• Matthew Morgan

Truth Be Told: Do facts matter in fiction?

On objective facts, subjective experience, and whether authenticity is more useful than truth in art.


“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



It is a truth universally acknowledged that the ironic tone of Pride and Prejudice’s third-person narration is established in the opening sentence, which declares as truth something that seems to the reader to be a mere opinion. The opinion belongs to Mrs Bennet, mother of four unmarried daughters, and it regards the desires of wealthy bachelors. Hers, then, is not a disinterested “truth”. But is our telling of truth ever truly disinterested?


Take the garden of Eden. In the downfall of that mythic paradise, the serpent has a lot to answer for. A common reading of the story says the snake – often assumed to be Satan, “the father of lies” – deceived Eve into disobeying the omnipresent groundskeeper and eating forbidden fruit. However, another reading suggests that the snake did not lie: it told her that she wouldn’t die if she tasted the fruit; she ate and she did indeed live. The serpent’s crime was, in fact, declaring 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 people into believing falsehoods, or for voicing that which the censor has deemed too dangerous for the people to know.


The first of these two views is found in Plato, who criticised art for being an imitation of the Real and therefore untrue. Pure reality is the good, while the mere representations of fiction were not good enough. The second view is found in the mindset of the prude, who bans art for unveiling the joy in wrongdoing. 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’s 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, reinforcing the prejudice (a bigot’s “truth”) that homosexuals suffer their sexual existence. There are only two ways this line can be censored: by declaring it untrue, or denouncing it for revealing a truth that might encourage harmful behaviour. In either case, what was presented as a question of morality is bound up in deeper questions of truth.


 

The Protestant Reformation played a groundwork-laying role in Western thought, shifting truth from being discovered by decree to discovered through objective investigation. The “truth” of the Bible and of Christianity was no longer revealed through authorities but learned from an individual’s own investigations into the text, with no priest or pope acting as middleman.


From here, the Scientific Revolution stepped in, and since the Enlightenment, reason – rather than dogma or superstition – has come to be seen as the only route to truth. 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 spoke, 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.


Realism then became the dominant literary 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 context. In response, we got postmodernism, which questioned all authorities and undermined the privileging of any particular viewpoint. 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 art 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 artwork 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 experience. If I hate a film or love a flavour, that is axiomatically true because feelings are contingent on being felt in the first person. Art can convey subjective experience, bringing the inside out, and it is through art that we meet with experience. Truth reveals one level of reality through reason and the scientific method, while authenticity can, through tears and laughter, reveal another level altogether.


On matters of science or political policy, objective truth 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. Back in 2016, I too often saw those on my side of the Brexit debate fall back smugly on statistics, convinced that the lies of the Leave campaign were disproven, truth was on our side, and therefore we didn’t need to understand the story that made so many believe the lies. As long as others 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.


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 restricts what art can be and can 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 is a straitjacket we find comforting to wear.


 

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.


The comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell purportedly once said that “all religions are true but none of them literal”. There are ways of using mythologies other than discarding the carcass once picked clean of facts. We need stories for so much more than conveying data. The eighteenth century 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.


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.



 


References:

• 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 Berger, Ways of Seeing (1972)

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