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?
August 31st, 2010 at 18:40
Great post my simian friend 🙂
Sometimes, real life is almost hard to believe and we have to change it slightly when it’s translated into fiction. My first idea for the novel I am working on now, was very different, it was originally going to be told from the first person from my female character’s point of view. Her life, was rather autobiographical and I’d used my own childhood experiences and given them to her. Well, when I read back what happens to her, which I KNEW was REAL (because it had happened to me) it was actually hard to believe! Yes, because it was so horrible that I knew a reader would read that bit and think “you’re exaggerating a bit, aren’t you, isn’t this a bit TOO dramatic?” and so I had to tone down my own real life experience so it appeared more believable. That really taught me about how we see the truth and yes, we cannot handle it sometimes.
I ended up ditching the entire thing anyway when my boy made his appearance and took over the ENTIRE novel and made it HIS story. Talk about stealing the limelight 🙂
September 2nd, 2010 at 19:44
Why thank you, m’dear Agatha, and major props to you for exploring some difficult true-life terrain in your novel. Even though you had to pull it back a bit (which is astounding to me…you must be made of tough stuff, lady. So sorry to hear life was that horrific, yet proud that you’ve overcome it, and probably that much stronger).
I remember getting feedback on a story I’d written at university, in which my professor felt one of my secondary characters was too stereotypical. Little did he know I had pulled most of his dialogue verbatim from my travel journal; it was based on a real man who actually said those things. So I guess there’s a reason why stereotypes exist sometimes…I continue to write stuff based on experience and question whether a reader would actually buy it.
In any case, yes, there are truths that can be too much to take on or risk losing the reader’s belief in it, so the way it’s conveyed must be delicately constructed.
August 31st, 2010 at 20:41
Exactly, fallen monkey. Excellent question. Thanks to a dollop of maturity, the realization has dawned that not everyone values the Truth. A well phrased question is often the best approach with no attachment to whatever the answer may be. Often the answer blindingly portrays the layers of reluctance and denial. Sobeit. My job is a wrap in the question.
I’m delighted to have discovered you.
September 1st, 2010 at 02:28
You are waxing philosophical, and I like it :-). Thanks for the cave story; I like getting an education w/ my blog-reading! No way can I condense all my feelings on this subject. I think of myself as very truthful and despise a liar. But then while I’m writing my novel I find myself prevaricating profusely–and I hope I’m getting good at it. I sometimes chide myself because I am knowingly trying to prove to readers something happened, people existed who never did, except in my mind! I sometimes feel like a lawyer putting a slant on the truth–for the greater good, of course. Because I do tell the truth–but it’s all wrapped up in lovely lies.
September 2nd, 2010 at 20:02
Ha, sharmon, just when I tried to avoid getting philosophical in my previous post, doh! I ought to watch it on these massive topics—I may not really know what I’m talking about 🙂 I’m glad you liked the allegory (whether we believe in its meaning or not, it’s a bit of history on Plato that’s good to know).
“Because I do tell the truth-but it’s all wrapped up in lovely lies” – That’s marvelous how you put it. A positive spin on lying, if you will 🙂 Writing fiction does involve a great deal of “lying” when so much are our own inventions. Have you seen the movie The Invention of Lying? What cracked me up is that because no one in the world could lie, television and films were SO boring…straight-up nonfiction read from a book; no sets, music, action, anything, because then it wouldn’t be real, which is essentially lying. So I say lie on, my friend, lie on!
September 1st, 2010 at 03:31
Oh, the delicious, dangerous “truth”. I am a truth seeker, a truth fanatic, and yet it seems that the closer I try to get to the truth, the more I realise that it is an illusion.
There are as many truths as there are people on the planet.
As an interesting aside, I seem to attract those who are compulsive liars. But then maybe they think they’re telling the truth. Who knows?
It all makes for fascinating reading/writing.
Great inspiring post!
