On Truth

EDITORIAL, 27 May 2009

#63 | Johan Galtung

Norwegian Literature Festival, Lillehammer-Norway, 26 May 2009

The idea of Truth is as relevant for the arts as for the sciences.  Truth is an attribute of a symbolic articulation–a thesis, a text, a painting-sculpture, a piece of music–when held up against reality: does it reflect, agree with what we consider “reality”?  Some deny the existence of any reality outside articulations.  Submit that to the buddhist test for sentient life; does it impact on you with dukkha-suffering, and-or sukha-fulfillment?  You may critique–and you should– any discourse about HIV-AIDS, but those letters may also spell death and it is not obvious that the discourse was the killer.

Science divides the world into observed-unobserved and foreseen-unforeseen by a thesis. The thesis is true if the observed is foreseen and the unforeseen unobserved.  A set of theses can be woven together to a text.  For the artists we usually start with the text–written in words, in music, in colors and shapes, whatever–conceiving of it as “reality seen through a temperament”, by people with great sensitivities,  abilities to see the unseen and hear the inaudible, to reflect not only empirical but also potential reality, and great power of articulation.  The difference is one of degree.

How True! we may exclaim when the text starts owning us.  But where Western scientists follow Aristotle and Descartes in subdividing reality in morsels to be reflected one at the time, artists are more oriental, more holistic, reflecting some totality with its tensions, like in the incredible complex novels initiating that tradition in Japan, The Tale of GENJI by Murasaki Shikibu, and Dream of the Red Chamber by Tsao Hsueh-Chin.  They make us sense the China now made famous by the incredible books by Gavin Menzies, 1421 and 1434.

Two critical-constructive links for Truth and Literature: Truth Complexity and Truth Creation.  Neither Marx nor Freud, nor phenomenology, (post)structuralism or feminism–leaning on Jonathan Culler in his Literary Theory–not less important in our globalizing and deeply troubled world, with worse to come.

First, today we live our lives at four levels at the same time, micro-meso-macro-mega, with those nearest to us, in the social reality of genders, race and class, in the relations to other countries near and distant, and in the tectonic shifts between major configurations like North vs South, West vs the Rest, or Christianity vs Islam.  We live them and they live us, whether we like it or not.  It is not only, say, Freud for micro and Marx for meso; add Sun Tzu-Clausewitz for states, Gandhi for North-South and Lewis-Huntington for civilizations! They are all in all of us at the same time, not micro here and mega with that one.  Ibsen combined micro with meso as gender and class, but the others were absent even from his world map.
But they are on most people’s minds today.  We still live the loves with our partners, and relate to, say, our mother in-law.  But–what are the immigrants up to?  Islamization on the sly?  What happens when the US Empire not only declines but falls, will we follow?  Will the world poor rise against us?  Who am I, with whom am I, on the right side, the wrong?  How has my mother-in-law programmed her daughter for it all- –     A super-complex world.  Yes, it is the task of literature to reflect this to be true.  Less Iris Murdoch, A Severed Head, or Melissa Bank, The Worst Thing A Suburban Girl Could Imagine, with their simple worlds.  More of Indian Pranav Kumar Vandyopadhyaya’s Passing Time in Biharipur, not to mention Gita Mehta’s Karma Cola.  They have seen it before we do in the West.  Time to wake up.

The second critical-constructive reflection is centered on Truth as something to be created, not merely reflected.  Truth as correspondence between foreseen-unforeseen and pursued-rejected, and ultimately also observed vs unobserved.  How about literature?

Aristotle launched us on an unfortunate track distinguishing between tragedy and comedy.  Also known for his tertium non datur, there is no third possibility, we have been led to believe that literary expression either has an unhappy, bad ending or something comical, laughable.  Like in media: distorted reality by pressing it into those two forms as violence journalism, something negative-sad-bad; or entertainment.  Infotainment.  No solutions, no optimism.

But what is the alternative?  Wouldn’t that be “happy Hollywood ending”?  Not at all.  Music often does this better, like Beethoven, maybe particularly from some of his quartets.  Striving, struggling exactly to obtain that reality where harmony is nevertheless possible, in a musical sense of ending on tonica, in the peace sense of ending with a solution, a positive transcendence of conflict.  There is a sense of release, which may also produce the needed recovery and rebuilding for the next problem or conflict.  Music that does not provide this sense is hardly peace productive music.

Authors like Han Yin and Bernard Malamud, in his A New Life, have written moving novels where the actors live through enormous problems and conflicts in highly untidy landscapes and yet work it out in the end, giving them and also the reader a deep sense of release and strength.  They transcend their problems.  Not tragedy, not comedy either. “transcendy”?  So badly needed in the media, some light, yet in no way afraid of reporting suffering.

Peak-happiness, say on p. 48 using the rest of the novel to tear it all down is not good enough.  The world needs and often gets solutions.  Go for tragedy and you are on the wrong side of history.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 27 May 2009.

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