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Dec 8, 2017

The Pinocchio Within Us

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Hina Azam

University of Texas at Austin

Hina Azam’s specializations include Islamic law, theology, exegesis, hadith, and gender studies.

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The Pinocchio Within Us

Pinocchio Illustration Hero

Despite seeming differences, Pinocchio’s reality may almost be identical to our own, even if our noses do not threaten to grow longer at every misdeed.

I recently found myself reflecting on the children’s story The Adventures of Pinocchio, whose animated adaptation I watched several times with my children when they were small. As many of us know, Carlo Collodi’s classic tale follows a wooden puppet who is brought to life and struggles to find moral courage, the secret to his becoming human. Whenever Pinocchio tells a lie, his nose grows longer; this happens at frequent intervals, and his long nose becomes a source of amusement for those around him as well as for the viewers of the film.   

We are accustomed to treating children’s literature trivially, as stories that convey simple moral principles for the youngest minds but not as repositories of serious wisdom. And so, even if we affirm the moral of this particular story—that one must seek always to be truthful—we dismiss the possibility that it might point to any greater reality. Certainly, the physical manifestation of Pinocchio’s deceptions—the lengthening of his nose—is the stuff of imagination and seems to require no further investigation on our part. 

I would suggest that in our dismissal, we misstep. Tales and legends are often vessels of profound truths about human nature and the workings of our world. In the academic study of religion, we use the term myth to designate founding narratives that seek to explain elemental aspects of reality, including the divine, goodness and evil, and human nature. Myths use worldly imagery in a symbolic manner to convey truths that are too subtle to be approached or apprehended directly, through a human language not up to the task of containing those ultimate truths. Far from being illusory, myth intends to teach the deepest form of wisdom. 

With this notion of myth in mind, we can see the profundity of Pinocchio’s vision of truth and falsehood. The central theme of the tale is that deception cannot remain hidden; rather, it always and necessarily comes into the open. When Pinocchio speaks a falsehood, his misconduct manifests on the most visible aspect and defining characteristic of his person: his face. Furthermore, in the experience of the little wooden boy, this consequence is not deferred. His nose does not grow longer after several instances of lying or after a year. No accumulation of sin, tallied at the end of his life, makes his nose grow posthumously. The consequences do not come to fruition at some distant moment, after he has had time to better himself and repent. No; the ramifications of his acts are immediate, swift, and inexorable.

Pinocchio lives in a reality that draws a real distinction between truth and falsehood, between honesty and deceit. Indeed, what would be the meaning of lie if as soon as it were spoken, it were revealed as such? The immediacy of that revelation, of that consequence, points us in the direction of another insight into our marionette’s world: for Pinocchio, the veil that in our experience seems to separate actions from consequences lifts. He does not come to know the true meaning of his deeds at some distant revelatory moment. The line between appearance and reality is entirely transparent. 

What does all of this mean for how the little wooden boy lives his life? What is the ethical structure of Pinocchio’s reality, and how does he navigate his moral choices, given that structure? We see that Pinocchio lives in a here-and-now that does not permit moral laxity or lassitude. On the contrary, the structure of his world forces him to live each moment in a state of heightened awareness and in a continual struggle for virtue and integrity. 

But consider this: despite seeming differences, Pinocchio’s reality may be almost identical to our own, even if our noses do not threaten to grow longer at every misdeed. God has structured the world such that we have no possibility of escape from the ethical command for śidq, a concept encompassing truthfulness, sincerity, and integrity. Indeed, the story’s presentation of truth and falsehood accords with that found in the Qur’an and in the spiritual tradition of Islam. From that tradition, we learn that falsehood (ţil) has no reality, however it may be defined. Only truth (ĥaqīqah) possesses reality (ĥaqq). We often think of falsehood as the competitor to truth, as though they were both existents that vie against each other. But this is not what the signs of God indicate. There are not two competing realities, one divine and the other demonic. Rather, there exists only one reality, one truth. What we think of as a lie is only a truth whose revelation God has delayed. 

There are not two competing realities, one divine and the other demonic. Rather, there exists only one reality, one truth. What we think of as a lie is only a truth whose revelation God has delayed.

This cosmological principle—that only truth partakes of reality and that falsehood is an ever-dissipating illusion, leaving its author stripped of cover—is conveyed in the Qur’an when God says, “We hurl truth… it perishes” (21:18). A similar idea is found when God says, “Say: truth has arrived and falsehood has perished. Indeed, falsehood is ever-perishing” (17:81). The words zahaqa, zahūq, and hiq mean “perished” and “perishing,” and denote that which vanishes, comes to nothing, and ceases to exist. These verses tell us not only that falsehood (al-bāţil) vanishes against the onslaught of truth (al-ĥaqq), but also that it is by its very nature vanishing. Wraithlike, it cannot stand for long because it has no substance to it. Thus, we read in the Qur’an,

Those who disbelieve (kafarū), their deeds are like a mirage in the desert, such as that which the parched man takes for water, until he nears it and finds it to be nothing. In its place, he finds God (there) with him, and He gives him his account. (24:39)

One who seeks shelter in deception ignores this cosmological principle. But his obliviousness (ghaflah) is only to his own peril: he will find falsehood as but a mirage, and that in the place of all illusions stands God.

