Truth Be Told
What makes a story true?
“Kind reader, with keen judgment gifted,
When you discover the refined invention
Of this author, be with the style content
And ask not if what takes place is true.”
~ Nicolas de Herberay
In that Biblical paradise cultivated by two blissful nudists, the slithering serpent has a lot to answer for. In the Genesis story, the snake – often assumed to be Satan, “the father of lies” – deceives Eve into disobeying the omnipresent groundskeeper and eating the forbidden fruit. However, another reading suggests that the snake did not lie – in fact, it told the truth when it said that, despite God’s warning, she would not die if she tasted the fruit. She ate and she lived. The serpent’s crime was, then, declaring a truth that should not have been known, a truth that a higher power had deemed unmentionable.
These two readings of the snake’s action – telling a lie or speaking a forbidden truth – reveal much about how the censor goes about his work. A piece of art is offensive either for being untrue and leading the people into believing falsehoods, or for voicing that which the censor (or his ruler, party, or boss) has decided is dangerous for the people to know.
The first of these two views is found in Plato, wary of art for its seditious influence on the young. He criticised art for being an imitation of the Real and therefore untrue. Pure reality was the good and fiction, as mere representation, was not good enough. The second view is found in the mindset of the prude, who will ban art for unveiling the joy in doing “wrong”, which they may not deny but think better left unsaid. One of the lines that shocked the courtroom trying Ginsberg’s poem, ‘Howl’, for obscenity was about men
“who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy.”
It is not a shot in the total dark to guess that this line would have been less upsetting if those gay men had screamed with pain. That at least would correspond to the “truth” of their heterocentric society, that homosexuals suffer their condition. There are only two ways this line can be censored: with recourse to it being untrue, or with recourse to it revealing a truth that might encourage harmful activities.
So the idea that literature can contain truth has not been historically controversial, but in this context the truth is merely a statement of fact, delivered more or less directly via the narrative. This is why realist novels have been targeted more than fantastical fiction, which slips under the radar. Rod Serling was able to smuggle political criticism of the US into episodes of The Twilight Zone because the censor wasn’t looking there. The establishment did not take sci-fi seriously. Speculative fiction is still often overlooked as a vehicle for serious conversation, although The Handmaid’s Tale and Black Mirror may signify a change, a readiness to find truth in the fantasies of strange stories.
The relationship between art and truth is more complicated when we pull away from this didactive view of art as an instrument of education. It helps to go back and look at where our modern conception of truth comes from and how it has changed. Most people look to the Scientific Revolution as the turning point in Western thought on what makes a thing true. This was, after all, when objectivity and subjectivity were divided as formal categories, and reason – rather than dogma or superstition – became seen as the only route to what is true. But the Protestant Reformation played an important, groundwork-laying role in shifting truth from being discovered by decree to discovered through objective investigation, a vital step towards critical enquiry. The “truth” of the Bible and of Christianity more broadly was no longer revealed to and then through authorities but learned from your own investigations into the text, with no priest or pope acting as middleman.
From here, the Scientific Revolution stepped in and since the Enlightenment, truth has been seen as that which is accessed and confirmed by reason. The snake in the garden of Genesis was de facto absolved of his sins by the modern world, merely by virtue of our not believing in him anymore. The snake never existed, the garden never existed, the story was not “true” by the light of rational, scientific examination and so the story could be (and often still is) dismissed entirely. If it wasn’t true, it wasn’t useful.
In Truth, the philosopher John D. Caputo laments the creation of categories, which sifted out particular strands such as religion from truth. There certainly are factions who use these distinctions as a qualitative hierarchy, committing the error that Jacques Derrida described, a fallacy of binary thinking in which concepts are divided in two (right and wrong, religious and secular, Left and Right) from which one side is chosen and the other written off as completely without value. But this doesn’t undermine the need for clarity that categorisation can offer. Specificity of language can be a bridge to understanding (as I discussed in my essay on whether words matter).
Increasingly, public policies that should be informed by science are instead influenced by prejudice. Postmodern relativism has undermined truth by allowing those who base political policy on preference and prejudice to insist they are basing their politics on truth – “emotional” or “personal” truth. Just recall Michael Gove appealing for the public to “trust themselves” over the experts, who were also derided by Trump as “terrible”. We live in a world of alternative facts and alternative truths. We can clarify the matter and expose this casuistry by using categorically specific language, speaking of facts-over-feelings rather than “truth” as a catch-all. Language is a tool; why approach any complex task with a deliberately restricted toolkit?
Under the modern view, the sentiment of “This is true for me” was equivalent to admitting it was false. Truth was true for everyone. Realism in literature became the dominant movement, along with the conviction that there were right and wrong ways to read texts and that the author’s intention was primary. It’s not hard to see how a thing like Biblical Literalism came about. In this paradigm, truth was a kind of certainty. And then the twentieth century happened.
The postmodernism that emerged cracked the edifice of modernity until its foundations began to crumble. It questioned all authorities and undermined the privileging of any particular viewpoint. The effect this had on opening up literature to alternative readings is one of the few reasons I can’t dismiss the movement entirely. In 1980, the literary theorist Stanley Fish argued that works of literature do not exist in a Platonic sense (that is, independent of sentient minds, a fact of reality like gravity). He claimed that we, the readers, create the text by reading it:
“Interpretation is not the art of construing but the art of constructing. Interpreters do not decode poems; they make them.”
