In the 1970s cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker prefaced his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, with a remark by psychoanalyst, Otto Rank, one of Freud’s most important followers and revisionists:
… for the time being I gave up writing-there is already too much truth in the world-and over-production which apparently cannot be consumed.
Becker agreed, but wrote his book anyway:
I have written this book fundamentally as a study in harmonization of the Babel of views on man and on the human condition, in the belief that the time is ripe for a synthesis that covers the best thought in many fields, from the human sciences to religion.
I missed Becker’s book back then, but when I tried to borrow it from the library a few weeks ago, I was told that it was checked out with a waiting list of eighteen. Creativity is usually, maybe always, an attempt to synthesize, to make sense of the dizzying passage of our time, and for many people, Becker has apparently done so. At the heart of all human culture, he says, is our fear of death. It’s a more popular topic than I would have thought.
Death Angel in a New England cemetery
Undoubtedly, Rank and Becker are right about the over-abundance of truth, though I think most of us are more worried about an information age where data of every kind is multiplying at an ever-accelerating rate. And alarmed most of all by our culture’s present-day heaping up of untruths. People have always told lies, but it seems to me there are many more than there used to be, especially in politics. It is also clear that some in the media and many in the audience see no reason to distinguish falsehoods from truths. They’re just two sides of an issue. We all have opinions, and for them opinions have been confounded with facts.
Photo by Toban Black, London Gatwick Airport, April 2009. Creative Commons.
Some critics blame this confusion on the internet, and I don’t think they’re entirely wrong. The world is rife with experts now, and not all of them care about looking for truth, but only about announcing it when they think they’ve found it. In addition, the consumer age has produced a myriad of sophisticated ways to sell products, ideas, images, and cultural artifacts of every kind: commercials have no interest in truth telling.
It may be that, despite our confusion in a world drunk on information, there can never be too much truth. At the very least I’m certain that art is more important than ever because it’s always interested in truth.
In my last post, I talked about the book, Delete, and how digitization has increased the power of memory many times over. Think of all those photographs the average family takes and keeps. Perhaps, the author argues, digitization “offers us a strategy of continuity and preservation to transcend our individual mortality.” That is, death:
By using digital memory, our thoughts, emotions, and experiences may not be lost once we pass away but remain to be used by posterity. Through them we live on, and escape being forgotten.
How, I wonder, has this man become so confused about the nature of memory and truth?
After a lifetime working in various styles and media, many of them with photography, David Hockney, now 72 and one of the world’s best-known painters, took up painting enormous oils of the England’s East Yorkshire countryside. The artist uses the daylight hours outdoors to draw what he sees in charcoal, and then takes the drawings back to his studio to create the basis for new paintings. He says:
So much of seeing is memory, which is yet another aspect of the human reality of vision that ordinary photographs can’t even begin to capture.
Digital memory without our usual impaired memory is no memory at all. And certainly not the kind that might make us immortal.
Yorkshire landscape by David Hockney, 1997. Photo by Martin Beek. Creative Commons.