An interview with Miguel Catalán

This post is also available in: Spanish

When you speak about lying, you quote a definition from the Diccionario de Autoridades (authorities’ dictionary) and say that a lie is a typo that we buy, and at a different point you quote Freud on truth and he says: “truth is inaccessible, humankind doesn’t deserve it.” Then, if we buy lies and and we don’t deserve truth, what can we know?

These two quotes belong to completely different contexts. The one from the Diccionario de Autoridades makes reference to the fact that, for a long time, in antiquity of course, but also in the Middle Ages, there has been a confusion or indistinction between lie and falsehood. Involuntary error was not well distinguished from deliberate alteration of facts. In Plato’s Republic, what he does with poets is expelling them from his ideal republic, with the argument that what they say is not true. In his X book he literally says that poets are liars. That which does not correspond to reality has been largely mistaken for what is false and, thus, harmful, up until the XVIII century in Spain. We should also remember that English puritans in the XVII century decided to close theaters because, they said, the stories which were represented there weren’t true. Today we do distinguish clearly between fiction, which is not guilty, and lies, which may be. We take for granted the difference between that which both audience and director -if we speak about cinema or theater- take as the setup of the story, and that which implies a will to deceive.

Freud’s quote on humankind not deserving to know truth makes reference to the subject of intimacy. Stefan Zweig wanted to write Freud’s biography, but the latter declined the invitation to participate in it by saying that humankind did not deserve truth. He meant there are some truths about our lives which, should they be known, would bring us dire consequences. He places the responsibility of silence not on the individual, but on the social group, when he says that these truths do not deserve to be known by the others. In order not to lie, which is what authorized biographies and autobiographies always do, Freud chose silence. Here we have some kind of opacity towards oneself which is not only admissible but almost morally required, and which is solved with the aid of discretion: nobody should know certain things about my life because, if they did, they could make them public and thwart my reputation by using the current moral standards. Let’s not forget that the inquisitor owes his name to the fact that he inquired, he asked (with the aid of some expeditious methods, of course) the suspects of heresy about their beliefs and private habits. In that sense Freud led us to understand that autobiography is an impossible genre since, when one speaks about oneself with a full consciousness, he tends to cover up the negative aspects of his or her life and personality, to justify his or her actions, etc. The only interesting autobiographies would be the ones that don’t get written. Secret and intimacy are intimately linked. Intimacy, which is an axiologically positive concept which is tolerated in the west, is necessarily linked to a negative concept, which is secret. Guilty secret. A criminal has to hide his or her crime in order not to be discovered, but so did a girl from a good family in the XIX century in order to keep his lover’s identity from her father, when he was going to marry her to someone else. They both are defense strategy which have, as a common instrument, lying or opacity. In general, lying can be used in that sense: it would not be morally ambiguous, but ambivalent.

What is conscience? How does it determine morality?

When we think about the transition from animal to man, when we think about our ancestors and we ask ourselves who was the first one to keep a secret, we could end up with the conclusion, in rousseaunian terms, that the primitive humans had no secrets for their peers. And it’s true that, in a group of hunters-gatherers it’s absurd to hide an object, because there are still no houses, no private place where we may hide it. But it’s also true that apes, for example chimpanzees, are capable of hiding things. They are able to pretend they haven’t seen a banana and wait until the rest of the group is gone in order to eat it themselves. They are able to fake a disinterest in things. This kind of actions, which have been filmed and documented, surprise us when we assume an innocent origin to the story of humankind. There was so much deception at our origin that we were lying before Homo Sapiens. Therefore, as the individual’s capacity to keep secrets evolves, so does society towards an ever wider concept of intimacy, in which the individual gets more and more separated from the group. In closed groups, secret becomes more difficult, but not impossible. And thus we find family secrets that the children know, but not the neighbors. In that direction, secret is also ambivalent and as necessary as intimacy. When a secret starts being a part of the right to intimacy it’s because of the group, in a way, has already given the individual the right to keep some parts of his or her behavior secret. Homosexuality, for example: before there was a right to have a certain sexual conduct, there was a right to intimacy for those people. This means that homosexuals could keep their sexual preferences to themselves. They could omit mentioning them. And, at the same time, before the right to intimacy, the implied parts had to keep their behavior secret. A guilty secret. Before the right to freely express sexual tendency there was a time, very long in history by the way, in which society, including the families, did not accept such behavior. Now people say, rightly so, that in the past “society wasn’t ready.” Well, when seeing that tendency rejected by the group, the youth had to keep it in secret, guiltily. The right to intimacy, in a way, makes secrets legitimate. It’s not a step beyond secret, it’s not a qualitative jump, but just another phase of a gradual evolution. After the utopias in the XX century, which mostly ended up in totalitarian regimes, the perspective of a life without secrets makes us think of a living hell. A life which is totally controlled by the others, not to mention some form of government, be it religious or secular, would be the closest thing to hell. Secrets are a liberating element in social control when the latter turns unbearable for the subject. Secrets are necessary, they have always been.

