I don’t know when prefixes stopped meaning what we think they mean, but it was a long time ago. I’m just wrapping up a course in recent American prose, for instance, where the term postmodernism keeps coming up. The students initially thought, quite logically, that postmodernism was a movement that came after modernism — even though, since they look around at a world they consider to be modern, they had a hard time wrapping their minds around its post- period’s being in the recent past. We worked hard to get to the place where modernist work could exist simultaneously with postmodernist work; to understand that postmodernism was following, reacting to, and in a kind of dialogue with modernism that relied only tangentially on chronology.
Many of us have had a similar reaction to alt-right. As I’ve written before, the alt- sounds as if it’s proposing some sort of alternative to right-wing positions. Instead, its relationship to right-wing ideology is somewhat similar to the relationship of the moon hanging off the right end of the horizon to the right field of a baseball diamond.
Now we have, thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary, at least one Word of the Year: post-truth. Here, we do seem to find ourselves in a Looking-Glass World. Isn’t truth eternal? How can something be post-truth unless truth itself has somehow become extinct? The OED’s definition takes a first stab, defining post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The definition reminds me most of Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” and Keats’s dictum, in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Are the post-truthers Romantic poets, then? Somehow I think not, but I suspect we have arrived at this confused place in part because of a deep misunderstanding of the relationship of invention to truth. Other creative types have tried to get at this. Albert Camus wrote, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” Pablo Picasso said, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.”
My own experience has been rather more quotidian. Called upon, years ago, to testify in a court of law against an unscrupulous Manhattan landlord, my veracity was openly questioned by a defense lawyer who was a dead ringer for Dom Deluise. “Ms. Ferriss, you write fiction, isn’t that right?” he said, strutting up and down before the witness box.
“That’s right,” I admitted.
“You make up stories,” he continued, “isn’t that right?”
“Yes,” I said, and my heart began sinking.
“Some of these stories,” the Dom Deluise clone said, stopping to fix beady eyes on me, “are so good, they’ve been published. Isn’t that right?”
I couldn’t resist. My ego rose to the fore. “That’s right,” I said, and sat up tall.
But the landlord was sent to Rikers, anyway, because the jury knew a fiction writer was not a habitual liar; her fiction might be a conduit toward metaphysical or moral truth, but what she testified in court had to do with facts, and facts alone.
Recently, the philosopher Michael P. Lynch, writing in The New York Times’s Stone column, has tried to address the post-truth paradox. He describes an atmosphere of deception, like the infamous shell game, in which facts are lost not only by our being persuaded of the factual basis of a lie, but also by our doubting every bit of information that comes across our path. He writes, “Faced with so much conflicting information, many people are prone to think that everything is biased, everything conflicts, that there is no way to get out of the Library of Babel we find ourselves in, so why try?”
Lynch’s explanation seems right to a point; that is, when everything could be fiction, we follow our so-called gut and pick, almost at random, certain stories in which we choose to believe, and that assemblage constitutes post-truth.
But I think Lynch is missing an element that constitutes the other side of the coin, if you will, from Picasso’s and Camus’s statements, from the Romantic poets’ lofty claims, and from my own experience in court. Poets, fiction writers, and painters all attempt to harness emotion in the service of truth. Truth is the end goal; there is nothing that lies beyond it. We select among the emotions we choose to excite — desire, fear, nostalgia, hunger, curiosity — but we hold to the final truth we are attempting to unveil as a traveler holds to the North Star. Those engaging in what the OED has held up as post-truth are doing something of the converse. They choose among truths — that Hillary Clinton gave a speech, or an undocumented immigrant committed a murder — and work those truths up, adding and subtracting as they see fit, in the service of emotion. The chief emotion they cleave to is fear. But just as a particular artist’s work might frame truth as our capacity to heal, or as the constancy of change, the emotion these scam artists (post-truthers seems far too polite) aim at may not always be fear but could now and then be hope, or pride, or disgust.
Truth, in other words, is a thing — a goal, a bedrock, a provable hypothesis, a conclusion from evidence, an insight to which, per Keats, the perception of beauty can bring us. Post-truth is a strategy. Its relationship to truth is strategic. Its goal is the exploitation of emotion. And while it cannot kill truth, it does in a way look past it, as a hubristic traveler might try to look past that North Star, and find beyond it utter darkness, nothingness, chaos.
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