The Island of Truth and Lies, Part VI
Intermission has gone on longer than anticipated, but the story now continues.
(See Parts I, II, III, IV & V before reading on)
Part VI: Death and Lies
There was a saying among the honest natives of the island: dead men tell no lies.
Our anthropologist would learn this saying the night after the old chief's death, when a newly crowned chief came to visit him. There had been a full moon that night for the ceremony marking the transfer of power to the new chief. The anthropologist had taken notes as he listened to the ritual from his hut with great curiosity, though he had not been able to see the spectacle in the moonlight.
When the new chief spoke with the anthropologist not twenty four hours after taking office, he was just as open and relaxed as the old chief had been for their first conversation. The anthropologist's mind, as before, was split between two goals: his own fate and the workings of the tribe. This time, he was more optimistic than before about his chances of being set free, and he was more curious than before about the tribe, since the details surrounding the mysterious death of the chief and the ascension of his successor were the sorts of culturally significant facts that anthropologists long to uncover.
Though part of him wanted to do everything he could to get out of that village as fast as possible, once the new chief made it clear that he was willing to talk for a while, the anthropologist decided to satisfy his curiosity first. How did the old chief die?
The truth got to him, the new chief said.
The truth got to him. What a strange cause of death. The anthropologist talked with the chief about this phrase for an extended period of time, but he never was able to figure out if it meant that the chief's death had been a murder, a suicide, a death by natural causes, or even a death by supernatural causes.
The new chief explained that the chief had caught himself in a trap of statements that were growing inconsistent. The tribe would kill the anthropologist in the near future, he had said. Using the anthropologist's own input, he had also proclaimed that if the anthropologist was killed by boiling, then he would be roasted rather than boiled, and if he would not be killed by boiling, then he would be killed by boiling. The anthropologist could not be killed without the chief ceasing to be what he was, and if he let the anthropologist live, then the days in which he could remain what he was were winding down. He was trapped, and the truth had to get to him before he ceased to be what he was. It could not let him live through that moment.
What did this all mean? The anthropologist continued to question the chief about it. The conclusion that he reached, which he ended up writing down in his notes, is that if one of these truthtelling natives was ever on the verge of becoming a liar, "the truth would get to him" and he would die before that happened. (He mentioned in a footnote that he used the term "liar" as the natives did, to refer to anyone who made a statement that was false.) Somehow, truthfulness was such an essential part of these natives' natures that they would die before any of their statements turned false. Once a person had died, though, apparently the statements that he had made were no longer bound to the truth. They could pass out of the realm of truth, once their speaker had passed out of this earthly realm.
The anthropologist might have argued that these natives believed in a strange sort of mysticism, had he not been caught up in this conversation right after the very concrete death of the chief. In this context, he was much more willing to take the chief at his word.
He learned that the chief's death, strange as it might seem to an outsider, was not out of the ordinary for this band of islanders. Honesty had taken a harsh toll on these natives. The new chief reported that more people succumbed to the truth than to disease or starvation. Reality was severe and unforgiving to this community of natives who depended on it for their survival. The people of the tribe were naturally cautious in their statements, but even cautious statements could wander into dangerous territories where facts would hunt them down. The tribe did not have an easy life, but they did what they could to get by.