But how does one get from individual consciousness to establishing the right to secrets and their convenience?

We must set aside the idea that consciousness emerges at a given point in history. We must set aside the idea that, in prehistorical peoples, there was only community. The dialectic between the individual’s more or less asocial wishes and the moral instances established by society to control them has always existed. Contemporary anthropological philosophy hasn’t yet drawn the conclusions it should have from the Darwinian revolution, but certain apes already have to decide regarding some good the have in their hands: sharing it or keeping it for themselves. Therefore, the tension between the individual and the group predates the appearance of human consciousness. The net of tensions laid out between the temptation to satisfy individual wishes and the prudent submission to the rules is in the origin of humankind itself and has nothing to do with the appearance of some allegedly specifically human consciousness which would have happened later. From a different angle: the great myths of the West, the two great myths on the birth of humankind, which are the Judaic myth of the Fall and the Hellenic myth of Prometheus, take for granted that, for man to be really born, for him to achieve this second birth from animalness, it is necessary to hide and deceive. Prometheus deceives Zeus and that’s the cause Zeus later punishes him; Adan and Eve have to hide, they have to make themselves opaque to God, and that would be the reason for their expulsion from paradise. However, there was never a Paradise or a Golden Age: since the beginning, it was all about the conflict between wishes and rules.

Knowledge comes at the cost of loss. Was it worth it?

The Judaic myth, which inherits previous myths -I mean Persian, Egyptian or Mesopotamian- leaves us filled with melancholy for the lost paradise, which is really just missing that which never existed. In that sense, it presupposes the existence of some golden age in which we had no need to hide in the deep or lie to our parents. That is simply a myth. Now we know, thanks to the sciences, of conduct, ethology, primatology, that moment never happened. That we’ve always been guilty. Guilty as a group for persecuting individuals which behave differently from the majority, and as individuals for breaking the laws of the tribe, for not doing that which is expected of us. This complex reality has always been the case, also now, in open societies and in closed ones. We have testimonials from people in concentration camps which gossiped and kept secrets from the guards in difficult circumstances. In some concentration camps there was music twenty-four hours a day, in order to avoid communication between interns. That music, of course, was different from the one we can hear in today’s department stores, but deep down not so different.

It’s just as painful.

It can be, that’s true. But let’s say this hasn’t varied, what changes is complexity.

I said painful to vindicate silence and the right to solitude.

Silence and solitude have been two trials by fire for saints and heroes. In the Middle Ages people thought those who walked alone outside the limits of the town were crazy. We have historical data on how in Germany, for example, they locked down the people who arrived at a town walking alone; in a quiet place, but under control. Solitude has always been antisocial. Humans are social beings and, in a certain way, gregarious. One only has to see what happens when there are only five or six people in a nightclub, when it is possible to dance without bumping into anyone: young people who get inside say, disdainfully, “this place is dead” and they go somewhere else. Somewhere full, of course; packed if possible. One with “a good vibe.” Sociology of masses is currently valid. For a majority, empty beaches are as disturbing as the crowded ones are attractive. We look for the group and run away from loneliness. It’s true that, as society becomes more complex, more liberal, more cosmopolitan, the drive for solitude rises and it is even recognized as a form of moral superiority. But even in the more individualistic cases one finds a fear of nature, a distress when faced with loneliness. In cities one hears a lot of complaints about stress, but very few do anything about it. On the contrary, in Spain villages keep losing inhabitants and cities keep getting bigger. People rest from the busy life in the cities for five, six or seven days, but from the eight day on, solitude can become torture. At the end of their holidays, many employees welcome their daily routine, the same one they had cursed at the end of June, as a blessing. Because solitude is difficult. We are not prepared to be alone, neither from a genetic point of view nor from a social one.

