The Truth Of The Details

By Eric Le Roy

Content 18+ Recently, if you will excuse the pun, I have been ‘shanghaied’ by one of my Chinese students (a fine young lady attending university in England) to assist in her latest academic endeavor, an essay on the theme of “What is a university for?”

Dutifully, we both set about reading ‘secondary’ sources, which in academia count for more than one’s own ideas. My student sent me a good one written by a scholar by the name of Barnet, in which he traced the medieval origins of what we now regard as a ‘university’. In those days and continuing right on past the Enlightenment, it was believed that universities were places of intellectually idealistic sanctuary, as it were, where Truth could be sought, discussed and debated with impunity, and finally arrived at. It follows, of course, that if the Truth is to be found, then the Truth must exist in the first place. For many centuries, most of the finest minds believed that it did.

Even when God’s truth yielded, grudgingly, to secular and scientific truth, it was still believed with steadfast conviction, that such a thing as The Truth was not to be denied. And what better place to look for it than in a university, if not a church?

Even today, if only on a subconscious level, the truth is alive and well in the common days of ordinary lives.

“Tell us the truth, Muggsy!” the detectives in the interrogation room will demand of the crook.

“This truth is….” – someone will say. “Well, to tell the truth…,” another will chime in.-- ”If you really wanna know the truth…” the next one will exclaim.

There have been game shows on TV such as “Truth or Consequences”, traditional party games like “Truth or Dare”, and movies with titles “The Truth About Charlie” “The Truth about Spring” “The Naked Truth”, "The Unspoken Truth” – and countless others.

People in arguments say stuff like “You’re afraid to face the truth, aren’t you, Tyler?” and Tyler will reply, “The truth is, Megan, you don’t know what the truth is!”

And on the witness stand in court, you are exhorted “{Do you swear} to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”

Therefore, at least in the human imagination, the Truth seems to exist as a last boundary between ultimate right and wrong; it is the final Court of Appeals before they drag us to the chopping block, and, even when we persist in lying to ourselves (after first lying to everyone else) we claim the Holy Grail of Truth as destination for the Born Again Pilgrims we have belatedly become, armed with a map to lead us there and a key to get us in the door. “I am being HONEST with myself now!” we bellow to the heavens – Honesty viewed as being synonymous with Truth.

I do not mock those who try as I have tried. Yet I find it sad and silly the way, when others have long since stopped buying the policy, we still try to scam ourselves.

The effect of ‘postmodernism’ on the universities, argues Barnet (convincingly, I feel) is that ‘Truth’ is now caught, like a fly in a spider web (except that the fly was imaginary all along) in a gray garden of silk circles called ‘Relativism’. There is no exact truth – only ‘the truth according to…” It is like having a dozen witnesses to a street crime and getting 12 different versions of what happened. (In fact, the police will tell you that this is often the case !). The inexactitude of it all naturally, as does everything, invades the political arena. The Ukrainians tell one ‘truth’ , the Russians the opposite. Same with Israel and Palestine. Same with Norris and Norrine at the marriage counselor’s office. All the races and ethnic groups, all the ‘genders’ (their numbers proliferate) see a different version of The Truth which they defend vehemently and without compromise.

Nowhere is this more true than on university campuses now. Old ‘truths’ are castigated and new ones implemented, and yet even among the most committed lurk little nooks and crannies of subversive uncertainty. It occurs to me that only those who remain faithful to the fundamentalist religions, the ‘creationists’, so to speak, have no doubt whatsoever about what The Truth is. In a nutshell, their Truth, THE Truth, is GOD. But since it is the mission – that is to say, the ‘truth’ without the anesthetic of God – of the University which the Chinese girl and I will toil to identify, we must look to pull up any ‘core’ roots of Truth among the artificial flowers that signify truth today, untruth tomorrow. We may broach on ‘absolutes’, but we would be wise to remember that we are here to please the academy rather than God; therefore, relativism automatically has scored a 10-8 round.

