How Imagination and Memory Blur the Line between “Truth” and “Lie”

Michel de Montaigne and Francis Bacon both scorn lying. In “Of Truth,” Bacon declares that lies add a sweetness, a loathsome pleasure to life. He uses imagination, opinions, vanity, “flattering hopes [and] false valuations” as examples of common lies people tell themselves to feel better, or as fallacies we conjure up to escape from reality. These pleasures give people hope, comfort, and even make life worth living. However, Bacon argues that the truth is liberating and much more pleasurable, stating that nothing is sweeter than “standing upon the vantage of ground of truth.” Bacon goes on to say that nothing is as shameful for an individual than “to be found false and perfidious.” Montaigne similarly disdains lies, claiming that liars “enslave their honor and their conscience,” and declares that liars should face heavier punishment. However, Montaigne also makes a clear distinction between telling a lie, which is saying something false which we have taken is true, and lying, which is knowingly and purposely saying something false.

I found both Bacon’s and Montaigne’s essays interesting, and am for the most part in agreement with them. However, sometimes lying is necessary to protect lives or shield those who are mentally unprepared to hear the truth. For example, many parents put parental control on the television so as to prevent young children from viewing or hearing age-inappropriate material. Another good example is lying to protect lives. What if you lived in Germany during the Third Reich and a Nazi officer knocks on your door, asking if you are hiding any Jewish people, Romanis, homosexuals, or members of other such persecuted groups? If you are and tell the officer the truth, those people would die. In such a case, most people would agree that lying is acceptable. This goes to show that lying is not always a bad thing.

In Memory and Imagination Patricia Hampl tells the reader of her desire to be accurate in writing memoirs, but admits that it’s impossible to recount one’s life “as an act of dutiful transcription.” People have selective memory, and what they do store in their memory bank is not always what really happened. One can forget details, or subconsciously/consciously change them if it is more pleasing to do so rather than remember an event in its true form. Hampl argues that the memoir is a tool learning and self-discovery for the writer. It makes the writer ponder why s/he remembers particular memories and why s/he remembers them, and why in that way. A memoir is used to understand the link between perceived memory and the feelings that induced one to store those memories in the first place. I can resonate with this idea, because I felt the same way when I was writing my Common App college application essay. After a frenzy of different ideas, brainstorming possible personal events to write about and how they have impacted me, I finally formed a first draft of what I wanted to write. Of course, that first draft was not the piece I sent to colleges; it was a way for me to gather and organize my thoughts, find out what was important to me, and ultimately decide how to form my final draft. Memory is not a perfect, timeless, accurate, or chronological power that people can control and use at whim. It is a beautiful and useful tool, but one needs to ponder and work with what they remember to produce meaningful work (such as a memoir). The imperfect and subjective tool that is memory also relates to lying/telling the truth. Sometimes people lie because they do not remember, or do so correctly. Or sometimes a memory is the product of a lie or a figment of imagination. However, deceitful memories are not deserving of the scorn that Bacon and Montaigne impart on lying. Lies, such as lies in memory, are simply a part of being human!

In “Notes on Frey”, Daniel Nester similarly writes that dialogue in memoirs “is [simply] a lie” and other such specific details are “refracted through the author’s subjective, often faulty memory.” Nester even claims that dialogue in memoirs is thrice sinful because the writer lies about what is said, uses exact words in the lie, and writes the lie as a truth. Nester’s writing is then similar to Bacon’s and Montaigne’s in its contempt toward lying. Society also feels very strongly against lying, as observed with the public reaction to scandals such as that of James Frey, the author who was publicly condemned and even personally attacked by Oprah Winfrey. I am personally against writers fabricating stories in their memoirs, and certainly if this was done intentionally in an attempt to make the piece appeal to more people and to increase book sales. However, I want to point out that these fabrications or “lies” (to put it blatantly) are not always intentional. As Hampl explained in Memory and Imagination, sometimes these fabrications are a result of faulty memory and not of ignoble intentions. Sometimes these lies really are inadvertent products of imagination! It was interesting, however, to read these stories and how these four essayists tie the concepts of truth, lying, memory, and imagination together.

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One Response to How Imagination and Memory Blur the Line between “Truth” and “Lie”

  1. thaque29 says:

    Your summary on the pieces by Montaigne and Bacon were very effective, and got to the point of their ideas. Even though you said that you agree with them for the most part, I’m glad that you accepted the fact that often what we claim as true from memory can be tinged with some deceit. I felt that Montaigne and Bacon were far too “black-and-white” about their values, while Hampl provided a reasonable middle ground that most of us would probably identify ourselves with.

    Now that I can look back and reflect upon the first essay we wrote about lying, I experienced first hand about the fragility of memory that Hampl describes. I remembered the major moments of the memory quite vividly, but the spaces in between those moments were either lost or very blurry. In order to make the memoir a cohesive piece of writing, I filled in those gaps by inventing those moments as I would have liked to remember them. A little dramatized, something almost out a movie script. Was I lying? Not necessarily. Was I telling the truth? Probably not. If I had mentioned this to Montaigne or Bacon, their reaction might be unwarranted and overblown, but as I tell this to my peers, I doubt they will cast my essay into the realm of fiction.

    In writing memoirs, there are undoubtedly traces of non-truth, but sometimes it is the best way to make an effective story. I say this with a sort of caution, however. I think there is a limit to how much lying someone can do before their work must be discredited as memoir. This issue is addressed in your summary of Nester’s piece.

    Memory is a paradoxically fragile, yet powerful tool, and making black-and-white rules against its perceived misuse is not practical. I think many of the students in our class have figured this out first hand, as memories from years ago prove to be an interesting topic to write about, and then they find themselves unable to recollect each moment.

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