Tag Archive | truth

Memory and plagiarism



Oliver Sacks writes eloquently about memory and imagination in the February 21 issue of the New York Review of Books, sharing his memory of a war-time event from his childhood and subsequently learning from his brother that he hadn’t lived it but had reconstructed it for himself from the description in a letter. He cites examples of memories enhanced or entirely made by the imagination from everyone from Ronald Reagan to Helen Keller and Samuel Coleridge. False memories are enjoyed with the same vivacity as those with a factual basis. There is no way to tell them apart in our subjective experience of them. Plagiarism is as natural to us as breathing.

Scary stuff, I thought. Reality becomes rocky and insubstantial. All our heralded battles for truth turn into fights that may have already been thrown. Without DNA or a filmed record, we can’t prove a thing.

But Sacks, looks at it from another perspective, and reality becomes more instead of less. I can only quote him:

Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge….

Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.

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.

If wishing made it so….


But it doesn't.....

One day years ago, when I was in midtown Manhattan, I discovered a long line of people stretching out for as many as two city blocks. I was curious. Were they applicants for a job? Were they trying to buy tickets to the next Yankee game? I asked someone, I don’t remember who, and learned that they were in line for lottery tickets to one of the biggest jackpots of that era. The odds of winning were infintesimal, but there they were waiting for hours for the remotest of chances to become rich. I was overcome with awe and respect: what hope, what faith, these people had!

Recently, I read somewhere that the Americans (I guess Republicans and Tea Partiers) who want to let the very rich enjoy their many tax breaks believe that they too could be rich someday. And that’s why they don’t mind that the richest 400 Americans own more welath than the bottom 50 percent of the population altogether. Or that one percent of Americans receive 24 percent of  U.S. income.

The relationship of many of us to money is oddly askew, in fact bizarre. I’ve always had difficulty understanding that the income I received was for work done. I can’t explain why. I was raised in a typical American family, got a weekly allowance for chores performed, baby sat, worked during school vacations.

Almost as many years ago as my encounter with the lottery ticket line, I dated a guy who’d grown up poor in New York City. He was a dreamer—one of those people who practice making speeches with pebbles in their mouths on tenement roofs in hopes of improving their diction for careers as actors, politicians, whatever…. He was an occasional longshoreman and one day, standing in line to cash his check, he inadvertently tore it up into small pieces before he reached the cashier’s cage.

No question about it. Many of us have bizarre relationships to money. How else can we explain the Republican votes for the rich when we know for a fact that they’re not all rich—at least, not yet?

Harper’s Magazine has a monthly Index with all sorts of fascinating facts and figures. Here are some of this month’s statistical wonders:

“The average salary difference between a starting New York public school teacher and a first-year private lawyer in 1970 was $2,000. Today, it’s $106,000.”

“Percent change in U.S. labor productivity since 1972: +114; Percent change in wages during the same period: -6.”

These kind of figures fill the canons of Democrats and Progressives. Surely, the Tea Party folks catch some of them. And still, they continue to believe that wealth is privileged. One thing is certain. For so many people, the truth is not something logical and thought out. Maybe it’s  like Obama’s foreign birth: something devoutly wished for, and therefore true.

Perhaps the Harper’s statistic that most amazed me was this about the rich: “Chances that a U.S. millionaire does not ‘feel wealthy’: 2 in 5. Average amount he or she believes would begin to create such a feeling: $7,500,000.”

The power of the caricature

Caricature and political satire go back at least as far as the printing press. Hogarth (1697-1764) introduced sequential art, that is story telling, as well as a wonderful lot of satire. Goya (1746–1828 made some of the most vicious political and social cartoons of any time. Daumier (1808-1879) is remembered mostly as an artist, but he was a deft cartoonist who ably aimed sharp barbs at the cultural and political foibles of his era. He later became a major influence on the work of American cartoonist, Patrick Oliphant. We’ll get back to Oliphant in just a few paragraphs. 

In this very popular cartoon, Daumier takes a shot at the artistic pretensions of practicioners of the new "photographie."

