10 March 2016

Various States of Lies

I mentioned to a friend yesterday that I was preparing a lecture for the Night University and he was naturally interested in the topic. When I said I would talk about lies, he thought it was an exceptionally demanding theme.

Together, we decided that once you are born into this world, there is no escape: you have to live.

And for all those who live, it is clear that living is a demanding theme.

The Night University lecture will end, but there is no escape from life. As lies have become one of the main topics today, there is no escape from talking about lies.

If you want to understand the world, know yourself, say all who know anything about man. The same words can easily be turned upside down: if you want to understand yourself, know the world.

Because if the world abruptly changes, it is a sign that something in man has changed abruptly.

What, then, has now changed in man so that he lies so expansively and believes the most outrageous lies?

A lot has been said about how when the world became virtual a new type of person appeared. I wrote about this back in 1993:

The title of Milan Kundera’s famous novel is The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The word “unbearable” makes the title seem a bit outdated today. After all, today the lightness of being is quite bearable; in fact, it is rather sweet. It is finally possible to laugh instead of crying. It is finally possible to live without any fear of tomorrow, because tomorrow may never come. And if it does, then it will be quite different than we expect.

We should also bear in mind that a person who is used to communicating via a computer finds it perfectly natural to switch off his partner. Communicating with a partner who can be switched off, however, creates a new and peculiar relationship with death. Death has become a technical procedure, a switching off, an incident with no deeper meaning. Killing has therefore a totally different meaning as well. Life seems almost like a paradise. Or almost like hell. As you wish.

As everything is seemingly possible in the virtual world, lies too have lost their former clear and unambiguous meaning.

Truth and lies could always be distinguished because man knew he was mortal and was aware that death was inevitable. In the past, lies were sins, and you had to account for them at the hour of your death. Now lies constitute reality, man’s subconscious and irresponsible state. Or just another form of entertainment. However, man is still mortal and still cannot escape death. So that behind the new lies there is still truth, the same old immutable truth.

Man tends to think that death is far away and since there is still time, as everyone always thinks, death is tucked away in a drawer to be dealt with later. There are much more vital things to deal with. Money, for example.

It is not news that lust for money provokes lies. It has always been so.

However, money has never been the way it is in today’s world. Today’s virtual money can be regarded as the symbol of lies. It promises something that it cannot fulfil. Sooner or later money becomes a traitor, betraying everybody who loves it passionately and who is prepared to do whatever it takes to have it.

Nobody knows what would happen if one day money betrayed the world. Greece and Iceland with their debt crises are just the beginning.

In his Cultural History of Money, Dieter Schnaas says:

The crises of banking and government debts are crises of the political system. Gold without money is nothing, but money without gold is everything. Money was separated from gold on 15 August 1971. This separation was good for money and not for gold. Gold was worth something only as long as it was linked to money. Today, gold has become kitsch, raw material for jewellery. Modern money, on the other hand, is a jolly bachelor, free of any responsibility. In our scientific-technical era, the infinite freedom of the unfaithful and lecherous money fascinates us with its irrationality, its immense lie, which humankind believes.

 As I mentioned before, the triumph of lies is closely linked with people losing their understanding of the inevitability of death, losing the sanctity of life. What I did not mention was the idea emphasised in Dieter Schnaas’s text, i.e. as the spirit of the era has been rational and scientific-technical, people are now fascinated with the reverse of everything. Just as the pendulum swings back and forth, the era of rational thinking sooner or later brings about its opposite.

Rationality ceases to rule and is taken over by irrationality, the immense lie. It flourished mightily in the 20th century, caused by the constant boosting of rational thinking, the effort to force it on everyone, cutting off miracle and sanctity, exactly what Max Scheler wrote about in 1912:

In the modern world influenced by subconscious prejudices, things have been turned upside down. Everything animate is understood through the inanimate, life in general is regarded as an insignificant episode in a mechanical process, where living is considered as a chance adjustment to a lifeless environment: eyes are just glasses, hands a trowel, a living organ a lifeless tool. If the relationship between a living organ and a lifeless tool is thus revalued, the spirit of modern civilisation does not represent progress, but the decline in human development. It shows the power of the weak over the strong, the power of the swotters over the noble-minded, the power of quantity over quality.

The triumph of widespread lies began one hundred years ago with the Russian revolution, or rather with how eagerly people believed the lies of this revolution. Today’s big lies are thus characterised by something harking back to the Russian revolution. Rationalism, overestimating the scientific-technical world, led to the disappearance of sanctity. Death and life lost their mystery, and man became a lump of meat. This could be seen as such a total upending of truth that lies began to look like truth, but it could also be called a deliberate devaluation of truth. A good example here is the famous Soviet slogan: “All for the people, all for the happiness of the people!”

