Sunday, April 11, 2010

Lies that Lead to Truth

In Dostoevsky's masterpiece, Crime and Punishment, Razumikhin, the representative of "reason"--but who has disdain for cold, calculated reason--often speaks of why he loves liars, because in lying they unwittingly, inevitably speak truth:

I like it when people lie! Lying is man's only privilege over all other organisms. If you lie--you get to the truth! Lying is what makes me a man. Not one truth has ever been reached without first lying fourteen times or so, maybe a hundred and fourteen, and that's honorable in its way; well, but we can't even lie with our own minds! Lie to me, but in your own way, and I'll kiss you for it. Lying in one's own way is almost better than telling the truth in someone else's way; in the first case you're a man, and in the second--no better than a bird! The truth won't go away, but life can be nailed shut; there are examples. Well, so where are we all now? With regard to science, development, thought, invention, ideals, aspirations, liberalism, reason, experience, and everything, everything, everything, we're all, without exception, still sitting in the first grade! We like getting by on other people's reason--we've acquired a taste for it!

(trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

What truth is there in lying? For Razumikhin, there appear to be at least two truths of lying: it is the marker of our humanity (and positively so) and a marker of originality, that is, individual personality. They are connected, in fact. Firstly, all other creatures are trapped in truth; only humans lie and deceive. It leads to the truth of ourselves as a race. But it is also the truth of a person. Anyone can parrot the truths and verities and proverbs of others, of their surrounding culture, or other cultures (Razumikhin, at one point, calls the main protagonist, Raskolnikov, a "foreign translation"--not only are Raskolnikov's ideas unoriginal, but they are not even Russian). But a lie can be more personal. It gets into individual circumstances, has to consider particular data that regards one's own self--even if to evade and obfuscate. It is better, for Razumikhin, in these terms to be "true to oneself" and lie rather than to falsify oneself by telling other people's truths, since even a bird (e.g., parrot) could do that. Razumikhin throughout disdains people trying to advance themselves, make themselves look better, by just parroting whatever ideas are in the air, whatever ideas are popular in the moment--they are, what seems to be the worst sin for him, "commonplace" ideas. These are the people who do not operate on their own reason, but get by "on other people's reason." What is, however, the negation of the negation (to borrow a commonplace, foreign translation, concept from Hegel) is when people borrow other people's commonplace lies. They are no longer being true to themselves, but, perhaps, they are at least true to their humanity. One has to wonder, however, if Razumikhin thinks there are any ideas that are not commonplace. The threefold repetition of "everything" suggests that all is banal. Although, perhaps he would think his idea of the deeper truth of lies falls outside of the commonplace.

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