But what a pleasure it is to be reading alone!

It’s still a pleasure for minorities. A great pleasure, but for minorities. The fact of reading, from the intimacy and secrecy point of view, has been a conquest. The exact moment when it started is not know, but we do know that people haven’t read silently until the Middle Ages. Before that people read aloud, that’s why epic poems were to be sung by minstrels, to be read aloud. The reading office in the Renaissance is an anthropological novelty from the room’s point of view: usual reading and in silence which may be guilty, of course. The books have almost always had a ritual role, communitarian and religious, and had to be read aloud. A book which is written to be read in silence is always dangerous and thus for dictatorships, totalitarian or not, one of the key elements of control is censorship of written works. That which is written allows the individual to be on his or her own and dialogue with another individual, from solitude to solitude, and that dialogue can sneak through every fence, every ideological control.

There’s another important factor: the appearance of the printing press and the possibility of individual reading.

Indeed, they’re historical elements which contribute to the same fact.

And the advent of the book also allows for free interpretation.

Of course: free interpretation, the free conscience of protestantism against the unitarianism which prevails in the Catholic church. We know about the progress in the Modern Age against Rome’s information control not only because of the repressing role of the Inquisition, of the List of Prohibited Books, etc., but for the fact that books were written in Latin, and Latin has been a form of power, since it was the only educated language. The common folk could not read; those who could were part of a ruling minority, made up mostly by the clergy, which were the only ones who were able to interpret or manipulate the written tradition. The people, but also the nobility, which was mostly illiterate, had to trust what the priests said. In the same way, in India the Brahman recovered Sanskrit as an educated language, exclusively spoken amongst them, in opposition to the lower castes. The anthropological jump which is produced towards free interpretation, towards the individualism of the XVIII and XIX centuries, would have been impossible with the possibility of reading alone, a task to which the printing press contributed enormously.

Could this idea of the power of Latin be exported to the language of economists or the unreadable writing of the doctors?

Without a doubt. The fact that someone may say something with the deliberate intention of being understood by just his peers shows us there is a game of power and prestige. But power and prestige games are inseparable from social life, where there’s not only cooperation, but also competition. Normally it is thought, even in theories of language (I’m thinking about Habermas, in his Universal Pragmatics) that communication is only possible if we assume the speaker is truthful. That is, the principle of truthfulness would be a condition for the existence of a communicative action. This is a mistake: communicative action doesn’t necessarily have to be truthful. In fact, more than nine tenths of communication are only partially true. The fact that it isn’t true doesn’t mean it is bad or invalid (the most interesting part in real conversations usually plays with things that are implied); it only means there are certain things which, for whatever reasons (good, indifferent or bad), one would rather keep to oneself. In that sense, we find language as a form of power also in economists. Economists speak a language which is unintelligible for the majority, with which they give the impression of having some kind of caste knowledge, which isn’t after all anything but the secret gnosis of the clerics, for a different power group. And we can say the same about philosophers. There’s a whole German tradition, which is the “opaque” tradition. Kant himself admitted, in a letter to Garve, that he liked to be considered as one of the doctores umbratici or dark sages. In Kant we find that duality: he actually wrote well, but he developed a kind of writing which was only intelligible to scholars and maybe to their students, who were destined to take their place as teachers. This deliberately dark language was used later by Hegel and, later, by Heidegger. Since common people will see a group of people which understand each other by using a language only they can understand, they will confer them this aura of sacred knowledge we find in doctors, but also in philosophers. Julián Marías used to tell the story of the day when he arrived late to a conference by Xabier Zubiri and he sat on the first empty chair he found. Next to him there was a girl and Marías asked her, after sitting down: “how’s the Zubiri conference?” To which she answered, ecstatic: “great. I can’t understand a thing.” This idea that something is wonderful as long as it’s not understandable points us the the power of the clerics which spoke to the common folk in unintelligible Latin. This is the power conferred by the alleged contact with God, some kind of verbal charisma that many groups use, not only economists and philosophers, but many elite cooks and, certainly, the ruling classes. Our political phraseology is impenetrable and nebulous, so the people may end up thinking our rulers have the key, for example, to drive the State, that they have some superior knowledge in exchange for which they receive such great economic compensation and social advantages. Which is totally false, of course. So yes, there is deception also in language, understood as a form of power.

