Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Writing and truth-telling

When it comes to writing, all the immense problems, obstacles and difficulties are finally reducible to the problem of truth. As Samuel Beckett loved to point out, writers are liars by nature – or rather, writers are simply those who have discovered the unbearable difficulty of truth-telling, the tragic disjunction between truth and language. All men are liars. But writers aim to lie their way into the truth, to vaccinate themselves against falsehood by injecting it right into the bloodstream.

Margaret Atwood's Booker Prize-winning novel, The Blind Assassin (2000), is an exquisite reflection on the deceitfulness of fiction. The narrator, Iris Chase, describes this curious relation between writing and truth-telling: "The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it. Impossible, of course" (p. 345).

Reading a selection of the latest theological books, you'd have to wonder whether Atwood is on to something: whether we too easily "excuse ourselves"; whether we are obsessed with writing new or fashionable or – worst of all – correct books, instead of true books.

If anything separates the great Christian thinkers – Kierkegaard, Barth, Aquinas, Augustine – from the rest, it is surely their refusal to excuse themselves from the painful struggle of truth-telling, the enormous labour with which they extract a single hard bright truth from the slurry of language.

16 Comments:

Todd said...

Sounds a lot like Gertrude Stein's concept of an "audience" with regard to the writing process.

Chris Donato said...

Great thought about the temptation to write correct books instead of true books.

I wonder, especially with respect to theological matters, does one have to earn the right to tell the truth?

Derek said...

Ben, thanks for this. This makes me feel a bit better about how much i struggle with writing, even with writing posts for my own blog. I find that blogging is an especially hard medium to write something true.

Karl Hand said...

My main problem is procrastination. I wonder if that's reducible to a problem of truth xD

Actually... starting to blog these last few weeks, I have noticed the problem of needing to censor myself! At least assignments and journal articles are just for certain select people.

My question now is what is the difference between dishonest censorship and pastoral sensitivity. If I just blurted out to my congregation every week everything that popped into my head - well, I don't think the result would be anything comparable to Kierkegaard, Barth, Aquinas and Augustine :P

Josh said...

Ben, you write: "Reading a selection of the latest theological books, you'd have to wonder whether Atwood is on to something: whether we too easily "excuse ourselves"; whether we are obsessed with writing new or fashionable or – worst of all – correct books, instead of true books."

Examples?

Ted Michael Morgan said...

Your posts usually enlighten me. The sermon on death recently came at a timely moment

A church near Tenby had a special prayer service for the little Welsh girl who has terminal cancer. I appreciate how the church in Wales responds in a caring way to this child.

Mike Higton said...

I have devised a get-out clause for my writing conscience.

I tell myself that I hope and plan to write one book - just one, in the rest of my academic career - and make it truthful. I think I know what it is going to be about as well.

It's just that I reserve the right to write a lot of other books in preparation, while I'm limbering up.

Paul Tyson said...

On theology and truth telling Barth’s afflicting take on Amos 5 (see Evangelical Theology chapter 12) points out, amongst other things that “the work of theology… appears subject to judgement to the extent that the development of all kinds of human vanity seems almost necessarily to belong to its very procedure.” Looking smart in the eyes of the right people in order to get published, in order to get a job, in order to have a career, in order to be paid for being a theologian seems – as Barth points out – almost necessary. Yet this ‘necessity’ is inherently defeating of truth telling, particularly simple terrible truth telling, in theology. Ah Søren… I am in no sense anywhere as bright or courageous (or screwed up) as you, but if only I too had the means to publish at my own expense and live without pleasing anyone, perhaps my still born collection of works might find a readership in a hundred years or so too! (But then again, my attempt at truth telling could still be crap even if I was not trying to please anyone!)

joel mason said...

What about Richard Kearney's proposition (On Stories) that writers tell a "truer truth" when they lie in a certain way (cognoscente of aesthetics and ethics) than those writing in straight forward non-narratives? Augustine was surely aware of this as he made use of the power of autobiographical narrative, telling his own story slant in order to imbue his confession with a particular meta-theme.

Ben Myers said...

Yes Joel, I think that's exactly right. As Picasso also said: "Art is a lie that makes us realise truth."

joel mason said...

or another example from the world of poetry: Charles Bukowski's poems and stories were replete with the mixed animal of factual and fictional narrative. Yet his narration of the underbelly of mid 20th century Los Angeles is spot on, more accurate than any census.

I think that the job of literature is to make obscure that which Scripture makes plain, embroiling the reader in a literary wrestling match, lover's embrace, dialogue, whatever. Good literature seems to show that, in the end, Scripture was never so easily understood; the narrative's "lie" help us stand back truthfully from truth too easily possessed.

kim fabricius said...

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years -
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres -
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate - but there is no competition -
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

T.S. Eliot, "East Coker"

Paul Tyson said...

Oh strange, beautiful irony...true words,Kim.

Erin said...

I appreciate the recent posts about writing, Ben. It's hard to have something to say and then say it well.

This square with Foucault's notion of parrhesia for me: a story tells the truth as long as it shows us something we prefer would remain hidden.

kim fabricius said...

Personally, I'm never quite sure what I want to write until I write it, discovering what I want to write as I go along (i.e., for me writing is inescapably a heuristic activity). Sometimes I see that what I've written is not what I thought I wanted to write, and I write it again, and again ..., trying to get form and content to march in time. Then there is the question of whether what I've written, when I've written it, and re-written it - and I might even be relatively pleased with it - turns out to be worth writing at all. Even if it's not bullshit and contains at least a grain of truth (by grace or luck), it might be trite, or redundant, or inappropriate, or hypocritical, or reflect any number of writerly vices. Frankly, writing is a pain in the ass. No one should write unless they have to. You might turn out crap like this.

Anonymous said...

Happy birthday, Ben: I do hope that many more will follow---thanks for your blogging generosity and your Christian courtesy and courage.

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