One of the reviewers of our book was reminded of Theodor Adorno’s famous remark about psychoanalysis: that in Freud’s work, only the exaggerations are true. In life, most people can be divided into those who exaggerate and those who do not, and those who can tolerate exaggeration in others and those who cannot. The crudest form of exaggeration is the boast of the “and it was this big” kind, deployed to make the speaker seem more impressive or interesting. This tends to be the way those who cannot stand exaggeration see it. If a friend is telling an old story in your presence to an otherwise unfamiliar group of acquaintances and the price of an expensive thing has soared up since the last time he told it, or a flight has taken longer, or her response to a rude waiter has become more devastatingly witty than it was when you were actually present for it, it might seem that what she’s up to is a narcissistic slighting of the truth in favour of what makes her sound more interesting. But what if the reverse is true? What if exaggeration isn’t so much on the side of the selfish individual who stands to benefit from these boasts, but is actually on the side of the universal? And, accordingly, what if the anti-exaggerator who breaks in with a “now it wasn’t that much”, or a “is that really what she said?” is the narcissistic one?
At its best and most animated, group conversation can take on a life of its own, requiring little reflection on what one of the party might have “really meant” by a given statement, and marked by moments of sparkling mutual recognition on the part of all concerned. However illusory or drink-induced, in these moments when everybody “gets it”, we are not limited to our self, but seem to have blundered unselfconsciously into a state of what we might call objectivity. The Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin writes of the drunken group discussions that litter Dostoevsky’s novels that no one – including the reader – can tell which character made a given statement first. To put it into a philosophical idiom, we can say that such moments when the normal demarcations between the person talking and the separate responses of those listening are subjugated to the general tumble of the conversation are moments when the universal is allowed momentarily to shine through.
Very often, a little exaggeration serves to guide the group in the communal appreciation of the tale. It is usually more important that the group quickly grasps the signifier “very long” or “incredibly expensive” than that they leave knowing accurately and exactly how long or expensive the thing in question “really was”. In this form, exaggeration is the gift of the short cut, chopping down the interpretive work demanded of each individual in such a way as may hurry on the point at which everyone “gets it”. In this respect, the anti-exaggerator who thinks the most important thing is getting right the details of that particular journey or purchase is the one narrowly committed to the particularity of their own existence, while it is the exaggerator who more selflessly ushers forth some – however haphazard – fragment of the universal.