Monthly Archives: May 2009

The truth and unicorns, part 1

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Unicorns are mythical creatures, but many people believe in them.  They don’t necessarily believe in the immanent possibility of seeing a unicorn on the street or in the woods any time soon.  They believe in believing in unicorns.

Myth speaks truth to reality, and the truth is that we need unicorns.  In the dialogue between myth and reality, we see the supposedly real world for what it really is:  impermanent, ever changing, mutable, a place that doesn’t have to be what it seems.  A place that isn’t really all that real, if by real you mean solid, concrete, tangible, or certain.

Without myth, the present is all we have (hello, Leonard Shelby).  Myth helps us to understand the world of now by freeing our dreams of worlds that might be, quite apart from whether or not they ever really happen.  Myth allows us the reveries of worlds lost, races won, loves cherished, sufferings endured.  Myth makes livable the stresses and oppressions of the moment.  Myth binds the present to the possible – the past that was, the past that could have been, the futures that may and may not come to pass, and the imaginary worlds that, without ever existing, will feed our passions and determine which future of the real world will, in fact, come to pass.

Myth is to our mundane world what relativity and quantum mechanics are to the world of Newtonian physics.  Newton’s laws work very well to explain the world of human-level sensory experience.  There’s a reason why an apple hits you on the head, and why every hanging apple on earth will do the same if you put a person under it at the right moment.  Newton explained the stuff we all see and helped us understand what was happening.  His laws extended our vision beyond the moment, predicting futures and explaining pasts.

Then came Einstein, whose Newtonian gaze extended much further than Newton could have dreamt, and in turn demanded a new reckoning.  With the theory of relativity, Einstein pushed our sight into the world of massive bodies – stars and galaxies – and the astronomical distances between them.  At the same time, Einstein’s discoveries also helped others (Max Plank, Neils Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, and more) to gaze into the world of the infinitesimally small, smaller than the atom itself, and quantum mechanics was born.
The Unicorn in Captivity

The Unicorn in Captivity

At either end of the spectrum – the massive or the tiny – Newton’s laws don’t make sense, even though they explain the world in between quite well.  In relativity, things that happen now might occur before something that happened already, depending on where you’re looking from.  At the quantum level of subatomic particles like electrons and quarks, things can be in two places at the same time.  To believe in the physics of the massive, or of the tiny, is to suspend belief in the world we can see and touch.  And we can deal with that, because our minds constantly ask for more than what’s just beyond our noses.

This is why we have relativity, the 10 or 11 dimensions of string theory, the superposition of quantum particles, positrons and anti-matter, quarks, and unicorns.

Afternote: For a real treat on the marriage of design, art, and Isaac Newton, go to The Newton Project at the Dutch Art Institute.  Click on the artists’ names and see their designs.  My favorite is the one by Meiyu Tao.

Credits

Leonard Shelby:  See the post, “The truth and tattoos” and Memento.

Gold unicorn:  Norman Walsh, photographer, Bristol, England,  http://norman.walsh.name/2003/10/08/bristol.

The Unicorn in Captivity, from “The Hunt Tapestries,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters.  Image from:  http://www.geocities.com/area51/corridor/5177/hunt.html.

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Filed under Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, ideas, Isaac Newton, Leonard Shelby, myth, philosophy, superposition

The truth and mirrors

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The eye of the beholder sees many things, and the beholder alone is the judge of what he or she sees.  The beholder sees beauty, or ugliness, or truth, or lies, and the beholder knows something.  The thing about eyes, however, is that they look out, not in.

Adam Smith, the great moral philosopher and economist, wrote that the solitary person “could no more think of his own character, of the propriety or demerit of his own sentiments and conduct, of the beauty or deformity of his own mind, than of the beauty or deformity of his own face.” The solitary person, in other words, can know little of himself – and so we need others.  “Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided with the mirror which he wanted [i.e. lacked] before.” This was key for Smith, for he believed that by considering the judgments and opinions that other people have of our actions, we achieve the basis of a moral society.

For Lou Reed, the mirror held the promise of love for those who couldn’t see their own beauty.

I’ll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know …

When you think the night has seen your mind
That inside you’re twisted and unkind
Let me stand to show that you are blind …

I find it hard to believe you don’t know
The beauty that you are
But if you don’t let me be your eyes …

Michael Jackson took this a step further, hoping that the mirror could help a person look inside.

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways …
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change

Jackson’s use of the mirror was a kind of solipsistic (or maybe just plain lonely) version of Freud’s:  “The doctor should be opaque to his patients and, like a mirror, should show them nothing but what is shown to him.”

But mirrors are tricky.  They are passive reflectors.  Place a lie in front of a mirror, and you will see only a lie.  Mirrors confuse and when combined with smoke, serve to hoodwink and swindle people out of the truth and what is real.  The mirror, a hoped-for source of truth, gives the world to magicians and con artists.

