Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow…
— T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”
The nature of truth, what is real, when fiction is more “true” than fact, and when facts are, well, slippery, were just a few of the entertaining and provocative subjects brought to the fore by Casey Logan as our conversational guide. We seemed, inevitably with such a discussion, to have more questions than answers: Perfect for a three hour conversation!
“Facts create norms, but truth creates illumination.” Werner Herzog
One area Casey raised was the medium of communication. Is theater, for example, a form in which half truths or fictional narratives are an acceptable form of truth telling when the device and content is used to portray a more holistic truth, or one that cannot be expressed more directly? Is theater perhaps more capable of this truth telling than, say, literature or photography? When can news be art, and is there a different standard of “truth” representation and expectation? Casey referenced the Mike Daisey affair, which is best understood by listening to the This American Life stories on the subject here. Among the fascinating aspects of this tale of deception perpetrated by Mike Daisey was his subsequent suggestion that his portrayal was “theatrical” and therefore not to be held to the same standard as a literal news piece.
The medium of photography is a specific form of communication that presents a challenge to our standards of belief in what seems real, or true. We so often assume that photographs represent an exact truth. Yet in a technological age, we all have the tools to bend whatever it was that Cartier-Bresson refers to as “reality.” As is clear from the debate over Roger Fenton’s Crimea images, this is not necessarily a new phenomena.
The photograph itself doesn’t interest me. I want only to capture a minute part of reality. Henri Cartier-Bresson
There is difficulty in determining the benchmark for truth-telling when we frequently want to be lied to. We don’t go to see a magician to be told that the deception is a lie and to be shown the reality of the trick. We also seem to be somewhat forgiving of certain memoirs, although not others. We expect art to tell us some truth of our human condition, yet to do so in an abstract, unreal way. Is the jester that uses patently embellished satire more truthful than a literal factual observer?
When we live in a society where people are uncertain, confused or mentally unprepared to understand themselves or how to live and “be” in society, we will deceive ourselves. As one participant argued, we lie about everything and accept lies about everything so far as that helps us make order out of chaos. When the truth is unsettling, we reconcile ourselves to a lie that makes existence acceptable. Rather uncomfortably, Chuck Klosterman points out, in his essay Fail, that this insight is reflected by Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.
“Modern people are so obsessed with socialization that they deceive themselves about everything — about what they feel, why they do things, or what their true morals are. It’s weird to take moral advice from a guy who sent bombs to strangers, but his thoughts are not invalid: Basically, the Unabomber believes modern people have no idea how they’re supposed to think or feel, so they convince themselves to care about whatever rules the rest of society seems to require. It’s something of a rudimentary loop — people conform to the status quo because the status quo validates the conformity they elected to adopt.”
Another specific area that animated our conversation related to who we are as individuals; how we present the truth of who we are to others and, indeed, to ourselves. How is it that we can be true to ourselves when each of us manifests a different persona in different contexts? In attempting to unravel the Gordian Knot we had created in this conversation, a few participants later found these quotes to help further articulate their thoughts:
“Do we really know anybody? Who does not wear one face to hide another? Frances Marion
Just for reference, Casey’s slides appear below. As you review them, I hope they prompt your own thoughts on how far we can lie to tell the truth.