The Noble Lie: On the Poetics of Awareness

Stu Watson

How, then, could we devise one of those useful falsehoods we were talking about a while ago, one noble falsehood that would, in the best case, persuade even the rulers, but if that’s not possible, then the others in the city? . . . I’ll first try to persuade the rulers and the soldiers and then the rest of the city that the upbringing and education we gave them, and the experiences that went with them, were a sort of dream, that in fact they themselves, their weapons, and the other craftsmen’s tools were at that time really being fashioned and nurtured inside the earth. . . . “All of you in the city are brothers,” we’ll say to them in telling our story, “but the god who made you mixed some gold into those who are adequately equipped to rule, because they are most valuable. He put silver in those who are auxiliaries and iron and bronze in the farmers and other craftsmen... for there is an oracle which says that the city will be ruined if it ever has an iron or a bronze guardian.” So, do you have any device that will make our citizens believe this story? 
                                   Plato, Republic, Book 3, 414e–15c 

Shepherds of the field, low, wretched men, mere stomachs,
we are capable of telling innumerable lies that seem true,
but can also, at any time, reveal the whole truth.

                                   Hesiod, Theogony, 26–28

So the Muses speak to Hesiod as he sets out to relate the origins of the gods and humankind, invoking, almost rudely, the essential doubleness of language; it can be the vehicle of either “innumerable lies that seem true” or, more terrifyingly, “the whole truth,”—yet what leads the Muses to speak “the whole truth” and when, remains unsaid. The shepherds whom they address are figured unsentimentally as “mere stomachs” existing purely for the satisfaction of bodily appetites. They are barely above the animals they tend, yet it is to them that the Muses speak, to them this final, irrevocable doubleness of language is revealed, albeit in such a way as to admit of no questioning. 

What the poet here delineates is the development of an intellectual class, a class of persons who manage this deployment of “lies that seem true” and “the whole truth” to those who have not yet transcended the bodily. The members of this class are those who “embody” the Muses’ message, namely poets—and if this seems fatuous or overly grand recall that the source of this conception is a poet, one whose audacity is such that he ventures to explain the origin of the gods and, in the process, of everything else as well.

It is these poets, with their free-hand over truth and lies, whom Plato sought to banish from his Republic, placing the duty of maintaining a “Noble Lie” about the origins of the social order on the state itself. The central fiction of Plato’s “Noble Lie” is that the existing social structure is the product of nature. Plato’s state has a monopoly on epistemological as well as physical violence, manufacturing a meaning for existence out of whole cloth. This expulsion of the poets can also be understood as the state’s expulsion, or absorption, of religion, that is, the drive to understand and comprehend the world by non-empirical means, which is to say, by metaphor, by true-seeming lies.

But Hesiod is among the earliest poets whose work survives, Plato among the first philosophers—surely things have changed over the course of two and half millennia? This conflict between the poets and the state over the maintenance of seeming truth must have long ago been settled by one side’s final domination—someone has been routed, his or her side put completely to the torch, for such is the nature of war—at least so we’ve been told. A naive perspective might hold that the poets reign supreme, that the “freedom” of the internet and our unfettered speech rights permits the radical reshaping of discourse and the ability to alter the structures of state power. A cynical view might point to the ever-extending reach of the surveillance state and to the injustices continually revealed by our ongoing national dialogue about issues of inequality to conclude that the state has triumphed, while poets are merely its unwitting (and unacknowledged) enablers.

What is the order of things in a world where the sky has been divested of its fountains? It is nature, and measurement of the natural world, the empirical—science. To be naive about science is to put faith in feeling rather than in the sensory world; to be cynical about science is to put faith in reason and the sensory while ignoring the influence of feelings and the subjective nature of perception, particularly one’s own.

Is it possible to delineate a poetical space where identity can exist as both truth and speculation, where one can remain “true” to the empirical reality of one’s personal circumstances while speaking to the generality of feeling inherent in all circumstances? Answering this question in the affirmative, it would seem to me, is the “goal” of radically self-aware poetry.

At its root cynicism is perhaps a kind of second naivete, a scab grown over the primordial wound of that first fall out of certainty into the terror of doubt. Cynicism claims its knowledge has been gained from experience, but often such knowledge is naively held—the cynic confuses personal defeats for general ones, believing he or she has “seen enough,” has “pushed further,” is at a sufficient remove from the enthusiasms of youth to see “things as they are.” The naif believes with a similar fervor in the “completeness” of his or her position, and in this way the two are linked, both trapped in a self-assurance seemingly impervious to doubt.

