The Story of This Class: A Completely True and Faithful Account of What Happened in This Course Over the Past Semester
First, a few clarifications. I published this in chapters on a blog (http://fictionvtruth.blogspot.com/) and I highly recommend you look at it there to get a sense of my overall project. Not only am I addressing the issues between "truth" and "fiction", I am doing so in a journal/diary sort of approach. I will also publish the full transcript here.
The Story of This Class: A Completely True and Faithful Account of What Happened in This Course Over the Past Semester.
by Mindy Huskins
On April 15, 2011, CBS News published an article on Greg Mortenson, the author of the acclaimed book “Three Cups of Tea”. In this article, former donors and board members of Mortenson's nonprofit organization and former climbing buddies and locals from Waziristan all claim that Mortenson's story is false. “Some of the most touching and harrowing tales in Mortenson's books appear to have been either greatly exaggerated or made up”1. While the financial implications are very serious (possible fraud, embezzlement, etc.), that is not the same as the issue of “truth” vs. “fiction” and how the difference is viewed by readers. If these accusations are true, Mortenson could be in for financial ruin, but that is not what concerns me or, I think, the public right now. The problem now for everyone who has read 'Three Cups of Tea” is whether or not they were lied to. Jon Krakauer, one of Mortenson's earliest supporters said this: “He has done a lot of good. He has helped thousands of school kids in Pakistan and Afghanistan....He has become perhaps the world's most effective spokesperson for girls' education in developing countries. And he deserves credit for that...Nevertheless, he is now threatening to bring it all down, to destroy all of it by this fraud and by these lies”2. Destruction by lies is what I see as the big issue. Once a book of “truth” is suddenly exposed as “fiction” it becomes a lie, something evil. The reader instantly feels wronged. Why is this the case?
It did not used to be this way. In fact it is almost the exact opposite. The modern western form of both literature and history developed together in the 18th Century. “Historians and novelists are kin . . . and in a way, history is the anti-novel, the novel’s twin, though which is Cain and which is Abel depends on your point of view”3. In ancient times, historians were mere artists, creating and recreating how they thought history was or should have been. Fact checking did not exist for they created the facts themselves. However, in the 18th Century history went through a transformation into an empirical science which drew a clear line between truth and invention. As literature, or the “novel”, was exploding all over the western world, it was common for authors to present them as “truth”, often taking
“the form of counterfeit historical documents, usually letters or journals. In the preface to 'The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe' (1719), Daniel Defoe insisted, 'The Editor believes the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it.' But of course Defoe was not the editor of a journal kept by a man named Crusoe; there was no j ournal. Defoe made it up”4.
Why was Defoe not berated and hated for “lying” to the public? Some may argue that this is as simple as a literary device and that the audience would know this and therefore not take it seriously. But is this really true? How much of a difference is there between Mortenson and Defoe? “If a history book can be read as if it were a novel, and if a reader can find the same truth in a history book and a novel, what, finally, is the difference between them?”5. Why do we feel like we are being lied to?
If I tell you a story, am I lying? If I tell you a fiction is it false? Does the truth trump all? How can you prove it is the truth when there are as many truths as there are people? Can I tell you my story? Will you be revolted if it doesn't match yours, if you think I am making it up? This is what happened. This is my story. My truth.
Early on in the course Paul introduced us to our own misconceptions, to our own bias of what science was. He introduced us to seriously loopy science, and made a strong case favoring it against the institutional view that undoubtedly contained a crack of human bias. “Everything is a story”, he said, “and no story is the absolute truth. But you can judge a story to be better than another, and pick and choose which stories you feel fit the best”. Such a strange idea to grasp, especially for the poor biology majors, whose bread and butter was the empirical method of discovery and proof. “Why can't we prove things?” they shouted. “This method works, we know it works!” “If that is the story you choose to believe, then so be it”, said Paul. “But don't refuse to be open to other stories, you may find one day that your story no longer works”. This just infuriated them more.