In the Middle Ages, ambitious politicians and intellectuals wrote books called Mirror of Princes, in order to curry favor and win state positions by writing about how a real prince could reflect the qualities of an ideal prince.  An elaborate form of flattery, it was a way to get a job, but the Mirror of Princes literature was a corrupt thing, the falsification of what mirrors were supposedly created for.

Machiavelli exploited the lie of the Mirror of Princes to write the definitive satire of political philosophy, The Prince, seen only in its reverse-mirror image of “Machiavellian” self-interested intrigue, deception, and cruelty.  Machiavelli wrote his satire only too well, and his republican and democratic self has been lost to history (except for the community of political theorists, who are a small community indeed).  Machiavelli was a good guy, who survived torture and other awful events for his commitment to democratic republicanism.  Such is the danger of playing in front of mirrors.

In The Lady from Shanghai, Orson Welles created the classic mirror scene, in which his central characters meet in a fun-house mirror maze and proceed to have a shootout amid the dozens of reflected images of themselves.  Just who would kill whom is a matter of luck, but both Everett Sloane and Rita Hayworth are mortally wounded, and their stupidity allows Michael, played by Welles, to walk away free.  The beauty of the scene consists in the way that the mirrors only serve to reflect the hubris of everyone involved, amplifying the conclusions that one might have hoped to see.

Mirrors can show us only what we put in front of them.  Our fun-house mirrors create images that satisfy and mollify at the expense of the truth.  We use mirrors to convince ourselves that we can see objectively, when we’re only seeing what we want to see.  Francis Bacon observed that “… human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.”

IMG_1601There are mirrors, and then there are fun-house mirrors, and then there are false mirrors.  Mirrors can’t solve our problems or help us find the truth.  Only honesty can, and that’s a thing apart from mirrors.  Don’t seek the truth in a mirror.  Close your eyes and seek the truth within.  You may not see it, but you may find it.

Credits

Adam Smith, The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, in The Essential Adam Smith, ed. R. Heilbroner (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1986), p. 101.

Lou Reed, “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” recorded by the Velvet Underground and Nico in 1967.

Michael Jackson, “Man in the Mirror, Bad, 1988.

Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, Aphorism 41.

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Filed under existentialism, fiction, life, love

The truth and fiction

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They say that the truth is stranger than fiction.  This is true, but meaningless.  The truth may be strange, indeed, but good fiction is compelling.  That’s what makes fiction more real (or more true) than the truth.  Fiction speaks to you in ways that the truth never will.  The real question is not whether something is truth or fiction, but rather how good it is, either way.

Note for the concerned, erudite, elite, and critical:  Not all fiction is truer than truth.  Only the best fiction is, but we’re not talking about bad fiction here.  Danielle Steele fits here as good fiction.  And Nora Roberts.  There are good reasons to read DS and NR and James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon.  Good fiction is better than truth at helping us understand what is and isn’t true in the world.  [See my quote from Kafka in the quotes section of the blog.]

This is why poetry and fiction are utterly essential to life as we know it.  The arts make life possible, because only through the arts do we understand how we live together, relate to each other, learn from each other, and build the wherewithal to fall and love (or lust) and propagate the species.  This is because the arts are all about that one central feature of humanity that allows us to be who we are:  narrative.  Not mere communication, the narrative is a story, meta-communication with backstory, protagonists, antagonists, beginnings, middles, ends.  Narrative is the essence of being human.

So what happens when we use narrative to relate something that really happened?  We all know the old telephone game, and social science verifies in no uncertain terms how deeply flawed narrative is as a way to communicate what really happened, how it happened (which unfortunately stands in for “truth” with lots of people).  Eyewitness testimony, it turns out, is an awful way to find the truth and bring people to justice.  People remember what they want to remember and tell you the story that’s important to them.  As a teacher and trainer of interviewers and researchers I am adamant:  The worst way to find out about something is to ask about it directly.  That’s because everything we say (including this very post) is really about doing some specific emotional work for the speaker.

This is a key concept:  emotional work.  Our stories have a two-fold nature.  They convey information, but because we’re usually invested in that information in important personal ways, we tell our stories in ways that satisfy important personal needs.  This creates a paradox of truth and fiction, however, because it makes some truths utterly false and irrelevant, and much fiction important, compelling, and utterly true.

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The paradox of truth and fiction is revealed in James  Frey’s   story with Oprah – how he “embellished” his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, to the point at which is was less memoir than perhaps creative non-fiction or even a novel “based on a true story.”  It’s worth noting that Frey did try to offer the work as a novel when he started out.

I never read A Million Little Pieces.  I read My Friend Leonard, the sequel.  I was deeply moved by Frey’s writing and admit I was choked up at the end of Leonard.  Frey’s writing style was gripping and compelling and the story he told was true in ways that deeply connected with so many readers.  Frey’s work holds up, no matter how embellished it is.

When the truth becomes shrill, does it really matter?

When fiction speaks the truth, it surely does.

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Filed under art, fiction, James Frey