22 November 2009 Leave a comment
I’ve been reading The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien, 1990), which is a sort of Viet Nam war novel, but of O’Brien’s own admission, not really. I agree with that. I’ve also been reading On Writing Well (William Zinsser, 30th anniv. ed., 2006). Both of them are really writers writing about writing, and both are writing about truth. The first questions the unquestioned understanding of truth, while the second promotes the clearest presentation of that same unquestioned truth—well maybe not the same unquestioned truth, but an unquestioned truth all the same.
Questioning truth is perilous. However, it seems to me that a solid fundamental belief such as the existence of truth should bear up under serious scrutiny. Trouble is that pinning done “truth” is pretty hard. Bit like proving the existence of God. Truth is after all a belief and axiomatic. We believe we can recognize truth by assembling facts that we consider true themselves. We really extend and create truth from accepted truth. Connecting facts using reasonable logic we consider as representing true relationships. We use truth to define truth. Think of a trial. The factual evidence, considered true, is connected and thus extended to arrive at a truth about a crime from which truth we create a verdict.
Yet even that verdict is defined as being beyond a reasonable doubt. The truth upon which we might incarcerate or execute a person whose life is a truth contains an allowance for, and therefore a portion of, doubt. I assert that we arrive at truth then through doubt. Truth can only exist in contrast to the absence of truth, just as light is defined by not darkness. Darkness is not a lie. The absence of truth is not a lie. A lie is an avoiding of or denying of a truth that is recognized by the liar. No, the absence of truth is doubt. In doubting then, we bring truth into existence. O’Brien brings real truth, not Zinsser’s assumed truth into existence for his readers by firmly establishing doubt. When we doubt, we must process what we think we know to arrive at a truth that is all our own.
Yet, think of how we celebrate this understanding of the nature of truth. “Too good to be true.” We should doubt goodness? That’s coldly cynical.
If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties. [Francis Bacon]
Modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise. [William Shakespeare]
Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it. [Andre Gide]
Truth is beautiful, without doubt; but so are lies. [Ralph Waldo Emerson]
Most of the writing that my students will do will need to adhere to Zinsser’s words. They will need to write about what many accept unquestioningly as truth, and they will need to reason those in a recognizable logic to an arguably and plausibly true conclusion. In this process, they will need to use good writing technique. Good technique is accessible, accurate, complete and assessable. Achieving these will get most students through most classes successfully, but not spectacularly. To get through spectacularly, a student would need to bring up the kind of writing that O’Brien espouses in The Things They Carried and in an interview with
So now the question I pose is whether the source of truth is outside of us as Zinsser might suggest or is it created through the doubts inside of us as O’Brien seems to be saying. Do we define truth by a set of agreed upon observations, representations and emblems? Or do we define truth by that look in the eyes of our fellow humans as we look into their eyes and know that they know as we know? Maybe truth is accessible to a sense we are little aware of, unevenly developed though varied exposure to truth as we grow and live. Maybe the truth about truth is exposed by memory and longevity.
I have an enduring truth in the memory of my father teaching me a lesson by allowing the Delaware ocean draw my 50 pound child’s body out to perish among the jelly fish and hammer head sharks. The image of my father standing ankle deep in the backwash of the wave that pulled me far away and made his fully grown image only two inches high. The awareness of an elastic bond of love stretched to the point of snapping before he moved. The truth is he never rescued me.
I have an enduring truth about the onset of true, deep love that arose in the moment of a kiss in the balcony of a darkened church in Evanston, Illinois in 1963. The surge of energy that ran through my body. The words, “You should have done that.” The truth was I should. “I know,” I said. That truth has remained in me for forty-six years, and that sixteen year old girl is still here with me as truly as she was then. Truth is that she died many years ago and with her took part of the truth of love.
I can’t think of one externally established, generally accepted hard truth. Maybe sunrise and sunset. Taxes and death, though I’m not always sure what is tax and what isn’t, and I have nothing concrete about life after death. Yet the truths I know are truths that none of you readers have ever known and never will. But they’re true.
I wonder how I would tell the true story of teaching in Minneapolis. Or the doubtful story of years of my life when I was people different than I am now.