The need for deception
“There are two kinds of people in society, those who trick others and . . . others”
- André Mailfert, forger
Through much of my life I’ve suspected the existence of a great Deception Machine, some kind of global apparatus that includes the UN and the CIA, Macleans and Time, television, most parts of most newspapers, all guidebooks and maps, as well as some (just enough to undermine trust) road signs. It includes political speeches and sermons, as well as the timetables for Air Canada and Via Rail.
The Machine disseminates many kinds of deception: fiction, euphemism, misrepresentation, chicanery, camouflage, canards, and lies of every colour.
It’s possible, though by no means self-evident, that the Machine exists to serve the needs of the fabricators. But it’s fuelled, of course, by demand.
The market for deception is robust. Magicians, diet book writers, astrologers and retirement planners struggle to meet the needs of a public eager to be deceived.
I certainly find myself from time to time in need of a comforting fib. I’m happy to be seduced by the illusions of literature. I find myself as keen to believe the Strong Buy rationale of an equity analyst as I am to believe that the beach and the hotel will be as beautiful as they appear in the pamphlet.
I enjoy the exaggeration and the self-promoting tales that flow after the second drink. Even more, I enjoy tales of self-deflation, especially when there’s reason to doubt that the teller was, in fact, quite as stupid as he claims.
I may be dimly aware that the odds are against the train arriving on time, but I thrill to the notion that there is a timetable – because it’s only for show. I assume that any film treatment of a historical subject amounts to fiction, if not a lie, but I enjoyed Laurence of Arabia and Day of the Jackal nonetheless.
In an attempt, perhaps, to be more self-sufficient, I find myself increasingly apt to create deceptions for my own use. I fabulate in the shower, create fictions on the bus, amend myths while staring at the wine-dark ceiling. And if my pie in the sky has a veneer of plausibility when I re-tell it as an anecdote or “plan” to my wife or friend, it’s because I’ve taken the trouble to invent details to make it “realistic.”
So I’ve learned – it’s taken me a while – not to believe everything I say. Or write.
In the 1910s and 20s, André Mailfert, who supplies our epigraph, built a business in Orléans, France that turned out 50,000 “rare old pieces of antique furniture” as well as a few thousand “old master” paintings.
Mailfert used ultra-violet light to discolour wood, sophisticated drills to make realistic worm holes, compressors to embed organic matter, and cold and hot air blowers to make ancient-looking cracks. He came to believe that “everything is nothing but illusion and illusion is true happiness in life.” In other words, he was half a Platonist.
On one point, he was certainly right: being tricked is as great a pleasure as tricking. Dorothy, you’ll recall, was happy . . . until she looked behind the curtain.
If “disillusionment” is a necessary part of attaining wisdom, then surely so is re-enchantment. We need to immerse ourselves in fiction; we need to fabulate our lives. The trick, if I may use that word, is to indulge in, indeed to create for our own use, deceptions of an ever higher order.
As we age, we need yarns and illusions of great truthfulness, of compelling beauty and charm. We need deceptions custom made for our souls. We need to become highly skilled authors of our own enchantment.