Midrash on Truth

Anouk Asghar
April 12, 2017
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The greater part of the world’s troubles are due to questions of grammar.
—Michel de Montaigne

He sits down. A fly buzzes around, crossing his sight. It then disappears almost magically. He looks around. There it is: the fly has landed on the brownish curtain, attracted by the rays of the sun. It is almost spring and light projects new shadows on the wall. The fly is moved by a desire for comfort.

He feels the urge to digress—his son makes fun of him using the verb “to meditate”—on the truth. This isn’t a voluntary effort; the urge has been pushing itself into his thoughts. Sometimes as he reads or watches TV or eats a sandwich he wanders into an intellectual sphere where he questions if there is a way of proving what we know and, therefore, if truth is knowledgeable. He wants to believe this is the case but he is doubtful.

“The West is dead,” he thinks. Does he even know what The West means? A proud cosmopolitan, he is of a time and place in which the bombardment of information feels punishing. He turns on the radio, reads the newspaper, looks at Twitter, and browses online . . . How is one to make sense of this sensory overload? He knows—because he is over fifty—that information is not knowledge. Knowledge requires work. Knowledge is insight. And insight is always personal.

He is honest with himself, or at least he thinks he is. He doesn’t have the faintest illusion that exploring what truth is might make him less of a cynic. That, in fact, seems like an impossible desire: to come closer to truth. Yet organizing his thoughts around it might grant him a sense of satisfaction.

Is he a cynic? He doesn’t think of himself as one. And is what he is after really about organizing his thoughts? He realizes that all his life he thought what the concept was about and without warning he is at an existential precipice, without confidence. He lives in the age of skepticism. Truth in particular is a casualty: everyone invokes it, swearing it is essential, arguing that without it you just can’t live a rational life. However, if you stop and ask people to define it, everyone feigns ignorance.

Obviously, he knows that truth is not a menu of facts. Sometimes he likes to imagine himself transformed into an invisible dictionary, one without boundaries, a dictionary capable of containing all aspects of language not in static form but in a state of transition. Right away he is wondering how the word “fact” is defined in it. An item that is indisputable? He isn’t happy with this definition. He knows that facts are often denied, hidden, camouflaged. Yet that doesn’t make them irrelevant.

Facts are facts: that’s what he himself often repeats. He also knows that empiricism is a doctrine built on the premise that we receive information from the senses. Yet he has always enjoyed thinking that the imaginary life of facts is as attractive as the facts themselves. This is because he is a lover of fantasy, of things that don’t exists in the world per se yet make their home in his mind.

Honestly, only when pushed does he confess to be a skeptic. More often than not, he likes to portray himself as a believer. It is good to believe, he tells himself, although he doesn’t always know what to believe in. For instance, he believes in God (out of superstition, he writes it with uppercase “G”) only in situations in which he finds himself in danger. Otherwise he doubts the existence of any supernatural forces, thinking it is all superstition. And he doesn’t believe in ghosts. Still, he teases his two boys that ghosts on occasion visit him at night, conferring truths he would otherwise not know.

Truths he would otherwise not know . . . He wonders if all truths are knowledgeable. Is that what makes truth truth?

He feels annoyed by the way on TV you are able to tune in into a network to get a version of the truth and with a simple click you can jump to another channel to get a dramatically different interpretation of the same events. Whom to believe? But he tells himself this is the wrong question because truth isn’t about belief, at least not empirical truth. It is faith that is about belief. Faith is about the unknown, about what can’t be measured.

He dislikes this last thought because truth, he tells himself, is also immeasurable. How might one measure truth? How do we know that good is good and bad is bad? Perhaps by thinking that good furthers life and bad impedes it. Still, there is no way to prove such binaries. One must simply believe.

As he gets angry at himself for not being capable of furthering his thoughts into some kind of illumination, he realizes that the fly is back again in his spectrum of consciousness. It is nervously gliding from one corner to another, his desk the occasional tarmac. He becomes aware of his disquiet. More than aware, he is impatient. He wonders if the fly’s aphoristic life isn’t better than his own.

