Truthful Fiction, Fictional Truth

Truthful Fiction, Fictional Truth

            World Game, the ruling force, blends false and true.

            The ever-eternally fooling force, blends us in, too. – Nietzsche

            A god now made an animal does not suggest forbearance. In our resentment, we thus resent the truth; happenstance and death. But in our enduring creativity, we do not merely suppress this state of affairs, at its most base, the ‘human condition’, but imagine attaining a novel godhead. This striving for a new divinity is the source of not only the historical religious world systems, but of all imaginative works of the human consciousness. Its fictional content belies its truthful form.

            Let us take a famous macrocosmic example, oft repeated in the microcosm of the human relations. In ‘Acts’, it is related that not only has the dialectic of tradition and revolution been uplifted in and into the ‘Holy Spirit’ – a synthetic conception of the thetic ‘old God of morals’ and its antithesis, the ethical God on earth – but that this new force has generalized the original thesis to apply to all human beings. The Gentiles are also saved or at least, savable. For the first time, at Antioch, the term ‘Christian’ is applied to this new community of believers, some few years before Paul’s letters to the Galatians and thus about 15 years after the Crucifixion. Though this is not the first time such a dialectic which blends fantasy and reality appears in the history of religion, it does represent the advent in the West of the utter democracy of divinity and the equally infinite goodness of grace. The fact that this is new is oddly and even ironically underscored by the fiction that it was forecast in the tradition.

            In the bourgeois marriage, the thesis of the man runs headlong into the antithesis of the woman, generating a synthesis in the child. The child is neither and yet is also both. Its fact is its novel existence, brought about by the Aufheben of conjugality. Its fiction is that it ‘belongs’ to the parents, but in all creative work, including the birth and socialization of a child, an equal element of fantasy must be in play. For to only acknowledge the factual conditions of mortality and finiteness, of difference and uniqueness, would be to put the kibosh on trying to do any of that creative work at all. It would place us as species-being back in a pre-Promethean landscape of shadow and even terror. But there is also no lack of danger in the means by which we give a future to ourselves. In both macrocosm and microcosm the same risk thus presents itself: what if the fiction overtakes the truth?

            If so, in the first, we have religion instead of faith, mere belief without enlightenment; and in the second, we conjure only loyalty in place of trust, fear instead of respect. So if it is truly said that humans cannot live by truth alone, neither can we completely abjure it. The material conditions of human life, the ‘bread’, is by itself not sufficient to become fully human. The ‘faith’, imagination, creativity, fantasy, fiction, is what not only fulfills our desires in some analytic sense, but also completes our being in that existential.

            What then is ‘truthful fiction’, or ‘fictional truth’? I don’t think we can entirely make them discrete. Myth is accepted as nothing but fiction, and yet it contains elements of truth, not only about the human character, however hypostasized, but also about the cosmogonical aspects of our shared world. Myth responds to the perduring and sometimes perplexing duet of questions that challenge us through our very presence in the world; how has the world come to be, and how have I come to be in that selfsame world? Mythic fantasy supplies us with an autobiography writ larger than life. It is not to be read as either history or as a ‘mere’ tall tale, but is rather that synthetic form which uplifts and conserves all that is of value in both the thesis of fact and the antithesis of fiction. It is very much then a ‘truthful fiction’, and, looking at ourselves in its refracted but not distorted glass, its function and its form as well come together for us in an almost miraculous mirror.

            Contrast this with the meticulous mirror of nature that is provided human consciousness by science. If myth is our shared ‘truthful fiction’, then I will suggest here that its iconoclastic child, science, is our equally collective ‘fictional truth’. Historically, science was the synthesis of myth and life, of imagination and experience. It too is thus a dialectical form, even a syncretistic one. Its truth is well-known: the only consistent and logical understanding of nature that we humans have at our current disposal. But its fiction is that it has completely vanquished the imagination, not so much from the source of its questions, but rather from its methods, and particularly from its results. It is a myth, for example, that the cosmology of science is not also epic myth. It is a fiction that science overtakes the fictional to maintain its human interest. Like the God that entered history, suspending for all time and for all comers the sense that divinity by definition is a distant and alien thing, the idea that science exits that same history is equally a fantasy. For science, like myth, is a wholly human production and thus relies as much upon our imagination and ingenuity throughout its process, from question through method to result and thence explanation. It is especially evident that in scientific explanation, there is a concerted and historically consistent effort to efface all traces of mythic sense, replacing them with a hard-nosed experiential sensibility. The fact that even evangelical educational rehabilitation centers targeting youth advertise only ‘evidence-based’ therapies – whatever other more dubious practices may be present therein – is but one example of the astonishing success the fiction of science has generated for itself.

            Just so, if it were not for the fact that ‘fictional truth’ is so available for even the non-believer to utilize should remind us of nothing other than the soteriological generalization recounted in ‘Acts’. Authors who have written in the history of science, especially those who speak of its origins and its early development, from the Miletian School to the Copernican Revolution and onwards, are, in part, repeating the act of cosmogony, of Genesis, and within these actions, the process of the dialectic. This is not to say that there is, or can be, nothing new in the world. The synthetic term, the apex of the dialectical triangle, is justifiably seen as a novel form, performing a hybrid function; at once reminding us of reality while providing the means for a being defined by its finiteness to live on in its face.

