On irony & lies

Thursday 17 February 2011

Act 1 - An academician, Francisco Rico, writes an article in El Pais, criticising aspects of new anti-smoking legislation. He ends the piece "And I have smoked just one cigarette in my whole life". Immediate hullabaloo, with letters to the Editor pointing out that Rico is rarely, if ever, seen without a cigarette. He replies that he was being 'ironic', precisely because everyone knows that he is a confirmed smoker.

Act 2 - Javier Cercas, a highly respected novelist**, follows with an article also in El Pais, defending Rico's right to play games with the language, and rejecting the view that everything in a newspaper has to be literally 'true'. In fact, he goes on, nothing in a newspaper is ever 100% 'true' - even the most objective of reporting inevitably involves selecting facts, and selection is affected by assumptions and one's (subjective) view of the world. He urges thoughtful reading and imaginative response to the fullest range of types of writing in news media.

Act 3 - Arcadi Espada, a journalist, publishes an apparently objective report in El Mundo, stating that Javier Cercas was recently arrested in a police raid on a Madrid brothel. It emerges that (1) the raid did in fact occur, but Cercas was not involved in any way at all, and (2) Espada has conducted a long-running feud with Cercas. Espada defends himself by saying that he was simply following Cercas' profound view that things in newspapers don't have to be true.

What do we make of the three individuals' stances?

Rico, it seems to me, was being disingenuous: his statement about smoking 'just one cigarette' gives a tone of impartiality to his argument - yet he must have known that 99.99% of the readers of El Pais would have no idea whether this Rico chap smoked or not. Irony, crucially, depends on writer and reader sharing common knowledge or common views.

Espada's article contains no clue, no hint, no signal that the 'news' about Cercas and the brothel raid is not the literal truth. An essential part of the efficient use of irony is that there is such a hint - usually in the form of over-statement that makes the reader think 'Hang on, that can't be true ... so it must be ironic'. The lack of such a signal in Espada's article suggests that he was deliberately misunderstanding what Cercas had written, in order to circulate a conscious untruth. Or 'lie', as it is called. This may land him in a libel case.

I cannot summarise Cercas' complex and sophisticated article here, but note this sentence (my translation) - "If we accept that history is, as Raymond Carr says, an exercise in the imaginative understanding of the past, perhaps we should also accept that journalism is an exercise in the imaginative understanding of the present." In essence, Cercas argues that we should look sceptically at any statement of 'truth', but also accept that there are many different ways of imagining and expressing 'truth'. 

** I note that 'Anatomy of a Moment' - Javier Cercas' most fascinating work, in my opinion, dealing with the 1981 attempted coup in Spain - has just been published in English translation. See the review in The Independent.

Tags: language, truth, irony, lies, journalism

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