To truth or not to truth

Watching American Idol intermittently as I write this I thought it might be a good opportunity to talk about some cool quotes by Jorge Semprún in Interview with Lila Azam Zanganef in The Paris Review, Spring 07, Is 180. His take on writing ‘truth’ via imagination in literature looks at how you can inhabit perspectives that aren’t your own, to generate a truth which is.

This seems relevant to notions of point of view I’ve been exploring in recent writing but also to things we’ve talked about in class around writing with characters or speakers that are from different backgrounds than the writer.

Semprún operated for many years before and after WW2 as a communist double agent in France and Spain. He was interred at the German labour camp, Buchenwald, towards the end of the war and it took him 20 years to reach the point where he could begin to write about his experiences. In the interview he talks a lot about being in the camp, though not being Jewish, and how he deals with writing of his experience, and how ‘truth’ might be communicated and achieved in literature.

“This is where literature begins: narration, artifice, art – what Primo Levi calls a ‘filtered trust’. And I believe ardently that real memory, not historic and documentary memory but living memory, will be perpetuated only through literature. Because literature alone is capable of reinventing and rejuvenating truth. It is an extraordinary weapon, and you’ll see that in ten or fifteen years, the reference material on the destruction of the Jews or Europe will include a collective of literary testimonies – our, possibly, but also those of younger generations, who have not witnessed but will be able to imagine.”

A memory that must reinvent and rejuvenate is something that’s key to communicating a human presence in poetry I think. What are the implications for writing what you’ve no experience of?

Semprún writes “You might object, and you would be right, that there is no need to actually experience a concentration camp in order to ascertain the existence of good and evil. You can ascertain in other ways of course, in the most banal portions of our everyday lives, but the camp, because it focuses all experience around the constant risk of death, renders visible what is ordinarily more faint – that a human being is free by definition, that he has the freedom to be good or evil in every circumstance.”

At the least there must be some connection, perhaps at the level of ‘human freedom’ as Semprún mentions. But is this enough? What if we come at it from the other way – that it’s difficult or impossible in some way to write about ones own experience, or a historical situation.

Further to this, the truth of the matter depends on what you are trying to communicate and how you think your reader will experience it. For Kafka the worlds of his books perpetuated their realities and the various forms of logic and communication in these realities. The world of the reader is the unreality. So in this respect reality takes imagination on the part of the writer and reader, and unreality of the writer or readers world doesn’t require imagination. This is quite a simple reduction of things but it serves to raise a point. That in our current situation we also need a bit of imagination in our world of unreality and less imagination maybe in any realities we create. Hmm, not sure about this but lets carry on.

Imagination is always going to be involved in an account, details are not enough in themselves, poems are not lists, or explications in the form of cause and effect. I think there is something in communication at all times, the moments of control and lack of control, that’s somehow key to human experience and that memory via the imagination can best communicate this in poetry. This is more valuable to writing than any kafka-esque pro or cons argument about imagination.

You can speak from somewhere you’ve not been, and in doing this the responsibility of your freedom in doing this still stands. You must find someway of acknowledging your limits of perspective, while challenging historicizing reductions of human experience.

It reminds me of the notion of home regarding the writer and reader, the environment from which each take up their role. Usually it implies a bracketing from ones life, at the same time as there must be a means for this bracketing to be feasible – one must feel at home when one reads or writes. This is something that came up when Kate Duignan talked us, and that line in one of her stories say’s it really well; ‘we see faces we never knew the adults possessed.’ The children were at home but experiencing it in a way that’s entirely new to them.

This leads me to the next thing I want to relate here; “The gaze of others will cause me…to appear” – that’s Semprún again. In relation to exceeding ourselves, while also maintaining a responsibility for where we come from, it seems there is a need to negotiate point of view. The quote above suggests bearing witness to a new point of view allows the initial view to appear. In the case of writing, inhabiting multiple perspectives, what is the course then? In a way it could be that the views that you create will look back on you, they will inevitably cause you, or the speakers view in the writing, to appear.

I want to experiment with this in upcoming writing – what makes it possible for us to exceed our expectations, our own limits and boundaries, but also be shaped by how these perspectives appear (in the world). This comes back to dignity, that dignity is appearing and being prepared to be seen by others – to appear motivated by individual freedom and a more common freedom, the common ground that underlies all human experience.

I will end with two things: One by Semprún and another of a discussion on music with my flatmate.

Semprún – “Later I found that when I referred to myself as you, as in The Long Voyage, I was able to convey more objective sense of my experience. I observed myself as my own double – not as the actor, but as the witness of my own life.”

Talking music – When we were all talking in class the other day about Christian Bok, I began thinking if his work as akin to a joke to the ear, that the joke was carried in the sound of the words, rather than narratively, perhaps through accidental meaning too. I was wondering if there was an equivalent in music so asked my flatmate who is a bassoonist. He spoke of a few composers who interpret existing composers work and draw out humour or absurdities. At the end of our talk we got to the lasting jokes of the human race and really at the end of the day nothing beats farts – in the words of my flattie ‘farts are funny from the day your born to the day you die’ – Amen. I’m sure this insight would have livened up the recent lecture on philosophic aesthetics, no end.


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