THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
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The Wages of Spin

"It was a cold-blooded lie that a god had lovingly made the world and set out the sun and moon as lights to land-dwellers, that brothers had fought, that one of the races was saved, the other cursed. Yet he, the old Shaper, might make it true, by the sweetness of his harp, his cunning trickery."
– John Gardner, Grendel

 

1

A famous black man, formerly a star athlete, is accused of murdering his estranged wife and her boyfriend. He is put on trial. Millions of people believe him to be innocent; a great many more believe him to be guilty. He is ultimately acquitted.

Some years later, he is convicted and sent to prison on an unrelated charge. Those who thought him innocent of the murders considered this a vindictive action by a corrupt system that failed to get a conviction in the earlier trial. Those who thought him guilty felt this was overdue justice for a someone who had literally gotten away with murder.

A quarter-century after the original murders, no one else has ever been charged in the killings, and opinions are as divided as they ever were. If new evidence emerged now to bolster the case against the accused, or pointed to someone else, it is unlikely that public opinion would budge. On one side, a privileged celebrity went free because he could afford a team of celebrity lawyers; on the other, a racist criminal justice system, for once, was stymied in its efforts to put yet another black man behind bars.

What is the truth of the story? If this were a work of fiction, we would be moved by its pathos, not because it is real, but because it arouses our sympathy, and because we recognize elements of our own emotional, social and political selves in the lives of the characters. If readers were divided on the outcome, we would say it is inconsequential, but the degree to which a story shapes perceptions of society is not dependent whether the story is real or imaginary. This case has already moved into the realm of legend and become part of our national lore. Except that it is really two different stories, depending on one's point of view. It is not possible for both versions to be true. Only the defendant knows which version is the real story. Millions of people who are absolutely convinced that they know the truth are entirely mistaken. But it does not matter.

2

We are awash in stories. For thousands of years, our species has been telling and listening to stories about every subject in the realm of human experience: the tragic and the absurd, the violent and the idyllic, the amorous and the repulsive. We have conjured all manner of imaginary pasts, presents and futures in which to place our plots and characters, a canvas as wide and deep as our minds can conceive. The act of storytelling is not a mere pastime of idle intellects: it is fundamental to the way we make sense of the world. The narrative is the basis of all human understanding.

In a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, anthropologists have discovered wall paintings that are the oldest yet known to exist. These figures of men and animals, and men metamorphosed into animals, were created more than 40,000 years ago, making them quite a bit older than the cave paintings in France and Spain that were previously thought to be the oldest of their kind. It is clear that Homo sapiens have been imagining stories about ourselves almost as long as we have been a distinct species — as if there had ever been much doubt about that. The depiction of men with animal characteristics, or therianthropes, is as ancient as humanity itself. From the beginning, we imagined what it would be like to have the strength of an ox, or to run as fast as a lion. Unique among the species of the wild, we had the ability to suppose a reality that did not exist, and to aspire to a condition which we could foresee, however unrealistic. The degree to which this feature of our imaginations was responsible for our success, in building civilizations and cultivating every part of the Earth, should not be underestimated. Without storytelling, we would not be who and where we are.

cave painting
The story of us

How can we help but wonder, as we look at the prehistoric cave images, what sort of people made them? We feel at once a kinship with fellow humans and their handiwork, but are keenly aware that their view of the world must have been inconceivably different from our own. Yet every characteristic we can describe that distinguishes them from us leaves us wondering whether human nature has really changed at all over the ages. Are we not still fascinated by stories about ourselves? Do we not still believe in myths and tales that are not literally true? Do we not still project upon ourselves powers that we do not actually possess? Are our modern languages not rife with metaphors of hunting and conquest?

The cave painters' way of life may have been radically different from our own, though no more so than that of the surviving tribes of Amazon forest dwellers and African hunter-gatherers whom we occasionally encounter. We find these "primitive" people at once strange and familiar. They live beyond the reach of modernity, oblivious to human history and the progress of thought, art and science. And yet they are instantly recognizable as human. We talk to them, laugh with them. If removed from their habitat and injected into modern society, they would no doubt have difficulty adapting at first, but their children, like the children of immigrants everywhere, would naturally become part of whichever culture they found themselves in. They would shed their old stories and learn new ones. The human animal is adaptable to diverse situations precisely because we can always fashion a new story to suit our new surroundings.

3

We have always supposed that people (sane people, at least) are capable of distinguishing made-up stories from real events. But is this even true? Because we eagerly and regularly submit ourselves to fictional stories — the more compelling the tale, the more readily we suspend our disbelief — we are vulnerable to having our thoughts and feelings manipulated. Critics tend to denounce any narrative they don't like, whether in a book, play, song, movie, or painting, as manipulative — as if art were not inherently manipulative. For what what purpose does art exist except to make us to think or feel a particular way? This criticism may be leveled more fairly at political speech, which by its nature is intended to deceive, or at religious fable, which is more concerned with moral than literal truth. But then again, the manipulation of hearts and minds is something that art, politics and religion all have in common. Political theater and religious rite unabashedly copy the art of fictional theater for their own ends.

We very often fall prey to those who meld truth and tale cunningly for nefarious purposes. In the modern world, this activity falls generally into two categories: commercial stories that are told to separate us from our money, and political or religious stories that are told to compel our behavior. Both categories of manipulation have overlapping aims and use overlapping methods. Advertising, for example, is a time-tested method of getting people to buy things or take actions they might not otherwise contemplate. Whether or not advertisements for products or candidates contain outright lies bears little on their effectiveness. We are so deeply conditioned to respond to storytelling that we are often indifferent to the veracity of the claims that stories make upon our emotions.

