Storytelling and Truth
“I don’t read fiction because it’s not true, it’s made up.”
I hear this often, and these people are right in that fiction isn’t history or biography or science or theology, but by going further up…further in, as C.S. Lewis put it, stories can reveal truth in ways that non-fiction can’t.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 alerted the world to the lies and horrors of communism in ways no newspaper, politician, or academic publication achieved. “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”, and “I loved Big Brother” reveal truths about totalitarianism that statistics and rational arguments cannot match.
The prolific French author, George Simenon, wasn’t a moralist, but his novel, Maigret on the Riviera, depicts how a murdered man traded slavery to propriety and wealth for slavery to sensuality and self-indulgence, a story about the deeper truth of the insidiousness of slavery. On the surface, the man seems to have been liberated, and perhaps Simenon thinks so too, though his honesty as a writer demands that he depict where years of sensual indulgence lead the man.
Autism and its myriad spectrums are frustrating mysteries to most of us, and even to many who daily encounter these conditions. More scholarly books have been written on this subject in the last twenty-five years than all prior years combined, many helpful, many informative, many useful. Mark Haddon’s novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, told from the perspective of a brilliant/constrained fifteen year old boy gives the reader deeper insights—truths—into the world of autistic human beings than clinical descriptions. Christopher Boone’s observations and understanding of the world amaze the reader, while the challenges he faces with routine daily events horrifies us. The dog engages Christopher in ways that escape the rest of us, and leads him to truths he wasn’t seeking. Christopher is both much more and much less than so-called normal people, and Haddon shows rather than tells us why this is so.
How many learned books have been written on the causes and mechanisms of addictions and obsessions? Can any of these measure up to J.R.R. Tolkien’s depiction of the lure of the Ring? The twentieth century literary critic, Edmund Wilson, wasn’t impressed: “One is puzzled to know why the author should have supposed he was writing for adults. There are, to be sure, some details that are a little unpleasant for a children’s book, but except when he is being pedantic and also boring the adult reader, there is little in The Lord of the Rings over the head of a seven-year-old child. It is essentially a children’s book – a children’s book which has somehow got out of hand, since, instead of directing it at the “juvenile” market, the author has indulged himself in developing the fantasy for its own sake…”
Why are we surprised that a literary critic immersed in a milieu that rejects the possibility of anything transcendent, a milieu immersed in addictions and compulsions, cannot see the forest for the trees? In fact, Tolkien’s story speaks to addictive lures, as represented by the One Ring. How unaided man cannot resist such temptation—in Smeagol/Gollum who is possessed and then consumed by the Ring, in good Bilbo who oh-so-gradually is seduced by it, in Boromir who never possesses it but yearns for it from afar, in the faithful Sam who has it for a short time but equivocates in returning it to his Master, and in the heroic Frodo who cannot resist it’s power in the end. The truth that man is not made for such things is anything but a children’s story, and The Lord of the Rings informs us of this truth better than technical treatises and therapeutic programs.
Speaking of children’s stories, A.A. Milne wrote stories that take place in a tightly contained world—the world of childhood and a small corner of nature—until the last few chapters when the walls of Christopher Robin’s world start tumbling down, evoking the anticipation and specter of maturity. These are stories that intersect with life beyond the Thousand Acre Wood: the resentment Milne experienced from the constraints these stories imposed on his literary career, the resentment Christopher Robin experienced at how these stories constrained his later life, and the deeper truth about fathers and sons that resonate in these stories, the ideal that can never be achieved in this life but for which parents and their children yearn.
If knowledge and truth are what we seek, discernment is necessary in selecting both fiction and non-fiction. We’re kidding ourselves if we think non-fiction isn’t filtered by the preconceptions of authors and their sources. Everyone brings a perspective to his or her work, and the best are forthright about identifying the lines between evidence, speculation, and imagination.
We can find truth in many ways, including good stories.