Is truth getting lost in a country where lies are being told with greater and greater frequency, and where the telling of them seems to give them the cachet of truth? Apparently, it was Lenin who said: “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.”
Hey, tea drinkers. Lenin thought of it first. Did you catch that?
After I worried all that to death in my last post, I remembered that truth is an ambiguous concept and that I’d better deal with that thought before continuing my rant. So I looked up some quotations about truth to see if anyone has a handle on the problem.
Of course, the universal favorite is: “Beauty is truth and truth, beauty,-that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” A lovely line, and memorable, that Keats line — one every English student learns — but a whopper! Oh, I guess Keats believed it: he was a romantic with ideals he didn’t live long enough to see sour, and that Grecian urn was a splendid pot. But an awful lot of ugly truths have made their presence known in our world since then. And beauty? As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Truth is beautiful, without doubt; but so are lies.”
In my last post I wrote that artists must be about the search for truth, and that perhaps, just perhaps, they have no choice because truth is especially endangered in an already endangered world.
But am I talking about two whole different kinds of truth? Some people describe at least three kinds: 1) the kind we mean when we talk about facts vs. falsehoods; 2) truth in art, which is elusive but has to do with Truth with a capital T, namely, that which is truly essential, truly real; and 3) mathematical truth, which is simply tautology, that is, two sides of an equation, though expressed differently, represent the same value.
Winston Churchill talked about the first truth this way: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
I am, of course, not the first person to struggle with all this. The late Harold Pinter, in his 2005 Nobel speech, recalled that he had written in 1958,
‘There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false, it can be both true and false.’
I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?
Pinter went on to describe his own grappling with truth in the many plays that form his legacy, but finished his speech with these words:
When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror — for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.
I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.
If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us — the dignity of man.
In future posts, I’d like to explore Pinter’s “smashing of the mirror.”