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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

the truth: it keeps on hurting

Might as well get writing something. It's part of my morning routine. Finish keying notes from research books (this morning: A Study of History, volume 2, by Arnold J. Toynbee, and The Cults of the Roman Empire by Robert Turcan), then, second mug of coffee drawing to its lukewarm close and 7:30 drawing close, I switch to Mozilla Firefox and pop open the Create screen of this blog.

Although blog-post ideas sometimes come to me during the day, I seldom remember them when I set out to write. If they come to me, they usually do so mid-post, and I find my topic morphing into a subject I didn't plan on when I started typing. Ah well--it's a free medium, something more structured and disciplined than my personal journal, but less disciplined than a column published and paid for by someone else.

I suppose it should convey some sense of what it's like to be a writer--or anyway to be this writer. I've mentioned before my appreciation of a comment by the writer-producer-director James L. Brooks, that the writer is always to some extent alienated from the filmmaking process. I think this alienation is more general. The writer, if he or she is any good, is more or less alienated from society altogether, and must be.

The creative writer's real job is to tell it like it is--like it really is. To the extent that a writer is simply repeating socially accepted platitudes, he is adding nothing of value to society (although he may be cashing decent paychecks).

The obstacles to telling it like it really is are many, and start first of all within oneself. Do you have the guts to tell the truth? But before that, do you have the guts to face the truth? And even before that: do you have the guts to look for the truth?

And maybe before any of those: do you have the presence of mind to recognize that truth is something that may in fact be looked for, and perhaps found, by yourself--instead of being something simply received and accepted from someone else? Are you capable of thinking critically about the platitudes exchanged around the barbecue among the assembled, wine-sipping guests?

My own relationship with truth has not been simple or easy. It's been more of a life-adventure, a dominant theme that in some ways I did not see as such until relatively lately. The forces that would suppress truth are extremely strong, even within oneself. This is a point that Daniel Goleman investigates very well in his psychological study entitled Vital Lies, Simple Truths. At a deep level, we shield ourselves from pain by blotting out reality--truth. The narcotic bliss of the heroin addict is a state we rest in naturally, at a lower level. Pleasure numbs our attentiveness to what's actually going on.

I remember reading a paper by the American Buddhist teacher Reginald Ray, in which he observed that our conscious attention tends to follow the "moving hot-point of pain". We're preoccupied with seeking ways to escape the painful or unpleasant aspects of our current situation. The Buddhist meditation practice consists in the first place of resisting the urge to run away from the present moment, whatever it may hold. The mind, which habitually squirms like a restless baby, temporarily gives up its escapist habit.

The truth hurts. I suppose that sums it up. The true writer has a special duty to be in touch with that pain at the personal as well as the societal level, and to give it expression--to put it into the consciousness of the audience.

Such a person cannot really belong to, or be accommodated by, any of the institutions of society, whether in business, academia, or politics. Whatever is institutional has been, by definition, automated, systematized, and therefore, in this view, narcotized to the pleasure of autopilot and unquestioned assumptions.

In the Gospel of John, 8:32, Jesus states,

And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.

This is a profound truth in itself--but even profound truths can be co-opted and perverted. Last night I read in Chalmers Johnson's Nemesis that this very quote is inscribed in the foyer of the CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia. Maybe soon, if it has not been done already, it will be replaced by a more recent quote:

Ignorance is strength.


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