There has always seemed to me to be something utterly marvelous (in the old sense of the word, that of ‘marvels’ literally, not Captain Marvel or Marvelous Marvin Hagler) about people who will cling to some sort of absolute conviction to the point where no dinosaur, space alien, tsunami, earthquake, or book of scientific ‘facts’ could ever shake that faith. There is a primitive nobility to it, like the mother who swears that her mass murderer son is actually a good boy who ‘just fell in with the wrong crowd.”

No doubt she is off her rocker, but do we not inexplicably feel somewhat dwarfed by her mountainous faith? God, therefore, remains the last refuge of ultimate Knowers (as opposed to Seekers) of the Truth, or am I wrong? If I accept God – Or Allah – or one of them (there have been many across the eons), all my doubts should be dispelled, my odyssey now reduced to that of a little boat docked safely in a shimmering celestial harbor. Right? In my embrace of Faith, and Faith alone, most of the hard work has been done, and the rest of it is just a matter of raking the leaves in front of the house when they threaten to pile up, Yes? For now I know and surrender to the Truth. True?

Unfortunately, the majority of paleontologists, geologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, cartologists, scientists, mathematicians, astronomers, skeptics, agnostics, atheists, existentialists, and Don’t Give a Fucks – beg to differ.

If we follow this train of thought past the purely philosophical level we might raise an argument of sorts. It would be that our ‘enlightened’, if now chronic, ‘disbelief in absolutes’ has created a crisis in those who, following the human craving to believe in something (and anyone who denies this would also have to banish the word ‘hope’ from their vocabulary) now cannot prove that anything they avow or profess or affirm has a shred of truth in it and in fact is not worth more than the drunken opinion of the dumbest fuck on Skid Row.

Thus the only Truth is that Nothing is True. Barnet, if I understand his article about universities, appears to reach the same conclusion, which he describes (oddly for an academic, but in my book not without a certain charm) as strangeness. This, the new ‘universality’ of the modern university – that, classical truth having been replaced by the relative ‘un-truths’ or ‘dis-truths (my terms, not his) of the postmodern world, we live in an emotionally, ‘spiritually’ and intellectually asymmetrical palace of tilting and wrinkled mirrors throbbing with gargoyle images (our own) atop surfaces that shift like surreal sand, beneath black hole rainbows that contain whole skies in them – and from this we must deduce or conjure up some sort of ‘belief system’. Custom-made mental merchandise amid the vicissitudes of Psyche. Strangeness indeed.

Well, I don’t know. “The Truth is in the Details”, I always say to my writing students. That’s where it is revealed. The old ‘Show me, don’t Tell me’ advice. I say that to the Chinese girl as well.

We used to define things by their opposite number, right? In order to describe something (another human or a panoramic view, for example, as ‘beautiful’, we had to have an equally vivid notion of what was ‘ugly’, i.e. a face full of boils and pimples or a street disfigured by abandoned warehouses with broken windows.

I don’t know if we are allowed to make those distinctions anymore, at least not in public and definitely not on college campuses. The ephemeral hand grenade-like zit, the ripped gash that has ‘healed’ into a permanent scar, the defining (beauty spot) mole and the cute callow bird-seed freckle are equal in terms of photogenic pulchritude as seen from the officially approved binoculars of the Correct; the wildflower-bedecked vista and the oily vacant lot are twins in luster. (Artists have always known this, but in a different way than what is now officially sanctioned and wokefully approved.)

We cannot declare one thing right and another wrong for fear of betraying some kind of unspeakable prejudice or bias. But, amid the inner sanctums of our being, don’t we secretly make these ‘value judgments’ minute by minute? Or have we begun to question them too?

Which is better or worse: the person who believes in a single Truth or the person who either accepts a limitless number of ‘truths’ or discredits them all?

