Historians' Watch

The Truth in Stories

This article was first given as a lecture in the series ‘Truth to Be Told’ at the Institute of Humanities, University College Dublin on 7 December 2017.

Discussing the imaginary zones of speculative fiction, the poet W. H. Auden adopted the term ‘Secondary World’, previously used by J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, and declared, ‘Every normal human being is interested in two kinds of worlds: the Primary, everyday, world which he knows through his senses, and a Secondary world or worlds which he not only can create in his imagination, but also cannot stop himself creating . . . Stories about the Primary world may be called Feigned Histories; stories about a Secondary world, myths or fairy tales.’

‘Feigned Histories’: in the era of Trump, this phrase might cause shivers and prompt disavowals. But let’s linger on this for a moment. At a symposium on the concept of Denial, one of the speakers commented that the current President of the USA is the ultimate postmodern nightmare: a reality TV host who treats his powerful position in the world as a game, one in which he is master of ceremonies and making up the rules as he goes along. But if Trump is an avatar precipitated by mass media illusions, his use of the term ‘fake news’ to label his critics’ reports reveals that he is invoking a binary concept of truth and falsehood that is not postmodern at all. It is fundamentalist – evangelical – in its claim on truth for himself alone. In terms of narrative truth, the Trump insult ‘fake news’ – the bluntness and coarseness of the phrase – manages to indict ideas about how language and narrative communicate, making it harder discuss the many forms imaginative storytelling takes.

Scheherazade and the sultan by Sani ol-Molk (1814-1866), Public Domain

Fabulism – making up stories – is not only an ancient, deep-rooted and peculiar mark of human beings, but its many genres (parables, satires, fairy tales, animal fables, ballads, elegies, mythological tragedies and comedies) are tools of truth-telling, fashioned over time. Its many registers and moods, in which irony is paramount, range through the whole gamut of communicating subtleties and nuances. The oldest stories in the world – often about lions and jackals – are directed at princes and laced with ironies about tyranny and its prerogatives. It is not that the tradition does not ask stories to tell the truth, but that the truth that stories have been telling for so long has not dented the swollen brutality of tyrants one jot.

During the period when I was intensively reading the Arabian Nights – a story about a woman telling stories about injustice and cruelty and violence to a ruler and, eventually, after 1001 nights, persuading him to think and behave and govern with mercy instead, in other words, managing to raise his consciousness, to achieve what Freud called ‘the talking cure’ – I could not but think all the time of Assad in Syria. Since then Assad has been joined by many others. In spite of this pessimistic history, stories matter crucially: the tyrants would not be restrained at all without them. Stories build the imponderable but all-important active ingredients of social values, brought about by gradually evolving consensus.

In a chapter called ‘Being or Becoming the Stranger’, Toni Morrison has recently commented, ‘The resources available to us for benign access to each other, for vaulting the mere blue air that separates us, are few but powerful… Language (saying, listening, reading) can encourage, even mandate, surrender, the breach of distances among us, whether they are continental or on the same pillow, whether they are distances of culture or the distinctions and indistinctions of age or gender, whether they are the consequences of social invention or biology. Image increasingly rules the realm of shaping, sometimes becoming, sometimes contaminating knowledge. Provoking language and eclipsing it, an image can determine not only what we know and feel but also what we believe is worth knowing about what we feel. These two godlings, language and image, feed and form experience.’

To make the case for the truth of stories – invented stories or ‘feigned histories’ – I am now going to draw on the discussion about Denial. Prompted by an issue of History Workshop Journal recently edited by Catherine Hall and Daniel Pick, participants were invited to explore the psychoanalytic concept of denial in relation to historical events. This included a paper written in 1985 by John Steiner, a psychoanalyst, about Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, the tragedy that so momentously inspired Freud to formulate the Oedipus complex. Steiner’s paper is called ‘Turning a Blind Eye’, and he picks up on a profoundly divergent interpretation of the play: that everyone in the play knows what happened and that they are all in various states of denial, knowing and not knowing at the same time. Some know that they know, like Tiresias; some don’t want to know, like the shepherd who exposed Oedipus as a baby; some like Jocasta, and Oedipus himself, have chosen to bury their consciousness altogether so that they don’t know that they know. Oedipus and Jocasta, for example, do not ask obvious questions: about his pierced feet, about the age gap between them, and about the coincidence of Laius’s death, Jocasta’s consequent widowhood, and Oedipus’s surprise arrival. The chorus also in some profound way knows and does not know at the same time, so that the cover-up is not exactly anyone’s particular decision, but a pervasive climate of consensus that settles over the truth, generating its material embodiment – the deadly plague that has spread throughout Thebes.

