In The Last Battle, the final volume in the fantasy The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, a wicked ape dresses a donkey in a lion skin in order to fabricate a fake of the Christ-figure, the lion Aslan. The ape thus creates an alternate narrative of Aslan’s actions and commandments, using it to gain power and material advantages. This manipulation triggers great disturbances which distress and confuse many innocents. Some of them, a group of dwarfs, bitterly decide to believe and trust nothing and no one. As a consequence, they become traitors of those trying to debunk the false pretensions of the ape; when they find themselves in the new Narnia (an image of the Kingdom), they are unable to perceive it. They imagine themselves in a dark stable, surrounded by foul things and malevolent people. Nothing can persuade them of the wonderful reality because they have spent so much time trying not to be “taken in” that they are unable to be “taken out” of their own alternate, cynical worldview.
But do the dwarfs bear the whole responsibility for this situation? Or was it the inventor of the fake Aslan? Were the confusion and bitterness resulting in the discovery of the forgery not the real reason for their incapacity to see the truth?
The lapsed Narnian dwarfs are a good example of how an “alternate reality” — induced by cynical manipulation and disinformation — influences people’s perception and fouls their reason and hearts, and how these false realities are constructed to begin with. In this story, the final disastrous result is a kind of anti-vision that disables people from really seeing what their own eyes show them. This is what we especially observe these days in the Kremlin’s alternate narrative concerning its invasion of Ukraine.
The influence of narrative construction and of language on perception is well known in the speculative fiction and dystopia genres. Authors like Philip K. Dick and Gene Wolfe, for example, were masters of this subject. The Asciens, a people living under a totalitarian system in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, were able to speak only in government quotations. Expressing truth in these conditions became almost impossible — even if it was still interestingly achievable in a kind of quotation-based storytelling. We are, of course, reminded of Orwell’s Newspeak, a simplified, distorted language designed to block any “subversive” thought. The War Ministry, for example, is called the “Ministry of Peace” in his novel 1984.
This is what we are seeing at this moment in the Kremlin’s distortion of reality: there is no “war” in Ukraine, there are “military operations.” Ironically, as in Orwell’s dystopian world, speaking the word “war” in public has become a cause for fifteen years of imprisonment by a new law in Putin’s Russia. There is no invasion, there is an effort to “liberate” Ukrainians from the Nazis. But by the way, there is no such thing as Ukrainians, as they really are all Russians.
And what is most shocking for Christians, the Moscow Church officials stick to this theory, adding a pseudo-interpretation to it: the creation of barricades against “immoral” Europe. Patriarch Kirill even declared that this war has a “metaphysical significance,” as it enables Ukraine to free itself from the obligatory gay pride demanded by the “EU Club.” He thus constructs a fake “Aslan” image, a God who demands war to punish sin.
Philip K. Dick, a sci-fi author who often uses the motive of the blurred perception scenario, imagines in his novel Time Out of Joint a city living in a fake reality. The hero of the novel finally learns the truth about his idyllic town, designed to protect him from the frightening fact that he lives on a then-future Earth that is at war with lunar colonists. (So war is at stake again in this fictional world!) This book inspired the film The Truman Show, where a man lives in a permanent reality show in a fake city, with all the other people he knows being actors in the show. As in the book, Truman escapes in the end — it is his intrinsically metaphysical desire to go outside his daily reality, as well as his love for a mysterious woman, which helps him realize the truth. A way out of the illusion does, thus, exist for these protagonists, as it truly exists for victims of state manipulations.
Another instance of fiction which gives us food for thought, or an understanding of the nature of disinformation, is fiction which involves unreliable narrators. In some stories, the reader manages to read between the lines and figures out the true story behind the manipulated narrative. In other cases, it seems impossible to do so. For example, in Akutagawa’s story In a Grove, we read about a murder described by a number of people in very different ways. In the end, the details and some main facts differ so much in their testimonies, that the reader cannot distinguish what really happened. One feels even Hercules Poirot couldn’t do it – as he did, in the end, with another unreliable narrator, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. This kind of reality-blocking competing narratives —developed in the film Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa, based on this story — is called the “Rashomon effect.” This perceptional blur found in fiction has been used by postmodern philosophers to exemplify their assumption of the nonexistence of objective reality.
Fiction thus helps us understand how our perceptions are influenced by, on one hand, what we would like to believe and, on the other hand, what we are told or manipulated into believing. Disinformation works on people’s minds and shapes their perception of reality.
It is obvious that the Kremlin uses a distorted narrative to “take us in.” They partially use the same images and the same arguments regarding the attacked Ukrainians to construct a different narrative of the war — in the same way as in Akutagawa’s story, almost the same people and objects are involved in order to give different testimonies — creating by these means a kind of disturbing “Rashomon effect.” In the Kremlin narrative, the Ukrainians are the aggressors, and it is they who are killing civilians. Some people in Russia (and even in the West) say — echoing the Narnian dwarfs and often invoking the Christian faith — “We don’t know who to believe anymore” and “We shall only pray for peace! Stay neutral! Don’t get involved with politics!” This can lead them to silent, and ultimately cynical and perhaps aggressive, collaboration. Fiction mirrors or prepares this confusion in the stories I have mentioned, and in others that show us people not knowing what is reality and what is illusion, as for example, in Philip Dick’s story I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon.
How can we be liberated from this relativist perspective? As Christians, we cannot think the postmodern interpreters are right in assuming there is only “perspective” and “subjective truth.” There is danger in giving all narratives the same weight and in supposing there are no narratives nearer to reality than others, like the Narnian dwarfs, who took no sides in order not to be “taken in.” And as Christians, we can see that there are narratives that are not perverse, that help us to see reality, contrary to narratives that distort our perception.
In the Epistle reading of the Sunday before Lent, St. Paul exhorts us to “put on the armor of light” and to be vigilant, because “the day is at hand” (Rom 13,12). The exhortation of vigilance accompanies many texts of this intense period of the life of the Church (Wake up, my soul, why are you sleeping? to quote only one example from the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete) and is often heard in the Scriptures. We can discern between “narratives” if we practice spiritual and intellectual watchfulness, just as some protagonists of reality-blurring stories manage to do.
We should also remember that in the Gospels we find parables, which are also “narratives” and are not true in the literal or historical sense. They are stories that, like modern sense-giving narratives, lead to a meaning and moral and spiritual choices about a way of life. However, unlike manipulative alternate narratives —the ones the Kremlin offers us today — they help us see the light of truth, rather than obliterating and obscuring it. In really “having ears to hear” them (Mt 11:15), we reach a deeper meaning that liberates instead of enslaving our perception.
Alexandra de Moffarts holds a PhD in general linguistics from Heinrich-Heine-Universität in Düsseldorf, Germany and a “licence” from St. Sergius Institute in Paris. She teaches religion in three colleges (high schools) and is a faculty member at St. John the Theologian Institute in Brussels, where she resides and attends Holy Trinity/SS. Cosmas and Damian Church. She has written previously for Orthodoxy in Dialogue.