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Tell Me a Lie

ART TIMES Mar/ Apr 2010

YEARS AGO, WHEN I was still teaching English to Junior High School students, I used to point to one or two and ask them to “tell me a lie”.  Taken aback, of course, by this unconventional directive, there was hesitation at first, giggles and eye-glancing from side to side. Tell a lie? As time passed, however, and I would occasionally and unexpectedly spring my request on different classes, different students, they loosened up, got “into it”. “Today is Sunday!” “It’s not raining out!” Or, from a braver sort, “You’re handsome!” “I love Grammar!” In due course, my ulterior motive became clearer as I pushed them toward longer “lies”, had them write a paragraph, and eventually 150-word compositions, interweaving into my lesson plans the fine line between truth and falsehood, delving into the use of illusion, of imagination and of how fiction works, of how sometimes “lies” can often reveal a deeper “truth”. Oh, the sneakiness of teaching the uninterested! Anyway, it worked and I knew that they would henceforth seek for layers in the future: fact/lie/fact/lie/fact/lie, all of which sometimes might lead to truth. Or a kind of truth. How fine the line — or broad, for that matter — between what we see and come to “know” from what is actually “out there”? The Talmud says, “We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.” True enough; but is that also a “lie”? I’d been raised in a home innocent of libraries, museums. This is the factual truth yet I cannot but feel that my parents foisted a lie upon my formative years. And what was the truth behind that? And, while we’re at it, just where does the politician’s “fact” fade from truth to falsehood? Not that we — you are I or him or her — do not have — or ought to have — a point of view, whether it be legitimate or faulty. To be human, to be homo sapient, is by definition to have a point of view…and this is no small thing. Indeed, José Ortega y Gasset, in his The Revolt of the Masses (1932, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.), shows all too clearly how far from “sapient” we can become when we lose sight of our own vision, our own points of view. How much poorer would our world be without the points of view of Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Goethe, Socrates, Seneca, or Yeats? The irrefutable bottom line fact is that each of us has a unique point of view, one that no other human being (sapient or not) can ever have since no other human being (sapient or not) has ever seen the world from our individual perspective. To mention the results of those side-by-side plein-aire landscape painters is just too obvious. Not even the same painter can exactly duplicate his/her painting since our points of view, mired as they are in the constant flow of time, change from moment to moment. As fleeting as any given perspective may be, the fact remains that it is unique and, therefore, valuable as a valid testament to the enigma of life. The more “points of view” that we can gather, can share in and try to understand, can integrate into or alongside of our own, the fuller will be our understanding of the world in which we find ourselves. Tapping once more into the writings of Gasset, he posits the theory that, at birth, we are as if shipwrecked in a sea of being, keeping ourselves “afloat” by grasping whatever flotsam and jetsam is near at hand — our parents, our language, our village, our culture, our belief system, our race, our nationality — but that none of these things are us. The individual, the “you”, is unique, sui generis, “shipwrecked” in the world at a place and a time that by all laws of nature is solely yours, an event that ensures your point of view is absolutely yours and no one else’s. The trick is to know when it is your point of view and not one derived from the things you grasped to keep afloat before you knew your own mind — before you even knew you had a mind. Life is, or should be, an ongoing revelation of who or what we are. (No, “revelation” is not confined to two-thousand years ago and is open to all who choose to allow inspiration to pierce the mind-set of time and place.) I believe it was David Thoreau who made the observation that to see the world through someone else’s eyes even for a single second would be the greatest miracle of all. And thus we come to the artist, the individual par excellence upon whom it is incumbent to do just that — to show us his or her point of view. In brief, to “tell us a lie”. So, tell me your lie…and let me discover its truth. But it has to be your lie, your illusion, your perspective, your point of view for it to be a genuine work of art — to show us a world through your eyes. If it is all lie, well, then, we’ve both wasted our time.

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