Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Study in Gullibility

This is one of the reasons I left journalism: For the most part, I am a gullible person. Gullibility and journalism, just like cheeseburgers and loneliness, are not a healthy mix. What people told me, for the most part, I believed. That worked fine for most things, but I did encounter the occasional source who wanted to lie and reveled in the fact that I could not detect them lying.

I’m no longer in that business, which is a good thing.

And I like to believe I’m less gullible these days, though I do catch myself and have my little gullible episodes.

So having read Andre Gide’s “Lafcadio’s Adventures,” and having wondered at the gullibility of nearly every character involved in this novel, I had to chuckle when I noticed he following scrawled on the back flyleaf of the book: “Everyone in this book is being duped.”

And indeed they are. And most often, the duping is self-induced.

First we see the character of Anthime, the atheist, who is converted to Catholicism the night his rheumatism disappears after he first breaks the arm off a statue of the Virgin Mary and then receives a vision of her appearance.

Then we see Amedee Fleurissiore, the simple, devout investor from Pau who travels to Rome believing he will singlehandedly free the Pope from the hands of the Freemasons, who are supposed to have imprisoned the Pope and put an impostor in the Vatican.

We also see Julius de Baraglioul, diplomat’s son and novelist, who is disillusioned by the seeming failure of his literary career and is duped into believing he can revive his fortunes by writing something altogether new.

And we see Portos, childhood friend of Lafcadio, who now fancies himself a powerful figure in “the slim,” a nascent organization bent on duping a lot of people – they’re the source of the Pope/Freemasons rumor – who himself id duped into believing that because he has friends on the police force he is thus above the law.

As always, there’s a helpless rabble of minor victims also included in the story, from Lafcadio’s sometimes lover who is duped into thinking honesty is the best policy – a policy which costs hear dearly when she is strangled by Portos for fingering him as the killer of Amedee when in actuality it is Lafcadio, who pushes the hapless, fleabitten innocent off a moving train on a whim.

Anthime’s rheumatism disappears; he resumes his atheistic ways. Amedee, as we see, dies not for his gullibility, but simply for being in the wrong place at the right time. Portos is arrested. Only Julius and Lafcadio are left at the end, and Lafcadio is duped into thinking he can have it all, including Julius’ daughter Genevieve.

Maybe this is more self-delusion than gullibility, especially on the parts of Portos and Lafcadio. Their scorn for the ordinary, for the innocent, for the unintelligent, is their Achilles heel.

The critics say Gide was motivated in writing this story because he wanted to write about an unmotivated crime. After reading it, however, I’m inclined to say he wanted to study what it is that makes people believe the first thing they think or the first thing they hear, and how coincidence and circumstance can serve to reinforce those beliefs and tall tales, even when that reinforcement is completely unintended. Julius, for example, disbelieves the Pope/Freemasons story until Fleurissiore is killed, then he believes the Freemasons were the killers.

I ponder this because of Gide’s change in attitude on Communism after he visited the Soviet Union. As you can read on Wikipedia, going in, he believed that the Soviets were doing wonderful things with Marx’ philosophies. He said:
My faith in communism is like my faith in religion: it is a promise of salvation for mankind. If I have to lay my life down that it may succeed, I would do so without hesitation.
Upon returning, he observed:
It is impermissible under any circumstances for morals to sink as low as communism has done. No one can begin to imagine the tragedy of humanity, of morality, of religion and of freedoms in the land of communism, where man has been debased beyond belief.
Gide, obviously, didn’t like to be duped himself, and may have wanted to write a novel about dupes and duping just to explore the theme.

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