On truth, by 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.

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