Truth and fiction

History is after all only a pack of tricks we play on the dead,” said Voltaire.

Well, maybe it’s not quite that bad–but memory is certainly unreliable. There are as many versions of history as there are historians. There are certainly as many possible memoirs as authors to write them. Facts are elusive. The truth of fiction has never had to depend on facts.

But more recently and again and again, memoir and fiction have been joined.
A recent book, The Lifespan of a Fact, is a debate by essayist, John D’Agata, and his fact-checker, Jim Fingal, over D’Agata’s essay about the suicide of a teen (Levi Presley) who leapt from the tallest tower on the Las Vegas strip. The essay is reprinted at the center of each page with Fingal’s notations about inaccuracies, altered quotes, half-remembered events, and outright falsehoods–and D’Agata’s response. Says the writer: “By taking these liberties, I’m making a better work of art–a truer experience for the reader–than if I stuck to the facts.”

“You’re inventing significance,” Fingal writes to him in Lifespan. “It’s not like you’re interpreting empirical data and prophetically unveiling to us a meaning that was hiding there all along. You’re threading Levi’s life through a needle you made.”

D’Agata may not be the best spokesman for his point of view, but he still has a case to make. “Sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information.”

I haven’t read the book and probably won’t. What I’ve quoted is from an article on Slate by Dan Kois who is deeply troubled by the debate, and especially by D’Agata’s cavalier attitude towards facts (“The Lifespan of a Fact: Essayist John D’Agata defends his right to fudge the truth”). When he describes his struggle with the issue, when he repeats his despairing “I don’t know what to do,” a writer he admires responds, “Just keep writing.” “And so I did,” he says.

The fact is that the fiction writer has always mixed fact and imagination to produce art or “story truth” but since Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, one of the first of the “non-fiction novels,”  the question of what is or is not real, what is or is not true, has become critical.

And, for the life of me, all I can offer is the same advice as was given to Dan Kois, “Just keep writing.”

Chasing after truth

What is truth? asked Plato, Pontius Pilate, and more recently, Johnny Cash. When I was young I decided to study philosophy and look for it. I’m still looking, and what’s more, I’m still trying to figure out what any of us mean when we ask the question.

The other day I ran across some quotations about truth I’d collected  more than a 100 posts ago. I thought any one of them might make a post, but I’m not sure how close they get us to understanding the notion of truth. Anyway, here are a few succinct sayings from various bards. See, dear reader, if any of them help you define truth, or at least catch a glimpse of it.

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” said Oscar Wilde. More recently, William Safire said the same thing in the American Grammarian and Writer: “Never assume the obvious is true.”

That’s a beginning. Truth, apparently, is more often than not complicated and subtle. That explains, in this golden age of the sound bite, why politicians lie so much. They’re all looking for that quick turn of phrase that will catapult them into power. They’re certainly not interested in truth.

But even before the digital age, before television, at the beginning of the 20th century, Lenin could say, “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” Winston Churchill elaborated on this point a few years later. “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

Apt descriptions of our political life. One of the first things to know about truth, is that it’s easily confused with lies.

Among the best known of the quotations about truth is John 8:32  – “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” A wonderful promise, but not one that’s easily grasped.

One of the best known of the truth-sayers is another John, this time, Keats: “Beauty is truth and truth, beauty, That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” He may not have known, but after the 20th century we can be certain that beauty and truth are often at odds. The lynch pin for me brooks no argument: Some of the most beautiful music in the world was played by string quartets in concentration camps.

Besides, as Emerson put it, “Truth is beautiful, without doubt, but so are lies.”

Years before Emerson made that brutal assessment, the boy George Washington is said to have chopped down his father’s cherry tree and confessed it. “I cannot tell a lie,” he said. “I did it.”

So far, we know that truth is abstruse, frequently verbose, and nearly always hard to nail down. It may be pretty, but it certainly doesn’t have to be; at the least, beauty doesn’t seem to be a necessary attribute. Still, truth must have been valued in the young American democracy and since we continue to honor the boy George and his solemn confession, in contemporary America it must remain a respected and popular value.

I don’t know about you, but I need more help.

Mark Twain, one of our most prescient pundits, was cynical about the subject: “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction,” he said. “Fiction has to make sense.” Or again -“Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.”

What does that make of our politics? When they start making too much sense, there must be an element of fiction in them? When they’re absurd, they just might be true?

The more I listen to the wise words of people who should know, the greater my confusion. Take statements like this one from the 19th century English poet, Matthew Arnold: “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”

Of course. Why didn’t I think of that?

What’s a citizen to do but google it? So I did, and immediately found 2,127 Definitions of Truth on a single website. And that’s only the beginning.

