Lies in Which not Everything is False

Wednesday September 10, 2008

According to Wendy Doniger, in the South Sudan storytellers begin their tales with the following intriguing formula. This, by the way, calls for audience participation, and so the lines in bold are the ones spoken by the storyteller, whilst the italicised lines are those spoken by the audience.

This is a story.
It is a lie.
But not everything in it is false.

This, more or less, is how stories begin in the South Sudan (although as I’m writing this in a cafe in Leicester I don’t have the book on me, nor do I have personal access to any South Sudanese storytellers, so this particular story may itself be a lie in which not everything is false…) I have always loved this little exchange, as it says a lot about the kind of relationship stories have with the question of truth.

As a fiction writer, I confess to being a habitual liar. This is what fiction writers do – they make stuff up. They tell big fat lies. This, of course, makes writing fiction rather a curious business from the point of view of ethics, and this is something that I wrestle with from time to time. For example, in the book that I’m currently rewriting, I am writing about a couple of historical characters. I am inventing motives, desires, ideas, thoughts, passions that they may never have had. Indeed, I am inventing motives, desire, ideas, thoughts and passions that they almost certainly didn’t ever have. This, to say the least, is a problematic way of going on, and if Aristotle is right (as I suspect that he may be) in his claim that the dead are not beyond harm and injustice, then this is something that deserves to be taken seriously.

But, having said this, the lies of fictions are lies in which not everything is false. And so the ethical waters that we navigate when spinning fictions (and all of us – not just novelists – spend our lives spinning fictions) are therefore rather choppy and turbulent ones.

I’ve been thinking a fair amount about the relationship between fiction and lies thanks to Ralph Flores’s interesting book Buddhist Scriptures as Literature which I’ve been reviewing for the Western Buddhist Review. Flores’s book aims to re-read Buddhist texts as literature, rather than as timeless repositories of Truth, as doctrinal source-books or as uncomplicated and authoritative documents. Such an effort, I think, is thoroughly worthwhile, because it reinvigorates our thinking, thinking that becomes petrified as great monoliths of doctrine. And reading these texts as human texts that speak of human things allows us to see the texts as addressing our humanity. Sometimes it seems as if sacred texts – whether we are talking about the Bible, the Buddhist Sutras, the Communist Manifesto, or the complete works of Immanuel Kant – are treated as news-bulletins from the beyond rather than as human creations. So reading Kant, the Communist Manifesto or the Heart Sutra as literature puts a rather different spin on things.

I’ll link to my review of Flores’s book when it is published, and I do not want to anticipate what I have written there in this blog. But what I want to suggest here are a few of the benefits, as I see them, of reading Buddhist texts (or any other texts that have an aura of authority to them) as literature.

Firstly, to read Buddhist texts as literature has the effect of thinking afresh about what can seem like a litany of stale pieties (of course, some people may prefer stale pieties, but if I must have them at all, I like my pieties – like my pies – to be fresh out of the oven). There is always a danger of reading texts to confirm what we think we know, rather than to find out something new. But reading, I believe, should be a process of discovery and perhaps also of transformation, a process of finding unexpected things, rather than seeking confirmation of pre-existing views. After all, if you always see the same thing when you read, then why bother reading? So reading texts as litearature gives plays havoc with the well-ordered systems of our orthodoxies. Monkey runs rampant in the halls of heaven. And, when the mess has been cleared up, heaven is probably all the better for it. Following on from this, to read texts as literature allows the possibility of a return of lightness, play, subversion and wonder. To read as literature means is to call into question the high seriousness with which we look at texts, and allows questions of the form ‘what if…?’ to multiply. Thirdly – and this is, I think, a reflection of the last point – to read texts as literature permits the return of a kind of relish that can so easily be lost when texts become well-worn. It can restore texts to life when they had become dead and cold.

But there is one final reason that I think that reading Buddhist texts as literature is beneficial, and this relates to the Sudanese storytellers I have quoted above. Think of the following:

This is a Buddhist text.
It is a lie.
But not everything in it is false.

If any reading of a Buddhist text started like this, it would have an interesting and, I think, extremely positive effect. Because to relate a story knowing that it is a lie in which not everything is false is to place an ethical demand upon both the teller and the audience alike. It means that the text cannot be used as a refuge from the business of thinking about our lives, both individually and collectively, and it means that it is down to us to do the hard work of seeing what sense the story can make of our lives and seeing what sense our own lives can make of the story, amidst the play of words and images and falsehoods. In fact, I’d like to see the words of the Sudanese storytellers prefacing all the sacred books of the world, from Kant on downwards… But I am not holding my breath for the coming-to-pass of this particular brand of utopia.

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#1 · ramon sanchez

10 September 2008

thanks for that ramon(:(:(:

#2 · Jayarava

10 September 2008

Funny I’ve been thinking about this issue of reading texts lately. Haven’t taken the literature approach but did a blog post on 5 Sept on hermeneutics. Seems as though it’s almost a case of finding whatever you are looking for – and how often do we see all kinds of weird things justified by reference to some so-called scripture or other. Our preconceptions determine our conceptions.

I’m interested in pragmatic linguistic approaches to texts. There are a few people doing this in the field of Vedic studies (Laurie Pattern, Robert Yell, et al) and it becomes fascinating what is revealed. The only person I know doing similar research on Buddhist texts is Joanna Jurewicz, a Polish scholar who has examined metaphorical structures along the lines of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Certainly as regards mantra the results the pragmatists come up with are far more interesting and open the field up rather than shutting it down as a semanticist approach tends to.

Although I’m not totally convinced by his conclusions Greg Schopen has been running rampant through received orthodoxies wrt texts for years now. Amongst his claims is that there is no evidence for a Buddhist Canon before the 4th century CE; and that there has never been a time when the vinaya represented what monks do, that it has always been about what monks think they should do. He has forced many scholars to re-examine their methods and conclusions, and some of the responses have been very interesting indeed, and might never have surfaced if not for his vigorous challenge.

The result in the last few decades is that very few scholars are as naive about Buddhist texts as Buddhists themselves tend to be. Little of this attitude has found its way into the mainstream as yet.

Another aspect to this more literary approach might be to apply it to Buddhist narratives around their texts. For instance we hear that all texts were taught by the Buddha, but from a text critical point of view this is clearly not the case. The stories of the provenance of texts are perhaps more clearly literary but they do have a powerful influence on traditional Buddhist hermeneutics.

Finally I suppose it would be interesting to consider the stories that we tell ourselves about what we are doing as Buddhists. How much of it is a happy fiction?

I like your conclusion as it brings us back to personal responsibility. We do have texts, but the important issue for us is how we live. The texts are like a starting point for exploration. My next blog post is going to be on the relation of words, meaning and reality in the Lankavatara Sutra and the writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, and raises related issues.


#3 · Peter Clothier

12 September 2008

Thanks for the useful insight into our current election campaign here in the US—though I fear that the lie is louder than the truth. But I take comfort on recognizing that not everything is false.

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