Who could have anything against such a slogan? On the wall in a prison camp, however, it becomes a cynical parody, devalues humanity and lies blatantly, just as Putin and Lavrov are lying to the world today.

We should here remember that the biggest lies do not always necessarily have pragmatic purposes. A lie can be an adventure or an entertainment, just as war can be. And since different kinds of people find it hard to believe that a big lie could be someone’s adventure or entertainment, such a lie seems especially credible.

The Russian revolution, after all, was a big adventure and amusement for many who made it happen. Making the lie a noble one about liberating the working class was an excellent way to conceal the lie.

In today’s Ukraine, the adventure and amusement of the Kremlin are concealed by the lie of protecting the Russian-speaking population. It is obvious that criminals have different amusements than ordinary people do. If the amusement is linked with profit, lies grow to tremendous size.

The reason for medium-large lies is mainly a desire for profit, fear, shame, envy or revenge, but in the case of really huge lies, it could easily be merely amusement and adventure, which grown-ups usually find difficult to believe.

The world and man are more complicated and yet simpler than we think.

In this world, lies and morals go hand in glove. Where one has been detected, the other is not far behind.

The above-quoted Max Scheler wrote a hundred years ago:

One of the most significant results of the new ethics is that there is not only one morality in the world, but several moralities. With the word morality we mean the main convictions of the eras and nations, and not any philosophical or scientific treatments, systematisation of their convictions, and so forth, which see morality only as an object or a topic.

The subconscious prejudice realises its main purpose by influencing morality, so that moral convictions become unnatural and what used to be bad suddenly seems good.

A few decades ago, for example, a farmer would have considered it bad or immoral to grow poisoned tomatoes and cucumbers for sale, or to fatten chickens and salmon with substances that damaged people’s health.

We could say that today’s tomatoes and cucumbers are lying, as they conceal diseases behind their pretty exteriors. Potatoes and carrots also lie, as do cows and pigs.

Man, in turn, lies to tomatoes and cucumbers, pigs and cows when he abuses their trust and feeds them poison.

It was not long ago, perhaps a dozen years or so, that mad cow disease terrorised the world, as it destroyed people’s brains. Then it turned out that the disease was carried by cows whom man had gravely deceived by feeding them grass-flavoured bone meal. The guilty ones were naturally seen to be the cows, not people.

The cows were burnt, and in pubs people temporarily ordered lamb instead of beef.

Although not many recall, the biggest cattle breeding countries in Europe were covered with smoke from burning the animals. There were brigades in special outfits who burned them. A fortune was spent. It has now been forgotten. It could be said that Lavrov and Putin are deceitful, like tomatoes and cucumbers, deceitful like those betrayed cows.

Their mere existence is the result of decades of lying. It could even be said that lies gave them birth. A quotation from Gogol, where the famous Ukrainian Cossack hetman Tarass Bulba threatens his son, was often used in the olden days: “It was I who begot you and it is I who will kill you.” In a mocking sort of way, this threat is also valid about lies and liars. Whomever lies have begotten will sooner or later be destroyed by them.

As an illustration, I would now like to quote from Svetlana Alexievich’s book Second-Hand Time:

And now about executioners... ordinary, not the terrible ones... Our neighbour... Uncle Jura... grassed on father. Something trivial... I was seven years old. Uncle Jura took me fishing, horse riding. Mended our garden fence. You see, a totally different executioner emerges here – an ordinary person, even kind of... Normal... Father was arrested and a few months later his brother was taken as well. I got hold of his file during Yeltsin’s time, and it contained several complaints, one written by Aunt Olya... A cousin... a pretty woman, cheerful...

It was very hard, but I did ask the question that had been tormenting me: “Auntie Olya, why did you do it?” She replied with her own question: “Do you think there were any honest people during Stalin’s time?” You understand, there is no such thing as chemically pure evil... It’s not only Stalin and Beria... It’s also Uncle Jura and pretty Aunt Olya...

Coming back to lies as an adventure and amusement, I would like to quote myself:

Roman Frister’s book The Cap is like the nails used to attach the epaulettes of imprisoned officers. How were the epaulettes nailed down? With an ordinary hammer and ordinary nails, straight into bone and flesh.

One person held the hammer, and another held the nails in place. The epaulettes were on the shoulders of another person.