Do we not end up with word games born of abstraction? When Alvin Tofler declared that "the biggest change in the future will be the speed of change itself” (he said it 50+ years ago, which makes him a prophet), he was juxtaposing a single word – ‘change’ – against itself to create a powerful effect. And he succeeded. But when one person says to another (usually during an argument): “Your version of the truth is no better than mine” – and the other parrots the response – for all its apparent logic, haven’t we reached an impasse? A pointless stalemate? It doesn’t matter – saith the modern social philosophe – that both are convinced they are right nor even if the weight of evidence would appear to support one over the other…no, no, NO !! – we still cannot conclude that one is right, the other wrong. Not any more. Flimsy circumstantial evidence all of it. He said, She said.

So why do people continue to meditate, fast, do yoga, go on pilgrimages, sign up for alpine climbs to the solitary stillness of the peak, or hike for miles in a serpent-tangled jungle? What are they looking for? Is it the same as what they used to look for in a church or cathedral – only labeled differently? Is it what young men heard once when the sea called to them or the circus was in town or the night train blew its whistle as it whooshed by?

Is anything true?

I was having this discussion with a friend and devoted apologist for relativity. I made what I thought was an irrefutable point embedded in a question:

“Suppose you have two men – husbands – who go home after work to their families. HUSBAND ‘A’ brings flowers and candies and dog biscuits, hugs the wife, plays with the kids, walks the dog, reads bedtime stories to the tots and toddlers, gently embraces the willing partner, and drifts off to sleep in time to rise early the next day in a happy and industrious mood. HUSBAND ‘B’ arrives home at midnight drunk out of his mind, shouts obscenities at the wife, slaps the kids, kicks the dog, swigs from the bottle, heaves his dinner into the sink, and passes out on the sofa, having first demanded sex which, happily for the wife, he was too blotto to perform, and is too hungover the next morning even to brush his foul teeth..

“Which is the better HUSBAND?” I enquired, beaming with certainty.

“It depends,” he replied.

“On W-H-A-T ?????” I damn near screamed.

A lot of things. Maybe HUSBAND A had just murdered everyone at the office with an assault rifle because he didn’t get the promotion he expected and he was hoping to receive some positive strokes from his family to boost his morale; and maybe HUSBAND B had seen it happen and escaped through the window amid a hail of bullets, totally traumatized, and ran to the nearest bar. Upon reaching home each compensated for his…disquiet… in his own way.”

Well, it made sense, huh? Wiped the smile right off my face (I started laughing instead). My friend had just explained the modern paradigm. Everything is True and Nothing is true.

I was convinced.

Until, walking through the city that evening, I saw two simple events: First, an old woman kneeling in a cemetery under an intensifying drizzle, placing flowers at the base of someone’s headstone, a person she must have loved in life and now in death; Second, the corpse of a dead animal in the busy road where the cars and trucks kept running over it again and again…and again…till there was almost nothing left of the poor creature’s carcass – an endless insult and degradation of a once living thing.

I do not know about truth or untruth, right or wrong, even good and evil. But I do know about the power of spirit (the last thing that will leave me) and I know about how some things elevate me to new heights of existence while others bring unstoppable tears of grief from the primordial wellsprings of my soul.

In those two moments I was gripped by something more powerful than my reasoning, and I still don’t know what to call it. Not ‘God’ – I am not ready to go that far, maybe one day I will – but by something resembling – first by the consecration and then the desecration of two different things both radiant with an enduring suggestion of Innocence though deprived of their form – some sense of decency bred in me by what forces I do not know.

The most existentially data-driven and algorithm-ruled people in the world must confront, whether they want to or not, endless heavens and hells – hells especially it often seems – within themselves. And as it is true that while we live together, we die alone – each of us carries light switches within ourselves which we turn on and off, on and off, according to our obsessions and our discretion, obedient to the forces within us and perhaps to forces beyond.

And whether we would have it that way or not, our own Truth lights up as we near our end, while the Truth of others fades behind us, like arguments in a side street tavern or the music of a distant parade.

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