In Fish’s parlance, an interpreter is any reader, even reading in their own language. This builds on Roland Barthes’ work in The Death of the Author, which argued that the notion of a single author and a single meaning to a text ignores the myriad cultural influences that go into writing a book. Fish argued that just as many complex influences go into reading it. This way of looking at literature and art in general can be expressed in Nietzsche’s observation that “there are no facts, only interpretations” – which is to say there is no artwork, no novel, no song, only interpretations of those things.
When it comes to art, there is something like truth going on, but the novel or movie itself is not “true”. We need a different word to speak of this, and the word I prefer is authenticity. Authenticity is about the truth of our experiences. If I hate a film or love a flavour, that is axiomatically true because feelings are contingent on being felt in the first person. There is no objective measure of this. But art can convey subjective experience, bringing the inside out, and it is through art that we recognise ourselves and each other, where we meet with the truths of experience. This is what I call the authentic. Truth reveals one level of reality through reason and the scientific method, while authenticity can, through tears and laughter, reveal another level altogether.
The divisions that define today’s political and social landscape show one hint of unity: both sides unite in a desire to be seen as more rational, more in line with “the facts”, than the opposition. This is why Left and Right appeal to science for opposite sides of the same dispute. Many on the left cite research into the polymorphic nature of gender, while some on the Right appeal to a hard-headed, “common sense” science of binary sexes. Public discourse on religion has shrunk to dichotomous debates about the scientific accuracy of particular texts. And to the extent that literature cracks the barrier between the arts and the general public (beyond holiday consumption) it is most often over the facts of the author’s identity – he is not she enough to write that character, or she is not of the appropriate ethnicity to comment on that cultural practice.
Our world is diminished by playing only this particular game. On matters of science, of secularism, and of political policy, truth in this sense of objective facts is the only kind of truth that matters. But there are other realms in which life happens, places in which we need other kinds of conversations about shared values and a common space for the humanist project. An understanding of the worth others find outside of the rationalist conception of truth will lead to unity. Too often I saw those on my side of the Brexit debate fall back smugly on statistics that showed those who worried about immigrants were suffering under misplaced fears. The myths and lies of the Leave campaign were disproven with evidence to the contrary. As a consequence, we felt truth was on our side and that was all that mattered, so very little effort was made to understand the story that made so many believe the lies. As long as the Other can be shown to be factually incorrect, their beliefs can be dismissed, their values ignored, and their stories disregarded. This is where the hyper-rationalists fail.
We are a storytelling species and cannot survive without narratives. This is another way to view the notion that there are no facts but only interpretations; there are no plain facts, no bald truths, but each of us weaves them into a narrative that gives them meaning. This is why when the last religious fundamentalist has been disabused of his pseudo-scientific belief in creationism or faith-healing we will still have religions and religious people. This was why, in spite of much evidence against their positions, those who were pro-Brexit and pro-Trump failed to be convinced out of their positions by the facts.
Joseph Campbell, the comparative mythologist who gave us the Hero’s Journey and influenced Star Wars, Lost, and a thousand unbearable new-agers spouting “Follow your bliss”, purportedly once said that “all religions are true but none of them literal”. That’s another example where a more suitable word than truth might have cleared up confusion caused by this flaccid, ill-defined version of the word. However, sloppy use of language aside, he was at least of the mind that there are other ways of using mythologies than discarding the carcass once picked clean of facts. We need stories for so much more than conveying data.
It has been said that the truth will set us free, but this turns out to not always be, well, true. An obsession with truth, data points, and facts in fiction restricts what art can be and do. Just as the “freedom” of endless consumer choices becomes a cage we cannot see, trapped as we are in constant distraction by choosing between this soft drink or that one, narrowly fixating on science and reason as if this liberates us is a straitjacket we find comforting to wear.
The eighteenth century writer and art critic Gotthold Lessing said that if God offered the truth in his right hand and the search for truth in his left, Lessing would always choose the left hand. This is the choice that great art makes – it commits to ambiguity, to questions, to the search. Art is less interested in objective truth (requiring the offering of answers) than in subjective authenticity (which is discovered through asking questions). This is the truth of lived experience, and great art is concerned with invoking experience to evoke emotions.
John Berger taught us that there are many ways of seeing. “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled,” he wrote. “Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” The truth is that the earth turns, but our experience is that the sun falls. Neither negates the other, but neither fully describes the other. We need both the truth and the experience to understand more than the mere facts of reality.
This is why we need authenticity: to understand our relationship with reality. This is why we need fiction. And that’s the truth.
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• Pablo Picasso, ‘Picasso Speaks’ in The Arts (1923)
• Nicolas de Herberay, quoted in Alberto Manguel's The Traveler, the Tower, and the Worm (2013)
• Alan Ginsberg, ‘Howl’ in Howl and other poems (1956)
• Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? (1980)
• Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author (1967)
• Friedrich Nietzsche, Notebooks: Summer 1886 – Fall 1887
• Gotthold Lessing, Anti-Goeze (1772)
• John D. Caputo, Truth (2013)
• Joseph Campbell, source unknown.
• John Berger, Ways of Seeing (1972)