“Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” – Hassan Sabbah (Taylor)
In an interview with award-winning writer William T. Vollmann, Vollmann discusses this maxim of Hassan Sabbah, known as king of the political assassins in ancient Persia in the context of art. In light of my recent post about truth and subjectivity, I can think of no better way to continue the dialogue.
This fascinating proverb from one of history’s most reprehensible players is a paradox. On the one hand, permission to do or say anything, with no moral boundaries or obligations, is almost anarchistic, “a horrible, dangerous idea” that “could even be applied to excuse a kind of moral nihilism” (Fassler, par. 3). Just the kind of philosophy a psychopath or a madman would internalize to excuse his actions. It is the opposite of the postmodernist idea that Big T Truth no longer exists, the destructive end result (we make our own truth, therefore our own code of living that may or may not destroy others or ourselves).
But on the other hand, for the artist, it could also be liberating to think that no boundaries exist since all is permissible. I am talking here on a very personal level, not a world view. The proverb, as Vollmann points out, “could be instructive for role-players, gamers, and others who want to live out their fantasies on their own terms” (Fassler, par. 4). I consider all artists to be in this group (Vollmann uses the example of a community of BDSM enthusiasts he researched for a book). Artists (writers, painters, actors, musicians, etc.) are the pariahs of the money-making, suburban-living, grow old and die in a straight line scene that many of us are taught to want and need. We don’t always walk in a straight line because we live in worlds that are not real with people that are not real and we feel in ways that might be amplified and chaotic (psychological reality). We are no better and sometimes much worse than non-artists, we are different.
So because of this, knowing that everything is permissible in a creative world helps us to be bold, to play and explore. That kind of expansion makes the artist more willing to expose his or her demons, fantasies, loves, beliefs, and this makes an audience more comfortable feeling emotions that they might have been frightened of in the context of their own lives. I may be too shy to feel a murderous passion against someone who has done me wrong in the real world but transcribing such passion in a story that I read or write, I am on safer ground, able to process these emotions better. This is one thing I hope to achieve with my own writing for those who read it.
Vollmann’s makes this point as well – that art, by the nature of its fantastic frame, reins in dangerous emotions to a place where it is safe to examine them and where they might be destructive in our daily lives:
“[A]rt is mostly powerless to hurt people. When you extend ‘all is permissible’ into the real world, it can be very dangerous.” (Fassler, par. 13).
I don’t know that I would agree entirely with the idea that art is so innocuous, at least on an intellectual and emotional level. I recently saw the 1948 film Quartet, based on four short stories by W. Somerset Maugham. I used to have the greatest respect and affection for Maugham’s work but I read recently that Maugham was known to be a vicious misogynist and watching this film, I realized how true this was. The women in the stories were all portrayed as Liliths, cruel and evil women who were the downfall of the male characters, whether through subtle manipulation of gender roles, irrational jealousy, or cattiness towards one another. It was painful to have to shift my vision of Maugham. But at the same time, it sparks me to write stories where the sexes are equally matched, where relationships are complex and where both men and women try to break out of restrictive molds and gender roles. My novella The Order Of Agrios questions the constrictions of machoism while my novella The Claustrophobic Heart looks into the dissolving relationship of a niece and aunt weighed down by caretaking and dependence, qualities typically associated with the feminine.
All is permissible.
Fassler, Joe. “Writers Can Do Anything”. The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group. 16 July 2014. Web. 19 May 2016.
Taylor, Jeff. “Notes on the origin of the phrase ‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted.’” Vanderbilt University. Vanderbilt University, 2016. Web. 19 May 2016.