Public Lecture: Lies in Literature

Public Lecture: Vijay Mishra


'A Flavour of Mortality': Lies in Literature

06. November 2008, 10 Uhr c.t., Geb. C5.3 Raum 120


Prof. Vijay Mishra, Murdoch University, Perth


"I would not have gone so far as to fight for Kurtz, but I went for him near enough to a lie. You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appals me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies."


Conrad, Heart of Darkness


Derrida in his essay on the history of the lie (on its radical impossibility in fact) writes about ‘the Judeo-Christiano-Kantian hypothesis of the lie as radical evil and sign of the originary corruption of human existence.’ This is, after Kant, a determinate (or determined) definition of the lie, different from definitions which come to us, again after Kant, upon reflective judgment. In most cases and beyond absolute or transcendental definitions (a determined judgment), a lie lacks the stability of ‘truth.’ We could argue that the invasion of Iraq was based on a lie as no weapons of mass destruction were ever found; we could argue that indentured labourers were recruited on the basis of a lie, which is why the word ‘recruiter’ transformed into a Fiji Hindi neologism ark??h? designates a liar; we could argue for or against many other instances of lies, many a lot more dramatic. Whatever their intensity, these ‘lies’ changed history, regardless of the degree to which they are morally repugnant. A retrospective moral indignation, however, cannot change history since what was, as an event, based on a lie, enters history as empirical fact, indeed as the ‘stable truth’ of history. The foregoing may be argued, and the theoretical underpinning acknowledged, yet the substance, the tenor and the centre of this paper is a little different.


Beginning with observations on a memorially constructed public address, in this paper I examine the form of the keynote address which, I argue, as an instance of the genre of the hypnotic induction uses the lie to induct the audience into the theme of the symposium or conference. The exemplary example of the genre of hypnotic induction is Freud’s essay on the ‘Uncanny,’ which I use as my structural model, as I tease my way through definitions of the word ‘lie’ in three languages to show how only in words for ‘lie’ in the vernacular (in those languages marked by heavy borrowings from ‘classical’ languages) a full frontal encounter with the lie takes place. Against these vernacular words, words for ‘lie’ derived from classical languages can only confront a lie through the negation of truth, affirming the belief that unlike ‘truth’ the lie cannot ‘survive indefinitely.’ Sincerely following Freud’s structure, I use literary texts (Freud had nominated only one major text in his analysis, E T A Hoffmann’s ‘The Sand-Man’) to make my case and, suggestively, to arrive at a conclusion which comes dangerously close to declaring (or hypnotically inducting the audience into believing) that all literature are footnotes to a great lie.