There are also those who pretend to be rhetorical but are actually charlatans.

In the French philosophy of the XX century we find the worst part of the inheritance from German academic writing. The truth is it doesn’t seem very coherent with the history of French philosophy, since the quality of their theoretical papers and essays was probably the best in the XVII and XVIII centuries. The French have written in a way which was very rich and full of detail, but at the same time very clear, not trying to avoid the words used by the common folk. It’s true that certain languages, such as the mathematical one, can only be expressed through signs and formulas, which will probably be poorly understood by the majority, but leaving aside formal sciences (by which I mean mathematics, logics and physics, to a certain extent), what is related to humanistic thinking should be expressed in such a way that any person with an average education (what the English call a common man) could understand it.

A special case is that of Bernard Henri-Lévy, who wrote a book about Kant using as a main reference a biography of Kant which was actually invented by a comedian. And when people pointed out that he fell into the trap, he just thrust his chest out and said it didn’t matter.

In this case, Henri-Lévy took that deception to be the truth. The world of fraud is, in general, very funny for everyone except for the victim. Intellectual frauds can be used on purpose, as in the case of Alan Sokal, a physicist which imitated the phraseology of French postmodernists in a paper that said nothing, then sent it to a cultural studies magazine and got it published. Here, Sokal got a truth from a lie, showing the inner vacuity of certain intellectual trends. In general, fraud has had a relevant role in the history of social relationships. Literature, for example, is a world in which fiction is often mixed with deception. I’m thinking about phenomena such as plagiarism or that of ghostwriters, hidden behind the signature of some famous person who doesn’t have the talent nor the time to write. Plagiarism is something which can end up becoming usual, and certain authors keep plagiarizing even after having been condemned for plagiarism previously. In this sense, literature is written by great liars, as pointed out by Bryce Echenique, another self-declared plagiarist who was a great liar when he was a child, as he confessed himself. In general, narrators have been great liars as children. Only when they have gone from childhood or puberty to being young men or women and have made up stories they’ve been able to publish have they been able to keep making up lies without being punished for it,as Julio Llamazares said. In this sense there is a link between literature and lies. A child who was a liar will be a good narrator when he grows up. Not necessarily a professional writer: also the oral narrators we find in every town. Sometimes the individual cannot distinguish reality from imagination and, like in that anecdote about Hendry-Levy, he can pretend it’s not so important to distinguish them. But it is important: the difference between what’s true and what’s false will always be important.

Until now we’ve talked about communication between humans. What happens when we question nature and it resists our efforts?

