A writer’s job is to tell the truth. It may be murky, slightly off the mark, or distorted, but it’s still the truth. You can tell when it happens because nearly everyone breathes a bit of relief, as though something pent up and trapped has been let go.
A joke about pedophile Roman Catholic priests is an admixture of truth and cynicism, truth and dishonesty. The collective breathe easier, because someone has finally acknowledged the disgust, the pent up frustration. In that sense, humor is always a sign of truth telling. It is the truth that some religious people committed foul things, and other religious people covered it up. But it is also an incontrovertable truth that many morally blameless men of exemplary ethics occupy the priesthood and daily make the world a better place because of it. If you don’t know that, you’re a bigot, not a truth-seeker. So humor is also equally untruthful, because it tends to paint an entire reality with the broad crayon of momentary titillation. It doesn’t generally get at the hard issues. It can’t adequately deal with apartheid or the communist revolution except on the most superficial and inadequate, and ultimately misrepresentative level. Without it, though, without anyone saying “hah hah”, as Lewis Black points out, we become distorted by the doctrines we hold in place of truth.
A thing is either true or it isn’t. There are no degrees of truth. However, there are degrees of understanding, and there are admixtures of representation that we call truth or untruth not because they are not mixed with their opposite, but because instinctively, we love the truth enough and despise untruth enough, that we are overjoyed to get mostly the one and outraged to get mostly the other – enough to greet truth burdened with distortion and error with perhaps undue enthusiasm, and error that contains some truth with perhaps undue rejection and outright dismissal – perhaps too great a sense of purity. In effect, we are in love with the pure, in the sense of being enamoured with it, but we love, in a deliberate and lasting way, the truth itself – we love it more than purity – and we’ll endure some level of impurity to get at it. If it’s too much impurity, we’ll pretend we don’t mourn when it carries away some of the truth, but deep down we feel even that loss in the form of bewilderment, the way a grieving person seems a bit directionless.
Each of these comments is a rejection of the absolutist confusion of truth with purity. For the absolutist, whatever is not mixed is truthful. The story which seems to fit perfectly is taken as gospel – as adequately explaining a thing. Impurity is everywhere, and admixture is the way of the world – there’s nothing that isn’t polluted with Death, which is why the absolutist finds it most convenient to retreat from the world and into theoria – theory – doctrine – the truthyness (not truthfulness) of propositions – political, religious, or common platitudes. It’s not that we don’t love purity as well – it’s that it is nowhere to be found in this world, if it is of the substance of the world. We either take our truth polluted with runoff, or we make up (fabricate) our “truthy” propositions, our doctrinal statements about things, and our unspoken doctrinal assumptions. Doctrine, in this sense – not falsehood – is the opposite of truth.
We’re not talking about expedience. Sometimes the evangelical’s assertion that goodness in ordinary art is to be applauded can devolve into encouraging art to have a “message” – a doctrine – that stands in for art’s capacity for truth. “What’s the message of this film?” you’ll hear on NPR. It’s not just the evangelical right – it’s the whitebread, yuppy liberals too. Doctrinal types are all on one side of the spectrum, for all their pretense of being right and left – they are arrayed, as doctrine is arrayed, on the opposite side from truth and falsehood. Purity on one side – truth and falsehood on the other. But it is true that those who love truth more than they are enamored with purity will find relief, comfort, and encouragement in art that contains distortions. You can hate cop shows, because of the constant justification of expedience – cops are paid to lie – no two ways about it – if you deny that, you’re just ignorant of the job . And also because cop shows often receive funding from government agencies to run scripts that ‘advertise’ a certain message – the doctrine makers are always poking their noses in – this month it’s what happens to drug users, next month it’s shaping the perception of terrorists – again, if you reject this, you’re just uneducated on how it works – it’s not lack of available information – it’s that you don’t know. But those shows sometimes, because of the strength of the writers, also tell a good story, and a good story is always the truth.
