The Kingdom of Lies/Pornotopia
John Vanderlyn, Caius Marius Amid the Ruins of Carthage, 1807 (detail)
by Douglas Penick
A vital modern principle was first and most famously articulated by the early Christian theologian, Tertullian. Its popular but incorrect formulation says: Credo quia absurdam (est) (I believe it because it is absurd). What Terullian actually wrote is in his De Carne Christi (Concerning the Body of Christ), composed c. 203 AD; it says: Certum est, quia impossible (it is certain because it is impossible).
Now, many years later, we are living in an information glut. And we inhabit a world where large portions of the population opt to believe the assertions promulgated by those who are in power, or who wish to be in power, even if such assertions cannot be proved, have been disproved or have no basis in any evidence whatsoever whether verbal, recorded on video, audio, text transcript, sworn deposition, etc. The vast apparatus of state or corporate controlled media do not need to make a particularly strong case for their assertions whether they be Putin’s savage “not-war” in Ukraine, Trump’s endlessly fictitious stolen election, the false falsehood of global warming or the inconsistently weird menace of anti-viral vaccines. They need only speak or endorse such views, overtly or tacitly, to have them enthusiastically accepted.
Counter-factual beliefs offer membership in a congregation where truth or falsehood is no longer important. What is important is that such unsubstantiated views reject the methods and conclusions of statements accepted by whoever is viewed as an opponent. That the views involved are demonstrably false may indeed encourage members to embrace them with even greater fervour.
The inauthentic variant of Tertullian postulate, “I believe because absurd”, merely characterises a personal quirk. Tertullian’s assertion, in its authentic form, is radical, perverse and sly. To say “It is true because it is impossible” is to make a statement about all discourse in the world. But this statement is obviously disingenuous. Tertullian does not mean any and all statements that are impossible, such as “I just died” or “2+2= 1”, must be and are true. What he does mean is that any statement by a relevant recognised authority must be accepted as truth for one to receive the benefits of membership in that congregation. And the more nonsensical, the better.
Accepting the impossible as true opens the door to the community and world of those in power.
Accepting lies grants freedom from the truths that originated in any other source. Finally, one is free from a range of uncomfortable obligations taught, learned, internalised. And simply repeating things one knows to be lies, falsehoods, absurdities, one is freed from all other social constraints or norms. One does not need to believe them, merely repeat them with conviction.
Free from truth, we experience a delirium, a directionless and pervasive ecstasy, sanctioned by the powerful. Those in power need not themselves assert such lies; they need only wink when denying them. Then we finally experience the rightness of it all. There are no more restraints. Free of norms other than belief in lies whose origin is irrelevant, we, the true believers, experience our personal freedom, righteousness and impunity.
This is not nihilism. It is a profoundly pornographic experience: a real and pleasurable psycho-physical experience brought into being by an intense engagement with a reality understood and accepted as false. A great advantage of such bliss is that it is not dependent on the disposition, constitution, interest, recognition, care, qualities or even presence of any other living being. No recriminations or disappointments. No embarrassment. We have entered what Stephen Marcus called a Pornotopia. Here freedom is experienced as powerful, guilt-free, omniscient rectitude in an unending, free-flowing promiscuity of belief. Opinions, suspicions, rumours, dubious inferences, third hand reportage and outright fabrications all have the satisfying power of truth.
We can believe what we want and say what we want, when we want, to whom we want. Our leader is the father of lies, the mother of lies, the freest of the free. A being beyond limit or constraint of any kind. It is the deceitfulness and consistent lying that makes such leaders reliable, trustworthy and admirable. With every lie, they free us on the spot, from all the intellectual and ethical norms with which we have been burdened and all the moral standards by which we have been found deficient, and have even, to tell the truth, found ourselves wanting. And the lies which we believe absolutely today need not be the ones we believe tomorrow. Not at all. We are no longer the prisoners of fidelity. In our current, world-wide pornotopia, there is no need for true love. Fervours is all, and is, as they say of virtue, its own reward.
About the Author
Douglas Penick’s work has appeared in Tricycle, Descant, New England Review, Parabola, Chicago Quarterly, Publishers Weekly Agni, Kyoto Journal, Berfrois, 3AM, The Utne Reader and Consequences, among others. He has written texts for operas (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), and, on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, three separate episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic. His novel, Following The North Star was published by Publerati. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome. His book of essays , The Age of Waiting which engages the atmospheres of ecological collapse, was published in 2021 by Arrowsmith Press.