Is there much to be gained with this midrash on truth? He knows that a certain degree of certainty about truth is needed, otherwise we become savages, yet he can’t quite wrap himself around the effort to explain why this is so. He now remembers what his anchor was: facts. This is how he gets into circular thinking when pondering truth. He has looked up the word in an existing lexicon and has stumbled on that most unpleasant of caveats: “thing”: a thing of information that is used as evidence.

Are facts things? Oh, now he is more disoriented than before. Not only does he not know what the truth is but he has caught himself reflecting on the term “thing,” which people use as an easy escape: “the thing is,” “stop doing those things,” and “I got a thing or two in the supermarket.” Truth cannot be a thing, he is confident of that. Truth is heftier, more complex, more abstract.

The other day, he heard someone on TV talking about “alternative facts.” The statement has left him inspired, to the degree that he hasn’t been able to consider much else. Indeed, that’s what prompted him to scrutinize the confines of truth. He tells himself: truth is not malleable; truth is truth. He doesn’t like to think of himself as manipulating facts. Perhaps it is inevitable that everyone does, he catches himself arguing. That’s how people lie: they don’t convey the whole truth, they tailor it to their own needs.

This he knows for sure: he is fascinated by lies. Not his lies, which he finds boring; rather, the lies of others. He enjoys catching people infraganti in the art of lying, finding out that we all know perfectly well that X is true but all of a sudden, oops, just now it happens to have become Y. Time and again he tells himself that it is impossible to live life without lies. We lie in order to suit what happens to us to our own needs. Then again, is that what manipulating facts is about? And is this proof that truth is partial, subjective, biased?

He surprises himself saying: if truth is biased, then it isn’t truth.

Ever since he read Plato’s Symposium, in his twenties, he has been an admirer of Socrates. The icon is more than a martyr to him; he is a method, a means to achieve an end. He knows that Socrates was ugly, which in his eyes makes him all the more appealing. He also knows that he was accused of perverting Athens’s youth through his wisdom. Only recently he has had the courage to follow Socrates’s ordeal more closely. It all started when a colleague gave him a copy of I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates. He devoured it in a matter of hours. That Stone looked at the trial from a journalist’s eye was a stroke of genius.

Why exactly was Socrates condemned? It looks as if he was anti-democratic, like Plato, his pupil. And he might have been misanthropic, too. In any case, Socrates placed an emphasis on the oral tradition. What we know about him comes from Plato, Aristophanes, and Xenophon, not from his own words. In that sense, Socrates was utterly elusive. It might be said that Socrates was suspicious of anything that was put in writing because the oral tradition is unfixable whereas the written word is a contract.

What he likes about Socrates as method is that one can never reach the truth directly; instead, one must work at it with the help of others. This means that truth doesn’t belong to one individual alone but to everyone at the same time. He also acknowledges that truth is not fixed; it is subject to change. There are, to be sure, universal truths. These are truths belonging to everyone. And then there are particular truths, which belong to specific circumstances.

He looks further into this dichotomy and again is uncertain. It is really true that there is a set number of universal truths? That’s the position of the absolutists. As for himself, he prefers the side of the relativists, backing the position that truths change over time. Take the truism that all men are created equal. He knows this to be an absolute truth; there is not an iota of doubt inside him in this regard. Yet it only takes a second to realize that such equality is sheer illusion. In their most intimate moments, people confess that no one is equal to anyone else. The inmates in a prison is a case in point: they are criminals, meaning they are amoral, which means people build theories to keep them apart, to separate them from the rest.

Mark Twain said: “Never tell the truth to people who are not worthy of it.” Ah, he likes this statement; it implies that truth is dependent on others. Is it?