It’s a common adage, a cute one, that fiction writers are in the business of being paid to lie (just like cops). But successful fiction writers, the ones that grab us and inspire us, or make us weep, even when they kill people we love, and hurt people we adore, are in fact being paid to tell the truth. A good story is always the truth. True enough, the word “good” is easy currency, and there are plenty of people calling the Twilight series a good story who don’t know the difference. It’s like saying “this bean dip is good”; I’m sorry, but it’s bean dip – it’s about as far from good as good gets. We’re not begrudging their enjoyment, but it doesn’t have to involve a conversation any more than taking a “good” dump. But truly good stories, the kind of stories that inspire, encourage, or move minds of every calibre, can only do so because they are the truth, even if completely inaccurate or wholly made up. Braveheart is a good example. The guy that sits in a first viewing of Braveheart and claims he’s above it, that it’s lowbrow, is just a snob (i.e. dishonest about culture and preferring doctrine/purity over truth). It doesn’t matter if you’ve read the entire Western canon or if you have to ask what calibre of shot that cannon fires, you must acknowledge that Braveheart is a good story. And at the same time, if you know anything about it, you must acknowledge it is a woefully historically inadequate one (conflating periods of history and people who didn’t live at the same time as each other). It’s messianic fiction of the most egregious kind (part of that trend of every ethnicity gets a hero – the first Polish postal worker, etc). It features an American as the Scots hero, because there aren’t any good Scots actors (sorry Sean Connery). Actually there are many, Moneypenny. But for all that, it’s a good story, and it is, in that most important way, the truth. In fact, the people that want to sit around after and say “you know that Robert the Bruce didn’t actually fight in that battle…” – well, you just want to throw your sandwich at them. They’d make excellent school hall monitors.
It’s just as common to dismiss any underlying truth to human experience – to feign superiority in that way – as to pretend to be above being affected by the truth of a good story. The conscientious evolutionist rejects religion, but usually can’t stay in a room when basic logic is defending it. The guy who wants a life of bean dip and video games writes off the Western canon, but also the Watchtower – so it’s not like he really knows the difference – it’s just easier to disbelieve than to make distinctions. The fundamentalist rejects ethics and tries to turn the epic of a people he finds in a book, that his people didn’t write, into a set of doctrinal propositions that supercede the precepts of justice those very people struggled with – which gives you neoconservatism as fundamentalism turned into expedience (pragmatic utilitarianism). There are those who reject anything that doesn’t gain social approval – they want the ‘truth’ of cool. You hear them mouthing various assertions about social ethics in the form of doctrines, but they’re not interested in the ethics of how they respond to the ‘uncool’ and those who disagree with their group – not in actual ethics – not in truth itself. Truthyness rules the day. Remember the Saturday Night Live skit, where they asked GW Bush to sum up his policy in one word and he said… “strategery” (stra-TEE-jury). Truthyness abounds.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses came to see me today, and I sent them away. They had the truth(yness). I saw it in their hands. I could have had it for a very modest donation. But the truth was they sent women, in pairs, in nice cars, dressed a certain way, because the truthyness has to be presented a certain way to get people to take it. That’s the truth. It’s also the truth that underneath the doctrine, that the bean dip guy has absorbed from his culture just as much as the Watchtower fundamentalists have from theirs, are real people. So I tried not to snarl, not to be too growly. I was incredibly firm – they didn’t say a word when I said, “Whatever you’re selling (didn’t dismiss their particular doctrine), I’m not interested. Could you please leave?” Maybe I could be a “nicer” person, but I don’t think so. But, if anything, it does give me an opportunity to think about truth and how much we all desire it, tho at the same time we are afraid and tend to make love to it through a sheet – which is the doctrines – the messageness – I mentioned.
When you look at photos of virgins, often, they are doing the hover-hand thing with the women in the photo. Maybe it’s not virginity per se, but it’s a certain delicacy in handling women – a sense that she might be outraged and the embarrassment or other social penalties extreme for touching her without her express consent (at least that’s the theory – I think it’s also that touching is an intimate thing – a truth, there – and his feeling is that she’d reject intimacy – but photos extort people into pretense situations – forced to smile – forced to stand close). Let’s go with the theory, tho. If you’re in a photo with me, and we’re getting in tight for the camera, my hands are going to be on you. Hips, shoulders, maybe even a bit of neck. I’ll fit right into the nearest curve. I try to stop short of thighs, even though I’m really comfortable with it. I find that a lot of skeptics about truth are simply virgins when it comes to it. Not that they haven’t experimented with truthyness. But joining an evangelical cult, sitting in the back of a Methodist Church, or being active in a political movement isn’t really the same thing – it’s more sex with a sheet up – it’s truthyness. Strategery. It’s like the WMDs in Iraq (now Iran). We know they’re there, but that isn’t the truth. The truth is who we are as a people that we still want to want to decide to decide to believe what people want us to in order to not have to face up to what we are. Strategery is truthyness is strategery.