It’s difficult to know how much real power Goya, Hogarth or Daumier wielded in their societies —whether people were persuaded to an opinon by their drawings, or not. 

But in the United States, in the latter half of the 19th century, when newspapers and magazines were at the zenith of their power, political cartoonists like Thomas Nast became famously influential. Nast was responsible for a list of singular achievements: he created our rotund Santa Claus, who’d been a skinny fellow before; he made the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey, and our current day Uncle Sam. His battlefield drawings during the Civil War led Lincoln to call him “our best recruiting sergeant.” 

In the early ’70s Nast’s cartoons helped bring down  Tammany Hall and its corrupt regime in New York City. Boss Tweed, the head of Tammany, was so frightened of him he offered Nast $500,000 to desist. 

The Tammany tiger.

 Nast also played an important role in the election of Ulysses Grant to the presidency in 1868 and again in 1872 , and was given credit for winning the job for Cleveland in 1886. 

Nast recognized that one of the reasons his drawings could be more powerful than all the elegant editorials of the day, was that many of his fellow citizens couldn’t read. Often they were immigrants and didn’t know English. But literacy wasn’t that common either. In the lively cartoons of Nast and his fellow artists, the picture told a persuasive story, and moved its viewers to laughter, tears and anger — all in one sitting. 

Many cartoonists of the day blamed big business and its political friends for the nation's problems.

A 1900 cartoon showing "Willie McKinley as the trusts' little boy, with Teddy Roosevelt as his new playmate.

By the 20th century, the political cartoon, though still commonplace and influential, seemed to have lost much of its punch. But not entirely. Take the British cartoonist, David Low, whose cartoons have been called “visual counterparts” to the speeches of Winston Churchill. He ridiculed Hitler and Mussolini and reduced the monstrous to the absurd. At the same time, he summoned up the patriotism and spirit of his countrymen. At his death in 1963, Low was described in the press as “the dominant cartoonist of the western world.” 

But then during World War II there were also Bill Mauldin and Ernie Pyle…. And after? We could make a list. But  the most politically relevant of all was Patrick Oliphant, who immigrated to the United States from Australia in 1964 to become editorial cartoonist for the Denver Post, and later the Washington Star, before finally, in 1981, becoming independent.

Oliphant is still working today. In a recent interview, he explains his choice to come to the United States. The country was plagued by turmoil, pompous politicians, and villainy of all kinds; it was a perfect foil for the cartoonist. 

“Cartooning is an inherently negative art form,” he says. “If only good people populated the political scene, I would have nothing to do. Good people make poor targets. I like villains.” 

For Oliphant the strength of a political cartoon is in its immediacy. “With editorials you have to plow through acres of thought just to find out what they’re going for. 

“But with a cartoon you can easily get to the guts of it pretty quickly, and I think it can hit harder too, because of the visual thing. But I’m afraid these days it’s almost all the same, and I don’t see any really hard hitting stuff in the manner I like to do it.”

 He blames the dependence of the press on revenue from advertising for that. 

Oliphant’s favorite target for many years, and probably the one that helped catapult him to fame, was Richard Nixon, when “there was a new cartoon every day.” In recent years, he’s offended more and more people: e.g. American Jews when he used Nazi imagery to portray Israel “as a jack-booted, goose-stepping headless apparition” and the Catholic Church when—in a picture based on the Pamplona, Spain running of the bulls—he drew a “running of the Altar Boys” showing priests running out of St. Paedophilia Church chasing all the altar boys. 

Patrick Oliphant is now 75. He still produces three cartoons a week, and since the late1980s, and into his old age, has been creating sculpture that has much the same impact as his drawings. His pieces are intense, funny, and a little sad. 

Patrick Oliphant is also an old artist with some interesting things to say about his art. He keeps going, he explains, because “I just get mad. I get pissed off at certain things, and certain things need to be said. 

“So I just go ahead and do it. You can’t be timorous about these things. What is existence for anyway, except to leave something of beauty behind you?” 

My conclusion: the art of the political cartoonist can make a huge difference for truth.

“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.