September 2nd, 2010 at 20:07
Ah yes, milkfever, if I recall correctly from your blog, you hold the theory that there are as many worlds as people because we all perceive in a unique way. I love that! So it logically follows, then, that we each have our own truths. That makes a great deal of sense and something I can readily believe in. Interesting that you’re a compulsive-liar magnet…that might mean you share my extreme gullibility 🙂 That’s a good question, though, whether they know that they’re lying…is a lie really a lie if the person telling believes it?? My head hurts. I must stop thinking now and crawl back up my tree…
September 1st, 2010 at 10:12
Ah, thanks so much for digging out one of my favourite and most-quoted movie lines. Somebody can tell me how this connection works?!
Anyway – my 2 cent on “the truth”. There are many truths out there. In fact, every person carries a truth of certain events, so to me it is never absolute. And this is what I am writing about in my stories. The aftermath of a botched IRA assassination (manuscript I), the story of a not-so-voluntary adoption (manuscript II). All of the protagonists have their own valid truth there, and the suspense (hopefully) comes from the fact it is totally different truths they are all fighting for.
One of my favourite books, “The House of Sand and Fog”, is a good example of that view. After finishing I couldn’t sleep for a night, thinking about truths. I would love if one day a person would ever say the same about my work … sigh.
Thanks for asking the big questions, monkey!
September 2nd, 2010 at 20:21
Eva! Your stories sound fascinating (way more than anything I tackle :)) Seriously, how intense. Can’t wait to read my signed copies of them one day…
I agree with you that truth is relative…moral compasses, for example, may point in different directions—or just spin—for justifiable reasons (like in the scenario of someone breaking the law for what they deem a greater good). My protagonist is certainly on a quest for her own truth, with it inadvertently getting tied up in someone else’s, but at some point there is the crucial break when they can diverge on their own paths.
And I can always count on you for a good book rec. Will add that one to my list.
September 1st, 2010 at 14:23
“he had to stray from writing the factual truth in order to tell the absolute Truth.”
I loved this… And I loved this post, after I read it, I sat down and thought about “the truth” .
Personally, I never liked the idea of “the truth”. It is supposed to be this concrete, stable thing we can hold on to but never have I seen something more unsteady than the truth. It constantly changes through time, places and perspectives.
That’s why I love fiction. It is the truth above the truth. It’s what you see when you sit inside that cave and close your eyes. A story is not a lie nor the truth but both of them, and so much more… To me that thought alone is very liberating 🙂
September 2nd, 2010 at 20:25
“That’s why I love fiction. It is the truth above the truth.” – That hits on it exactly, Lua. The history books kids read in school now already share different facts from when I was younger, and I’m beyond ever trusting what the media poses as the truth of a situation. That’s precisely why I do appreciate fiction for its ability to embed the ever-evolving truths within inventions of the imagination. It’s seriously the most truthful way to lie 🙂
September 1st, 2010 at 18:13
Yes, I agree with all the above. Truth is overrated, unless it’s the truth of being, which no words can describe.
September 2nd, 2010 at 20:34
Yes, the “absolute Truth” might be so elusive because it doesn’t exist to begin with. When authors share their personal perspectives of the truth in what they write (which could mean the authenticity of an emotion, impact of an experience, sense of morality, or whatever interpretation—all relative, in any case), it does seem to be in pursuit of describing the truth of being, which, as you say, is indescribable.
September 1st, 2010 at 18:25
I love when you go philosophical! And I like the idea of writing something larger to get at the Truth and make it palatable/understandable, although I have less sympathy for the author who coats that in autobiography (couldn’t he have written some other man’s tale?). I think this is especially relevant to children’s fiction, where the world is almost unknowable, given their limited experience. Fiction brings the truths to them in ways that they can understand and that help them grow.
September 2nd, 2010 at 20:52
Ha, thanks for humoring my attempts, Susan! Quite frankly, Sophie’s World has started to give me a headache as of Descartes…if only all philosophers explained it in simple allegories like Plato 🙂 Yeah, though I like O’Brien’s rationale, you’d think he could have at least given the narrator a different name than his, yeesh! I still haven’t read A Million Little Pieces, but obviously heard the controversy, and I feel like there must be some better way of classifying these types of books when they first go out into the market so they aren’t so easily confused with straight-up memoirs; otherwise, the author really is lying.
