What is True What is False

Nov 19, 2018

Yes, I have tricks in my pocket; I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.

(Tennessee Williams) 

In the current climate of fear and lie mongering, Harold Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech is worth listening to again or re-reading. Pinter sits in a wheelchair in London, too ill to make the trip to Stockholm, and speaks eloquently about the difference between truth and lies, reality and unreality in art versus in political life. He begins by taking issue with something that he himself wrote in 1958: “There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false.  A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.”

The Nobel Prize was awarded soon after the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib. In his speech, Pinter suggests that as an artist and within the realm of art he still stood by his assertions of 1958 but as a citizen he emphatically could not defend that statement.He continued, “As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?” He condemned the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan led by George W. Bush and felt that the truth must be excavated and drawn out into the pale light of day.

To tell the truth as a citizen is to name things for what they are.  Calling things by their true names can cut through lies that obfuscate the multifarious crimes that happen around us every day.  To name something with clarity and force initiates the process of laying bear the truth and ultimately leads towards liberation from oppression. In her new book entitled Call Them by Their True Names, Rebecca Solnit writes, “The key to the work of changing the world is changing the story, the names, and inventing or popularizing new names and terms and phrases.” Naming correctly can serve as both a diagnosis and an analysis of a nebulous but troubling predicament.

In the past several years we have witnessed the power of naming in the Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movements, which address issues around sexual assault, racial inequality and violence. Other movements are afoot that tackle problems of workplace mistreatment and domestic violence perpetrated by the assumptions of a patriarchal and racist culture. We see that naming the shadowy deeds of politicians and powerbrokers can lead to their ousting. Naming and renaming things can build communities and generate collective action on the streets. 

Making art, on the other hand, is a different kind of enterprise and a much more ambiguous act. Rather than stating the truth directly, successful art, through contradiction, juxtaposition and paradox, can produce a sense of truth. This sense of truth is different from straight up facts or naming. Picasso said famously, “Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” In the realm of art, truth is often found in paradox. Setting up oppositions and radical juxtapositions helps to create enough space for the sense of truth to emerge within the viewer, listener or audience. 

Truth in art functions somewhat like a successful Zen koan. In Zen Buddhist practice, a koan is a story or dialogue used to provoke “the great doubt.”  Meant to stop the mind mid-stride, a koan is a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution that demonstrates the inadequacy of logical reasoning. A koan is described as a mental explosion that leads one to abandon reason, a double-bind that turns you away from the vice grip of logic. According to Zen practitioners, experiencing a koan can reveal greater truths and even provoke enlightenment. A koan provides an excellent example of how paradox induces the sense of truth. This moment of truth, according to Zen, is evoked by experience rather than by description. 

The intention of an artistic process, like a koan, is also to set up the circumstances for an experience or sensation of truth. Despite the liberal use of illusion and allusion, compression and pastiche, the process of artmaking is most emphatically a search for the truth. In fact, this search is the point of the activity.  In the exploration of reality through art, the substance of life is taken apart and the materials are distilled. The outcome is an amalgam, a series of juxtapositions. The power in art lies its unique ability to produce identification and empathy through the experience of these paradoxes and juxtapositions. 

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek wrote, “An enemy is someone whose story you have not heard.” Art can help us to understand one another, thereby bringing us closer to other communities.  What is inexpressible through any other medium may be successfully communicated via art.  Through melodies, fiction and pictorial representations, a closer proximity can be achieved.  Empathy is the first step towards the mitigation of social, familial and political clashes.

Art evokes the truth through artifice and is capable of examining issues that are perhaps too convoluted and confusing to tackle straightforwardly in daily life. Judith Butler, in a lecture on Euripides’ The Bacchae, suggested that Greek plays are and were indispensable because family relations are so complex and befuddling that a dramatic form is required for us to be able to see our own situation with any clarity. Via iconic stories and myths, the theater is uniquely capable of tackling the complex issues of family. Within the language of theater, the puzzling and troubling aspects of kinship are scrutinized and assessed through enactments of taboo, murder and incest. Frightening uncertainties are exposed. Ultimately the experience can trigger identification and recognition within the audience. Butler suggests that one of the political results of these dramatic narratives may be the shared realization that laws are necessary to handle all of the chaos of our lives.

Sermonizing is the least effective technique in all of the arts. Audiences generally do not want to be lectured to or talked down to. Without the poetry of art, they have no space to breathe. Consider the difference between reading a newspaper article and reading a poem. The experience and the methodology of news reporting and poetry are completely different, both for the writer and the reader.  In the case of a newspaper article, we are rooting for facts. Within the spaciousness of a poem, we are engaged in an imaginative journey that the writing only suggests through contrasting elements. 

In the theater, truth is conveyed by metaphor. A metaphor carries or transfers the sense or aspects of one thing into another. In modern Greek the word for bus is “leoforio” (λεωφορείο). Note the root “foreío,” which is where we derive the words and concepts of metaphor and semaphore. Phore is a form that carries or bears something. I think of metaphor like a bus that transports meaning. The bus is the theatrical form, the container for meaning and paradox. The audience’s job is to put the pieces together in their own imagination. To create a dynamic experience in the theater requires an openness to paradox and the poles of oppositions that allow an audience sufficient space to participate in the adventure. You create a theatrical space in which ideas can battle with one another. There must be enough air for everyone to breathe.