Friday, March 12, 2010

True lies

A new biography of the prominent Polish journalist and author Ryszard Kapuściński criticizes him for mixing indiscriminately fact and fiction in his books on third world personalities and events (published since the 1960s). In fact, Kapuściński himself readily acknowledged that he took descriptions of real personalities and facts, and regurgitated those using the tools and techniques of fiction writing. He hoped that such “literary reportage” could capture some larger truth about the social and political world which no amount of literally accurate information could convey. The trouble is, this rationale doesn’t cut it with those whose life-world emanates from a brain with marked left-hemisphere predominance. To them, there are only two alternatives: explicit, literal truth, or an outright lie. The author of the biography (a younger Polish journalist) thinks the greater tolerance in Polish society for blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction is part of the communist legacy, since there were all kinds of fictitious accounts circulating under the old regime; and Poland had not benefited from an open discussion of acceptable journalistic standards similar to that held in western countries. I have to say, this neat explanation doesn’t quite cut it with me. Here is a different theory: larger, metaphorical truths are more acceptable in less modernized societies – where patterns of left-hemisphere predominance are less common. This would explain why Poland never warmed up to Protestantism (and is unlikely to embrace the call to arms of crusading atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens). The affinity for vaguer truths also has a darker side, though. It might have made it easier for totalitarian ideologies to achieve a degree of credibility in various countries in the 20th century. Kapuściński himself remained a true believer in the historical mission of communism at least until the early 1980s, despite the grotesque ineptitude of the “really existing” communist regimes he observed. And he was highly critical of western policies, including the invasion of Iraq, until his dearth in 2007.