Children’s fiction is the perfect example! There are truths about life they need to be introduced to, but, as you say, their naivety/limited frames of reference would make an outright telling of it incomprehensible if not traumatizing. I think that poses a great challenge to authors of children’s and YA literature like yourself, which is probably why I haven’t attempted it yet 🙂
September 1st, 2010 at 22:58
This is a first: I had to come back. This post is still so much with me. The quote, “he had to stray from writing the factual truth in order to tell the absolute Truth.” is so profound. Did it take him forever to be able to say that so succinctly?
I love the truth. It truly does set one free.
September 2nd, 2010 at 19:53
What a treat to see you back here, souldipper! I am truly flattered and so happy that this post strikes such a chord. It’s been interesting reading everyone’s comments on what they regard “Truth” to be, with some finding it to actually be “False” in the sense that there can be different truths for different people. It’s such a huge concept to wrap the mind around, I was actually pretty insecure about attempting to tackle it here! I certainly don’t feel I have answers, but I do seek Truth, and it’s unfortunate that so many—as you said in your earlier comment—instead seek to deny it in their own lives.
Regarding O’Brien, I imagine he was called out on this so frequently that he fine-tuned that response in no time 🙂 It’s such a risk to write something so autobiographical (and present it essentially as such), when it’s also so fictional, so I think he handled it well—just when I was about to get angry that some of the most touching chapters didn’t actually happen (or that certain characters were invented), his explanation (the one you quote) made infinite sense.
September 2nd, 2010 at 18:20
This is a great explanation of what a lot of authors understand, fallenmonkey, but may not be able to explain. You are right, the truth might seem sort of blah if told it in the way it was discovered, verbatim.
But throw a little sugar on that medicine and yes, the reader will chug the truth down quite well. Even better then if we just said it flat out, in a seemingly uninteresting manner.
Which makes me think: are writer’s the world’s nanny’s?
September 2nd, 2010 at 20:59
If so, Ollin, I certainly don’t want to change the world’s diaper 🙂
You make a good point that—aside from being perhaps too intense or complex—telling the truth outright could just be dull, plain and simple. The sugary “lie” lures the reader into understanding by making the story more entertaining. There are events in our lives that make a great impact on us that others could learn from; however, what actually happened to us might not sound like that big of a deal to someone else—one of those “you had to be there” moments…so the fictional story might be the best way to make them feel like they are there.
I think your recent story is a fine case in point—it raises awareness about a very critical issue in our present world (one that arises through the daily hum-drum of our lives) by telling an exciting tale of the future.
September 5th, 2010 at 14:27
I appreciate your take on this, CK, as well as our individual roles as storytellers. I would like to think that I shine light into darkness in my tales, either through heroism, humor, or hubris. 1. Anyone can be a hero; just do the right thing. 2. Laughter is good for the soul. 3. Pride goeth before destruction. I guess those are the “truths” that, from my perspective, are the most important in the stories I tell. As for the ones I read, I love it when characters rise against overwhelming odds to make a difference. (I’m in the middle of Catching Fire right now…)
September 6th, 2010 at 10:38
I think those 3 H’s encompass very key truths indeed, Milo, and the second one—humor—is in itself that spoonful of sugar! I love the theme of overcoming the odds as well—goes along with your first H and is so heartening…whether inspiring heroism in the individual or at least renewing faith in all the good that people can and still do with enough conviction. I haven’t read that book—let me know how you like it!
November 2nd, 2010 at 20:04
[…] In view of such “ghosts” from my past, I find that they appear in some incarnation or another in my writing, perhaps in special homage of these special people and moments. ”Write what you know,” they always say, and I do, knowing full well I am clearly not alone. I’m constantly reading intros to novels that state how they’re the “most autobiographical” of the author’s works, and, really, isn’t every work of fiction arguably so? Just ways of telling our truths “slant”? […]
January 4th, 2011 at 19:57
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