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Posts Tagged ‘Truth’

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The Leper – Rembrandt, 1631

 

I had tried to be fair. It is the one single thing no one will forgive you for, neither the communists nor the fascists, the rightists nor the leftists, the white racists nor the black racists… One will make more enemies by trying to be fair (marked by impartiality and honesty) than trying to tell the truth– no one believes it is possible to tell the truth anyway– but it is just possible that you might be fair.

Chester Himes, The Quality of Hurt
(quoted in Ishmael Reed’s essay “Chester Himes: Writer”)

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Snakes - M.C. Escher, 1969

Snakes – M.C. Escher, 1969

…consider a final parable, which comes from Aleister Crowley’s Magick in Theory and Practice and is said by him to contain the whole secret of practical occultism:

Two passengers are sharing a railway carriage. One notices that the other has a box with holes in it, of the sort used to transport animals, and asks what animal his companion is carrying. “A mongoose,” says the other. The first passenger naturally asks why this eccentric chap want[s] to transport a mongoose around England.

“It’s because of my brother,” says the second man. “You see, he drinks perhaps more than is good for him, and sometimes he sees snakes. The mongoose is [to] kill the snakes.”

“But those are bleeding imaginary snakes,” says the first man.

“That’s as may be,” says the other placidly. “But this is an imaginary mongoose.”

Robert Anton Wilson, Ishtar Rising

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Fake Picasso?

Fake Picasso?

An art dealer once went to Picasso and said, “I have a bunch of ‘Picasso’ canvasses that I was thinking of buying. Would you look them over and tell me which are real and which are forgeries?” Picasso obligingly began sorting the paintings into two piles. Then, as the Great Man added one particular picture to the fake pile, the dealer cried, “Wait a minute, Pablo. That’s no forgery. I was visiting the weekend you painted it.” Picasso replied imperturbably, “No matter. I can fake a Picasso as well as any thief in Europe.”

Robert Anton Wilson, Ishtar Rising

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Sketch for "Truth Rescued by Time, Witnessed by History" - Francisco Goya, 1797 - 1800

Sketch for “Truth Rescued by Time, Witnessed by History” – Francisco Goya, 1797 – 1800

…Einstein had said, “Evolution has shown that at any given moment out of all conceivable constructions a single one has always proved itself absolutely superior to the rest,” and let it go at that. But to Phaedrus that was an incredibly weak answer. The phrase “at any given moment” really shook him. Did Einstein really mean to state that truth was a function of time? To state that would annihilate the most basic presumption of all science!

But there it was, the whole history of science, a clear story of continuously new and changing explanations of old facts. The time spans of permanence seemed completely random, he could see no order in them. Some scientific truths seemed to last for centuries, others for less than a year. Scientific truth was not dogma, good for eternity, but a temporal quantitative entity that could be studied like anything else.

Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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Memory, Rene Magritte, 1948

Memory, Rene Magritte, 1948

I remember reading James Frey’s drug-addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces in 2005, back when the book was still classified as “non-fiction,” and I could’ve sworn a lot of the details smelled fishy. So the following year, once Frey revealed the truth of his fictions, I felt a little happy about it. I wouldn’t call it schadenfreude; I got nothing personal against the guy. OK, maybe there was some schadenfreude. But for the most part, I simply felt nice knowing my suspicions had been validated.

Somehow I missed the similar controversy that arose just over a year later regarding Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs Of A Boy Soldier. In fact I wasn’t really familiar with the book at all. I saw it for the first time while browsing the shelves at my local library a couple weeks ago, and I thought it looked fascinating.* And until I’d finished reading it, I had no idea that its veracity had come under serious scrutiny not long after its publication. Which is not to say that I never suspected Beah’s account may have been significantly less than 100% accurate. From the beginning, I took it for granted that the memoir of a boy soldier in Sierra Leone would have to be at least a little fudgy, considering all the trauma and drug abuse that must’ve fogged up his rear-view mirror.

Then I got to page 51 and spotted this fat red flag:

“…Grandfather always gave us a special medicine that was supposed to enhance the brain’s capacity to absorb and retain knowledge. He made this medicine by writing a special Arabic prayer on a waleh (slate) with ink that was made of another medicine. The writing was then washed off the slate, and that water, which they called Nessie, was put in a bottle. We took it with us and were supposed to keep it a secret and drink it before we studied for exams. The medicine worked. During my primary-school years and part of my secondary school year, I was able to permanently retain everything that I learned. Sometimes it worked so well that during examinations I could visualize my notes and all that was written on each page of my textbooks. It was as if the books had been imprinted inside my head. This wonder was one of many in my childhood. To this day, I have an excellent photographic memory that enables me to remember details of the day-to-day moments of my life, indelibly.

