Why should we believe what we read?
Yes, this is indeed the third groan-inducing question I have asked here in the past week or so, and of course, there are many ways to answer this question. A short answer, for instance, could address the fact that we associate meaning with text, and that association depends on multiple factors – linguistic, cultural, historical – that generate a sturdy, nearly indestructible apparatus. Perhaps that wasn’t a very short answer (nor, on second read, a very clear one), but it’s fair to say that we operate on particular levels of meaning that, thanks to continuous use (and overuse), get ingrained into our collective conscious and hence become believable.
Once again, though, I haven’t yet driven to the heart of what I really want to ask. A simple substitution for one word in that original question will bring me closer to the issue at hand, though like certain people we’re always waiting for, it won’t really get where it has to go. At any rate, here’s what I’ve been thinking about, or at least a close representation of what is at stake:
just get to the damn question already:
Why should we trust what we read?
Almost all of us, I would wager, learned from an early age that texts more or less fall into one of two categories: fiction, which encompasses everything imaginary or “not real,” and non-fiction, which encompasses everything that’s…not imaginary, and hence “real.” For the most part, we’re good at distinguishing one from the other. A book about the life cycle of sea turtles, for instance, will get stacked in the “Non-fiction” sections of any self-respecting bookstore or library, whereas any novel by Dickens will be filed under “Fiction.”
Distinguishing between fiction and non-fiction is very good for all practical purposes and intents, particularly for people who can’t be very bothered about how “real” a fictional text is (though it’s amusing to think that more imaginative non-fiction texts are accused of straying from the “truth”). But I want to dig a little deeper – not very deep – and ask what happens when fiction begins to masquerade as its negative; that is, what happens when the imaginary becomes realistic, and how texts use certain features to portray that realism. To be honest, though, I have a hard time wrapping my head around a word like “realism.” Never mind the reason why; instead, let’s replace it with “authenticity” – and “authentic” for “realistic” – and see where that takes us.
One class of authentic texts that comes to my mind is the epistolary novel, or novel of letters. (You know, the handwritten ones that people
used to send in the mail…you know, that system with the…) Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) is arguably the first major novel of its kind, structured entirely on the letters and journal entries of its narrator, the young girl Pamela. The narrative itself is interesting – Pamela is sent away to a young master, who gradually exploits and abuses her before (surprise) marrying her – but it’s the letters and journals themselves that dictate the course of the action as we read it. While it’s difficult to imagine Richardson’s technique as being revolutionary in this day age, it’s nevertheless surprising to see precisely how his heroine’s texts shape the “reality” he constructs. Here’s one example, taken from an entry in her journal while in captivity:
Well, I am but just come off from a Walk in the Garden; and have deposited my Letter by a simple Wile. I got some Horse-beans; and we took a Turn in the Garden, to angle, as Mrs. Jewkes had promis’d me. She baited the Hook, and I held it, and soon hooked a lovely Carp….
The context isn’t really important here. Rather, it’s that first sentence – “I am but just come off…” – which establishes a strange internal reality, one where Pamela has just returned to her chamber, that bears no relation to Richardson’s ‘real’ England. I think it’s strange for several reasons: first, because it makes our fictional heroine self-conscious – if she’s not real, how can she be conscious? – and also because there isn’t an audience within her reality besides…well, herself (although early on in the novel she addresses several letters to her parents). We aren’t the reading audience of Pamela’s letters per se; instead, we’re the ones who are reading Richardson’s novel, which just happens to be a collection of letters constructed by the novel itself. The physical novel, in other words, acts like a glass wall between ourselves and the world it creates.
So where does the authenticity kick in? For me, it’s in the structure of Pamela‘s letters and diary entries. Richardson does use past tense to summarize what’s happened to Pamela, of course, but he also uses present tense to create an authentic immediacy to his heroine’s condition and state of mind. Here’s another example, with all of the present-tense and present-perfect verb phrases in bold (again, context is not in my interest):
Oh I’m out of my Wits, for Joy! Just as I have got my Shoes on, I am told, John, honest John, is come, on Horseback! – God bless him! What Joy is this! But I’ll tell you more by-and-by. I must not let her know, I am so glad to see this dear blessed John, to be sure! – O but he looks sad, as I see him out of the Window! What can be the Matter!
This is an almost extreme example of how “authentic” Richardson’s novel comes close to being, which is arguably why some novelists managed to create pretty bawdy parodies (see Henry Fielding’s Shamela, for instance). But look at all those present-tense verbs! Immediately one can envision Pamela writing furiously, just after she’s put on her shoes, before pausing to look at John once more to find him sad. In other words, this text writes itself, at the very same time that Richardson creates the action – all of which we learn through the fictional Pamela’s letters, which of course were written ‘in real life’ by Richardson. It’s a strange yet fascinating cycle of internal and external realities, and even though the cycle has to end – Pamela does have an ending, after all – it’s difficult to pinpoint where in time either Richardson’s act of writing or Pamela’s finishes. Who’s the fictional one after all?
