Humans are natural-born storytellers, so lying is in our blood. Ian Leslie considers how this comes out in our art ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Shortly before his death, Marlon Brando was working on a series of instructional videos about acting, to be called “Lying for a Living”. On the surviving footage, Brando can be seen dispensing gnomic advice on his craft to a group of enthusiastic, if somewhat bemused, Hollywood stars, including Leonardo Di Caprio and Sean Penn. Brando also recruited random people from the Los Angeles street and persuaded them to improvise (the footage is said to include a memorable scene featuring two dwarves and a giant Samoan). “If you can lie, you can act,” Brando told Jod Kaftan, a writer for Rolling Stone and one of the few people to have viewed the footage. “Are you good at lying?” asked Kaftan. “Jesus,” said Brando, “I’m fabulous at it.”
Brando was not the first person to note that the line between an artist and a liar is a fine one. If art is a kind of lying, then lying is a form of art, albeit of a lower order—as Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain have observed. Both liars and artists refuse to accept the tyranny of reality. Both carefully craft stories that are worthy of belief—a skill requiring intellectual sophistication, emotional sensitivity and physical self-control (liars are writers and performers of their own work). Such parallels are hardly coincidental, as I discovered while researching my book on lying. Indeed, lying and artistic storytelling spring from a common neurological root—one that is exposed in the cases of psychiatric patients who suffer from a particular kind of impairment.
A case study published in 1985 by Antonio Damasio, a neurologist, tells the story of a middle-aged woman with brain damage caused by a series of strokes. She retained cognitive abilities, including coherent speech, but what she actually said was rather unpredictable. Checking her knowledge of contemporary events, Damasio asked her about the Falklands War. This patient spontaneously described a blissful holiday she had taken in the islands, involving long strolls with her husband and the purchase of local trinkets from a shop. Asked what language was spoken there, she replied, “Falklandese. What else?”
In the language of psychiatry, this woman was ‘confabulating’. Chronic confabulation is a rare type of memory problem that affects a small proportion of brain-damaged people. In the literature it is defined as “the production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive”. Whereas amnesiacs make errors of omission—there are gaps in their recollections they find impossible to fill—confabulators make errors of commission: they make things up. Rather than forgetting, they are inventing.
Confabulating patients are nearly always oblivious to their own condition, and will earnestly give absurdly implausible explanations of why they’re in hospital, or talking to a doctor. One patient, asked about his surgical scar, explained that during the second world war he surprised a teenage girl who shot him three times in the head, killing him, only for surgery to bring him back to life. The same patient, when asked about his family, described how at various times they had died in his arms, or had been killed before his eyes. Others tell yet more fantastical tales, about trips to the moon, fighting alongside Alexander in India or seeing Jesus on the Cross. Confabulators aren’t out to deceive. They engage in what Morris Moscovitch, a neuropsychologist, calls “honest lying”. Uncertain, and obscurely distressed by their uncertainty, they are seized by a “compulsion to narrate”: a deep-seated need to shape, order and explain what they do not understand.
As with the woman who told of her holiday in the Falklands, the stories spun by chronic confabulators are conjured up instantaneously—an interlocutor only has to ask a question, or say a particular word, and they’re off, like a jazz saxophonist using a phrase thrown out by his pianist as the start of his solo. A patient might explain to her visiting friend that she’s in hospital because she now works as a psychiatrist, that the man standing next to her (the real doctor) is her assistant, and they are about to visit a patient. Chronic confabulators are often highly inventive at the verbal level, jamming together words in nonsensical but suggestive ways: one patient, when asked what happened to Queen Marie Antoinette of France, answered that she had been “suicided” by her family. In a sense, these patients are like novelists, as described by Henry James: people on whom “nothing is wasted”. Unlike writers, however, they have little or no control over their own material.
Chronic confabulation is usually associated with damage to the brain’s frontal lobes, particularly the region responsible for self-regulation and self-censoring. Of course we all are sensitive to associations—hear the word “scar” and you too might think about war wounds, old movies or tales of near-death experiences. But rarely do we let these random thoughts reach consciousness, and fewer still would ever articulate them. We self-censor for the sake of truth, sense and social appropriateness. Chronic confabulators can’t do this. They randomly combine real memories with stray thoughts, wishes and hopes, and summon up a story from the confusion.
The wider significance of this condition is what it tells us about ourselves. Evidently there is a gushing river of verbal creativity in the normal human mind, from which both artistic invention and lying are drawn. We are born storytellers, spinning narrative out of our experience and imagination, straining against the leash that keeps us tethered to reality. This is a wonderful thing; it is what gives us our ability to conceive of alternative futures and different worlds. And it helps us to understand our own lives through the entertaining stories of others. But it can lead us into trouble, particularly when we try to persuade others that our inventions are real. Most of the time, as our stories bubble up to consciousness, we exercise our cerebral censors, controlling which stories we tell, and to whom. Yet people lie for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that confabulating can be dangerously fun.
During a now-famous libel case in 1996, Jonathan Aitken, a former cabinet minister, recounted a tale to illustrate the horrors he endured after a national newspaper tainted his name. He told of how, on leaving his home in Westminster one morning with his teenage daughter, he found himself ‘stampeded’ by a documentary crew. Upset and scared by the crew’s aggressive behaviour, his daughter burst into tears, he said, and Aitken bundled her into his ministerial car. But as they drove away he realised that they were being followed by the journalists in their van. A hair-raising chase across central London ensued. The journalists were only shaken off when Aitken executed a cunning deception: he stopped at the Spanish embassy and swapped vehicles.
The case, which stretched on for more than two years, involved a series of claims made by the Guardian about Aitken’s relationships with Saudi arms dealers, including meetings he allegedly held with them on a trip to Paris while he was a government minister. What amazed many in hindsight was the sheer superfluity of the lies Aitken told during his testimony. Some were necessary to maintain his original lie, but others were told, it appeared, for the sheer thrill of invention. As Aitken stood at the witness stand and piled lie upon lie—apparently carried away by the improvisatory act of creativity—it’s possible that he felt similar to Brando during one of his performances. Aitken’s case collapsed in June 1997, when the defence finally found indisputable evidence about his Paris trip. Until then, Aitken’s charm, fluency and flair for theatrical displays of sincerity looked as if they might bring him victory. The first big dent in his façade came just days before, when a documentary crew submitted the unedited rushes of their “stampede” encounter with Aitken outside his home. They revealed that not only was Aitken’s daughter not with him that day (when he was indeed doorstepped), but also that the minister had simply got into his car and drove off, with no vehicle in pursuit.
Of course, unlike Aitken, actors, playwrights and novelists are not literally attempting to deceive us, because the rules are laid out in advance: come to the theatre, or open this book, and we’ll lie to you. Perhaps this is why we felt it necessary to invent art in the first place: as a safe space into which our lies can be corralled, and channelled into something socially useful. Given the universal compulsion to tell stories, art is the best way to refine and enjoy the particularly outlandish or insightful ones. But that is not the whole story. The key way in which artistic “lies” differ from normal lies, and from the “honest lying” of chronic confabulators, is that they have a meaning and resonance beyond their creator. The liar lies on behalf of himself; the artist tell lies on behalf of everyone. If writers have a compulsion to narrate, they compel themselves to find insights about the human condition. Mario Vargas Llosa has written that novels “express a curious truth that can only be expressed in a furtive and veiled fashion, masquerading as what it is not”. Art is a lie whose secret ingredient is truth.