Monday, May 27, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Truth in Fiction

I just finished Susan Jarratt's Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured, and I found it very interesting and informative. There's a ton to take out of this book, and I suspect that Jarratt's work in situating sophistic rhetoric as a place for identity exploration and a way to deal with tensions in the composition classroom will be something I revisit several times as I work on my own research interests.

In the interests of taking out a smaller chunk of this text to examine, though, I'm going to focus on a few lines about notions of "truth," "fiction," "literature," and "lies."

Columbia City Fiction

See, one of the ways the sophists have been discredited in rhetorical history is through the claim that they didn't care about Truth, and by Truth, we mean the Platonic sense of an immutable, nature or god-given Truth. The sophists had little use for this idea, instead maintaining that truths are always bound in social situations, changing depending on who's involved and when they are being formulated.

Jarratt explores some of the sophistic texts we have, including Gorgias's Encomium of Helen and Protagoras speech in Plato's works. In these texts, the sophists use well-recognized pieces of cultural mythos in order to lay out their arguments. She notes that "the raw material for both histories is what we would today take to be exclusively 'literary' or 'fictional.' But in both discourses what is more significant than establishing irrefutable facts is the choice of a historical incident for its usefulness in the reconstruction and interpretation of culturally meaningful and instructive pasts."

This reminded me of an online debate I had not that long ago. The ins and outs of it aren't that important, but it centered around the Bible as a literal (and Truth-filled) text. I argued with the proponent of this view that the Bible was a figurative and truth-filled text. I see many truths in the Bible, but they are only useful to me if I can use them as metaphor to make sense of my own world and my own time.

After that post, I spent some time thinking about how other stories (works of fiction) contain truths that matter to me. One of the most powerful writers that has influenced my own philosophical and ethical frameworks is Kurt Vonnegut, a man whose stories often are not only fictional, but absurd, science fiction, entirely unrealistic.

In particular, I am moved by passages like these:
"But there's a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it's that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth. . . The truth is, we know so little about life, we don't really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.
And if I die--God forbid--I would like to go to heaven to ask somebody in charge up there, 'Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?'" -From A Man Without a Country 
"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind."
-From God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
For me, saying that something isn't factual has very little impact on whether or not it is "true." Many of the things I've learned about the world I've learned through fiction, work that might be construed as "lies" in the sense that their authors knew they weren't literally fact when they wrote them.

Of course this plays out in my professional life as an English instructor. I use literature and stories in class assignments and in my own research. But fiction plays a tremendous role in my personal life as well.

For example, I attended a Unitarian Universalist Easter service this year, and their discussion of resurrection included Jesus' story in the Bible, some Buddhist texts, and a lot of poetry, including passages from Wendell Berry, like this one:

Ask the questions that have no answers.Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest. 
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
It was the most moving and meaningful discussion of resurrection mythos that I have ever heard, and the phrase "plant sequoias" has echoed in my head many times since.

I understand the difference between fact and fiction, and I understand the need in certain circumstances to rely on facts. But I absolutely do not believe that fact is the only way to truth, and I could never cut off all those other avenues to truth to rely on only one.

Photo: James Callan

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