The truth in fiction

I can’t recall exactly where I read this but I think it might have been a book by Karen Armstrong; certainly it was a book on mythology. To paraphrase: the truth in a myth is not in the events it relates but in its reflection on ourselves. A myth is “true” in the sense in which it describes a psychology or worldview or peculiar mode of thought. By form this is usually culturally applicable, and that is what gives myths their widespread power. Heidegger made a similar point about art generally and its relation to a specific culture, giving the example of a Greek temple as that which built the world of the Greeks, the world for the Greeks, defining their entire as-Greek lives in its structure, symbolism, messages, relations, associations. A myth, naturally, is one element of this, but what an element it is.

Our myths are rather less exciting than those of the Ancient Greeks, but they are no less reflective of our inner lives, and in so being they also teach us a great deal about our societies. We writers, you and I, are contributing to this with each fictitious word we pen. What is this “fiction” then? Is it really “untrue” or “made up”? We are now of course a tiny step from the all-important question of: What is reality anyway?

Two years ago, and I can hardly believe that I remembered this, I posted on perspectively-bound writing. That is a related topic but it is not what I’m trying to get at today. Nor is my concern here with any kind of empirical accuracy, any kind of direct relation between A and B that demonstrates consistency or measurability. Instead the issue at hand is closer to introspection, to what fiction reveals not of our externals but of our internals, what fiction tells us about how we feel our way through our worlds and our little lives. Epic battles have been replaced with the committing and the hiding, or the solving, of crimes, grand and glorious warriors with damaged and conflicted everypersons, heroes with unheroes. It’s hard not to be depressed by that, isn’t it?

And so we find ourselves, and our psychologies, shrunk down to the “me”; but I do not think that is an altogether bad development. In fact, I think it’s quite healthy, both for you and I and for humanity at large. The truths that we are now telling ourselves through our modern mythologies are only ever “true” (as in accurate) in so far as they teach us about how we are operating in our environments, about how we are moving in the places in which we find ourselves. We did not ask to be born and we had no choice in the where, when, and what of our births. To go back to Heidegger, we find ourselves thrown into our worlds. As writers we perhaps know this better than anyone since we do the very same thing to our characters. The truths that we reveal by our words and our works need have absolutely nothing to do with the events that are happening in our “real lives” nor our “real world”; instead they can, and should, have everything to do with our mental experiences as modern people going through the gauntlets of our modern institutions. There is nothing empirical about this. Nor is this a paen to the genre of magical realism. It is rather a suggestion, a song, to that which grows within in strange and subtle ways, that which takes shape and form not in centimeters and grams but in function and expression. Truth value here is determined by usefulness, by applicability. What does your book teach me about our ways of life? Our societies? Our globalized cultural aspects and our stubbornly localized ones? What truth is there in your fiction that I can find, if I am similarly directed, by casting a hard gaze within? “Reuben, Reuben, tell me truly true/I feel afraid and I don’t know why I do…” That “why” is where the truth in our fiction shows itself, that “why” is our area to explore and to expound, that “why” is where we shine.

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