            Thus we should not regard the sometimes annoying, even disturbing, blend of fiction and truth as an impediment to the greater experience of life or even to the lesser knowledge of that life as experienced. The ‘world game’ is assuredly afoot, its mystery far outstripping any detective adventure born of and thence borne on the imagination alone. That ‘we too’ are part of its yet mysterious mix, its blithe blending of our beings into both a history of acts which are not our own and a biography which very much is, however much we sometimes attempt to avoid its action, is, in the end, the most blessed of gifts that any divine animal could imagine for itself.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 55 books in ethics, religion, education, aesthetics health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Poiesis and Untruth

Poiesis and Untruth

            Lying is a privilege of the poets because they have not yet reached the level on which truth and error are discernable. (Santayana, 1954:338 [1906]).

                Speaking into being that which heretofore did not exist is a narrowing of the Greek term, for ‘poiesis’ originally refers to anything that is ‘made’, or even to the act of ‘making’ itself. That it has come to be associated more specifically with language alone, and yet even poetic language, is a function not of any etymological ellipsis, but rather of industrial production, which makes effortlessly and seemingly without being. At the same time, it creates a kind of violence, both against the process of making but also against the idea of creation. Creation, in the modern day, might then be more aptly referred to simply as production, even reproduction. Benjamin’s famous essay about the status and nature of the work of art in our own age, that of ‘mechanical reproduction’, is still a lynchpin of understanding our common lot vis-à-vis art. What then can be an aesthetics of industry, a poetics of production, a lexicon of l’art pour l’art?

            This sudden violence, betraying its potential for evil within its very subito, taking us unawares and blindsiding us with its thief in the night, is yet only possible if we ourselves are unrefined, produced rather than created and especially, self-created: “Only the weak are obliged to be violent; the strong, having all means at command, need not resort to the worst. Refined art is not wanting in power if the public is refined also.” (ibid:324). Santayana cautions that in this industrial and technical age, escape through any form of art disorients us in our intent; we would become distracted, even entangled, rather than approaching art as one would a respected lover. Here, desire is present, but not lust. The will to Mitsein overtakes anything ulterior. The ‘companionate marriage’ is a social poiesis in this sense, but so is the genuine mentoring relationship, which is, at its best, what parenting also is or becomes. And in each and all of these variants, art is attached to both reason and rationality through the effort that must be made to create it, to bring it into being as a manifestation of poiesis. Perhaps it is too pat to simply declare the mechanism to be a lie and the creative force which has ever and always a poetic nature to be equally within the truth of things. For the object of reproduction, in its minions and in its millions, speaks its own kind of truth after all.

            The issue is rather that we tend to take this truth for both objectivity and rationality, as if the object of production, in a word, the commodity, is the epitome of human reason. In so doing, we have divorced the artistic process which is poiesis from the ‘bringing into being’ of something not extant beforehand. One response has of course been to deny such objects any relation to being, preserving this existential term for either animate and sentient objects such as animal life or more grandly, only for human beings themselves. But this too is both premature and a kind of untruth. However mundane and mass produced, the commodity is nevertheless a product of the human imagination, and to the nth degree, at least in its numbers, efficiencies, and technicalities. A second response has been that the very intent of producing the object, though a creative act, sullies in a final and fatal manner the creation itself, thus through its purpose it loses its connection to being. This too cannot be entirely dismissed but I feel that along with the first response, such a criticism is over-ripe and hurried. Objects are after all placed in use, and persons, once concluding the commodity contractuality that is the vulgar goal of all capital, often use such objects in creative ways not predicted by their manufacturers. In this, the consumer is herself a being who only exists momentarily, and thenceforth becomes rather a creator or an imaginer.

            Thus it is too easy to engage in a critique of an entire series of events and eventualities by hanging it up on a singular point, whether it was at this moment that the particular series began or ended, changed its timbre or upshifted itself, perhaps even in a dialectical movement. The commodity as fetish does of course extend the half-life of such critiques, but even here, the fullest intent of how this or that produced item is to be venerated by us is, as often as not, not followed through upon. And the rationale that is issued from the producer which might run something like ‘all we want is for you to buy it, you can use it however you want.’, comes across as more of a rationalization. A most picaresque example of such a thing came during the first Iraq conflict when France was critical of the American invasion and working class Americans bought expensive French champagne only to break the bottles in ditches. One could imagine a tradition-minded vintner objecting but not a contemporary capitalist.