On discarding the passionate intensities of youth and recognizing the crushing, ideological-linguistic powers of the state must one embrace the jaded grumblings of the cynic? Perhaps the answer lies in some middle position where awareness is elevated above belief? Faced with a choice between these two poles, one is served best in embracing neither fully, in standing back and becoming comfortable “being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” as Keats would have it—but of course this is not an easy space to inhabit.

And yet it is this quality, this capacity for “Negative Capability” of a contemporary variety, that unites the work we present in the following pages. These are poems that maintain a balance between the empirical and the ideal, the realistic and the improbable, indeed between cynicism and naivete, poems that are unafraid of the particulars of identity and its political consequences, but also poems that do not shy away from the need for imagination, for play. This is writing aware of the ways natural immensity resists our human purposes even as those purposes reshape and remake our conception of the natural. Through an examination of the work of four poets in this issue, I hope to provide a clearer idea of what I mean.


Joe Luna’s poetry has a transformative, almost phagic appetite for language. On beginning “Colleen Lopez Battery Fiasco,” one plunges into a grammatical abundance:

Make bigness hope continue good lives only fending
for the sake of mere life in consensus to it, rank posture
rings of militant disavowal that blood in some villains
on the take is final, designates an outside wired shut

After the imperative to “make” (to poiein, the root of “poetry”) we are confronted with two nouns in a phrase that suggests at once metamorphosis (transform “bigness” into “hope”) as well as personification (force “bigness” to experience “hope”), as if the very size of the universe might somehow be reinterpreted as the primitive human desire for a good future. Though Luna is a British poet, one may sense an allusion to the “Hope and Change” mantra of the 2008 Obama presidential campaign, and to how the ecstatic rhetoric of transformation can lead to a disheartening recapitulation—the rhetoric of “hope” weighted down by a capitalist and militaristic superstructure, a morass of corrupt institutions deemed “too big to fail.”

Thus we are left with “good lives only fending/for the sake of mere life,”—another failure to transform; “good lives” persist as a kind of myth, a “hope” that reinforces the status quo of “mere life.” Throughout Luna’s work the tacit consensuses that tie us together in a global economy are troubled by linguistic ambiguity (for example by pronouns whose referents are deliberately dual or treble). Thus we have the language of containment—“fending,” “rings,” “wired shut”—yet with further resonances: that “fending” is the very struggle for meaning in life, those rings are also a sound, the way “rank posture...[of] militant disavowal” contains in its bearing a hint of its essential dishonesty (“That doesn’t have the ring of truth”), while our “outside wired shut” implies both physical incarceration and economic dependence on the “wires” of infrastructure. We are hardwired into a global system of capitalism that imprisons by its promise: if you make bigness hope, you only enlarge the jail.

Luna’s vision is not despairing, though it is realistic in its inclusion of the harsh alongside the beautiful. As the first section concludes: “all of space in sympathy gets even bigger.” The plenty to be found within the poem makes this feel true; it’s as if capitalism, consumerism, militarism, globalization, empire all have it backwards: we progress not through extensions of wired networks of control but through a deepening of sympathy, both in our poetry, and in our lives. Luna’s poetry is not one of monolithic ego but rather one whose emphasis is on “others”: 

                                        That position amongst the
others shines: it remains important to feel like people,

To feel like tidally at least that gift is always on the run,
always between two fingers, as a prank is to a hidden
gut reaction. 

The plurality is central here: to “feel like people” when “amongst the/others” offers us the possibility of a community of awareness as opposed to one of domination. He sets himself in a tradition of British writers—one thinks of contemporary innovators like J.H. Prynne and Keston Sutherland but also in a curious way of Auden or even Milton—whose poetics focus on the interrogation of political power in language. The aim of such an interrogation is to discover pathways through language towards a more self-aware and other-aware community. It is the achievement of “Colleen Lopez Battery Fiasco,” one of the most powerfully original poems written in this century so far, that in reading it we perhaps begin to hope, in a small way, that such a community might be possible.


Alina Gregorian, whose excellent chapbook Navigational Clouds recently came out from Monk Books, is most at home in that nebulous region where the empirical and the fantastical collide. Here we present a sequence of her “dialogue poems,” which highlight the complicities and discordances inherent in any conversation. When she performs these poems, a second person reads the italicized lines, a practice that underscores what is already apparent on the page: this is work that disrupts traditional ideas of poetic voice as individual in an intertwined perceptual economy.

Consider this passage from her poem “Pixels”: 

Do you want to solve for x, or would you rather just go home?

Home is a lampshade, and it’s everywhere I’m not.

Home is for radios and dolphins.