Cup showing Odysseus listening to the riddles put to him by the Sphinx. 470-460 BC. Photo by Nick Thompson: Creative Commons.

This remarkably persuasive insight into Sophocles’ mythic tragedy shows that when a story is familiar and has become a kind of universal currency in a culture – an Esperanto over time – it has the potential to produce new meanings for each new forum and setting with significant explanatory force. Looking at Denial through this famous story of Oedipus, we were able to think more closely and carefully about the interactions of one person with the social fabric. After all this time that I have known and admired and been moved by Oedipus Rex, I had not yet felt these particular powerful reverberations for the pervasive, acute social problem of turning a blind eye; when a single denier, with a unique pathology, can set rings of corresponding denial rippling around him, as Hitler did in Nazi Germany and as Trump is doing now.

The story of Oedipus is not true as historical fact and it is hardly plausible as a story; indeed, it takes a foremost tragedian’s dramatic skills at full stretch to persuade us of its reality. This territory of imagined stories is very complex, but exploring it matters very much, because literature happens in this debatable land of invented events. I have often quoted Paula Fox’s novel, A Servants Tale, in which a granny explains to her little granddaughter (the author herself when young) that ‘A lie tries to conceal the truth, a story tries to reveal it.’ Misinformation distorts and misleads on purpose, whereas stories set out to illuminate and probe. The contest for history involves imaginative acts and the tendency towards overlapping states of fact and fiction is growing among some of the most enthusiastically read writers today, with profound consequences.

Such acts of imagination involve the reader in acts of appraisal and interpretation, and they consequently sharpen antennae to truth-telling. The thinking imagination, developed by literature, stimulates a stance of alertness and questioning – what Terence Cave calls ‘epistemic vigilance’. Many writers, including myself, now teach creative writing, to make money to make time to write things we want to write. This is not always a successful manoeuvre. However, I have found that teaching creative writing is a way of passing on ways of reading, especially ways of listening for irony. Irony as a way of expression communicates thought and it offers a precise tuning fork for listening out for the designs a story has on you. When it comes to education in life and bullshit detection, reading is the best school.

The track record of literature reveals how deeply writers have perceived the power of words to shape experience. As Margaret Atwood has warned, books are not a good in themselves. Setting aside glaring examples like Mein Kampf, there are many foundational stories, such as – in my view – the account of the Fall in Genesis, which have entrenched dangerous passions and opinions.

Dido and Aeneas, by Nicolas Verkolye (Dutch, 1673 – 1746). Open Content.

Fake news, a denier’s default phrase, has become the most repeated insult, quick and lethal, only a finger tap away, and it damages trust in the work of the imagination. The papers tell us we are living in a post-truth era. The press spokesperson for the President invokes ‘alternative facts’. The internet and social media have sped the winged feet of Rumour, the malignant goddess whom Virgil dramatizes so ferociously as she spreads her scandalous version of Dido’s passion for Aeneas and stokes up hatred. Such attacks make us defensive – as researchers into history, as keepers of memories, as autofiction writers – not to speak of those who are tale-spinners and fabulists. I think it is crucial not to concede this territory: to make the arguments for the truth of the imagination – a romantic mantra, but one that is on the side of life and co-existence and civilisation.

The ways stories reveal truth involve various imaginative stratagems. They do not photograph what took place, but paint possibilities with eyes closed out of the dreaming, thinking, creative faculties. The defeatist axiom of W. H. Auden –  ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’ – misses the mark, because anxiety now clusters around books’ power to imprint their vision of experience and shape actions and future ends. Books aren’t a good in themselves, Atwood tells us; they can be dangerous. It is a contest of words. Atwood has chosen to write politically charged fables, and has inspired others to think of imagination as an instrument of warning: a beacon lit on a hill to tell others of dangers approaching.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *