Navadwip, India — Monday, February 14th

Truth through fiction

In the Guru: persona vs. person blog, I posit that this material world is like a giant book of fiction, that the characters we identify with and the stories we are engrossed in have so absorbed our concentration and captured our minds that we have temporarily forgotten our real existence and identities:

...This world [is] like a fictional world — a novel written by the Supreme Author, a mental world that the soul has entered into — an artificial world, but a world seemingly so real, and so fascinating, that the soul cannot put the book down. The soul's mind is now so captivated, so completely absorbed in the drama unfolding on every page, that she has temporarily forgotten her family and friends and her duties and obligations in the real world.

I also postulate that in order to rescue us, "to lead the trapped souls out of this fictional wasteland and into reality... Srila Gurudeva adopts a persona, 'writes his character' into our novel, so that he can instruct us and show us the truth through fiction" just as an author "adopts different personas in his books to lead us to the truth through fiction."

But is it possible to lead us to the truth through fiction?

Yes, because fiction is the complement of truth, not its opposite or its adversary. This is what Pablo Picasso tries to get us to see when he startles us with his assertion: "Art is the lie that tells the truth."

We are so taken aback, so disconcerted by such an apparently preposterous claim that we almost reflexively dismiss it as absurd. But is it? Is there a grain of truth in this idea? Picasso's elaboration,

"We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies."

is just as enigmatic. How should we interpret this? How can a "lie" make us realize truth?

Like most abstract ideas, this is perhaps easier to show than to try to explain. In The Treachery of Images, Picasso's contemporary, René Magritte, paints the picture of a pipe, and below it, the words, Ceci n'est pas une pipe — "This is not a pipe."

When we first view this painting, our mind instinctively protests, "But it is a pipe!" before our intellect confirms that Magritte is indeed telling the truth:

"The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it is just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture, 'This is a pipe,' I would have been lying!"

It's true. The painting is not a pipe; it is the image, or the visual representation of a pipe. The image of the pipe seems to be real and the words below it seem to be false, but just the opposite is true: the image is false and the words are true.

The painting of the pipe, the "art is the lie" (because the picture is not a real pipe; you cannot stuff it with tobacco or smoke it) but it "tells the truth" (because it depicts something that does exist in the real world, that can be stuffed and smoked).

Although the image is not real (a "lie"), you can still get a pretty good idea of what a pipe is from this painting — what it looks like, its shape, its color, and perhaps even what it feels like, judging from its smooth surface — even if you have never seen a pipe before, so "art is a lie that makes us realize truth."

This is true of any art form (literature, poetry, etc.) so Picasso's assertion could be rewritten as: "Fiction is the lie that tells the truth." In a novel (art) the writer (artist) tells a fictional story (a lie) that changes our perception of ourselves and the world we live in, that makes us think about reality (truth) a new way.

In the words of Picasso, when writing a novel, "The artist (author) must know the manner (how to craft and structure the characters, plot, climax and dénouement of a story) whereby to convince others of the truthfulness (get us to accept new ideas, morals and ideals through the skillful use of allusion, allegory, metaphor and symbolism) of his lies (fictional tale)."

Picasso, Magritte, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Shelly; all great artists show us the ordinary and the familiar from unconventional perspectives, innovative points of view, and often surprising angles of vision, to broaden our consciousness, to invite (and sometimes force) us to change the way we perceive the world around us — to compel us to see reality in a genuinely new way.

And that is why I so like this quote by the novelist Doris Lessing: "That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you have understood all your life, but in a new way."

Maya, like fiction, is an illusion, and like fiction, maya is not truth's adversary, but its complement:

daivi hy esa guna-mayi / mama maya duratyaya
mam eva ye prapadyante / mayam etam taranti te

Bhagavad Gita (7:14)

Don't think that maya is the enemy because she forces us to believe a lie, to think that this fictional material world (guna-mayi) is real. Because maya is Krishna's inferior energy (daivi hy esa mama maya), her work must complement that of the Supreme Absolute Truth. Her spell is unbreakable (duratyaya) because Krishna is the weaver of the spell, the teller of this enchanting tale, but her role is not adversarial: she forces us to see, indirectly, that surrender to the Absolute Truth (mam eva ye prapadyante) is the only way that we can become free of her lies (mayam etam taranti te).

In other words, maya is "the lie (the fiction) that tells the truth." Like fiction, it "is a lie that makes us (indirectly) realize (the Supreme Absolute) Truth"; it is a device used by the Supreme Author to "show us or lead us to the truth through fiction."

We are in the thrall of this maya, this fiction. Just as when we read a book, when the mind of the soul is captivated by this artificial, alternate reality, this fictional story, she temporarily forgets her real existence because she is so completely absorbed in this private, unreal world. ('Private' because "the world is in the mind," and 'unreal' because this world is "a perverted reflection of reality.")

Why "a perverted reflection of reality"? To pervert is to corrupt, or to put something to the wrong or improper use; to interpret incorrectly, to misconstrue or distort. Reflection typically refers to an image or idea, but it can also mean to represent something in a faithful or appropriate way. So when we say that maya is "a perverted reflection of reality," we mean that it is a misrepresentation, a misinterpretation of the truth, a debased idea of the real (spiritual) world, a distorted image of reality created for and embraced by all the little Lucifers who believe it is "better to reign in hell than serve in heaven" — a fictional, make-believe world where corrupt souls eager to improperly enjoy or selfishly exploit can indulge all their perverted fantasies.

And it is into this distorted, misconceived, jungle of ideas that the omniscient author (jnaninas) inserts his persona to faithfully represent reality (tattva-darsinah), to draw our consciousness out of this fictional world (upadeksyanti te jnanam), to lead us to the truth through fiction.

om ajnana-timirandhasya / jnananjana-salakaya
caksur unmilitam yena / tasmai sri-gurave namaha

I am captivated, in the thrall of this make-believe world, unable to tell fact from fiction (om ajnana-timirandhasya), but you came to rescue me, Srila Gurudeva (tasmai sri-gurave namaha), to open my eyes, to free my consciousness (caksur unmilitam yena), to show me the way back to reality (jnananjana-salakaya).

All glories to the omniscient author! All glories to Srila Gurudeva!

Tags: Reality | Reading | Slokas

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Layout by iMonk — February 14th, 2011.