Nobody gained anything from this. Epaulettes are nailed down not because of profit, but because it is interesting and amusing.

Extreme times bring out people who have been hiding their darker tendencies from others. In peaceful times, such people are not usually taken seriously; they are regarded as exceptions, destined to be in prison or a lunatic asylum. But whenever a war breaks out somewhere, or a revolution, or the earth quakes or a hurricane sweeps the land, the exception becomes the rule. People who were hardly visible before suddenly call the tune. Interests and amusements change. The lad next door grabs a hammer and decides to have some fun.

All at once, power is in the hands of jokers.

Some normal people try to adapt and please the new power, and some try to become invisible and somehow save their lives. The world becomes a prison and a lunatic asylum.

There is not always a need to nail epaulettes; it is enough when people are encouraged to live in an environment from early on where lies have become the norm. Where nothing is known at all but lies. The world then turns upside down and becomes unreal. Mikhail Bulgakov describes such an upside-down world, about lying through one’s teeth, in his short story “Heart of a Dog”. Regarding the Soviet-era shortage of flats, I described the phenomenon as follows:

People have got used to such ghettoes now. Back then they caused a great deal of frustration. People were not yet used to living in such thin-walled and ugly buildings... There was no other option. The shortage of flats was acute. You took what was on offer and lived where you were sent. Families with children mainly got flats in the Mustamäe and Öismäe high-rise residential districts. Many of today’s “movers and shakers” grew up there. In later life, however, people subconsciously try to recreate their childhood environments. The time has now come when the generations growing up in ghettoes are beginning to recreate their childhood environments in Estonia.

They want an environment they think of as safe, recorded in the joint memory of these generations and, as joint memory is as immutable as nature itself, a former ghetto person usually turns against nature, because what is called the “beauty of nature” seems to him alien and unpleasant. Anne Fried, an Austrian Jew, a Finnish writer, a doctor of philosophy from the University of Tübingen and a New York sociologist, who worked with street children in Harlem in the 1950s, once described how these children who had never been outside New York were taken on an outing into nature, to a forest.

They all saw the forest for the first time. Hopes were high, but in reality all those children, who had not been exactly coy and timid in the streets, were frightened to leave the bus because they were afraid of the shadows of tree leaves, the rustle of the trees, the FOREST. The children burst into tears when they were shown the “beauty of the forest”.

What was truly beautiful for these children was Harlem, with its cockroaches, rats and rubbish.

Hence the antipathy of Estonian property developers towards old trees. Hence all those bleak residential areas in empty fields, where the huge high-rises of Öismäe or Lasnamäe seem to have been dismantled, flat by flat, and scattered across the wasteland, with each flat being called “an individual house”.

Trees evoke alienation and discomfort in such former children, and they want to get rid of them. Another uncomfortable thing is silence, because in their childhood the walls and ceilings were far from sound-proof, and noises, instead of being a nuisance, evoked a sense of security. Sovietisation in Estonia took place through the policy concerning places of habitation, and it bore fruit.

Wherever a child grows up, he later tries to recreate the place... If a country has large numbers of children growing up in garbage dumps, the country could in due course easily become a garbage dump itself. What happens to children happens to all of us.

Lies succeed where inner insecurity and doubts prevail, where people do not have faith in anything, do not accept the existence of the “basic values of life”, eternal values, and hence they believe everything, indiscriminately. It could also be said that lies succeed where a sense of sanctity has been lost. A sense of sanctity and awe are closely connected with truth, with recognising truth.

I will talk about this a bit later, but now I would like to briefly return to money and talk about lies caused by the lust for money and greed.

There is a popular saying: he is so greedy that he would sell his own mother. This is not merely a poignant image, but hard truth.

People are mostly used to life being divided into compartments, as in a card file, and so the things in compartments are separated from one another.

For example, whoever is prepared to sell his mother frequently does something of the sort in only one compartment of his life, whereas in other compartments he can be a good father or mother, a decent citizen, a normal person, whatever. The lust for money is basically the same as a cultural interest or faith. They are taken out of their compartments before meeting a famous artist or attending a church service. The person temporarily becomes another person, but soon enough everyday life intervenes and the files are closed. One hand has no idea what the other is doing. Man remains a stranger to himself: he is fragmented, unhealthy. Such a fragmented person is easy to deceive. It is also easy for him to deceive others.

We can say that people should listen to what their hearts tell them, as truth cannot be found anywhere else, and all the other pretty words. Alas, it is not so easy in real life as in a lecture.

