Last night I wrote: ‘One of the key qualities of humanity is the ability to lie…’ I think it’s a fair reflection of Miéville’s themes in Embassytown – but is it really what I think?
I was sitting in church this morning, for what turned out to be a really lovely Pentecost service, and still thinking about what I’d been reading and writing, and found myself thinking, ‘OK, maybe that is a key thing that humans are able to do – but that’s not really what I believe we’re meant to be, is it? The essential component of humanity being the ability to lie? Don’t I believe that the (or one of the) essential component(s) of humanity was supposed to be the desire to worship our creator?’
[As an aside, a vague announcemnt – I get reluctant to blog about stuff that relates to my faith and what I believe, because I’m aware that there’s always a chance online that I’m just going to end up being asked – at various levels of politeness – to defend that faith. This post is not that place, ok. You’re just going to have to deal with the statements that go along with my faith here. Maybe one day I’ll work up the courage to write the ‘why I believe what I believe’ post, and then we can have that chat.]
So, I found myself thinking – is our ability to lie, or our tendency to it, a part of the fallen-ness of humanity? After all, it was humans believing a lie (or half-lie) that got us into the mess in the first place. And I’d not be surprised, honestly, if Miéville was doing something with the story of the fall from Eden in Embassytown. The Ariekei learn the ability to lie from humans, marking a fundamental shift in their culture and their lives, and their relationship to truth – to the way they think and act, and there are a lot of references to the ‘religious’ or the ‘cultic’ elements of Scile’s arguments. I think that Miéville presents the Ariekei development as being for the better – and a part of me thinks he may be right. Certainly – my own desire for knowledge and ability to judge about things is one of the things I find hardest to lay down when I’m trying to remind myself that I’m not actually a deity or the all-important centre of the universe. Giving that up is really hard – and that difficulty feels like it’s hard-wired into our systems now, after generations of humans being right (except, clearly we’ve been wrong about a lot of things, and will probably carry on being so – Christians just as much as anyone else, btw).
And this difficulty becomes more complicated for me when you look at the way Miéville links lying with storytelling – with the ability to use metaphor. Why on earth wouldn’t storytelling be a good thing? Why wouldn’t the ability to do that be an essential part of humanity – a good essential part?
Then I started to think about the fact that actually, the line between fact and fiction as we tell stories is really pretty fuzzy and porous. The whole idea of genre and the difference between fiction and non-fiction is something we use to perceive and categorise things, to understand (and sometimes to feel more comfortable about ignoring certain sections of the bookshop, peoplewhoaresnottyaboutscifi…). But fundamentally, storytelling is what we do to understand who we are and what are lives are like. The fact that lying came into the world just makes that essential thing more complicated to work out, making it harder for us to figure out who we are and where we fit. Storytelling is an essential part of the world, and of humanity. However you might think God created the world, it unfolds in time and space as a narrative – first this, then this, and it was something (it was good), and then there was us, and we were meant to be a part of the story and a part of the telling of the story. And then we screwed up.
The rest of the bible is the rest of the story. It is a narrative of how humanity gets from God back to God – and it uses every narrative tool going, including history, rhetoric and poetry, and the story-within-a-story, as Jesus tells parables to attempt to get his points into his disciples heads. (Though not, in my view, the ’he woke up and it was all a dream trope…)
I guess where I’m trying to get to with this is to a point where metaphor isn’t just lying, where lying is metaphor-gone-wrong – used wrong, to tell the wrong kind of story. Those kind of stories leave us lost and divided, convinced we’re worth nothing, or nothing if we don’t have x,y and z, or that we’re everything, and we don’t need anything or anyone else to make us whole – stories that don’t make us a part of something outside of ourselves or bring us joy. Believe me, I know that Christians have been (and are) as guilty of telling those kinds of stories as anyone else on the planet – but I still think that I don’t want to think that lying is a key characteristic of humanity. I think that we should aim to get better at the way that we use metaphor, at the way that we tell stories – and, frankly, we should get better at following the example of the best story we’ve got.