I look like a triangle today, but I’m close to being a square.

You look more neon than usual.

I look like a book.

The pixel is the fundamental visual unit of the internet, the tessera at the base of every digital mosaic, practically an atom. A pixel’s individuality is unimportant except in the context of other pixels, where it either blends in or denotes a difference, and we might see the alternating lines in Gregorian’s poems in a similar way. Each new line has the potential to continue or respond to the previous line or, on the other hand, to mark a discontinuity.

The first line quoted, “Do you want to solve for x, or would you rather just go home?” is answered by one that solves not for “x” but for “home”: “Home is a lampshade, and it’s everywhere I’m not.” This relocates our uncertainty from the familiar context of a mathematical variable to precisely where we are most certain, “home.” The usual function of a home, as a shield from the outside world, is reversed, as a lampshade shields its surroundings from the intensity of a lightbulb. Then there is the further dislocation that this “home” is “everywhere I’m not.” The next line, however, marks a potential break, as the first speaker redefines the term, saying “Home is for radios and dolphins.”

Perhaps taking this cue that the conversation is moving in a different direction, the respondent follows with “I look like a triangle today, but I’m close to being a square.” This is reminiscent of the poem’s title, “Pixels,” sounding like something a pixel might say, a notion reinforced as the other speaker replies, “You look more neon than usual.” These are two pixels discussing their daily transformations. The next line, “I look like a book,” recalls how a book is rather like a pixel—the copies of a published book are identical, and the way these disseminate in the physical world is not unlike the way information disseminates digitally by means of pixelated images.

The apparent moments of discordance in these dialogues are thus actual correspondences on a metapoetic level, looking at the work as a whole and not merely as an assemblage of disparate elements. “Pixels” concludes by returning to the image of the “lamp”:

You are a lamp, or something that looks like a lamp.

And you are a fallout shelter,

made from dust settling on another continent,

made from pixels that never go away.

In these final verses the voices intertwine and seem to speak from a point of unity. One thinks again of physical pixels shining out from a screen “like a lamp.” Our final image is of the pixels as “dust settling on another continent,” which relates back to the idea of “transcendental homelessness” (to borrow a concept from Novalis) alluded to above (“[home] is everywhere I’m not”) and to the idea of pixels as atoms—the poem’s final dialogue posits a kind of “conservation of pixelated matter” where pixels descend across the globe like radioactive particles. Thus our interconnection creates a kind of linked damnation. As though a nuclear bomb of information has exploded, there is no escape from the internet’s “fallout,” nowhere one can hide, and so, finally, no real place of security, no real home.


Interested as they are in the ways language both reflects and shapes political and cultural forces, Anne Tardos’ poems work within formal constraints. The poems presented here, from the sequence “Power of Three,” are made of sentences with word counts in multiples of three. There are no enjambments, each line ending in a period. In some of the poems, a logical argument seems to unfold, while others are marked by sharp ruptures in discourse. Tardos’s formal method aids in what appears to be a central project of her poems, namely the challenging of traditional distinctions between the objective and subjective. It is as if these poems, entirely aware of their own structure, take on a presence or activity detached from traditional notions of poetic voice. There can be no doubt that Tardos draws materials and language from her daily life in forming her poems, but in calling our attention to an element of language that usually goes unnoticed, and shaping her observations through that element, she achieves a dislocation of ego:

The cognitive value of happiness and well being function as endless enjoyment.

The collective responsibility of happiness and well being lies in endless enjoyment.

Collective enjoyment’s responsibility endlessly benevolent folly.

These lines open “The Noble Lie,” a poem whose title references the concept from Plato’s Republic described above. Here we find that “the cognitive value of happiness” and “well being” together “function as endless enjoyment”, which is to say these two emotional states have a worth to the mind that, when present, extends infinitely. The near repetition of the second line then introduces the concept of “collective responsibility.” It is important, in attempting to track the logic, to be open to the poem’s doubled meanings which potentially defy logic: “The collective responsibility of happiness and well being lies in endless enjoyment” (emphasis added). Approaching the poem from a strictly logical perspective one could pass over this pun,[1] but it is this undercutting, casting doubt as it does on the veracity of this “endless enjoyment,” that is at the unstable center of Tardos’s poetics.

