Halfway through Sophie’s World, and it keeps prompting new thoughts. Well, more accurately, the history of philosophy that it shares does.
Though dear Sophie and I have already progressed to the 18th century, Plato’s ancient allegory of the cave continues to flicker in my mind like the flame casting shadows onto the back of the cave wall. If you aren’t familiar with the story, the basic idea is this:
Visualize a cave with people seated with their backs to its opening. They are therefore only able to see the back of the cave wall, which is dancing with the shadows of objects held behind the people and in front a fire. The people are unable to turn around, thus only know the world from these vague shadows of what’s transpiring beyond them outside of the cave.
In this myth, the actual objects (which would be seen in clearer detail if the people turned around to look at them directly) represent the world of ideas, whereas the shadows are only our perception of the material world. Plato believed that true knowledge could not be gained through our senses, but, rather, our reason. Thus, the enlightened ones who try to see beyond their physical world into the realm of ideas will see with clarity and truth.
So why do most of us keep our backs to the cave opening, staring into the darkness and shadows? Is it because we choose not to see or aren’t able to? When I think of this myth literally, I pretend that I’m the one to stand up and look around at what is creating the shadows. My eyes having been adjusted to the dark all this time, I’d think they’d be pierced by the bright fire/daylight. This then makes me think of the Emily Dickinson poem:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Methinks Miss Dickinson and Colonel Jessep share something in common—though Emily might agree we ordinary folk are entitled to the truth, neither believes we can handle it. For that matter, how would everyone else in my cave respond if I suddenly told them what I saw? Would they believe me? Be shocked by it? Deny it?
Me-then thinks perhaps stories are a way we writers try to help the medicine go down. Hey, Plato’s allegory is a case in point, is it not? Stories help us to better understand truths through visualization and creative “slant”—no, not lies, just not necessarily the facts either when it comes to fiction. And I shouldn’t imply that it’s “sugar-coating”; indeed, stories well-told will intensify rather than dilute, expressed in engaging, vivid ways that make a reader receptive to even the grittier stuff.
Years ago, I attended a lecture by Tim O’Brien in which he discussed his novel The Things They Carried. Written in the first person and narrated by a character whose name was also Tim and who also fought in Vietnam, the book reads like it’s the author’s memoir. O’Brien clarified, however, that while much of the novel is based on his real life, it is a novel. Flip to the inside cover and see that it is denoted as a work of fiction (there are many semi-autobiographical narratives that are, which many don’t realize until Oprah exposes it mercilessly on her show…*ahem* A Million Little Pieces *cough*…Night is arguably another—and oh, hey, just look whose book club it’s in…).
Basically, O’Brien said he had to stray from writing the factual truth in order to tell the absolute Truth. He likened it to catching your first fish; sure, it might be scrawny, but your excitement is massive. In order to get someone else as excited about your catch as you are, you might stretch your hands further apart from the few inches of, “It was this big,” to the two-foot length of, “It was THIS BIG!!” Describing a tiny bluegill as a giant catfish isn’t factually true, but your friend’s commensurate reaction is the Truth of what you actually felt. Likewise, O’Brien believed that for anyone who didn’t experience Vietnam to feel remotely the way he felt when he was there, he needed to tell it differently.
So my question for YOU is this: what Truths do you write or read about? Which of your stories (or those you’ve read) do you think do a particularly effective job of helping the reader “handle the truth” and why?