Thursday, December 6, 2012

Fiction is truer than fact


“Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.” 
― Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country



I wish Neil Gaiman had written “forgotten” rather than “forgot”; but the point is well taken. Indeed, I would claim that tales are truer than fact, at least potentially. I make this claim, because life in general is very messy. As a research biologist, one of the things I would attempt to do is design an experiment that removes some of the messiness and noise from the world. Conditions are created in which it is possible to focus, preferably, on the results of changing a single variable. Of course, such a perfect system is not attainable, and there always remains some unwanted variation due to other, uncontrolled factors. Fiction writing is something like this. In fiction, we concentrate on one or a few themes and explore them in detail, excluding extraneous material. One of the simplest and clearest examples of this is the form of the parable, as seen in the gospels. Here a simple story is told that usually highlights a single, important point. This reveals a “truth” that could otherwise be obscured by the noise in the real world. I put “truth” in inverted commas, because I find myself somewhat on the side of Pontius Pilate here: “What is truth?” Truth, I believe, is time, place and context dependent. A parable never contains the whole truth and nothing but the truth; but it is a partial truth that might otherwise be overlooked in the clutter of the real world. A parable is, at the same time, untruth, because it ignores other important factors or pieces of information.

The same is true of more complex forms of fiction. They are abstractions from the real world, and are, therefore, able to reveal truths that might otherwise be overlooked. Of course, they are also untruths, as implied by the very word “fiction” itself.

Here is a theme that recurs frequently in my thinking, and probably, therefore, in my writing here. It is the idea of “the coincidence of opposites”. This is a concept that goes back to early Greek philosophy, but also gained currency in the Late Middle Ages, and is also evident in the psychology of Carl Jung. It is the idea that something can be simultaneously its own opposite. The road up, is also the road down. A story can be true and untrue at the same time; and, in being so, is somehow more “true” than it would otherwise be. This reflects the complexity of whatever this thing is in which we live, this “universe”, this “world”; and, even more so, this thing that we are: human beings.

Of course, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a story is just a story. (And/or not.)

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