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Monday 10 January 2011

Facts, Fiction and Truth

One morning a man walks into a church, packed with a sincere and devout congregation who have worshipped there all their lives, and utters a series of blasphemies. While the congregation rises in angry astonishment, the man walks away to spend an evening with prostitutes, collaborators and drunkards. In the days that follow, he openly flouts the law, insults the clergy and gathers a group of ne’er-do-wells to form a kind of cult around himself. He causes havoc in a St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (or its equivalent in his day), and when, eventually the law catches up with him, he is executed as a criminal...and good riddance to him.

Here is the beginning of another version of the same man’s life: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us....” The Son of God came to give Light to the Word, but the world would not accept him and crucified him and three days later he rose from the dead. Of course, this man is Jesus as seen through the eyes of the religious leaders of his time and seen through the eyes of evangelists and Christians. All the allegations are facts – he broke the law, he blasphemed, he disregarded authority – but they are not the whole Truth. Even the Gospel writers (and there are many more Gospels than the canonical Gospels) do not agree on all points and quite often contradict one another. The facts become distorted but I do not doubt the Truth expressed by each evangelist or by each critic.

This somewhat extreme example shows, I think, the challenges faced by anyone who writes today of real people of the past. In the East, particularly at the time the scriptures were written, there was a completely different understanding of what constituted a biography or history. Myth was a most wonderful device used to express the essence of a person, and the readers (or more often hearers) of the story, understood that. It didn’t matter so much what someone actually did, as who they were, their drive, their motive, their very essence or expression of the Divine, which, I personally believe expresses through all of us.

Nowadays, it seems that people are obsessed with facts and proof. Someone did this – we can prove it; we have a photograph or a written record of it. Someone said this – we can prove it; we have a recording of it. Someone thought this – we can prove it, we have a letter from them that is evidence of the fact. If you were to write someone’s biography without sufficient footnotes, it would be seen as risible. But with all my heart I believe facts miss the point completely.

How often within one day does your behaviour change? How often within one season do you fluctuate between joy and sorrow, between certainty and doubt? How often in your lifetime so far have you swung between kindness and unkindness; between elation and despair; between rage and love? Are there photographs of you which were taken when you were unaware and you look terrible, and others where you actually look quite nice? Have you ever written a letter to someone – perhaps out of duty in thanks for a Christmas gift or something – and said things which you weren’t really feeling at all? Have you ever been out of sorts and said something that later you think, “I don’t really think that at all, I was just in a bad mood.” One day, perhaps, depending on whose hands these things fall into, someone could write a very factual story of your life. But, while all of those facts would be there in your own image, handwriting, recording of your voice, it wouldn’t capture you at all.

This, I think, is one of the dangers of modern biography. A fictional account of a real person’s life is obviously the interpretation of the novelist. If it is worth reading at all it will contain truths not only about the subject of the book but also about the author’s view of humanity. Readers understand that and have the opportunity to interpret it at face value, as they choose. Biographies though – particularly those with the stamp of having been written by someone with a particular qualification – take on an authoritarian aspect. They are bound by facts. They are provable....and facts are so often mistaken for Truth.

Facts have their place but are far less reliable than Truth. To my mind, the closest we can come to the Truth of another person (of the past) is what you sense about them as you read the many contradictory facts of their life. Sometimes it is possible, even within the confines of one’s own mental agenda, to simply sense how they saw the world; what it was like to stand in their shoes, feel how they felt – it cannot be proved it can only be experienced and is filtered through one’s own experience...but it comes closer to the depths of a person than what is simply ‘proven’.

Facts are not all they seem, I think. Truth is everything and is so seldom recorded. We sense it by contemplating and viewing the lives of people about whom we write or in whom we are interested or to whom we feel drawn, though we can never be prove the truth of our contemplations and yet, there really is no need for proof – everything is interpretation anyway. (A quotation from Franz Werfel’s ‘Song of Bernadette’ comes to mind: for those who believe, no explanation is necessary; "for those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.” It seems to apply to so many things....)

1 comment:

May said...

Yes, it is possible to miss the forest for the trees, with all the insistence on 'facts'.