Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Truth against truth

A few semesters ago, I had a truly brilliant student. He wasn't one of our majors—not that that matters—but he was the kind of student who has a genuine and deep interest in ideas: exploring them, understanding their motivations and justifications, teasing out their implications.
At one point we were discussing the Republic and Plato's blueprint for the education of the Guardians, including his canons of censorship and the Noble Lie. We began talking about whether it was ever acceptable to lie to children (Santa Claus, family myths, etc.) or whether it was necessary always to tell them the unvarnished, if not complete, truth.
Our conversation continued after class and after several more meetings. As it continued, it expanded into related questions.  In the course of thinking through these questions, we got to fiction. He told me that he never chose to read any fiction, because he just couldn't see the point of reading things that aren't true.
In his case, this preference seemed to come from a a certain type of ethical seriousness, one I can admire even if I find it mistaken in its application.
But, in effect, he shared a preference with many in contemporary society. Consider how A Million Little Pieces was first rejected by publishers when submitted as a piece of fiction, but won acclaim and bestseller status when it was published and marketed as a memoir. (And, how it came to be seen as not just a fraud, but worthless, when it was again seen to be a fiction.) This must mean our standards for nonfiction are vastly lower.
"Well," the prospective reader says to herself, "I wouldn't read that, but since you tell me it is a true story, well, now I'm interested."
Or, consider the plethora of memoirs now published, often by people in their 20s and 30s. There was a time when memoirs were written mostly by people of note at the end of illustrious—interesting—lives. Now, people write them when they are still in college. Of course, this reflects the narcissism of our selfie-culture, but they also sell. Apparently, the reading public wants to read these things.
Not only do we want to read them, but sometimes we want to see them made into movies. For one egregious example, consider Julie & Julia. The part of the movie about Julia Childs is watchable. It has Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci and it's about an interesting person with an interesting life. But what of the other part? And, yet, because it was true-life, it sold as a book and movie. I mean, it actually happened!
Or, consider how a book or television series can add to its appeal by claiming to be "based on a true story" or having tired police procedural plot-lines that are, nevertheless, "ripped from the headlines."
We want truth, even if it's dreck.
This reflects a loss of something of value in our society, one we can regain by thinking about a simple distinction between truth (as positivistic factuality or representation of a state of affairs that obtains in the world) and truth or truths (as something transcendent, both above and below the facts of the matter). Good art often shows us the latter without expressing the former.
Consider Oedipus or The Magic Mountain or Emma or True Stories or the myths of most cultures or so many more. Each of these presents truths about humans, about our lives, our natures, our interactions, our psyches, our ethics. But they do this while being manifestly false. In some cases, they aren't even plausible or life-like.
This is part of the point of Aristotle's suggestion that ethics be learnt from fables or that drama can lead to catharsis, it is what Alasdair MacIntyre was getting at when he said to his students that we should read Austen if we wanted to know how to be, it is how Wittgenstein could deny that there were any ethical propositions even while claiming that Westerns had a moral function.
Of course, there can be art that expresses both types of truth, but it will always be rarer than that type that tells us true stories that tell us nothing about ourselves. If we are honest, most nonfiction is banal, empty, little more than an entertainment masquerading as something profound—and not that good artistically. (And, I am not defending that art that attempts to provide truths while claiming, falsely, to be true.)
What I am declaring is that I am a partisan of fiction and the imaginary and the fantastic. Only in these can we see important truths about ourselves. Without them, we are impoverished, left with only the real.