We’re ready to bomb someone (because we want to) because they have WMDs. We dismiss Roman Catholicism (without any theological literacy), because all priests are molesting children or complicit in it, or because they’re guilty by association – and while we’re at it, let’s reject all religion too (because while we’re dropping distinctions, it’s easiest to drop all distinctions). We’re ripe for truthyness; we’re virgins in regard to the truth. Or we “have” the truth (right there, tucked under our arm – whether it’s the Watchtower, or our understanding of the Hebrew/Orthodox scriptures – even if we’re not Hebrew or Orthodox). We come from long lines of virgins to the truth. But art still gets us. You don’t have to drag a fundamentalist, a neoconservative, or even a non-violent liberal to see Braveheart the first time. And there’s a reason the Jehovah’s Witnesses are forbidden to watch such movies (except sometimes under the premise that it will help them relate to the people they’re trying to convert). The Mormons, of course, create a cleaned up version with no sex or swear words (all the violence still intact) for the Utah market, but they don’t reject the story. The gamers know the game will suck, but try it out anyway, because even though they reject “truth”, the movie was good, and they watch it again eating bean dip. Art gets through. The truth gets through. Truth is that thing that lets us breathe, that provides relief. That’s where the Soviets (and now the “Red Chinese”) failed – the more you drop an “iron curtain” over people’s access to art, the more they will hunger for it.
“Information” has become the truthy substitute for truth in this regard. Wikipedia and Google and Youtube stand in for truth and art (sometimes Youtube is art, to be fair). But you can get wrong information. And it will indoctrinate, but not set you free, in the way truth does. We live in such an information glut that even the people who specialize in information seem to be lacking the pertinent truths. How common is it for some kid to mouth off “you can’t tell me anything about x, I have a degree in x.” I’m especially amused when x is ethics or theology – but really, anything. In truth, the degree doesn’t mean diddly just now if you missed the truth that’s operative at the moment, or that’s applicable to the situation at hand. Put your hands on her, dammit! If she slaps you, smile but don’t move your hand. If she only slaps you once, move your hand deliberately – either away or on her. But stop being truthy – be truthful. Information isn’t always truth, except in the way Stephen King uses it (“information” is a very special word in his book “Hearts in Atlantis”, which is a book about truth).
You see truthy people flirting, hover hand, with truth by dabbling. A little ‘realization’ here, a little mental upgrade there, but always keeping that sheet up – always the distance. St. Irenaeus of Lyons described it as “always asking questions, but never intending to really come to the truth”. Truthy flirters stop at the first breath of truth, and ooh and ahh over the profundity of it. Wow, a girl. Yeah, but imagine what actually touching her shoulder would be like. Imagine if you didn’t take out the sex scenes and the swearing. Imagine if it was good like Braveheart was good.
The first step in getting past being a truth virgin is allowing for the possibility. The next step is questioning the truth of the truthy platitudes you’ve used like a sheet to shield you from truth. It could be that intellectually superior dismissal of anything not informationally doctrinal. Hordes of IT types go down that path to truth virginity (citing those Roman Catholic child molesters as they go). It could be the lazy, bean dip dismissal of all distinctions (there’s no underlying truth, there’s just simplicity, and the next X-box). Or maybe it’s the way you’re reading our book, which your people wouldn’t have the capacity to write, which is why you’re always “explaining” it. Or maybe you did write your own book, and you’re just going to the next door after I shoo you away from mine, all dressed up to market something which doesn’t have the authenticity to sell itself. Maybe you’re deep in the cool social ethics, and above all the rest of us trogs – I know I am, sometimes. It keeps me insulated from the truth, when I want to be. But real ethics, truthful ethics, is so very much more involved. It’s the difference between a woman and thinking about a woman on the way home after the photo where you hover handed her.
I’ve never met anyone who I thought was interested in truth who didn’t allow for the possibility of truth and who wasn’t critical and dubious of the sheet they had up against it. If there’s really nothing on the other side of the sheet, why have it at all? If there’s no possibility of something there, why would you need a barrier? Fear of the truth is the reason we hover hand it. What I’m interested in is slipping past the hand with art. I’m not an artist yet. I’m not a writer yet. It’s my intention to be one. We’ll see. In the meantime, shoo, shoo away from my door with the brochure containing the truth. You’re better off bringing over a Braveheart DVD and offering to come in and watch it with me one more time. For me, it’s 13th Warrior, but I can do Braveheart.