupulous rogues. Cynical as the impulse is, there’s a reason for it. A lawyer before the jury is, in fact, a storyteller, spinning a tale of an innocent man falsely accused, or a guilty one deserving justice. So is a minister before the electorate, aiming to incite hope or fear with narratives of rising heroes or barbarians at the gates.

Artists do something far more remarkable. They lie, and we lap it up. We come back for seconds. In everyday life, we resent liars for their falsehoods; we resent that they tried to convince us of an absolute truth that turned out to be little more than a mirage.

We know a work of art is a lie. We know that our lives do not contain such high drama. Our lives are not so consistently hilarious or death-defying or beautiful. Yet we keep going back for more. Every piece of art, from a soulless Michael Bay blockbuster to Michelangelo’s paintings on the Sistene Chapel ceiling, exists to stir a reaction. It may be little more than a shot of adrenaline or a belly laugh. Sometimes, that is exactly what we need.

Yet, when a work of art connects with us, it is with the force, clarity and euphoria of truth. I never understood the power of sacrifice until I stood at the guillotine with Sydney Carton. War was never as horrific in news reports as it was at the end of Goya’s paintbrush. No one ever captured the spirit of my nightmares like David Lynch, nor the first rumblings of passion like Shakespeare. In spite of Rick Santorum’s best efforts, I have still yet to see the absurdities of organised religion exposed as successfully as in Life of Brian.

The world gives us facts. Stories give us feeling. They help us communicate and understand one another and our world. They capture who and what we are at our most extreme moments.

So my salute to those professional liars. Without them, the world would not be quite so spectacular a place.

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