Many years ago I read The Wine of Violence by James Morrow. (I actually think I still have that book somewhere.) At the time it was the weirdest book I had ever read and I appreciated it for its weirdness even though, in general, I would have to say it was “not really my cup of tea.” Some years later I read The Continent of Lies. Again, weird but far from being one of my favorites.
A couple of days ago I finished reading Morrow’s novella, City of Truth. It is set in Veritas, a city (or perhaps a country?) in which no one is able to tell a lie and even metaphors are considered abhorrent. Every child is required, at about age 10, to undergo a horrific “treatment” that renders them permanently incapable of telling a lie. This makes for a very bleak society in which there is almost no art and everyone speaks the blunt, unvarnished truth, without even so much as a figure of speech. But there is a subversive group of people who have somehow learned to overcome their conditioning and are able to tell lies and create and enjoy art. One man is convinced by a member of this group that “lies” (specifically the psychological effect of a positive attitude) could save his terminally ill son.
The “What if everyone had to tell the truth?” question has been done to death in all kinds of fiction, but this somehow feels different, maybe because the story is, overall, very bleak. Morrow likes to explore questions of psychology and morality but he doesn’t come to any firm conclusions. Is it better to always tell the truth? Is it better to be able to lie and to at least conceal or soften some truths? If asked the first question without the second most people would probably agree that it is better to tell the truth, without thinking about the implications of complete truth. But the real world in which everyone is able to lie, usually undetected, has many problems. Obviously a balance would be best. Truth need not mean that we can’t have art and that we can’t be kind.
These questions seem to me, rather silly. Most of us know the difference between a truly bad lie and a merely kind or courteous lie. In between these are “lies of convenience” (I was stuck in traffic. The check is in the mail.) that we know are wrong but that somehow don’t seem so bad. There are, of course, people who push the limits, people who tell lies in order to sell us stuff, to sway us to their cause, or to get elected. We must expose and punish liars but this leads to finger pointing, witch hunts, and better, more careful liars. What more can anyone say? We are an imperfect species. Trying to get rid of our imperfections is like killing bacteria. The strongest bacteria survive and multiply but we can’t stop trying or the bacteria will wipe us out.