It might even occur to you to listen to your heart, but what if your heart tells you nothing, pretends not to see or hear anything, shirks responsibility, and you still obey logic, hoping for profit or something else, none of which has anything to do with truth or the voice of the heart.

You cannot escape the compartment of everyday life, because you will make decisions that you will sooner or later regret. Whoever makes a mistake about simple and timeless truths, will in due course regret it. This is not my imagination or an artistic image: life has shown it to be true thousands of times.

It is not necessarily everyday life that leads man astray. Human nature seems to consist of two parts – one of shadow and the other of light – which exist in everyone. For that reason, a faithful friend sometimes becomes a traitor and a thug saves a life.

It would be wonderful if everything was always crystal clear but, as man is unpredictable, nothing is very clear in life. Everyone during his lifetime gives others reasons to point their fingers at him, and the others mostly know how it happened that he deceived or lied and acted against his better judgement.

One subtype of lies is censorship, restriction of the freedom of speech and thought. Censorship could also be called criminal goodness. The slogan about goodness and human love is placed on the prison wall and it is supposed to make everything all right, as if the prison itself was no longer visible behind the slogan.

If we return from lofty thoughts to the mundane, there is something I have talked about before and would like to come back to today. I mean the difference between Estonia as presented in the media and Estonia as it really exists.

During the twenty-five years of regained independence, I have lived outside Estonia for seventeen years and have had to observe life in Estonia via various media channels.

If you have not been back to Estonia for even several months and not seen the real Estonia, you may easily get the impression that there is a dead man in every ditch, children foraging through dustbins for food, packs of dogs attacking people, a son smashing his father’s head in with an axe, doctors killing their patients, ambulances refusing to come, and buses driving past bus stops and hitting schoolchildren; every housing association has a barmy old woman who keeps fifty cats and twenty dogs in her flat, the restaurant chef spits in your plate, people long for Soviet times, rural life has been destroyed, and so on and so on. However, when you arrive in the country and see everything for yourself, you are certainly confused, as nothing seems to correspond to the so-called “truth”. You do not see a single barmy woman with her cats, and there is no trace of the son trying to smash his father’s head with an axe.

In short, Estonian media channels have been lying to me all these years. They have picked out unusual incidents, which happen in all countries, and have created a picture of a totally different country. It turned out that click-journalism had an agenda of its own and was thinking only of money. It was selling its own mother, i.e. its homeland. What else can we call slandering for money.

When one person lies to another, this act, lying, is instantly done, at the moment when the lie is expressed.

When one lies to many, for example a ruler lies to the people, or a producer to consumers, or a politician to voters, there must also be those who implement these lies, such as officials or authorities, who take care that lies are taken for truth and that as many people as possible believe them.

Excellent examples include the propaganda machines of Nazi Germany, Soviet

Russia and Putin’s Russia.

We all know what happened to Nazi Germany, and we know what happened to Soviet Russia. We do not know yet what will happen to Putin’s Russia and those who implement lies there, but it is not too difficult to guess.

Lies, after all, have short legs: you cannot get very far with them. Lies may be revealed quickly, although it may also take a long time, but they will be revealed in the end. Revelation is in a way encoded in lies. In that sense, lies are very treacherous and very unreliable. Totally unsuitable building material.

We should remember the Prophet Isaiah, who warned: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.”

Coming back to propaganda, here is a quotation from Svetlana Alexievich:

My mother once recalled how she and my father returned from their summer holiday in Crimea. They travelled through Ukraine. There was famine in Ukraine, “holodomor” in Ukrainian. Millions died... whole villages died... There was nobody left to bury them... Ukrainians were killed because they did not want to join collective farms. Killed by starvation. Everything was taken from them, to the last poppy seed. They were besieged, as in a concentration camp.

A mother in a village killed her own child with an axe, boiled the corpse and fed it to her other children. Her own child… This really happened... Children were captured like cats and dogs. Earthworms were dug up and eaten. Whoever had the strength crawled to the trains... Soldiers kicked them, beat them with their rifle butts... Trains rushed past, at full speed. Carriage attendants lowered the window blinds.

And nobody asked any questions. The trains arrived in Moscow. People brought back wine and fruits from their holidays; they showed off their tans and remembered the sea.

The other quotation is from Valentina Osseyeva, from her propaganda book for children, Vasyok Trubatshov and His Friends:

The children woke up to a bright sunny morning. The train rushed past golden wheat fields, and green meadows where cattle grazed. Cows ruminated lazily in dense grass.