We must ponder more closely this relationship between God, truth, and falsehood: God is not simply the adjudicator of truthfulness but is the Truth or the Real (al-Ĥaqq) itself, the very source of both substance and existence. The Qur’an points to this identity between God and the Truth itself/the Real itself in its use of the term al-Ĥaqq in a number of passages. For instance, we read in the Qur’an, “High above all is God, the King, the Truth” (20:114). And again: “High above all is God, the King, the Truth; there is no god other than Him” (23:116). The Qur’an also replaces the descriptor King with Protector, or Mawlā: “Then are they returned unto God, their Protector, the Truth” (6:62). The Qur’an further expresses the identification of God as “the Truth/the Real” (al-Ĥaqq): “This is so because God is the Truth: it is He who gives life to the dead, and it is He who has power over all things"1(22:6).

The idea of God as the Truth/the Real leads us to understand better the nature of falsehood, including the lie. Deception is not simply wicked or the opposite of honesty; it is without substance, due to the nature of God Himself. Thus, we read in the Qur’an, “That is because God is the Real, and because what they invoke besides Him is falsehood” (22:62). This verse not only equates God with al-Ĥaqq, it also tells us that other things that we call upon are al-bāţil. We find almost the exact same words in yet another passage, which reads, “That is because God is the Truth, and because what they invoke besides Him is falsehood” (31:30). This fundamental principle—that only God is real and that falsehood is unreal—helps us arrive at the meaning of kufr, as well. Although usually translated as “disbelief in God” or “rejecting faith in God,” kufr etymologically means “to conceal,” as in to mask or hide. At its essence, to practice kufr is to seek to deceive; to seek to cover over Truth; and so to seek to conceal God, whether from others or from ourselves. 

The world is created such that we have opportunity to encounter both what is true and what is false, and to discover God through those encounters. In the Qur’anic passage described above, when the parched person in the desert approaches what he takes for water, he not only discovers that vision was an apparition, but he simultaneously faces the truth of the matter, which is none other than an experience of God. Indeed, whenever we experience that which is solid, grounded, and substantive, whenever we encounter that which is true and real, we are in the proximity of the Real Himself. Conversely, whenever we experience our psychic structures crumbling, things falling apart, that which we hold onto being snatched out from under us, then we are being shown the futility and nothingness of those structures. It is at those moments that the face of God is perhaps most in view, frightening and redemptive; it is only for us to look up and see.

We have come a long way from the story of the little marionette, but only seemingly. Another truth can be culled from his story. As we recall, the repercussions of Pinocchio’s missteps come to him immediately, not at the end of his life. The same happens for us: the supervision, judgment, and guidance of God occur not only for the afterlife but also for this life. Believers often think of their lives in terms of the sum total of their acts: on Judgment Day, God weighs our good deeds against our bad deeds, and the difference will indicate whether we enter Paradise or the Fire. This way of imagining judgment has its uses, no doubt, but it ignores a key element of our theology: that God acts in our lives, that He is near us always. Only a cruel deity would leave us to wander and would offer no signs along the way by which we might correct our path. Rather, the Qur’anic “Names of God” depict Him as always watching and listening, as always responding, as always judging, showing mercy, and teaching. It is harsh indeed for Pinocchio that his slightest ill deed sets his nose growing, but how else might he grow and change for the better? How else might he develop a serious awareness of transcendent supervision and response that in Islamic terms would be called taqwā? Would it be better for him if he were left beautiful of face, his vices hidden not only from the eyes of others but also from his own, only to find at the end of his life that his heart remained as wooden as on the day Geppetto carved him? Or is it better that he was made ugly in his own vision so that he might feel shame and sorrow and go through the work that ultimately transforms him from simulacrum into human? 

The deep resonance of this little tale for the faithful lies ultimately in its affirmation of God’s presence in our world. In recognizing His presence, each of us is led to live in a state of taqwā, the heightened awareness of God that impels us to virtue (iĥsān). The connection between awareness of God and virtue is succinctly made in the Prophetic hadith that defines iĥsān. While iĥsān as used in the Qur’an means “to do good (to others),” the hadith defines it in terms of our relationship with God rather than our relationship to others: “[Iĥsān is] to worship God as though you see Him, and if you cannot see Him, then [know] indeed [that] He sees you.” This hadith does not spell out the command to do good, for it is unnecessary: when we know that God is ever-present, the command to virtue is self-evident. Theology and ethics thus cohere. The tale of Pinocchio never mentions God nor does it comment on the nature of reality, but it need not do these things in order to bring alive this basic truth: the moral structure of our world is not an artifice, but integrally connects with the nature of God Himself. Thus we forget the cosmological underpinnings of moral principles to our own detriment.


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