All I can suggest is that we take Clarence Darrow’s advice: “Chase after truth like hell and you’ll free yourself, even though you never touch its coat-tails.”

There are some things that just can’t be nailed down.

Looking at the indescribable

One of the most interesting thinkers to explore seeing is John Berger who’s been doing it for decades now in books like About Looking and Ways of Seeing. In the April issue of Harpers (not available on-line yet) he describes the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist who tried to see “through the lies (visual, verbal and acoustic) that are imposed on us every minute.” He used the condition of blindness to explain what he meant. The blind, he writes,

negotiate their way by asking questions and receiving answers with all the senses except that of sight. They receive information and perspectives offered by sounds, by the air and its drafts and temperatures, by the touch of their probing sticks, their feet and hands. Each sense has for them its own language with which it recognizes and defines the world. What distinguishes the blind, however, from those who have sight is that the blind accept that a larger part of what exists is indescribable. Familiar, sustaining, hateful or lovable, essential, but nevertheless indescribable because, to them, invisible.

The painter Basquiat understood that a large part of the world was indescribable and that was what he wanted to tune into because the invisible, being invisible, cannot be described and therefore cannot be lied about. Which, of course, implies that a great deal of what is visible is also a lie—in commercials and advertisements, in photographs both off-and-on-line—even, or perhaps especially, in art.

I don’t usually look at the world around me that way, as if it were true or false. I guess I usually judge truth or falsity of an image from its context—the commercial and its claims, the photograph with its message, the art work that claims profundity but has none. If I think of images themselves as true or false, I find I’m overwhelmed by the numbers of lies in our day-to-day looking. What must that do to us?

 And then, I think, this may make the looking at art even more important. Slow looking. To cleanse our eyes, to tune into the invisible and indescribable which is all around us.

“Paranoid about paranoia”

When New York Times editorial writer, Ross Douthat entitled a column “Paranoid about paranoia in America” , I recognized myself almost immediately. That’s me. All those right-wing paranoid world-beaters, sure that Obama was born a Muslim in Kenya and is just waiting to impose Shariah law on the United States, all those crazies who swear that the health care bill sponsors death panels and that global warming is a conspiracy to advance world government — all of them have made me terribly paranoid. My fear for the future of truth begins there, in an overwhelming paranoia. 

Since the article was about me, I read it immediately. The author, however, begins with a worry other than my own: are some mentally troubled persons persuaded to violence by these kinds of stories? He cites James Lee, who invaded the Discovery Channel with explosives strapped to his body and took three hostages at gunpoint, then waited for his demands to be met. 

The extremes at both left and right have posited paranoid ideas, he points out. For example, a third of Democrats as recently as 2007 believed that the Bush White House knew that 9/11 was to happen. 25 percent of African-Americans believed, not that many years ago, that AIDS was created in a government lab. 

Of course, Douthat is correct. My political views make me paranoid about the paranoia of the right, and not the left. But both left and right tell outrageous lies. 

Douthat cites libertarian writer, Julian Sanchez’s suggestion that all these untruths should be taken “with a substantial grain of salt.” 

For all but the hardest core conspiracy theorizers, they may express what Sanchez calls “symbolic beliefs.” These are “propositions you profess publicly” but would never follow through on, because they’re adopted as a kind of political and cultural statement rather than out of deep conviction. 

….Tuning in to Glenn Beck of joining your local Tea Party seems like a woefully insufficient response to the possibility that Obama is a Manchurian candidate, groomed from birth to undermine democracy and impose Shariah law. But if we understand those paranoias to be symbolic beliefs, rather than real convictions — an attention grabbing way of saying, “I consider Obama phony, dishonest and un-American” — then conservative behavior makes a lot more sense. 

As luck would have it, Douthat’s point was given greater weight when that same evening a high school student of our acquaintance asked for help on a homework assignment about the meaning of certain common symbols used by cartoonists in U.S. history. We weren’t much help, but pouring through a book chock-a-block full of past political cartoons, I realized all over again how many lies have been told and believed. 

William Jennings Bryan was nominated for the presidency by the Democrats in 1896. The nomination scared the conservatives of the time. They screamed that he was a traitor, a faker, a “wretched, rattle-pated boy… posing in vapid vanity and mouthing resounding rottenness… apt… at lies and forgeries and blasphemies.” A new York City clergyman charged from his pulpit that Bryan was “a mouthing, slobbering demagogue whose patriotism is all in his jawbone.” The editor of Harper’s Weekly wrote that the election was a duel to the death between “the dreams and fantasies of Karl Marx” and the “true Americanism” of the Republican party. 

In his acceptance speech, Bryan, a populist who believed in the silver standard, used a religious image and was not to be forgiven for it by his enemies. "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold," he said.


