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On Truth, Lies, and La Dolce Vita

September 18, 2014

"We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth or at least the truth that is given us to understand."

– Pablo Picasso


The world is a terrible place. One in which we are told lies almost as soon as we are born. We call them stories, and we fill them with jolly gift-bearing bearded men in red suits, talking mice, flying bed knobs and broomsticks. We grow up believing these stories, we grow attached to them. The characters become our friends, and their presence offers solace on those dark and stormy nights of the kind one-eyed monsters frequent. Then, just as nighttime begins to look less scary and we finally feel safe under our comforters, we are told it is time to grow up. Stop pouring pixie dust all over your hair and the carpet. Real people cannot fly. It was just a story.


We clean the glitter off the carpet and bravely take our grownup place in the real world, only to find it sad and hopelessly dull. To survive this beige adulthood devoid of magic, we create bigger stories. In between brewing cups of bad coffee and taking cigarette breaks, we conspire as a society to create a world in which good, love, and nonfat ice-cream can exist. We sell happy endings in movie theaters, social status in labels, financial success in capitalism, and a spot in the afterlife in religion. We perpetuate sophisticated versions of our childhood lies to feel safe, to make waking up in the morning ok. We see what we want, we believe what we want.


I am reminded of a scene in Frederico Fellini’s iconic movie, La Dolce Vita. Two children allegedly see the Virgin Mary, the Madonna, in a barren field in the outskirts of Rome. Though the Catholic Church is skeptical about the sighting, hoards of crowds flock to the site of the apparition. The believers come to ask for intercessions, the sick are carried over to be healed, the superstitious tear off pieces of the tree the Madonna supposedly touched for good luck. Even the skeptics, the agnostics, and the atheists show up for the show. Night falls, it starts to rain, and the wild goose chase for the invisible Madonna turns into a stampede meticulously recorded by the paparazzi. There was no Madonna that night or the following morning, but nobody cared.

The truth is common and unpleasant, as is reality. And both are overrated. It is no wonder we prefer a good story.


The term la dolce vita, the sweet life, has come to mean ‘a shallow materialistic lifestyle.’ The movie itself has been interpreted as a depiction of ‘a godless society that has become a kind of hell.’ Perhaps there is more to it than that. Perhaps Fellini was also trying to portray this godless society’s desperate search for something more, something better to believe in. A struggle to find the ‘sweetness of life’ in, or in spite of, the real world.


We choose uncertainty over the truth every day. We choose downright lies over the truth every day, because of that uncanny survival need only humans seem to have: hope. For you see, after we have punched out of our grownup duties at five pm and overcome the commute home, we live for the stories that will save us from the beige of our living room existence.


That is why we need the storytellers, the tabloid editors, the big screen actors, the street performers, the struggling artists, the subway musicians, the pennies in sidewalk cracks, the four leaved-clovers. To remind us that everything is going to be ok, no matter what the facts say.


Hugh Grant said that whenever he got gloomy with the state of the world, he thought of the arrivals gate at Heathrow airport. I think of dandelions. A dandelion is a common garden flower of little esthetic value that grows wild on lawns and roadsides. It is a tenacious little thing that can take root almost anywhere and shoot up through cracks in thick concrete. It also, somehow, played a predominant role in ancient Celtic mythology. The Celts revered the plant for its vast medicinal properties, and when their descendants found it later on in the New World, it was a sweet reminder of home. They believed that any wish could come true if it was made while blowing a dandelion’s seeds into the wind. It was a lie someone told a child thousands of years ago. A lie that is still making people happy today.


Voltaire said that ‘we all look for happiness, but without knowing where to find it: like drunkards who look for their house, knowing dimly that they have one.’ If we cannot find happiness in truth, let us create it by telling stories and painting pictures, singing lullabies and blowing dandelions.


Or let us do it Fellini-style, by dancing barefoot in the Baths of Caracalla and wading into the Trevi Fountain at midnight.


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