Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Truth About “Freedom”

The truth can be a tough thing to pin down. Even the definition of truth is self-referential: “the quality or state of being true.” Or maybe “as opposed to false.” The dictionary also acknowledges that truth may be hard to establish: “a fact or belief that is accepted as true.” That’s some nebulous shit right there.

The truth is also different things to different people. In Asia, the truth is what the speaker thinks you want to hear. “Are you understanding me?” I ask my students, “am I speaking too fast?” I don’t say “too quickly,” that would confuse them. “Oh, yes Ajan!” they say, “you speak very clearly! We understand you!” Would that it were true, but they think that it will make me happy to hear it, bless their hearts. Doctors in Japan are famous for playing with the truth. “Do I have cancer, doctor?” “No,” the doctor says reassuringly. “Go home and rest, enjoy yourself, and drink some of this antacid three times a day, you’ll be fine.” Dead within six months, more likely.

The truth was exactly the opposite for the Spanish Inquisition. For them the truth was what the questioner wanted to hear. It’s all very situational.

In court, the truth is what a lawyer can prove to a jury. During the case, your truth is the version of the facts that is good for your client. Once the jury decides what happened, it is cut in stone as the final truth of the matter. The first thing a lawyer learns is that there is no such thing as objective truth in the law. For lawyers, it is frequently unethical to tell the truth. If the truth is bad for one’s client, the lawyer is required by the Code of Professional Responsibility to hide that truth with all of his power. Lawyers are often sued for telling the truth, which in the law suit will be referred to as “disclosures” or “admissions.”

The truth, the real, objective truth about anything, is such a slippery thing, it’s like trying to pick up an eel out of a bucket of water. The vagaries of human memory and perception get in the way. Think of your own life, your own past. If you are around my age, you already spend too much time doing this. What happened? How did you feel about it? When something happens to us, we view it through various filters. We try to protect ourselves from unfortunate truths, either by registering them in memory with modification or by not registering them in memory at all.

Don’t look for the truth on this blog. Oh, much of what I write is technically true, but I avoid the real, core truth of my life with the same fervor that I avoid plague infested blankets, or ingesting large quantities of salt water . My truth these days is only distressing to me, and writing this blog is actually part of my program of distracting myself with matters of a more cheerful nature, like Michelle Bachmann’s fear of the Renaissance, which, amazingly, is true.

Many novelists address this whole “truth” thing head on, at their peril probably. I’m just finishing up “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen. I knew from the reviews that it was a great book. Not because the reviews were all great, quite the opposite. It was the admixture of many reviews like that in the New York Times (“A masterpiece of American fiction.”) and many reviews that found it to be just the sheerest crap. That kind of disagreement is usually a good sign.

“Freedom” has a very full cast of characters, friends, married couples, their children. All of them are flawed but essentially sympathetic. This alone is remarkable. Books with similar subject matter so often fall into melodrama, with characters that are obviously good or bad. But “Freedom,” essentially, is about the truth, which is never that cut-and-dry. The truth as it happens; the truth as people remember it; truth as it varies from observer to observer; the truth that others can see but we cannot; the truth of what makes people do what they do; the truth about friendship, relationships, parenting and marriage. It’s so much truth that I can hardly stand it sometimes. It should come with a warning: “Danger! May Cause Self-Reflection.”

I guess that I recommend it, if you feel like you’re strong enough to take the message.

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