Maybe all we’re talking about is “symbolic beliefs,” maybe that’s all it’s ever been and truth isn’t being threatened? These particular lies aren’t that important. I find Douthat’s argument convincing, but at the same time I wonder if it isn’t too easy and too vague. Have I been cured of my paranoia — or not? 

I wonder what cartoonists, who are, after all, artists of another stripe, would say — that they’re lampooning politicians, that there is truth in every drawing they produce? I think I’ll look at some old political cartoonists for one of my next posts. 


Saving truth, Part 3 – in which I reach no conclusion whatever

Harold Pinter was emphatic about “political theater”: don’t preach. “Sermonizing has to be avoided at all costs. Objectivity is essential. the characters must be allowed to breathe their own air.” 

The artist can be as angry as hell about the lies he/she hears from politicians, but in the art itself, in the plays Pinter wrote, there can be no hot and heavy rhetoric about them (unless, of course, there’s a character whose wants to give vent). So how is the search for truth in literature, painting, or piece of music going to have political consequences? How is it going to help the current political climate? Can it? 

I’m trying to think back into American history about some of the “political novels” that have had real verifiable consequences. Usually,the results aren’t that obvious and direct. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the first book that’s cited, and there can be no doubt that the book made a difference in the movement against slavery. It’s also not a very good book. 

Eliza Crossing the Ice, Uncle Tom's Cabin. A theater poster. 1881.

Upton Sinclair’s books were important politically (The Jungle was responsible for the Pure Food and Drug Act influential. Ayn Rand’s books (The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged) influenced, and still influence, many. And they’re full of polemic, and again, not very good books as books. 

1984 and Animal Farm are considered classics, and both books are cited by politicians of every stripe. Have they made a difference? How, and is it possible to measure it?  

It’s much harder to know whether or not a book like Moby Dick has made a difference in the lives of its readers, or in the life of this nation or any other. The best literature helps us understand the world’s complexities. There is no high Truth pronounced at its end; life isn’t that way. It’s full of ambiguity. 

The final chase of Moby Dick. 1902.

It seems to me that the world inhabited by many of the country’s most outrageous liars is one where everything is very simple, black and white, good and bad. 

At any rate, the artist has to do whatever the artist has to do, and that doesn’t often mean recounting the misadventures of a lying politician. Though, of course, it could, and has. 

So does the artist have a special role to play? Can he be another Diego Rivera and paint murals that will help shape the disposition of a whole nation? Is she any less responsible if she chooses instead to be Frida Khalo and paint herself in hundreds of varying contexts (a few of them overtly political, but most not). Will Khalo have less to say to us about what is true than Rivera? 

I wish I had as many answers as I have questions.

Saving truth, part 2

Is truth getting lost  in a country where lies are being told with greater and greater frequency, and where the telling of them seems to give them the cachet of truth? Apparently, it was Lenin who said: “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” 

Hey, tea drinkers. Lenin thought of it first. Did you catch that?

After I worried all that to death in my last post, I remembered that truth is an ambiguous concept and that I’d better deal with that thought before continuing my rant. So I looked up some quotations about truth to see if anyone has a handle on the problem.  

Of course, the universal favorite is: “Beauty is truth and truth, beauty,-that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” A lovely line, and memorable, that Keats line — one every English student learns — but a whopper! Oh, I guess Keats believed it: he was a romantic with ideals he didn’t live long enough to see sour, and that Grecian urn was a splendid pot. But an awful lot of ugly truths have made their presence known in our world since then. And beauty? As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Truth is beautiful, without doubt; but so are lies.”  

In my last post I wrote that artists must be about the search for truth, and that perhaps, just perhaps, they have no choice because truth is especially endangered in an already endangered world.  

But am I talking about two whole different kinds of truth? Some people describe at least three kinds: 1) the kind we mean when we talk about facts vs. falsehoods; 2) truth in art, which is elusive but has to do with Truth with a capital T, namely, that which is truly essential, truly real; and 3) mathematical truth, which is simply tautology, that is, two sides of an equation, though expressed differently, represent the same value.  

Winston Churchill talked about the first truth this way: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”  

I am, of course, not the first person to struggle with all this. The late Harold Pinter, in his 2005 Nobel speech, recalled that he had written in 1958,  

There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false, it can be both true and false.’  

He continued:  

I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?  

Pinter went on to describe his own grappling with truth in the many plays that form his legacy, but finished his speech with these words:  

When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror — for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.  

I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.  

If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us — the dignity of man.  

In future posts, I’d like to explore Pinter’s “smashing of the mirror.”  

Photo by Tattooed JJ. Creative Commons.