Eugene Garber, professor emeritus in English at the University at Albany, is a writer of short fiction and novels. He has also collaborated with several other artists to create the hypermedia fiction, Eroica.
He has been called a fabulist. His most recent completed work, The House of Nordquist, dramatizes a Faustian search for the ultimate power that destroys and then renews. Web site.
Truth and Post-Truth
By Eugene Garber
From October 13th through October 14th of this year the New York State Writers Institute hosted a number of notable journalists to talk about “Telling the Truth in a Post-Truth World.” Thus we learn that under the intrepid leadership of William Kennedy and Paul Grondahl no topic is too daunting for the Institute, not even one, like Truth, pondered at least as far back as the Vedānta and the pre-Socratics. One hopes that for future symposia the Institute will not lower its sights. The prospects encourage speculation: “Armageddon, the Coming Show-down Between Good and Evil” etc.
Anyway, if our valiant journalists can tackle Truth, then why not a lowly fiction writer? So here goes. A story. Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” Jesus, generally good at snappy comebacks, often in the form of alternate questions (not alternate facts), does not say anything, or if he did we don’t have it in scripture. Taking no doubt too much liberty, we can speculate that he might have said, “The truth is whatever my friends say about you and me when we’re gone.” Or he might have said (divinities caring little for anachronisms) “The young Wittgenstein was wrong when he said in the Tractatus that the world is everything that is the case. And Hamlet was wrong when he told the players that the purpose of drama is to hold a mirror up to nature.” So then truth is not a set of testable propositions, nor is it a plenitude of images. What is it then?
Our symposium discussants often referred to facts, “alternate facts” and the distortion of facts. But, as we know, facts cannot speak for themselves. They have to be interpreted if they are to be offered as Truth. But facts in and of themselves are inherently equivocal because there is no such thing as unmediated facts. Between us and the facts there is interposed a medium, an instrumentality—an eye, an ear, a cyclotron, a microscope, human cognition etc. Still, humanly fallible as we are, we have to decide what facts are the most reliable, what facts have the most probable coordinate relationships among themselves. For the facts in the public arena we depend on journalists.
“Telling the Truth in a Post-Truth World” is a provocative title. It suggests rather strongly that the truth may not matter anymore. So we have to go back to Pilate’s question: what is truth? If it’s not testable propositions or images of reality, what is it? Can we know? In the story Jesus has in a way already answered Pilate’s question before it was asked. He has said that everyone who belongs to the truth listens to what he says. Well, he said many things but eminently important were his sayings about leading the good life. So, never mind if one is a Christian or not, we are being asked to entertain the idea that truth is not in statements or in empirical findings but in right actions. One does not tell the truth so much as one acts the truth.
Some history. When I arrived as a graduate student at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1957 (sic), the old New Criticism had established virtual hegemony. If one wrote effectively it was because one had learned how to harmonize narrative, tone, point of view, (especially point of view, as James was the Master) symbol, theme, etc. Effectiveness did not involve whether or not the story had said something true and pertinent. In fact, if the writer attempted that, he (there were very few shes then) had “sold his art for a pot of message.” So we were hide bound formalists. Art and craft were virtually synonymous. But soon there began to creep into the hegemony of formalism old notions of realism, verisimilitude. After all, imitation was the bedrock of Aristotle’s poetics. And what about Auerbach’s Mimesis? Wasn’t it true, then, that representation, holding the mirror up to life, was important? So some rebellious young writers began to declare that they were realists, and worse, that they had a moral message to deliver. By 1961 they may have read Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction and been persuaded that all narrative is a form of persuasion.
But already there were other countervailing currents. John Barth and Robert Coover, among others, had declared that literary realism is dead and had set out to prove it by writing sets of stunning fabulations and metafictions. So we had gone at a dizzying pace from aestheticism (‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ - that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.) to realism (art is a morally suffused imitation of life), to metafiction (fiction is a concoction of myth and legerdemain, utterly made up, easily deconstructed).
Why have I introduced this old history? Because I believe that its tensions are perennial, the three contestants still with us: the beautifully formed and self-contained, the realism of moral imperatives, and the deconstructive fabulous. But does this create a common ground between journalists and fiction writers? I think maybe so. Successful journalists, at least the ones I read and the ones I heard at the symposium, are likely to say that a convincing story is one that hangs together as seamlessly as possible, is so to speak beautifully constructed. They are also likely to say that the convincing story gives us a true image of the matter at hand. But what about the third rail? The journalist, like the metafictionist, will know that all stories are made up by humans (unless one subscribes to divinely inspired inerrancy) and that theirs will inevitably be targets not only of revisionists and deconstructionists but also of manipulators. Will this not lead to “Post-Truth?” What to do?
I know that the following will make many tough-minded empiricists and rationalists shudder, but I will say it anyway. If we are to escape the deniers, the spinners, the ideologues, the State mythographers, then we need to concede that we cannot depend entirely on the examination of facts and the logical testing of propositions to establish Truth, as indispensable as these operations are. We are more likely to discover the Truth if the stories we tell each other give life and create community, if they lay the groundwork for displacing malevolent myths with life-giving myths. (Here insert an essay by a learned historiographer that demonstrates that all reportage and all history eventually evolve into myth. Thus Hamilton, once in history the shrewd prophet of urban finance, is now, in hip-hop and aria, a mythological hero, and the historians will never get him back.)
Truth one more time. If Steve Bannon says that the media are the enemy, that in a curious way is an accurate assertion because it is essentially a correct picture of Bannon’s mind—what he believes the media to be and how he defines enemy. But if the assertion attains to the status of agency, which it has, then it enters what the symposium title calls “Post-Truth,” because it now distorts and damages. The antidote, I keep arguing, is not a counter assertion, which would be another picture of another cognition. The antidote is the language of positive agency. We do not so much tell the truth as deploy language as action. “True” stories live, animate, sing, dance, join hands. And thus they achieve the power of cultural myth. “Post-Truth” divides, angers, skewers, shatters, but it too, alas, can acquire the power of myth. So we have a battle of performers, each with armaments of honed words and rhetorical thrust—logomachy, language as action.
Enough. What remains to be said is that we writers—journalists, fiction writers, poets and others who make a profession in language—will be judged by our performances, and to some extent, perhaps frighteningly large, we are responsible for the weal and woe of the Republic and peoples beyond its borders.
To broaden the stage beyond the wings and flies of the current tumult I offer one of my favorite quotes (Benjamin Whorf, Language, Thought and Reality, 1964):
Speech is the best show man puts on. It is his own “act” on the stage of evolution, in which he comes before the cosmic backdrop and really “does his stuff.” But we suspect the watching Gods perceive that the order in which his amazing set of tricks builds up to a great climax has been stolen—from the Universe!