The Virtue of the Lie image

The Virtue of the Lie

On the same day that I read about Edinburgh being exHumed, I received a copy of Leszek Kolakowski's Is God Happy?, which includes his essay, "Totalitarianism and the Virtue of the Lie." It contains a remarkable anecdote that is worth reflecting on:

In 1950, in Leningrad, I visited the Hermitage in the company of a few Polish friends. We had a guide (a deputy director of the museum, as far as I can remember) who was obviously a knowledgeable art historian. At a certain moment - no opportunity for ideological teaching must be lost - he told us: ‘We have in our cellars, comrades, a lot of corrupt, degenerate bourgeois paintings. You know, all those Matisses, Cezannes, Braques and so on. We have never displayed them in the museum but perhaps one day we will show them so that Soviet people can see for themselves how deeply bourgeois art has sunk. Indeed, Comrade Stalin teaches us that we should not embellish history.’ I was in the Hermitage again, with other friends, in 1957, a time of relative thaw, and the same man was assigned to guide us. We were led to rooms full of modern French paintings. Our guide told us: ‘Here you see the masterpieces of great French painters - Matisse, Cezanne, Braque and others. And,’ he added (for no opportunity must be lost), ‘do you know that the bourgeois press accused us of refusing to display these paintings in the Hermitage? This was because at a certain moment some rooms in the museum were being redecorated and were temporarily closed, and a bourgeois journalist happened to be here at that moment and then made this ridiculous accusation. Ha, ha!’

Kolakowski’s punchline is magnificent (emphasis added):

Was he lying? I am not sure. If I had reminded him of his earlier statement, which I failed to do, he would simply have denied everything with genuine indignation; he probably would have believed that what he told us was ‘right’ and therefore true. Truth, in this world, is what reinforces the ‘right cause’ ... The cognitive aspect of this machinery consists in effacing the very distinction between truth and political ‘correctness.’ The art of forgetting history is crucial: people must learn that the past can be changed - from truth to truth - overnight. In this manner they are cut off from what would have been a source of strength: the possibility of identifying and asserting themselves by recalling their collective past.

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