So much for authenticity in the epistolary novel. There’s another writer and text I’d like to talk about, and they’re the talented Kazuo Ishiguro and his excellent novel An Artist of the Floating World (1986). I have yet to read Ishiguro’s recent work – namely Never Let Me Go – but what makes his early novels, particularly Artist and the Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day (1989) so compelling is his use of memory and first-person narrative. Artist in particular recounts the life of Masuji Ono, an aging artist who, in the immediate aftermath of Japan’s defeat in World War II, slowly confronts his shrouded and morally ambiguous past. Ishiguro charts that confrontation entirely through memory, and this particular device reveals some intriguing finds. There is, for instance, Ono’s memory of Shintaro, one of several artists in a select group in pre-war urban Japan:
Shintaro, I should say, was never one of that select group. I would not myself have objected to his joining us, but there existed a strong sense of hierarchy amongst my pupils…In fact, I can recall one night, shortly after Shintaro and his brother had paid that visit to my house, my discussing that episode around our table. I remember the likes of Kuroda [another pupil] laughing at how grateful the brothers had been over ‘a mere white-collar appointment’…At this point, one of them – no doubt it was Kuroda – leaned forward and said…
It’s difficult to cite a passage from Artist without giving away too much of the plot, but again, context is not what I’m interested in here, and this particular passage is a decent example of Ishiguro’s technique. Ono, speaking in the present, reflects on Shintaro’s status and not-so-subtly implies that the pupil was socially inferior to his peers. But this past is directly mediated by Ono’s memory of the event, and it’s slightly unusual to see our narrator establish some distance between what he remembered – “I can recall one night…I remember…no doubt it was Kuroda – and what (may have) happened. To put it another way, it’s easier to accept a simple past-tense account, without all of those framing verbs (In fact, shortly after Shintaro; Kuroda laughed at how grateful; At this point, Kuroda leaned forward), as fact. Ishiguro makes it clear that Ono is an aged man who has chosen to recount his experiences, yet since all we’re reading is Ono’s memory, we always find ourselves separated from past actions – which, as you might reasonably conclude, can lead to dubious present-day reflections and judgments, not least for a man as old as Ono.
Here’s one final example, taken from near the end of the novel, that demonstrates the consequences of Ono’s narrative being based entirely on personal memory:
There is a particular moment I often bring to my mind – it was in the May of 1938, just after I had been presented with the Shigeta Foundation Award. By that point in my career I had received various awards and honours, but the Shigeta Foundation Award was in most people’s view a major milestone. All manner of acquaintances called in to the Migi-Hidari [a major watering hole] that night to offer their congratulations; I even recall a chief of police I had never met before coming in to pay his respects….
By this point, there’s a great deal about Ono that we have (and have not) learned, but even in isolation this passage already sketches a fairly detailed portrait. We have an old man recounting, frequently, a major success in his life – perfectly natural for anyone who’s achieved that level of success. Then there’s the very particular recollection of “a chief of police [he] had never met before coming to pay his respects.” Isn’t that just a little unsettling? Sure, we all have memories of people we’ve never met before, usually because such people have particular physical or emotive features that we impress into our minds. But this is coming from an artist who distances memory from action, and not just once throughout the course of the novel. Which version of the past are we supposed to believe? Ono’s present-tense recollections of his life and the Japan he lived in, both of which are constructed by Ishiguro’s own words? Or the “real” state of affairs that surrounds Ono – and by extension, the world that Ishiguro creates from Ono’s memory – yet gets obscured by the narrator’s continual linguistic distance?
I know there’s a better, more concise way of framing those questions. But I think the ‘answer,’ if there is one, is Ono’s narrative. The memories we read in Artist may not be entirely true, and the fact that they are mediated by an internal narrator – who, let’s not forget, has his own prejudices and attitudes, just like any other narrator – makes their accuracy questionable.
And yet…isn’t that how memory, and narrative, really work? Our memories, after all, aren’t perfect, no matter how much we claim to remember in our everyday lives. Even narrative, by definition, can never be perfectly objective or verifiable, simply because it depends on a set of selected experiences and responses to shape its structure. No matter how ‘realistic’ a narrative text claims to be, it can never be ‘real’ – not in the sense of existing in the same space and time as we do. Perhaps the best it can really be is authentic; a constructed reality. That, for me, is where the power of Ishiguro’s Artist (and Remains, for that matter) really lies. Ono might not be telling the whole truth, but he’s telling it just as any one of us might well do in a similar scenario. And telling it that way is nothing but authentic.
Then again – why should we believe what we read?