Humankind has long suspected that the world we see, the nature we live in and we sometimes question, is not real. At the same time, there’s a common childhood fantasy in which the child sees him or herself as the only real being; she thinks here parents are actors and there’s nothing authentic, except for herself. And that idea that God or Nature are lying to us has been transferred to cultural formulas, such as the Deception of the senses (when our sight or hearing render erroneous or confusing reports about our surroundings) or the World Theater. In this second case, the world would be a stage and we, its actors. Humans would be representing certain predefined roles but, since we’re not aware of it, we keep acting with the utmost seriousness, like children when they’re playing. The idea that God is truthful, one of the arguments people use as a criterion for the truth of our world, is relatively new. From the origin of written civilization, from Mesopotamia, we find gods which enjoy cheating humans. In Greece they had the same perception. Gods, in the words of Homer, plan the evils of men just so that, later, there may be something to sing about. It happens with Hector, who believes his brother is coming to help him from the walls of Troy and then he realizes it’s just a ghost, sent by an enemy god to confound him. Yahveh is also a God which deceives, inherited later by Islam. In the Christian orb, William of Ockham and the Bishop Berkeley imagined the world as a universal delusion of the senses, caused by God. Descartes elaborates on that idea of an omnipotent, albeit evil God, who deceives us by making us believe in a perceivable reality. Mostly in the first part of the Meditations…, he suggest that what we see may be nothing but a farce created by some numinous force, which he calls “the evil daemon” to cover his back, even though he’s actually thinking about God. It’s the same suspicion Heraclitus already had: he saw Zeus as a “cosmic child” playing with his toys, which are us. Bierce, much later, would put it this way: we are the joke. In this sense, from what we do, especially as children, how we test them, how we are capable of chopping off a fly’s wings to see how it behaves, we’ve conceived the idea that maybe men, who are executioners when young, are transformed as adults into victims of a step-mother nature or a cruel God. The world would be thus a cosmic laboratory or a torture chamber shaped as a labyrinth, into which we are thrown. The existentialists formulate this notion, that we have been thrown into the world from who knows where, and we have no option but to start walking, because the world has the shape of a path. We are viatores or walkers, thrown into space and time, in the middle of the vial of some kind of labyrinth which keeps offering us ways out which later turn to be illusory, apparent exits which makes us hope everything will turn out fine. It’s this illusion which would produce the Kantian ideal and the generally enlightened notion of the progress in history. In a way, Kant suggests that, in order to keep on living, we have to think there has to be a progress in history. But, after all, this progress doesn’t seem to exist. The terrifying XX century has reinforced the idea that every drama has already happened before and that what we do is repeat the same generation after generation, from jealousy to abuse of power. Schopenhauer described this feeling very well when he said that the drama of life is suited for only one performance. The elderly, who have already seen two or three generations go by, have a feeling of being fed up, of déjà vu: “I know this, I’ve already seen it”, because it’s a play they already know by heart. The feeling of being in some kind of theatrical tour where the towns changes, but not the set-up for the face, reappears in Miguel de Unamuno, when in Niebla the main character of the novel shows up at Unamuno’s office in Salamanca and asks the writer to get rid of him, because he doesn’t want to go on living. Unamuno answers something like: “You’re one of my characters and you’ll die when I tell you to.” Unamuno compares himself with God. The author would be, thus, a literary God; and God, the author par excellence. “We will day”, says Unamuno, “when God decides and you will die when I decide.” This idea of metaphysical falsehood has a lot to do with religious doctrines of salvation. All of the Hindu religious thought, for example, stems from the idea that humankind cannot see the reality of things because it is hidden by the veil of Maya, a veil of appearances created by the goddess Mara or some other sorcerer god. The idea of the world being a simulation keeps appearing and reappearing throughout history, even in our time, with the so-called “virtual reality.”

What is the meaning of life?