            Poiesis is not abandoned in the commodity fetish. This may appear reactionary, for how then could one explicate the problem of the contrived power of the fetish itself? Perhaps we should return to Marx’s sources. The religious fetish had no power of is own, but rather was first a receptacle for Mana, then a vehicle for it. That it had to be propitiated in a primitive sense – the fetish is not after all an icon, temple, or other space of oblation and genuflection – which involved more ululation than anything else, tells us that it as an object was quite useless. In short, the fetish item was ever a source only of potential energetics. This being so, how could one compare a mass produced object meant to be sold at a profit and used in a specific manner, to a unique object whose use was absolutely undefined until the moment it is, ‘poietically’, spoken into being?

            Let us pause just here, and double back to Santayana’s plaintive call to poetic conscience. Instead of merely nodding in a Platonic cum Nietzschean manner to the idea that art is beyond truth and lie just as love is beyond good and evil, and that there is some sort of ‘madness’ in both, the madness that speaks of the death of God amongst other mad, and angry, things, we can docket these facticities for a moment and suggest that the artist, since he has no reasoned conception of truth, can dally with untruth in the very being of creation; that is, through poiesis does what could not be true come into being in the world. For industrial production, for mechanical reproduction, for technical process, this means reiterating the truth through an ongoing lie; the idea that the commodity contains no being and is born of no art: “The man who would emancipate art from discipline and reason is trying to elude rationality, not merely in art, but in all existence. He is vexed at the conditions of excellence that make him conscious of his own incompetence and failure. Rather than consider his function, he proclaims his self-sufficiency. A way foolishness has of revenging itself is to excommunicate the world.” (ibid:363).

            Just so, the most finely crafted objects of capital, the great auto marques, the vintage wines, haute couture, even memorable and time-tested popular songs, are still and always still commodities. Does this epithet make them less creative, less a part of being, less close to poiesis? The untruth of poiesis is that it can create only the once, and for its next trick must differ its creation and defer its creativity. Mechanical reproduction is a merely more efficient means of disciplining the reason of and for copying. One might write the same manuscript, prior to the Incunabular phase of early printing, once a month say, for a year. Then there are a dozen hand-made copies of what is essentially the same object, the same work. Yes, the writer or illustrator might make intentional alterations for the sake of uniqueness, increasing, as per the going rate the idea that it is not merely a copy but each its own work of art, but what if these alterations are only mistakes uncalculated and unintentional? Amphorae were mass manufactured, even vessels of trade and war, in antiquity. And how many clay pots would it take for the post-war critic to admit that the productive-commodity relation existed side by side, nay, as a very part of the point of creation and construction, recreation and reconstruction, at the very moment of poiesis?

            It is no simple task to place the mute and dormant fetish into the vibrant and vivid commodity. That they both contain expectations of themselves and of their use can be understood as one point of contact. That they both elicit anticipations in their would-be users, whether ancient or modern, both consumers of the ‘to be created’, the ‘to be enacted’, is another. But the vague desires with which our ancestors approached the fetish were, unlike those later in the temple or in front of the oracle, as unlike anything the modern consumer brings to the commodity as could be imagined. Perhaps Marx got hung up on the apparent likeness between them, feeling that the both the fetish object and the commodity in themselves did nothing. This too is a piece of poietic untruth, for a table, to use his own example, has in itself and standing alone outside of any aura, a precise set of functions that can be enacted or interacted with, without any sense of veneration. Indeed, it is the sheer lack of fetishism in the commodity relation that marks consumption as an often vapid venture. That brand logos take on the mantle, though not the mantra, of Mana – each month there is a competition amongst them to gauge the most valuable branding – in capital presents something more akin to the original fetish. But even here, the logo is not the thing itself. The prancing horse is not the auto, the one is a mere sign for the other and not its signature. No such disconnect, no such distance, was to be found in ancient societies. And the fact that it is only amongst the elite brands do we find any hint of fetish strongly suggests that it is poiesis itself which is being hyper-valued and not any specific creation thereof.

            And this in turn points to the error of disassociating on the one hand, poiesis from mechanism, and on the other, untruth from rationality. The first relationship remains, though in impersonal form for much of the production process. Even so, one cannot have a commodity without a creator bringing something into being that was not extant beforehand. The second relation is more complex: certainly, rational organizations seek to level truth and lie through anonymous dynamics and reducing persons to roles alone. At the same time, the movement from right and wrong to correct and incorrect is not quite enough to convince us that there are still proper ways to go about one’s business, that there are still rules, laws, and consequences for transgression. ‘Truth and lie in a non-moral sense’, by no coincidence the title of the most important short essay of the 19th century, does not by itself propitiate a world which is beyond morality, only a way of being that sees beyond the moral gloss that veils and manipulates what is and what is not, as well as calling into question any absolute definition of either. It cannot be used as a means by which to critique the supposed disenchantment the ‘pure’ commodity relation has brought into that self-same world.

            In sum, poiesis lives on. Its scope has been magnified, its precision codified, its powers purified, and at both ends of the living spectrum of existence. Its untruth of inexistence, its ability to utilize becoming as a way of speaking into being and then naming this odd miracle ‘creation’ rather than ‘production’, is a piece of sophistry which is unworthy of even the lies of the poets themselves.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty-five books in aesthetics, ethics, education, religion, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.