On Lieing

Lies, I realize, are highly pragmatic. This realization came during a discussion of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, in which the main character, Billy, is a PTSD victim who survives many of the hardships in his life by creating a fanciful world that he escapes to. Although this is an extreme case, it’s illustrative of so many aspects of modern life as a whole.

From birth we’re taught so many lies. Society teaches them. Parents inculcate them. Priests impress them. Teachers reiterate them. I’m sure you’ve heard all of them, at one point or another: you’re special. You’re valuable. You’re unique. You can have a positive impact on the world. You can make a difference. Jesus loves you. You have a purpose. There’s a reason for everything. Everything works out in the end.

All lies. But not malicious lies, but rather pragmatic lies. Lies essential to the happiness of individuals and the function of society. If one were to come to terms with one’s helplessness and insignificance… if one were to realize that “free will” is just a bullshit Western idea designed to give us some sense of purpose, when in truth, our choices are null: we all start at point a and all end at point b, regardless of our actions in life. A hundred despairing realizations– more– all stopped by societal lies.

Douglas Adams invents a brilliant form of capital punishment for his Hitchhiker’s Guide‘s universe. It’s simple: it just shows one’s position, relative to the whole of the universe. The realization of one’s infinite smallness invariable destroys the victim. And it makes sense.

So we tell ourselves we’re in control: we guard ourselves against apathy. We tell ourselves that something matters: it gets us out of bed in the morning. They tell us Jesus loves us: it brings coins to church coiffeurs and contentment to church-goers. We’re told we can be unique: it keeps alternative clothing manufactures in business. The lies go on and on. And thank god for them.

It’s interesting to reflect that Palahniuk seems to try to strip away all these comfort-lies. Rather than perpetuating these lies, he counters that: “you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else. Jesus doesn’t love you. There’s no reason to keep going. Give up. Give in. Abandon everything.” And yet with this he creates another lie. He tells us that, when we abandon and destroy all, then we become. Then we have meaning. Then…. He replaces our lies with his lies. But who can blame him? Who would believe him if he encouraged us to simply shrug off all the societal deceptions, so we can realize how meaningless everything is. How stupid everything is. How meaningless we are. Etc. Few would believe. After all, who would willingly choose to be depressed?

So in a way, we’re all PTSD victims. We’re unable to cope with the reality of our place in the universe, so we create these grand delusions of meaning and value. We dupe ourselves into caring, into hoping, into loving… It’s either that or kill ourselves.

About Mark Egge

Transportation planner-adjacent data scientist by day. YIMBY Shoupista on a bicycle by night. Bozeman, MT. All opinions expressed here are my own.
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5 Responses to On Lieing

  1. Sagar1586 says:

    You knew you were baiting me into a fight with that Palahniuk paragraph while you were writing it, didn’t you? So not to disappoint, here I am.
    I don’ think Palahniuk strips away all of the lies to try to then give you meaning. I think this idea Vonnegut goes after is a non-issue in the work of Palahniuk (I’m speaking primarily from a Fight Club and Invisible Monsters point of view). He doesn’t advocated self destruction to allow for meaning and purpose to flood your life, but rather simply self discovery. BECAUSE of the social lies and constraints we’ve been fed our lives we’ve been dictated to be someone who we aren’t and we don’t even have the capacity in our current state to figure out who we are because we are so comodified by our environment, therefore by stripping it all away and doing things we never thought we would normally do we learn the most about ourselves.

  2. Bizarro says:

    It’s interesting that you assert that Palahniuk counters lies with more lies. One assumes that by countering lies, he is presenting us with truth. But, as you say, this is not truth, but lies.

    So the question is, is there truth? My contention: no. There is no truth, only perception. One who is fed social lies and perceives them to be truth, perhaps never understands them to be lies. If you asked him, he would likely say that these concepts are truth. (When you and I know they are not.) By affirming these as truths, is he lying?

    When Ed Norton truly believes that Brad Pitt exists (back to fight club), he understands that to be truth. We eventually learn that it is not. But all he had to go on was his perception.

    And that’s all we have to go on. So what else are we believing to be true (because we perceive it to be so), when in reality it is not?

  3. markegge says:

    Sagar, where’s the deliniation between “self discovery” and “meaning?” It seems that the two would go hand-in-hand, or the former would lead to the latter. For the sake of the above ideas, I just made the leap from “self discovery” to meaning.

  4. Sagar1586 says:

    Its pretty simple. “Meaning in life” is something to the effect of having some sort of purpose… you’re here for a reason, and that reason is ______ [God/Religion/Faith has those answers]. No where can you find a correlation between the meaning of life being to know more about yourself. Knowing more about your self might or might not help you better understand what you’re doing here, but either way Palahniuk stays void from that debate [at least in Fight Club, I suppose you could dig for some sort of stance on the issue out of Survivor].

  5. markegge says:

    So I watched Fight Club again last night, and after a good amount of discussing it, I think I’ve gained a slightly better understanding of the work. I would now agree that Palahniuk, in Fight Club isn’t advocating destroying one’s self to find meaning or value, but rather only for the sake of becoming a “hit bottom” individual where one is free of all the above mentioned societal lies and influences. One pushes off everything one has be told since birth, and in doing so, in “hitting bottom,” one is truly one’s self.

    So in a way, I gave the idea too much credit. I assumed that there was some constructive value that would eventually come of the destruction– that hitting bottom meant establishing a solid base to rebuild on. But now I realize that I was wrong– “hitting bottom isn’t a weekend retreat. It’s not a god-damn seminar!” It’s a way of living. A mindset where one gets up each and every day and says “I’m nothing. I am the all singing, all dancing crap of the world.” I have no place, no purpose, and no meaning. And no, one never “rebuilds.” One doesn’t find meaning. One fully embraces a lack of meaning, and someone encourages others to do likewise.

    So Fight Club (the club, not the novel) becomes an apt metaphor. It’s constant destruction. “Self improvement is masturbation. Now self destruction…” It’s all consuming, and the only purpose the destruction serves is that, at the end of the night, one is “free to do anything.”

    I firmly reject this philosophy.