Is This True?

A pair of pants on fireAll my friends know I’m a liar, but I aim still higher. Most people love liars, the only trick being exactly what the lie is. In the movie The Invention of Lying, no one lies, or even realizes such a thing is possible. The movie makes the point of showing one of the consequences of this incapacity when we see movies being filmed. The films all appear to consist of one person looking at the camera reading a true story from history. If actors pretended to be someone they’re not, or if a writer made up a story that wasn’t true, that would be lying.

I write fiction—just make it the hell up. Since it isn’t true, I’m technically lying. All fiction is lying, as Plato pointed out in The Republic, referring to poets like Homer who told stories. Homer was a liar. The people who created the story of Gilgamesh in Mesopotamia were liars. No doubt long before those ancient examples, people were sitting around watching sheep, bored on a day with no wolves, and someone started up with “There used to be an old man in the next village who could put on wings and fly…”

Is there a place in the world where children will not sit tranfixed by a story, lost in the imaginary world of the tale? As a general rule, human beings love stories that are not true. In a literate culture, don’t children beg to be read to? And in a preliterate culture, how highly did Greeks regard the bard (Homer gives examples of bards at feasts). How much do West Africans respect the griot? The poet Alexander Pushkin, considered probably the greatest writer in Russia, said that the folktales told to him as a child by his nursemaid influenced his love of storytelling.

If we don’t weigh too heavily on the method for telling a story, we can move easily from the Odyssey to old women telling stories to children; move from folktales to novels; move from novels to the silver screen and swashbuckling movies like The Thief of Bagdad or modern blockbusters like Lord of the Rings; and then move from theaters to DVDs and streaming Netflix. While we’re at it, let’s throw in some comic books for children and Japanese manga for teenagers dressed in black.

Everywhere you look, liars telling stories. Why are these lies so popular?

When we see how popular artificial stories have been since thousands of years ago, when we see that they are found in cultures across the earth, and when we see that even as we invent new cultural forms, we begin to figure out ways to use them to tell stories (such as a series of photographs), then we realize that a love of artificial stories is inherent in human nature. It is as if we are born waiting to hear them.

Of course we like stories partly because they entertain us and relieve the boredom of so much of our existence. Really good stories can be better than opium or whiskey. But some stories, even modern ones, also become mythology and give us ways to understand the world. For some people John Wayne is not just a guy on a horse but a Noble Way of Living. For other people, Romeo and Juliet is about the compelling necessity of love.

I think the most significant reason we like stories is that they show us worlds we can only dream of. Icarus really could fly. Sherlock Holmes really could solve any mystery. And the Little Prince really could live on other planets. And if we can dream it, we are reaching toward it. Now we do fly, and we solve many mysteries, and we have walked on the moon.

Our love of stories, and our love of fiction, may be an expression of something profound about human beings. We strive for something beyond the physical reality that seems to limit us. We are more than creatures made of dirt and stuck to the earth. Even though we know the stories are only made up, they allow us to stretch our hands out and reach toward something more than ourselves. Fiction is a way of believing beyond the boundaries.

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