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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, June 04, 2007

truth and fiction

Writing is a technology. It's such an ancient one that it's easy to forget this, but of course there are not just individuals but whole societies on Earth today that are illiterate or preliterate ("oral cultures"), and of course there was a time before the first writing had been invented by anyone. The earliest writing seems to have been used, as far as is known, purely for record-keeping. The idea of writing as an art-form came much later, probably when poems came to be recorded for posterity.

In his book The Beginnings of Western Science, David Lindberg makes this fascinating observation:

We must ask how the preliterate patterns of belief that we have been examining yielded to, or were supplemented by, a new conception of knowledge and truth (represented most clearly in the principles of Aristotelian logic and the philosophical tradition it spawned). The decisive development seems to have been the invention of writing. The development of fully syllabic systems about 1500 BC (that is, systems in which all nonsyllabic signs were discarded) made it possible and, indeed, reasonably easy for people to write down everything they could say. And finally fully alphabetic writing, which has a sign for each sound, made its appearance in Greece about 800 BC and became widely disseminated in Greek culture in the sixth and fifth centuries.

Writing replaced memory as the principal repository of knowledge. This had the revolutionary effect of opening knowledge claims to the possibility of inspection, comparison, and criticism. Such comparison encourages skepticism and, in antiquity, helped to create the distinction between truth, on the one hand, and myth or legend, on the other; that distinction, in turn, called for the formulation of criteria by which truthfulness could be ascertained; and out of the effort to formulate suitable criteria emerged rules of reasoning, which offered a foundation for serious philosophical activity.

He's saying that the invention of writing was the key event that launched the system of knowledge that we now call science.

But what about writing as an art? Is it not also concerned, in some way, with "truth"? How does it relate?

Before writing as art there must have been speech as art: ritual, poetry, rhetoric. We write things down that we want to remember, or to communicate to someone else to whom we can't speak--such as to a posterity beyond our own time.

Over against Lindberg's assertion of the importance of writing as a step on the road to science--objective natural knowledge, consider this extract (compressed) from Campbell's Creative Mythology:

Bertrand Russell has summarized in one sentence his own idea of the aim of symbolization: "The essential business of language is to assert or deny facts." A more usual business of language, however, has been to motivate action. To assert or deny "fact" is about the last thing language has ever been used for. "Fiction," rather, would have been the honest term for this master of clarity to have used--for, as Nietzsche already knew, "whatever can be thought, cannot but be a fiction." And "Logic rests on presuppositions to which nothing in the actual world corresponds."

From that point of view, then, there is nothing but fiction: all of our "science" is really just a branch of fictional art.

Back in 1981, when I was struggling with the issues of my spiritual beliefs and also with my vocation as an artist, I wanted to write an essay on this topic. I sat down at the drawing-table that served as my main writing-desk and wrote the title: "Truth and Fiction". Under this I wrote a couple of sentences, but realized that I had no idea what I really knew or thought about this whole topic. I wanted to justify to myself the whole vocation of a fiction-maker, somebody who sits down and deliberately writes "false" things. I had no idea how to do so, and it caused me a lot of difficulty and pain.

I no longer feel such agitation about this topic, but I don't feel altogether comfortable with it either. I think Lindberg is right, and I also think Campbell is right.

The image that comes to mind now is one that comes to mind in many situations for me: of a documentary I saw once about the making of samurai swords. I've probably mentioned it before, but here goes again: the sword-makers would heat the steel, hammer it out, double it over, and temper it by plunging it in a water bath. Then they would heat it again, hammer it out, and anneal it by letting it air-cool slowly. Tempering makes steel hard; annealing makes it flexible. By repeating this alternating process, tempering and annealing the steel, the Japanese sword-makers created a steel composed of thousands of layers of alternately hard and flexible metal. In this way the samurai sword became that seemingly impossible combination: a weapon that was both hard and flexible.

Truth, in the sense of something that corresponds with fact, and fiction, in the sense of something that deviates from fact, somehow depend on each other. I remember watching an episode of Kung Fu starring David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine, of which I was a passionate fan at age 14, in which some brutish American says something to Caine, and tells him, "That's the truth!" Caine, with his trained Chinese calm, responds, "Those are facts--they're not the truth."

It was the first time I'd been exposed to that distinction, and it has resonated within me ever since. Fiction seems to acknowledge and affirm the fantastic, projected, constructed aspect of experience, the dreamlikeness of it. "Truth" or fact seems to affirm the hard-edged, given quality of experience--the inescapable that-ness of it. They exist only in relation to each other, and the more you emphasize either one, the closer is the moment that it will transform into its opposite, just as in the ancient teaching of yin and yang.


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