In The Invention of Lying (Gervais, 2009), Ricky Gervais asks what a world without lying would look like. His answer is interesting: No one would be able to look beneath the surface. The people of Gervais’s imaginary world are slaves to appearances. In essence, they are incapable of imagination. They can have science, but not art or myth. All movies are talking-head historical documentaries. No lies, then actors and no fiction. Only Mark, the story’s protagonist (played by Gervais), can lie. And what allows Mark to lie is that he is able to see more than the surface appearance. (Consider the scene in the park where he his friend sees only a couple of “losers”, whereas Mark can see that they are really happy in love.)
For Gervais, lying can be noble, as Plato argued in the Republic. It is Mark’s ability to lie that gives him the power of hope. Hope, it seems, requires us to go beyond mere appearances. We have to ignore the obvious facts and hope that things will work out differently. It is Mark’s ability to hope that allows him to ask Jennifer Garner’s character out on a date even though she’s “out of his league”. And after he invents lying, Mark is able to give hope to his suicidal neighbor (“things will get better”, he tells him) and help his co-worker get up the courage to face the endless routine of working in an office. (I’m thinking of the woman who just stands outside the office building every day and says “I can’t go in there.”) The suggestion is that hope — the feeling that life is meaningful — is a kind of self-deception that we would be incapable of without the ability to look beyond appearances. Hope is a kind of lying that is good.
One particular expression of this good kind of lying is mythology. Mark invents the religious myth of heaven to comfort his dying mother. But religion, Gervais argues through this film, can cut both ways. The myth of religion is good as long as it stays within the realm of story — like the alien invasion story of the “Black Plague” that Mark also invents. But once the religious myth begins to function as law and science — as a literal description of an old man in the sky who rewards and punishes people based on a list of rules — the myth ceases to be helpful.
The people are incapable of truly religious thinking. They can’t think in metaphors and myths. They can only think in terms of literal appearances. (And the myth can’t hold up to literal scientific scrutiny: If we can’t see the Man In The Sky because he is too high, does that mean he lives in outer space?) After Mark invents religion, things are briefly better. But soon the townspeople turn Mark’s myth into science and then return to their same old world. As literal history, the story can’t do its mythological work (i.e., to generate meaning for life).
Gervais’s claim in the film is not necessarily that the world needs lies, but that we need the ability to transcend literal appearances. We need metaphors and myths. I don’t know if that claim is literally true or not, but I like it.