Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Invention of Lying - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Goes to the Movies:

What would it be like to live in a world where everyone told you exactly what they thought?  The Invention of Lying, a sleepy little 2009 comedy by Ricky Gervais (He co-wrote, directed and starred in it) has this interesting premise and an uneven delivery.  I will focus more on the premise: that a world could exist where people never speak anything but the truth; and almost compulsively tell you what they actually think, and where they never lie for any reason.  This would, I believe, create a world that is profoundly different than ours.  The film highlights differences in this strange world, but does not follow all of them to what I believe to be their logical conclusions.   In part to make the story easier to tell, it is set in a world that looks very much like ours – indeed that shares much of our history and many of our commercial products (A sample commercial runs something like this: “Buy Coke.  It is just colored sugar water and it is bad for your health, but it tastes good and has little bubbles.  It hasn’t been improved, but we did put Polar Bears on the can so that your kids would be drawn to it.”  The counterpoint ad on a bus: “Pepsi: when there is no Coke.”)

The world that is portrayed in the film, then, is similar to ours but drab.  Because no one can lie, there is no fiction.  So the movies are all boring documentaries.  The protagonist is a documentary writer who is assigned to write about the 1300s, a particularly boring century.  Further, he is not good looking and everyone he runs into comments on this, including the woman whom he takes out on a first date.  She tells him about his having a nose that is particularly unattractive within the first minutes of meeting him and states that she will go out with him essentially out of mercy but that there is no chance of either a second date or of sex.

Psychologically, this set of premises creates a world that supports a depressive mindset.  By this I mean not that it is a depressing world, but that it is a world in which people know how others actually perceive them.  In our early work with people diagnosed with depression, clinicians took the approach that depression was distorting their perceptions and that they imagined that things were worse than they actually are.  Empirical studies, however, provide evidence that when we are depressed we are more likely to accurately perceive the world around us.  To turn this around: being psychologically “healthy” requires a bit of self delusion – believing that I am attractive, smart and witty, even if not quite true, helps me have the confidence to put myself out there – to pretend to be who it is that I am not quite but might more closely approach if I don’t actually know how far away from the ideal I currently am.

To carry these suppositions further, in this alternate world, we would not be able to dream (something that is not explored in the movie).  Or if we did, dreams would simply be a recapitulation of the events that occurred during the day.  And dreaming is just one example of the fluid functioning of the brain: we would not be able to imagine, and therefore, we would not be able to create.  Einstein used Gedankenversuch or Gedankenexperiments – “thought experiments” in English – to revision the world.  But these require seeing things not as they are, but as they might be.  And dreams do the same thing.  Our dreams, and perhaps especially our daydreams, help us imagine ourselves into a world that is similar to, but essentially different from the one we inhabit most of the time.  So, how ironic is it that the means to experiencing our dreams more directly – to decoding them – psychoanalysis – involves speaking as truthfully as we can about whatever it is that is on our minds. 

On some level, our unconscious minds are, in fact, trying to communicate a certain truth to us.  From Freud’s perspective, the model of the mind that best explains dreams is made up of primitive – meaning animalistic – components.  It is the part of our selves that is driven by sexual and aggressive drives or urges.  This immediate, direct sensory aspect of ourselves is covered over - hidden, defended against - by the civilized, and civilizing parts of our mind.  The parts of our mind that learn to deceive; to say, “No, that dress makes you look slender,” do so because the truth hurts – the unvarnished truth ruptures relationships and interferes with our achieving strategic goals.  So we work to quell it, to satiate it with substitutes – to substitute money for sex (from Freud’s perspective) or to substitute money for relationships (from Bowlby’s attachment perspective).   We come up with lies, substitutes, and with deceptions in order to fit into society.

The irony, then, is manifold.  The part of ourselves that is oriented to the “real” world, the part of ourselves that can plan and strategize and helps us wait until the most opportune moment to act, the part that Freud posited was based on what he called the reality principle and uses the rules of logic - ends up being a powerfully chaotic voice; one that rationalizes and helps us distort reality.  Our more primitive selves, ruled by what Freud called primary process, a process that is not based in logic but instead is based in the wish to have whatever it is that I want right now and the consequences be damned, can more accurately and immediately represent reality as it is rather than as we want it to be.  And this means that learning to listen to our unconscious selves does, in the sense of the movie, tune us into a more boring reality, one that is pretty simple and direct.    This, in turn, means that the tension between the two, the great engine that drives our neuroses, but that also fuels our creative and imaginative selves, reveals that the elements which underlie that tension are the forbidden, but therefore also possibly gratifying and ultimately tremendously desirable, but actually dull and concrete – everyday, animalistic, even mundane aspects of ourselves.  Our hungers, in their most concrete forms, are quite basic indeed: we want things like food and sleep, the regard of others and some sex, to be a little fat and happy (while perhaps appearing slim).  And yet, and here maybe is where the irony comes in again, our basic desires, in tension with our more savvy selves, drive us to creative and imaginative heights that are the stuff of genius.

Many artists fear analysis.  I think this is based on a fear that the post analytic state will be like the one depicted in The Invention of Lying – that they will become dull and ordinary as they directly reveal themselves to others.  It is as if the tensions between their unconscious and conscious selves will become resolved.  I think that the idea that such a resolution could be achieved is a pipe dream.  We go on deceiving ourselves even after the best and most complete of analyses.  We become more adept at decoding those deceptions, we become more comfortable with our internal tensions, and we better know how to integrate those tensions into our relationships with others.  It turns out, though, that once we invent lying – depicted primally in the story of Adam and Eve – not only can we not stop, we don’t want to.  We find that lying and all that it brings with it are complications we embrace.

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