It’s a question with a difficult answer, because it assumes life has some meaning. From the point of view of my works in pseudology, I develop the following idea in La simulación del mundo, the volume I’m recently working on. The basic idea is that human beings have some information, but we lack the most important part of this information. The suspicion that we’ve been denied the possibility to access the most important part of information is very ancient. When T. S. Eliot warns us in his Four Quartets: “You must walk a path which is the path of ignorance” he is phrasing, in poetic language, the fear of the hiding of truth we already find in the Vedas or in the Alexandrian Gnostics. Some forms of self-deception let us get to the conclusion that our life does have some kind of predetermined meaning. Because what causes the most despondency, the most anxiety om humans is the idea that they cannot control the future, the “what will become of me?”. And that’s when a part of El prestigio de la lejanía, the book I started the Pseudology treaty with, comes in: the idea that, from our anxiety for knowing the future, which is the practical shape of the anxiety to know the meaning of life, we deceive ourselves. We end up paying soothsayers, mediums and visionaries, but also to found and maintain millenarian pseudosciences such as astrology or esoteric religions of salvation, that ease our distress. Undoubtedly, all of those are forms of self-induced deception. Misfortune, the pain at the loss of a loved one, is almost impossible to bear in all its dimension, so it has to be interpreted. We need to interpret that misfortune because the absence of a loved one is unbearable. And from there the illusion is born not only that we can still talk to their spirit, but also what I’ve called the prestige of distance, that is, the idea that, if we are not happy in this world, there will probably be another one, far in time or space, in which everything will be again the way it was or the way we want it to be. That’s how salvation-related illusions emerge, the contrast between Valley of Tears which is our everyday reality and the Kingdom of Heaven, the illusion of a future beyond esjaton from which everything is going to change. But we also have the intuition that we may not living our real life and the real one is “somewhere else” as Kundera put it. This self-deception is reinforced by social institutions: travel agencies sell us distant paradises, Oceania, the ancient Southern Seas. However, we see that in most occasions those paradises are false and on top of that they’re very expensive, when paradise is, by definition, a happy place, but free. When faced with misfortunes, with the possibility of our everyday life having no meaning, human beings create utopias that, as their name indicates, never happen: they are territories of our imagination. The force of utopia is precisely the force of defeat: since I’ve already lost all hope of making my environment better in order to make my dreams come true, I fantasize about a parallel world where those dreams have already been satisfied, if in an imaginary way. This is the kingdom of the Utopian city, the kingdom of the radiant city. When I run away to this parallel world, my dissatisfaction at the real world is diminished, diluted. Utopian thought opens a chasm between reality and utopia, and thus keeps the former from getting close to the latter. Because of this utopia usually happens in inaccessible islands, so remote that they don’t seem to exist in the globe, or in a remote future, as happens with the prophets in the Old Testament. Israel is suffering in captivity, it’s living in exile, its temple has been burnt down, but someday a Messiah will come, a Savior, and everything will change. In this prophet’s vision, the earthly kings will bite the dust and the chosen people will rule over them; Babylon will be destroyed and on its ashes Israel will recover the earthly power of David, etc.; the last ones will be first and the first ones, last. This compensatory impulse of imagination also affects philosophy. In Kant, for example, we find the idea of the kingdom of the ends, the idea that to keep on living it’s necessary to imagine that this world, in which we almost always treat each other as means, will change so radically that, from some moment on, we will always treat each other as ends in themselves. This ideal implies a secularization of the Kingdom of Saints. Canetti used to say the only way of bearing misfortune is to interpret it, and that’s what it’s about, interpreting misfortune in order to deceive ourselves. Probably the most interesting and subtle of deceptions is self-deception. Marcel Proust says something along the lines of this: we deceive a lot during our lives, especially the people we love and, even more so, the person whose contempt would cause us the most pain, which is ourselves. Since we don’t want to cause our own self-contempt, since we don’t want to be guilty in the court of our conscience, what we do is change our past in a way that becomes acceptable. We change the motives of our actions and when they’re selfish we try to explain us by digging for deeper motives which may have been secretly altruistic. Thus, we obtain a self-image which is always better, rounder, more honest than the image other people have of us. The physical self-image represents quite well the imago of our mental and moral self-image. For example, it’s difficult for us to see ourselves in the crude way other people see us respect to figure and age, because in that case it would be very hard to get up every morning. The mirror doesn’t represent the body as well as we think, because when we look into it, our self knows it’s being looked at and instantly adopts the best position, the most pleasing angle. Just when the mirror surprises us, when maybe we’re just walking along the street and we see our image reflected in the window of a shop, only then do we see our physical self.

We are going back to the subject of self-consciousness.

Yes, of course, consciousness and deception are two terms of a great semantical richness. A poet friend of mine, Jaime Siles, was telling me that his father -when he was eighty-something- once ran into one of his former classmates. They were, therefore, the same age. When he got back home, the man dropped on the sofa and said to his family: “I’ve seen Johnny, you can’t imagine how much he’s changed. He’s gotten so old he hasn’t even recognized me.” the man could not conceive the fact that, if the other person didn’t recognize him, it was because he himself had changed a lot, not because the other man had lost his sight. We always interpret that which happens to us from a point of view which is acceptable for the self. Self-deception is the most common form of deception. Take, for example, the voice, something which doesn’t seem to leave much room for interpretation. And, nonetheless, it’s pretty usual for people not to be able to recognize their own voices. For example, when hearing them on tape. It’s very normal for the person who’s hearing herself to ask the rest if that’s really her voice, because she doesn’t recognize it: it sounds too shrill or unpleasant. In his war diaries, the German writer Ernst Jünger mentioned he had heard his own voice reproduced for the first time in a wax record, and it ruined his days because he realized he sounded like those middle-aged people from Hanover which he had always found vain and pretentious. He had always detested that type of intonation, just to find out it was precisely his. He finished his not saying something like: “we indeed now ourselves very little!”

See this author’s biography.


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