Friday 29 May 2009

A world of real contradictions

Deception, by Ziyad Marar (Acumen)

’Just be yourself’ is one of those inane commonplaces that deserve to have been dropped a long time ago, alongside ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ and ‘Children should be seen and not heard’. It is usually offered in television soaps as a supposedly helpful piece of advice whenever a testing situation arises. But, when applied to our own lives, does just being ourselves ever really get us anywhere? The self can be a slippery thing to pin down. We are often not the same person when on a date, or with our parents, or being interviewed for a job, or sitting alone in front of the telly, so which of these selves should we be when just being ourselves?

Our inauthentic, two-faced nature is the starting point of Ziyad Marar’s book Deception. We lie, he says, both to each other and to ourselves. We so very easily hold two conflicting beliefs in our head simultaneously, and we peddle so many conflicting stories about ourselves that just being ourselves is no easy task. So his advice to the reader is not ‘just be yourself’, but that ‘we should take things at face value as a last resort’ (p61). Such advice could end in a sort of relativistic disaster, but – to his credit – Marar handles the matter seriously and fights for the truth in the face of scepticism.

He takes it upon himself to fully explore our two-faced nature in his book, and very enjoyable this exploration is. The blurb tells us that he has worked in publishing for twenty years, and during this time, we feel, he must have absorbed a great many of the ideas that passed through his hands. His references are wide-ranging, covering philosophy, psychology, literature and modern culture, and his language has an easy-going, humorous, down-to-earth quality (so much so that he displays an occasional clumsiness with idiomatic English, misusing ‘begs the question’ and ‘the exception that proves the rule’, but, then again, who doesn’t misuse these nowadays?). This is no obscure philosophical tract, but an intelligently written essay on one of life’s more complex areas.

To where can our two-faced nature be traced? Marar begins conventionally enough by invoking Kant’s distinction between reality and ‘the veil of appearance” in which we are trapped, and highlighting ‘the concepts…that constrain our perception of the world’ (p8). So, he appears to be saying, the world itself is two-faced. The ideas we use in trying to explain how it appears actually cloud the reality that lies beneath. We are duplicitous because the world is.

To be fair to Kant, in his later intellectual excursions into moral philosophy and aesthetics he managed to go quite some way in overcoming this division. The unknowable world that lies beneath the realm of appearance is – it turns out – knowable, but not in the empirical, observational sense. Rather, it exists as the goal-oriented sense of morality that guides humans in their researches and hypothetical positing. We are motivated to uncover deeper levels of reality while fully appreciating that we will never get to the ultimate truth beyond which all research is futile, and in the process we recognise that the previous ‘appearance’ was in fact a necessary aspect of the reality all along. So there was something in Kant’s dialectical philosophy (later developed by Hegel and Marx) that potentially made the appearance-reality division somewhat redundant.

As Marar does not explore the dialectical potential within Kant’s philosophy, his world retains the strict division between appearance and reality. And Marar quite easily fills the rest of his book with examples of the kind of thinking that thrives on the saying of one thing and the thinking or doing of another. For him, deception is a fact of life.

Writers since Dostoevsky have thrived on the subtlety of mind required to entertain two conflicting thoughts simultaneously. And it is a joy to read these writers who are able to express clearly what to us often feels like a mess. Reading Sartre (and even Joseph Heller) as a young man put quite a lot of my confused ideas of life and love in context. They taught me that a contradiction in our beliefs is not necessarily an aberration but sometimes a key ingredient to our thought. Marar takes things a little bit further by focusing not on the classic existentialists but on Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, in which a mother comes to terms with the sham of family life revealed by the high-school massacre committed by her son. Beneath the surface of those little affections and compromises we make when we cohabit there exists, it seems, either a passionate desire to escape or a big blank nothingness.

OK, so the truth is not straightforward. It does not sell itself; it needs to be sold, and ‘Sincerity is technique’, as Marar reminds us of what the poet Auden said (p73). But for Shriver to have posed such a bleak and final outlook on the human condition goes too far in condemning our multi-faceted nature. Hers seems to be a philosophy for thinkers who have no way of grounding their ideas in reality, which are then allowed to float away on the breeze, along with every contemporary hope and fear.

But in searching for something solid in which to ground our sense of self, Marar’s argument weakens. His grasp of the solid seems tenuous. In his conclusion he is rightly reluctant to admit that truth boils down to persuasive technique, but his finding that, ‘Without robust enough illusions a self has no validity,’ (p144) seems to imply that the concepts around which we organise our lives – truth, justice, the American Way, etc – are illusions or at best little white lies. We have a need to keep believing in them, he claims with the best of intentions, because without them everything would collapse.

But can the concept of justice, say, really be boiled down to a psychological need to keep things propped up? I would argue not. In actual fact modern justice only arose under specific material conditions; in a society based on formal equality yet in which real people were anything but equal. Each side of this contradiction is real – neither the concept nor the facts are deceptions as such - and a study of this real contradiction in the world outside our heads would go some way in grounding our duplicitous selves. Relating our just and unjust thoughts to something in the real world might allow us to arrange our contradictory ideas in some sort of progressive hierarchy, and reveal a way through the woods. It is unfortunate that Marar does not take this route, but do not be deceived: Deception is an essential text if we are to disillusion ourselves that in our dealings with each other everything is as straightforward as it first appears.


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