Cottages drowning in lush cherry orchards flashed past and in small stations the railway carriages filled with the fresh, brisk, soft Ukrainian voices: “Cherries! Cherries!”, “Honey! Honey!”, “Who’s for fresh milk?” “Here! Here!” called Mitya, accepting clay pots of milk with a thick layer of cream, baskets heaped with cherries and jugs full of honey from the suntanned hands of local girls.

Ukraine! Ukraine!

To crown these two quotations let me present a few sentences from a Stalinist cookery book, A Book of Healthy and Tasty Food:

The whole production, the whole economy in our Soviet country serves the interests of people, with the aim of raising the material and cultural level of working people. State standards and confirmed recipes have legal force here. Any violations are severely punished. In capitalist countries, on the other hand, standards are not compulsory for anyone.

The control of food products in our country is very strict. In his speech, comrade Mikoyan said: “We are able to guarantee the high quality of our foodstuff... Whoever produces low-quality food is the enemy of our people.”

And the lie worked, millions believed it, because if they had not believed, they would have had to admit to themselves that they had been boldly lied to. Believing lies is sometimes self-defence, an attempt to see good at any cost. In that case, truth is taboo; it is never mentioned, or the sanctuary would collapse and man would be exposed to the elements like animals.

Valentina Osseyeva’s description of Ukraine had a deep impact on me when I was a child, exactly as the Kremlin intended.

When I travelled to Ukraine for the first time in the mid-1960s, I hoped to see all those wonderful cherry orchards and white cottages and fruit baskets and honey jugs. Instead I saw a muddy square lined with houses, their windows boarded up, a few withered trees, a big puddle in the middle where pigs wallowed in the mud and bare-bottomed children made a racket. The town was called Gomel.

On a hot summer day, men were wearing caps and padded jackets; they seemed to have come straight from a war or a prison camp. The shop sold felt boots and something else that I could not make out.

This scene in no way resembled the Ukraine in Osseyeva’s book. Instead, it recalled war, and times of famine and deprivation. I did see cherry trees and vineyard terraces, but the prosperity described in the book never existed back then.

I recommend Svetlana Alexievich’s book Second-Hand Time to everyone who has

not yet read it. Former Soviet people talk about their lives in Russia then and now. The topic of lies cannot be discussed without mentioning the Stockholm syndrome. Let me explain to those who have not heard about it. The Stockholm syndrome means that the hostage justifies, praises and even grows to love the hostage-taker. It got its name after a bank robbery in Stockholm, when the hostages took the side of the robbers and obstructed the police when they tried to free them.

Whole nations seem to suffer from the Stockholm syndrome. Otherwise, it would be unthinkable for the Russians to try to justify the war in Ukraine. Otherwise, the whole situation of post-war Russia would be unthinkable. Otherwise, the idealisation of the Soviet era, which occasionally occurs even in Estonia, would be unthinkable.

How should we then deal with a world saturated with lies? How should we live and enjoy life?

One tested and efficient cure against lying is for each person not to lie. But how can you avoid it when you are a human being, with a lighter and a darker side? If you lie, you should at least admit to having lied. A big step forward. Ask yourself if there is something you consider sacred and, if there is, whether you feel ashamed of having lied. These words sound pretty grand, too pretty, but this is actually the only remedy that helps to push the world towards truth again.

We have to try to turn the world upside down, and it will then be back in its rightful position, because what seems right now is in fact an upside-down world. I once said:

Whatever we say, we can never guess what is going to happen, because it is so different from whatever we are preparing for when we talk about the future. We live in an outdated world, almost like in pre-Christian times, when everyone yearned for innovation and an innovator. The difference is that this time we cannot expect anything from the outside. We have to carry our cross ourselves and also resurrect ourselves.

How exactly this will work out in everyday life, nobody knows. It cannot be planned.

Each time a world seems to come to an end, something surprising happens. Our calculations and programmes count for nothing; we want to predict everything, organise the future, but something unplanned always interferes. This is man’s unpredictability.

By way of encouragement and reassurance, I would like to say that nothing whatsoever can break the human race, not lies or crimes, not the Stockholm syndrome or war, because man is like a dandelion that can break through asphalt. It seems so vulnerable, but it has amazing stamina. Otherwise, we would have ceased to exist long ago. Enjoy the moment, be happy, because life, like people, has two sides: the comic and the tragic.

I will close with the words of Carlos Ruiz Zafon:

Comedy teaches us that life should not be taken too seriously, and tragedy teaches us what happens when we do not pay attention to what comedy teaches us.

Translation by Tiina Randviir

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