The ultimate rhetorical promise of any society, be it an ideal utopia, Stalinist nightmare, or our present capitalistic quagmire, is “endless enjoyment,” a security that is both total and impossible. It is this kind of promise that undergirds the massive governmental overreach initiated in response to the threat of terrorism, for instance, or the brutal repression of dissenting political perspectives under a fascist regime. However obliquely, Tardos suggests, for all our attempts at ordering the world, “Collective enjoyment’s responsibility endlessly benevolent folly.” The verb missing here (an “is” between “responsibility” and “endlessly”?) has fallen away in the face of the formal constraint, its vanishing adding another note of uncertainty to an apparently ordered set of relations. What we are left with is “endlessly benevolent folly,” perhaps the best one can hope for in a world dominated by misguided attempts at order.

These lines are indicative of the play of sound, sense and syntax Tardos draws on in her poems, poems in which the personal is present mainly as a gravitational center around which the ideas and materials of the world are constellated. These poems offer us a vision of what a personally and politically self-aware consciousness operating judiciously through a field of infinite play—existing within finite constraints—might look like.


The light, unpunctuated meditations and pleasant surfaces of Armando Jaramillo Garcia’s poems conceal an ironic awareness and in places a scathing critique of “things as they are.” Consider the opening of his poem “The Enlightenment”:

The good light entered the tall windows
Splashed itself geometrically over the cluttered interior
He was sitting at the harpsichord
Practicing some minor piece as his servant listened
While shuffling marked cards
The table behind them overflowing with fruit and fowl
Crystal pitchers of dark wine reflecting
And stretching the scene over their round shapes
As if lightly sketched and of little import
Melodious and smooth

For the most part, these images suggest luxury and ease in a kind of idealized picture of the parlor of an 18th-century gentleman, complete with harpsichord, a servant—who is listening to, presumably, his “master” play while shuffling cards—all near an abundant feast. In the play on “minor” one first detects a note of discord that quickly bursts into a full-blown crisis. For one thing, this musical gentleman is a cheat; his servant is preparing “marked cards” which will presumably be deployed later by the master in an attempt to dupe his friends out of money.

“The Enlightenment,” that is the 17th and 18th-century philosophical and scientific movement most famously defined by Kant in his 1784 essay “Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment,” promises social perfectibility through the exercise of reason. As this scene begins to hint, however, there remains the “exercise of labor” and the potential for violence and compulsion that often lies close at hand; thus here even the master’s cheating has been delegated to his servant, who diligently abets the master’s participation in a rigged game. Indeed, one recalls that Kant’s own vision of the Enlightenment is explicitly anti-democratic: “But only a ruler who is himself enlightened and has no fear of phantoms, yet who likewise has at hand a well-disciplined and numerous army to guarantee public security, may say what no republic would dare to say: Argue as much as you like and about whatever you like, but obey!”[2] Intellectual freedom is fine, Kant seems to be saying, as long as “order” can be guaranteed by a monarch whose authority rests on a “well-disciplined and numerous army.” The freedom of this monarch, bolstered by the threat of force and centered in an individual, is a “greater freedom” for Kant than any freedom a collective “republic” could manage in its multifariousness of divergent opinions. Thus in its most well-known articulation the Enlightenment’s promise of progress has been set on an acknowledged foundation of potential violence and structural inequality, a situation not unlike that envisioned in Plato’s Republic.

The second half of Jaramillo Garcia’s poem explores this other side of the “Dialectic of Enlightenment,”[3] focusing on the inequalities such a system generates, and turning on a natural image:

The massive oak that overlooked the house
Which for generations had nothing with which to compete
Could be said to be grotesquely at peace
Brimming with sap
Its ribbed bark with grooves big enough to fit an arm
From where many a sacrifice or vengeance had hung
Loomed and spread over those that would lounge
And joke about the current intellectual mood
In the cities and the revolutions to come
While pursuing the carnal distractions
Which were their privilege
However enlightened

As the tree that shadows the house is “grotesquely at peace” so “enlightenment” is shadowed by “many a sacrifice or vengeance.” The Southern plantation system that arose in that era and the long horror of lynchings are suggested in these lines, and it is precisely these horrors which “spread over those that would lounge/And joke about the current intellectual mood”—those too warped by cynicism to reflect critically on the systems of privilege and oppression they unconsciously reinforce and enact through their indifference, “[h]owever enlightened.” The looming tree with “grooves big enough to fit an arm,” recalls the scars of our past sins, that in an enlightened America, every tree branch carries in it the shadow of old horror.

