Truthfulness


I feel as though I have been collecting thoughts about truthfulness lately. First there was the work on Bernard Williams and my paper about his great truthfulness and realism, and since then there has been Isak Dinesen on truthfulness, Andre Gide on truthfulness, and now the Oresteia -- also about truthfulness and deception.

With Williams I thought of one of the final lines in Shame and Necessity, where he writes that of all the modern ideals we have (many of which are flawed, misleading and harmful), there is one we may hold on to -- that human beings should live without lies. I've been thinking about this and thinking about how harmful it can be to tell oneself falsehoods about oneself, one's actions and one's world. But I also must recognize that it cannot always be harmful. Dinesen gives us two ways of thinking of this --

In the story "The Roads Round Pisa," the main character begins --

How difficult it is to know the truth. I wonder if it is really possible to be always truthful when you are alone. Truth, like time, is an idea arising from, and dependent upon human intercourse. What is the truth of a mountain in Africa that has no name and not even a footpath across it?

And if truth needs human intercourse, truthfulness about oneself and one's world must also need human intercourse -- and so we have a reliance on others -- a need for friendship and love--

So your own self, your personality and existence are reflected with the mind of each of the people whom you meet and live with, into a likeness, a caricature of yourself, which still lives on and pretends to be, in some way, the truth about you. Even a flattering picture is a caricature and a lie. A friendly and sympathetic mind, like Karl's, he thought, is like a true mirror to the soul, and that is what made his friendship so precious to me. Love ought to be even more so. It ought to mean, along the roads of life, the companionship of another mind, reflecting your won fortune and misfortunes, and proving to you that all is not a dream. The idea of marriage has been to me the presence in my life of a person with whom I could talk, tomorrow, of the things that happened today.
And in a different story we see a different way of approaching truth and truthfulness. In "The Poet," the Councilor notices his young bride's "extreme disregard of truth."

He himself was a rearranger of existence, and in many ways in sympathy with her; also he found her methods to fall in well with his own plans. But more than once this talent of hers impressed him. It was, he reflected, an especially feminine trick, a code de femme of practical economy, proved by innumerable generations. Women, wanting to be happy, are up against a force majeure. Hence they may be justified in taking a short cut to happiness by declaring things to be, in fact, that which they want them to be.


And at the end of the book, when she ends the life which is already ebbing from him, she thinks --

Just because it suited him that the world should be lovely, he meant to conjure it into being so. Perhaps he would hold forth on the beauty of the landscape. He had done that to her before. Perhaps he would tell her that it was her wedding day, and that heaven and earth were smiling to her. But that was the world in which they meant to hang Anders.

And so she kills him.

What do these passages show us? I'm not sure yet, but I do think that these are themes that are immensely important -- what is it to be truthful and how far must one be truthful? What does it mean to seek the truth, especially when it is about life and human interactions? It cannot mean what Gide accuses the philosophers of doing -- the "mathematicians or neo-Kantians" who "kept as far away as possible from troublesome reality, and were no more concerned with life than the algebrist with the existence of the quantities he is measuring." Seeking truth and being truthful must not require a step away from life -- whatever that means.

But can we still be rearrangers of existence? I think it's probably unavoidable -- but how should it be done? I used to rearrange existence in a way that was not healthy, I can recognize that now, but I cannot now know whether the small moves I make to understand and deal with my world -- the small adjustments of existence -- are also healthy. It seems I cannot easily (or ever?) evaluate my own truthfulness. And perhaps this is the reason for thinking of truth and truthfulness as dependent upon others -- that to be truthful about oneself we must have others to confirm our assessments and to teach us where we have gone wrong.

In another story of Dinesen's, a character notes that he does not trust a certain priest, for he was wary of those in life who had "neither taken part in an orgy nor gone through the experience of childbirth, for they are dangerous people." I think this captures something I am mistrustful of in many philosophies, something which Williams has also given me good reasons to suspect (among others). The philosophies that seek to detach themselves from life, or seek to condemn the messy bits of life -- they are misguided and they are antithetical to living itself. What value in a philosophy which has no power over life, which closes its eyes to life and contemplates something it finds more pristine, more manageable? There is something ridiculous and excessive about life -- which Dinesen writes of well -- who, if they were making up the world, fresh out of her own imagination, would make up the bits about love, forgiveness, and the sufferings of creativity?