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Saturday, December 28, 2013

The truth and the lie

A while back an acquaintance said that he only read nonfiction, as he was interested in the truth. Feeling like I needed to chime in, I said I read fiction for the same reason. I added that poetry was even more true than fiction (stories, novels, plays). Puzzled by this, I tried to explain it but I'm afraid I wasn't successful. I made the comparison that historical books (here I mean nonfiction, not historical period pieces) are like map-making. The author researches his topic like the geographer, then picks and chooses certain geographical data to include. To see that he needs to pick some and discard others is obvious: to include all data points, a map-maker would make a map as large as the earth (if that's what he's mapping). But we put too much weight here on "data points." The truth is so much more than "Mr Lincoln arrived at his law practice early on the morning of June 7th, 1837." The reader wants to know motives, reactions, emotions. These are often lost to history. The biographer can guess, of course, but then we enter the drama, the stagecraft of authors. We begin to encroach on the territory of fiction. Fiction gives us something that the historical data points cannot give us: the motivations of humans everywhere, the Everyman. What we don't have in data points is made up for in the truth of what we actually are. The truth of why we do things, the truth that inhabits our souls. You will find more truth in one paragraph of an Alice Munro story than you will find in an entire hagiography by Peggy Noonan. When the writing is unflinching, unblinking, fleshing out the human character at the core of all of us, then you can recognize truth and its rarity. Rare, since to write truthfully is to condemn yourself to its excesses, deviancies and joyful elevations both. It is to inhabit whatever it is--call it Truth--that is the same in all of us, amorphous souls that we are. The Syrians have a saying (so I have read) that goes something like this: There is nothing more beautiful than a well-constructed lie. (And we all have been told that beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is an Alice Munro story, but also it is true of any great writer of fiction, but not so of even the greatest of the writings of history, even Grant, and Churchill. Only a lie, it seems, can tell the truth.

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