The poem’s final phase makes this formerly hidden cruelty overt, examining the ways systems of oppression can use ideology to twist even torture into something desirable; these cynical intellectuals intone:

Was the morally solvent man possible
Or even desirable for there were those whose bodies and minds
Craved insult
Cruelty a blessing which ran along the rills of flesh
Emerging in rivulets of blood
In the future of which he mused to the birds gossiping about
And the horses chewing compulsively the grass
We will be ruled by small machines no doubt of wonder and science
Will eat religion down to its wormy bones

This is a dream of technology obviating the need for morality, of a world of action without consideration or responsibility within a system designed to oppress and alienate many while ceding power to the few, exactly as Kant’s schematic on the limitations of freedom suggests. Though Kant makes very explicit his condemnation of individual immorality, his desire to justify “things as they are” leads him to give tacit approval to a worldview that says “there [are] those whose bodies and minds/Craved insult/Cruelty a blessing.” In other words, the Enlightenment of Kant is also the Enlightenment that attempts to “educate” native peoples through violence and the destruction of culture, that sees Africans enslaved in the name of commerce as receiving a “blessing” from that enslavement. This reason is allied with a movement that takes us out of nature and that “Will eat religion down to its wormy bones,” with the technology that promises an empirical salvation even from death.

It is a sinister bargain. In the glow of progress, original violence lingers, the phantoms of those effaced or blotted out in the rise of “Enlightenment” still howl, as something is lost in every gain and nothing survives the exchange but a lingering sense of darkness no amount of additional light can eradicate:

But massive bulls will still be butchered
And we will sit around all night watching the fires
Increase and crackle from their burning fat
And an alien darkness will hunger
Over our meager resources
Bound loosely to ourselves
By something beyond thought

One perhaps thinks of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, finally murdered as the ceremonial bull is killed by the native people he has ruled over by means of white supremacist logic and “enlightened” technology; the “fires/Increase and crackle from their burning fat” because something is still being slaughtered, even in this technocratic paradise of the future—even in this neo-liberal hellscape, something must be sacrificed to sate our ever growing, grotesque hunger. Like Kurtz, we can never escape the embrace of a hideous “enlightenment,” and besides, Kurtz’s “flight” merely recapitulates the structure of oppression against which he was allegedly rebelling; in the end the darkness at the core of enlightenment will consume us too.

While offering no naive consolation, in his observational acuity and graceful mastery of diction, Jaramillo Garcia achieves the peace, at least of honesty. In an important way, it is this “something beyond thought,” a belief in something beyond the empirical, beyond the grasp of ratiocination, that “[binds us] loosely to ourselves.”


The earliest writing—hieroglyphs on the walls of the Great Pyramid at Giza, the cuneiform tablets of Uruk, the characters on the oldest Chinese pottery—is a testament to domination. Such writing consists of a mortal ruler’s assertion of personal immortality, a marker of tyranny’s attempt to overcome even death. Just as the Muses speak mockingly of their own capricious power to reveal truth and falsehood, so these early testimonies of state power are full of contempt and mockery for the subjects they address.

Claude Levi-Strauss has remarked upon the origins of writing and its entanglement with structures of oppression:

Writing is a strange invention. One might suppose that its emergence could not fail to bring about profound changes in the conditions of human existence, and that these transformations must of necessity be of an intellectual nature...Yet nothing we know about writing and the part it has played in man’s evolution justifies this view...The only phenomenon with which writing has always been concomitant is the creation of cities and empires, that is the integration of large numbers of individuals into a political system, and their grading into castes or classes...My hypothesis, if correct, would oblige us to recognize the fact that the primary function of written communication is to facilitate slavery. The use of writing for disinterested purposes, and as a source of intellectual and aesthetic pleasure, is a secondary result, and more often than not it may even be turned into a means of strengthening, justifying or concealing the other.[4]

The muses are departed, pharaohs, kings and emperors safely entombed, yet it remains for the shepherds, the poets, to wield linguistic power against those who would defend a corrupt, vulgar, and unjust status quo. The path towards achieving this is through a deeper engagement with language in all its deployments, not as cynical critics or naive doers, but as those with the awareness to point out the state’s “true seeming lies” and the courage to put our bodies behind our words as we seek after “the whole truth” in the face of a linguistic and physical violence that would keep it forever veiled.



[1] It is worth noting that the poem’s title, “The Noble Lie,” contains a similar pun, either describing a lie that is noble, or making an assertion about those who are said to be noble: they lie.

[2] Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’” in Political Writings, ed. H.S. Reiss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), pg. 59.

[3] My interpretation here has naturally been informed by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002) which focuses more specifically on the complicity of the Enlightenment tradition in the rise of National Socialism in Germany.

[4] Claude Levi-Strauss, Triste Tropiques, (Harmondsworth UK: Penguin, 1955), pp.391–393. I am indebted to Sophie Pinkham for alerting me to this passage, and for this particular phrasing of Levi-Strauss’ argument.