Darwin, the pigeon fancier, was the great man behind one of the most controversial aspects of science, life, and religion: evolution. Such a loaded word, how do we tackle it? “Just read”, said Paul, “and we will talk about it next week”. We read and encountered the most boring things ever, pigeons. “How am I supposed to understand evolution if I cannot stop punching imaginary pigeons?!” I shouted in desperation. “Read it like a romance”. I heard Paul's words in my head. “A romance”, I thought. “A romance with pigeons?”. I may have skipped a few pages.
In class, everyone laughed at my hatred of the birds. “At least they think I'm funny”, I thought. “Everything you think you know about evolution is wrong! Yes, wrong! It isn't survival of the fittest, it isn't adaptation, it isn't sexual reproduction, it is randomness, pure randomness my friends!” That day Paul threw us for a loop, as he usually did. However, this time it was a loop in which we emerged with understanding and awe. We understood something, something important. Yes, randomness; we could explain the paradox of why anything existed, we understood the cosmos, we knew all the answers to life's questions: randomness! It was a moment of pure clarity and pride. Pride in learning something that felt so important and that validated my beliefs. This is what happened to me. What happened to you, I'm not so sure of.
“Take that! And that! I will cut you down Dennett, I will DESTROY you!” I'm sure someone said that in class. A lot of people did not like Dennett. “What's all this then with skyhooks and cranes and memes?” “This is stupid and confusing”. “I swear to god, if you say I don't have autonomy one more time I will leave, just walk out and leave!” So maybe it wasn't quite so dramatic, but it certainly seemed that way for a few weeks. We were being challenged with new ideas and concepts that were difficult to grasp at times. We were struggling with our importance (or the lack thereof) in the world and the universe. This was a scary subject for many members of the class. The Library of Babel was met with some of the most controversy. Almost no one agreed with that idea. The class nearly unanimously agreed that the Library of Babel destroyed autonomy, creativity, and the possibility for anything “new”. I disagreed, but since I was absent from class during this time due to a fractured arm, my opinion was not present in class. I felt that the Library of Babel is not a perfect solution as to what the universe is, however, it is a good story, and in many cases, it works for me. We are just random genes and memes bundled together in a random universe in which we do not matter. This is what Dennett says, this is the story that I like. However, Paul's problem was that “admiration and awe is all very fine, but I want to be an agent, to MATTER, not only to be shaped by but to shape, to be more than a product of genes and memes”. The class wanted to believe that in some way, their existence mattered. Such a desperate hope for mankind. We have spent millennia thinking we were the bee's knees of the world, so important, so influential. But modern science, modern philosophy, this modern story itself, is rejecting that notion, and that is hard for most people to swallow. “What motivation do we have to live if we are not important, if we do not matter to the universe?” someone asked. “What a sad reason to live”, I thought. Daniel Handler wrote, “The sad truth is that the truth is sad and what you want in life does not matter”. Perhaps this is the appropriate response to those pining for importance in this world.
Anne strutted up and down the center aisle, flanked by desks and eager eyes. “Read!” she shouted, and read we did. “What do you think of this novel, 'Generosity'?” she asked. “Is it what you expected? Do you like it? Does it annoy you?”. The class responded,“It fucking sucks!”, “It's the wrong genre for me to enjoy it.”, “Is this really a novel?”, “I hope this isn't the future of the novel, because if it is, I'm going to run out of things to read”. At first the sarcasm, the disapproval, and the annoyance flowed into the class and the forum in fast sporadic bursts, while the book was new and we were hesitant, but then changed into a steady pace as the novel went on. Why is literature such a critiqued art? Why are we necessary for its guidance? No one liked Power's jarring and jerky narration, the “lazy” style of telling a story that you apparently already know. “The characters were cartoons, they were not real”, decided the class. “Well of course they are not real, idiots, they are characters in a book”, I fumed. “This is obviously literature, why should they be real?”. But deep down I knew that I only said that because to me Stone was so real he was palpable. He was my literary doppelganger, stuck in place and time, pessimistic, constantly fearful and yet constantly drawn to an old lover, and disbelieving of the existence of people who are happy all the time. I could feel his pain, I could connect with his feelings, I thought his thoughts. Yet no one else seemed to feel the same. Many agreed that he was less “cartoonish” than the other characters, but no one expressed a connection to him. I'm just shit when it comes to reading literature I guess. It's not really my thing, but maybe it is best to avoid an activity that emotionally ties you to the imagined life of a character in an authors head. That almost seems unhealthy. Maybe it's best I stay away.