Since Westerners are about being remembered, about leaving an imprint behind, he likes to conceive of what he does as “a life in letters.” Letters not only understood as books but as the letters of an alphabet. He toys with them all the time. He thinks of truths as concepts that can be narrated. Someone once portrayed him as an architect of words.

He ruminates on art as the other side of truth. That is what cosmopolitans always champion. The more consistent and thought-out art is, the more enchanted he is by it. However, he thinks of artists as liars, although these, as he sees it, are convenient lies. At least that’s what he used to believe. As of late, he has become suspicious of the current representation of art as facilitator of truth.

According to the Talmud, which he enjoys studying every other Thursday afternoon with Rabbi David, twisting the truth is advisable on a few occasions. These occasions need to be clearly delineated. For example, it is appropriate to lie in order to honor someone. It is also right to lie to be modest or humble, or to protect someone from embarrassment or harm, or to recoup a loss. All these are permissible lies, says the Talmud. But there are exceptions (or else, exceptions to the exceptions). One of them is that one shouldn’t lie on a regular basis. Another is that one shouldn’t lie to children because they might grow up with a mistaken impression of what is good and evil.

And then there’s the most adorable of all exceptions in the Talmud: one isn’t allowed to lie about the future. Why not? Because the future is still unrealized. And because by tarnishing the future our life expectations are questioned.

Not long ago he scribbled in the notebook he keeps in his pocket some thoughts on the difference between the truth as delivered by historians and the truth as conveyed by writers. He thinks the two target the same truth yet reach it through different means. Matthew, a dear friend, doesn’t agree; Matthew stresses that these are different truths and he prefers the writer’s truth because he is an artist himself. He knows that a historian would say the same thing as Matthew while leaning in the opposite direction.

Then he considers inserting a scientist into the mix. Would anyone doubt that the scientist’s truth is the actual truth? Not he, for sure, and not anyone with a slight bit of common sense. Yet—and this is what obsesses him—the scientist’s truth in his eyes is boring. Facts are facts are facts . . . What makes the other truths appealing is that they compete with reality, that is, they add depth to our understanding of the world.

What if art is nothing but a series of alternative facts?

He hates catching himself arguing against science since many of his friends are scientists. Still, he is convinced that science reigns today like a tyrant. And here he smiles: facts are not ends onto themselves, he tells himself, which is what scientists believe. Facts are trampolines.

He recollects reading Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in his youth. It left a lasting impression, specifically a line—the world for him is a succession of sentences—that still haunts him: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” The line stuck, he thinks, because, in his youthful view, truth was arduous. Over the years he hasn’t quite change his opinion. Nobody likes truth because truth makes us uncomfortable. It is easier to convey it when you hide behind a mask. Of course, that doesn’t make it easier to accept it.

Unexpectedly he recalls a conversation he had with his mentor, Grace P., while the two were down in Guadalajara. The conversation was about happiness. Grace told him that happiness was the capacity to enjoy the pleasant and the unpleasant because one cannot exist without the other. Someone had told Grace that happiness is the absence of pain but she believed that was absurd. Pain for her was also a form of happiness. You need to suffer in order to build your character, she said, and that process of decantation makes you appreciate the pleasant aspects of life.

Maybe the same ought to be said about truth: that one specifically values truth when it is under attack, at peril, a target being delegitimized. Without truth it would be easier for dictators to do as they wish. On the other hand, dictators are the ones engineering alternative versions of the truth to fit their goals.

There it is again, the word “alternative” . . . He doesn’t like it!

The fly is back again, next to him. It has landed on his left sleeve. It isn’t buzzing any more, which is a relief because he finds that buzz annoying. He considers raising his right hand and slapping it, which would no doubt kill it. But he stops on its tracks as he realizes that such action would make him a destructor of life.

He realizes that, to his dismay, while attempting to elucidate the meaning of truth, he has entered the mindset of a killer. “The West is dead,” he thinks again. It is only a fly, thought, he tells himself, but now he is ashamed of his thoughts.
Aggravated, he stands up and leaves the room. The fly follows his trail.

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