Beah may as well have written “Just in case anything here seems too far-fetched, this harrowing true-life story is really truthfully true. All of it. Truly! Because my grandfather gave me Magical Memory Juice when I was a kid, that’s why.

Reading this passage saddened me. The author doth protest too much, methought. And it didn’t feel like the passage was Beah’s idea, either. Throughout the book, his voice is humble, blunt, and fearless. I could be wrong, but I couldn’t help speculating that an editor or agent whispered the idea in his ear, told him to write about the memory juice to convince readers of something they didn’t need to be convinced of.

Yet Beah’s Magical Memory Juice didn’t spoil the rest of his book for me. I believe A Long Way Gone is true enough. I believe most of these things happened to Beah, and if any of those things didn’t literally happen to him, then I’m sure they either happened to someone not unlike Beah.

I guess the reason I’m more forgiving of Beah than I was of James Frey– aside from the fact that being forced to become a child soldier sounds far more terrifying than being a drug addict– is that except for the Magical Memory Juice, Beah’s details felt truer than Frey’s. Beah’s story captures what Werner Herzog would call “Ecstatic Truth.” And if Beah had an ulterior motive, it wasn’t, as Adam Kirsch would say, to “seduce the reader with an ostentatious display of soul-bearing,” it was to shine a light on the horrors of Sierra Leon’s civil war.

If I had been Beah’s editor, I would’ve whispered in his ear: “Sell it as a novel. Just say it’s ‘Based on a true story.’ If it turns out some things didn’t happen quite how you remember them, then so what? They’ll still call you the Sierra Leonean Hemingway. Oh, and lose that part about the Memory Juice. I don’t care if it’s real; I simply don’t buy it.” 

* On the other hand, I did work in a large bookstore when A Long Way Gone was first published, so I admit there’s a chance that I had in fact heard of the book before and simply forgot. In my defense, I ingested many intoxicants in those days, and I never once ingested any Magical Mystery Juice.

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Tony Wilson’s not terribly surprised to find his girlfriend Lindsay shagging The Buzzcocks’ Howard Devoto in the bathroom stall.  After all, Tony knows he deserves some kind of revenge after Lindsay caught him in the back of that van with his dick in another woman’s mouth.  But this might be a bit too much revenge, in Tony’s opinion.  He tries to play it totally cool, asking her for the car keys like he’s not interrupting any coitus, but obviously he’s a little rattled.  Before he walks off, he can’t resist pointing out to Lindsay that she’s gone too far here.  “I just got a blow job.  That’s full penetration.”

The real-life Howard Devoto of 2002, 25 years older and severely balding, just happens to be in the same public bathroom scrubbing a sink with a pair of blue latex gloves.  Before we cut to the next scene, Howard looks right through the fourth wall and proclaims, “I definitely don’t remember this happening.

Although it’s Tony- at least the version of Tony that’s written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, directed by Michael Winterbottom and portrayed by Steve Coogan in 24 Hour Party People– who gets the last word in the scene, via voice-over:

This is the real Howard Devoto.  He and Lindsay insist that we make clear that this never happened.  But I agree with John Ford: When you have to choose between the truth and the legend…print the legend.

Oh that Tony Wilson, constantly citing highbrow-sounding quotations that aren’t completely accurate, often for the purposes of aggrandizing or justifying himself.   Kind of like, I wish I could stick to the truth here, but cinema icon John Ford says I have no choice in the matter. 

The actual John Ford quote that movie-Tony’s probably thinking of is a line from the end of Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:

This is the West, sir.  When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

In other words, Ford seemed to think we needed to believe Jimmy Stewart shot Lee Marvin in self-defense, even if deep down we knew the truth was John Wayne shot Lee Marvin in cold blood.

Of course, that was back when Truth was far easier to contain.  Today, a bunch of camera-phones could’ve easily recorded and instantly published clips of John Wayne shooting Lee Marvin in cold blood.  Truth used to fear Legend, but now Truth, for the most part, laughs in Legend’s face.

Which is not to say Legend is no longer dangerous, or that Truth always wins.  It just means we need to update that line.

If you ask me, I’d say there’s plenty of truth out there nowadays.  Print the legend, and if people want the truth, they’ll know where to look for it.

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