Interest finally picked up as Anne delved deep into analyzing the style and form of the novel. The ties to cinema were hard to ignore and intrigued several classmates. “Finally, some positives” I thought. I am a pessimist, but being surrounded by 40 or so people who all talk about how and why they hate the same book gets old pretty fast. Powers presented an unfamiliar style of writing, which was refreshing (for me at least) and seemed necessary to the course. To me it felt new and creative. And while I cannot imagine every book being written that way, it was enjoyable. Is there no such thing as a new story? I wish I knew what Anne thought. I don't think she really let on in class about what she thought of it. My discovery of this book was deeply dependent on Anne choosing it for this class, so I guess that means something.
As time was an all important point in the “The Plague”, so was time an all important point for me while the rest of the class was reading it. That period of time to me is nearly a blank page, not much there for me to remember other than my nervousness in class and a slight boredom because I did not know what anyone was talking about. While time in the book stood still, the time for me went by quickly. Before I knew it, I was watching one weird movie called “Adaptation”.
“Can someone please describe what a deus ex machina is to the class?” asked Anne. “A deus ex machina is a crocodile that eats someone at a convenient time and therefore solves all the problems of the story”. I'm sure someone said that. This first class on “Adaptation” was strange because everyone had watched the same movie, but it certainly seemed like everyone had watched different movies. Everyone had their own thoughts and opinions about what the movie was trying to say. I still think it's a cheap way out of writers block. Others had loftier ideas of the ending. “It was all planned from the beginning. It was obvious. The foreshadowing ran rampant, how could you have missed it?”. “No”, said someone else. “It was one entire parody of a Hollywood blockbuster”. “As if”, sassed someone across the room. “This is just one big self referential ouroboros of a film”. No one could quite agree what it was. This is what happens when a book is adapted into a film about a book being adapted into a film. Things get complicated.
“Are you the kind of person who crosses possibilities off of a list or who adds possibilities to a list?” asked Paul. “Which form of story-creating do you prefer? Would you rather narrow down the number of stories there are, or add to them?”. Around the class we went, everyone giving their response, obviously agitated that they only had three options: add, subtract, or make up an artsy pretentious answer. Soon they created a new option, add and subtract at the same time, which was interesting but also defeated the purpose of asking everyone to choose.
While we worked our way around the circle, a thundering noise grew louder and louder until we had to stop and figure out what was going on. At that moment the Canadian Royal Mounties came storming down the hill, screaming at the top of their lungs. The horses leaped and crashed through the windows, nostrils flaring. Anne came in with an automatic rifle and for some reason was wearing an eye patch. “Back you bastards! Back!”, she screamed.
Well, maybe not. I'm terrible with endings. The mounties always seem like the best way to end a story/get out of a situation, but I've never found the exact situation in which it works. But as Anne said: “this is not a place for 'formal writing' or 'finished thoughts'. It's a place for thoughts-in-progress, for what you're thinking (whether you know it or not) on your way to what you think next. This is a 'conversation' place, a place to find out what you're thinking yourself, and what other people are thinking, so you can help them think and they can help you think. The idea is that your 'thoughts in progress' can help others with their thinking, and theirs can help you with yours”. So Anne, Paul, my classmates for this past semester, thank you for helping me think, thank you for giving me a space free of formal writing, thank you for fostering creativity. No one and no course has ever given that to me.
1CBS news “Questions over Greg Mortenson's Stories” http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/04/15/60minutes/main20054397.shtml
2CBS news “Questions”
3Lepore “Just the Facts” http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2008/03/24/080324crat_atlarge_lepore
4Lepore “Just the Facts”
5Lepore “Just the Facts”