Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 26 March 2017


The Right Kind of Lies

The truth of it was visibly brittle
so we wrapped it up
in the right kind of lies
and took it with us
away from the past
where it should have stayed.

6 April 1991

Yet another truth poem and there’re more to come. You’d think I’d have said everything I had to say but it’s a subject I’m continually drawn to. These days I don’t tend to write them down, the ideas, because I really probably have said everything I have to say on the subject. And yet I can’t quite give up on beating on it.

I just had a look to see how many times I mention the word ‘truth’ in Left. Thirty-five times. I thought there might be more since so much of the book is about Jen trying to find out uncover the mystery of who her father was. At one point she notes: “Beliefs don’t need to be true. Truths don’t even need to be true these days.” I wrote that before all this fake truth malarkey kicked off and, yes, it’s truer now than it was then.

“The people have a right to the truth as they have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” So said Epictetus but even if he’s right I think what we have nowadays is a “pound of flesh” situation. How does anyone get to the truth without making a bloody mess? Easier said than done.


Anonymous said...

Jim, this is a wonderful poem. As an American with a truthless president, it strikes me as something that could have been written yesterday. Keep 'em coming!

And, in the interest of truth, let me add that your opening quote is not from Epictetus but from the novelist Frank Norris. It appeared in an essay called "The Responsibilities of the Novelist" — — which includes another resonant statement: “The man who can address an audience of one hundred and fifty thousand people who—unenlightened—believe what he says has a heavy duty to perform, and tremendous responsibilities to shoulder; and he should address himself to his task not with the flippancy of the catch-penny juggler at the country fair, but with earnestness, with soberness, with a sense of his limitations.” From Frank Norris's pen to Donald Trump's ear!

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m a bit puzzled about that quote, Joe. I discovered it in an article in International Review of the Red Cross entitled ‘The right to the truth in international law: fact or fiction?’ but there was no attribution bar the name. Me being me I did look online and found several other places where Epictetus is credited so I was happy to go with it. To be fair I did see what Frank Norris had said (it’s in a list of quotes on Goodreads) and nearly credited them both but I assumed since Epictetus lived nearly two thousand years ago he probably was the first to say it. Now, that said, he is only really known for two works, Discourses and Enchiridion so I downloaded copies of both—two different translations of one—and tried to locate the quote for myself. Which I could not. Epictetus certainly has plenty to say about truth and he’s eminently quoteworthy but for the life of me I couldn’t find any place where he says people have “a right to the truth.” I even dug out some of my old reference books and nothing, nada, sod all.

As regards what Norris had to say about how a man who addresses an audience should comport himself, yes, well said and couldn’t be more relevant. The word that jumped out at me, however, was “unenlightened.” If I had to sum up my feelings over recent events in US politics—and, to a lesser, extent in UK politics—I find myself questioning the efficacy of democracy. I don’t have an alternative to propose—communism seemed like a good idea when first proposed although clearly proved unworkable in the real world—but I can see that democracy as it stands has one major flaw: too much power has been conferred to “unenlightened” men and women. How else could Trump have been elected? We have the same problem in the UK with Brexit. People voted for it but only now it’s going ahead are they starting to wonder how it will be implemented and what the short- and long-term consequences might be. You have to take two tests before being allowed to drive a car alone on the road but all you need to be able to do to drive a country into the ground is manage to put a tick in a box. Doesn’t seem right, does it?

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