Facts Are Stubborn Things

December 30, 2008

George Packer, in his introduction to Facing Unpleasant Facts, a collection of Orwell’s narrative essays, says of “Shooting an Elephant” (pp. xxi-xxii):

“Here’s a troubling thought: There’s no way of knowing whether the events in the essay ever happened. […] Does it matter? Would the essay be any less powerful if Orwell never actually shot an elephant?”

So far, so good. A potential problem well worth addressing – and almost certainly so, in light of Orwell’s own concerns of the relationship of language, truth, politics, and power. But then his way of approaching this question gets weird:

“If you’re a literary sophisticate, the correct answer is obvious: of course not. All we have are Orwell’s words; they are what they are regardless of his life story, and only a naïve reader demands that they reflect factual truth. If anything, an invented incident would show that Orwell’s imaginative writing is underrated.”

He begins the next paragraph by stating that in his opinion “the naïve reaction is the right one,” making nearly moot my furious margin scribblings just above it. Nearly, because he’s not setting up a straw man from which to pivot toward Orwell’s “fear that facts could materialize or appear on demand.” Note that language: Sophisticate. Obvious. Naïve.

I take exception to this because I don’t consider myself “a naïve reader” and the rather obvious answer I saw was: Of course it does! How could it not? But while I’m more or less in agreement that it makes very little difference whether Woolf really saw a moth dying on her windowsill before composing “The Death of a Moth,” the two shouldn’t be compared. Woolf’s essay is a meditation – which Packer freely admits – and Orwell’s is a narrative. It would be frustrating if the images (moths, people on trains, flowers, etc.) which Woolf uses as something akin to living prompts for many of her essays were never truly encountered, and yes, I’d be offended that she was lying, but it wouldn’t affect the essence of her essays because they are just that: prompts. The truth she seeks to reveal and examine in the “The Death of a Moth” is in the death of a moth, and death itself, rather than the death of the particular moth. The truth she exposes would be created rather than revealed only if moths did not die.

“Shooting an Elephant” is a narrative, and it approaches truth through that narrative – which is to say, through the sequence of events and the author’s reflection on them, not through a meditation upon a single image. The shooting of an elephant is not a prompt; it is the essay. Unlike Woolf’s essay, if it did not happen, or did happen but substantially differently, the truth Orwell seeks to reveal dissipates. It, as in all narrative essays, is contingent upon the truth of the narrative. (The meditative essay, too, must be truthful; but since the image of the dying moth was the prompt and the image, certainly, is true, the honesty of having literally seen one matters less than the honesty of the meditations – that, I’d say, is on what the essay’s truth depends.)

The relationship between author and reader is dependant upon trust. There are, admittedly, different types of trust: we do not expect the same thing from the author of non-fiction as we do from the author of fiction. How else could those conceits of unreliable narration, postmodernism, “meta,” (all of the twentieth century, really, and much of what came before) have any meaning if we trusted the author of fiction on the same terms as an author of non-fiction. But this works because fiction approaches truth differently than non-fiction; in many cases, I’d go so far as to say, it aims to reveal a different type of truth. Part of the truth Faulkner seeks to reveal in The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Absalom, Absalom! is that which is revealed when narrators contradict one another and the stories told are, though about the same event, not the same. Non-fiction, on the other hand is precisely that: grounded in the true, in facts.

Which is all to say that the meaning would be irreparably altered if the narrative of any narrative essay turns out to be fabricated. Orwell chose the form of non-fiction, not fiction, to reveal and examine the truth he wants to get at in “Shooting an Elephant.” There are types and aspects of truth that can be examined through non-fiction but not fiction, or examined better (and vice-versa). To lie for the sake of revealing truth is to fabricate that truth, to create it out of thin air.

I fail to see the naivete in this, or the so-called “sophistication” in claiming that the meaningfulness of truth is the exception rather than the rule. The purpose of a piece of writing is not merely to be beautiful, though there is truth in beauty. Prettiness is not greatness; and writing should move us – that is, teach us something, point us toward something, do its damnedest to reveal some truth (or some aspect of truth) to us. Sometimes this will be beautiful, something this will be didactic, sometimes both at once. Maybe I’m demanding too much of writing, but I want it to place some demand on me. I want it to have been worth my time to read something.

There is nothing avant-garde about lying – and if there is and I’m wrong, then I want nothing to do with it. But that’ll be the least of culture’s worries. If we divorce truth from beauty, we’re engaging in a sophomorically lazy reading of Keats’ dictum, forgetting that beauty alone does not make something truth: we must have truth to have beauty.

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