Religious storytelling is the most categorically indifferent to the truth. The imaginary gods of ancient cave dwellers may be inferior in terms of moral sophistication from the gods of contemporary religions, but this is a difference in degree, not in kind. We tend to consider the history of religious thought as a progression, comparable to the progress of science or philosophy. Stone idols gave way to mythological beings, who in turn were cast aside in favor of a solitary and omnipotent Almighty. But this is less progress than metamorphosis. All of the modern world's major religions are based on systems of faith that long pre-date the modern era, with some even older than Greek mythology, so it is nonsensical to ascribe the qualifier "modern" to any known body of religious thought. The worship of multiple deities is far from extinct. The three main monotheistic traditions are riddled with pagan and tribal customs. The conviction that the fictional, self-contradictory narratives promulgated by these faiths are in fact true remains, as always, an obstacle to human progress. From the persecution of Galileo to the denial of climate change, reality has never been mankind's most compelling story. If science does not fit the narrative, then science be damned.

It is pointless and incorrect to condemn political or religious demagoguery as distinct from art. "Real" art is not some pure, unsullied expression of the human spirit as compared to the spiritual sophistry of priests or the filthy business of politics. The practitioners of these various kinds of tale-telling may have decidedly incompatible aims, with artists, at least in our era, mostly wishing to elevate the human spirit, while rulers and holy men (often the same) are seeking control. But they are all working on the same human clay. It is appalling but only natural when governments turn to propaganda, because people respond favorably to a story that has been properly calibrated to stir their feelings. Political theater is nakedly fraudulent but dishearteningly effective. (See Mephisto, Istvan Szabo's acclaimed film about an actor's seduction into Nazi political theatrics, and how a relentless onslaught of lies blinds the audience to any other possible truth.) Religious theater is even more guilty of embracing falsehoods, holding adherents in its grasp for generations on end, even though it is predicated on stories that do not even pretend to have any basis in fact.

4

Supposedly we are now living in a "post-truth" society, but when exactly was the truth society? When have we ever valued veracity more highly than mendacity?

We read fictional stories to our children beginning when they are very young, fulfilling an urge and predilection for narrative that is apparently wired into our brains. Neuroscientists suppose that the narrative function is necessary for us to make sense of all the input to which our minds are subjected. Other animals do not have this problem, but humans, with our vast sensory processing capacity, would be overwhelmed and unable to survive if we did not edit and trim as we went along. Memories are not fixed episodes but stories that we organize for later use. They change each time we remember them, hence our constantly shifting versions of the same event, and the consequent unreliability of eyewitness testimony. We have no need to remember things exactly the way they happened, just so long as they are useful to us. From a neurological standpoint, a fact has no more value than a lie, as long as ignoring it doesn't kill us. It matters not if we believe that the ocean falls off the edge of the earth, if we stay on shore.

Is it not odd that we teach our children to value a fictional story that reveals a greater truth, but we decry the same impulse in politics? Once the narrative genie is out of the bottle, there is no putting it back. We bemoan the current political era as particularly fraught, with political actors no longer bound by even the veneer of truthfulness, and the public indifferent to a steady diet of falsehoods. Decades of increasingly bitter partisanship have left us in a bad way, but not worse than in other political eras in the nation's history. What is truly different is how narratives, whether true or false, are magnified a million-fold by the internet and anti-social media. Furthermore, doubt about the reliability of all forms of human storytelling has been sown by decades of specious academic pondering, which has leached into the popular imagination. We are left with a menu of unsatisfying platitudes: "Everyone lies", "You can't trust anyone", "What is the truth, anyway?" Nuance is dead. Wolves feast on the carcass of our credulity.

And so we have the spectacle of voters who do not care if their candidate lies because, as far as they are concerned, he speaks a greater truth, not unlike a novelist. The conflation of politics with entertainment — which floods our lives with fictional stories through television, movies and books, and even infuses journalism with narrative ambiguity — leads much of the public to believe that there is no difference between truth and fiction, nor does there need to be. In such a climate, it does no good to counter a politician's lies with a dose of facts, because outrage is impervious to facts, and we are unable to come to agreement on the facts, anyway. Nor is there any profit in continual hand-wringing about the news media; we are in the grip of an era of lazy, formulaic journalism that will continue to reach for the lowest hanging fruit. Victory belongs not to the candidate who can deliver the truth, but to the stronger narrative. Any attempt to say "He is a liar but I am honest" will fail because every politician can and will be caught in a lie; a strategy of comparative self-righteousness is worse than useless. We must forget about correcting every untruth or moral failing of our opponents and concentrate instead on presenting a narrative so compelling that it will sweep all others aside.

This is what we do in our brains, unwittingly, every day of our lives. We do not adhere to stories because we know them to be true, but because we feel them to be useful and comforting. We are wired, just like the cave painter, to respond to dangers real or imagined by fighting them or retreating to safety, also real or imagined. Perhaps we should know better. Perhaps we would be better off if we woke up and realized that nearly everything we were taught as children is a damned lie. Or perhaps, like the peasants in Heinrich Böll's "The Balek Scales", who discover that their benevolent overlord has in fact been cheating them for generations, we would actually be happier if we never found out the truth. A painful reality is just not the story that gets us through the day.

 

January 18, 2020

 

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All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.