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Tuesday, 13 February 2007

The Truth

I've finally discovered the truth.

Actually, I've always had something of a love for the truth of things. My mother tells me that when I was a toddler I initially didn't believe lying was possible, and then, when I was convinced, still had trouble understanding why anyone would want to lie.

Later, when I was four or so, I vowed to myself that I would never tell lies - apart from 'polite lies' ("I like my new top, thank you Gran"). I think it was my mother who suggested the exception.

I told my first, proper, protecting-myself-from-disapproval lie when I was five. I felt guilty about it for years afterwards. My sister and I had been sneaking out the side fence (I felt so daring for sneaking about a metre into the path that led off the street to the neighbours' gate). The lie was brief. It may even have been a reply like 'nothing' to a question about what we had been doing. At any rate, my sister, who was only two, and much more inclined to tell lies in general (she cares more for love than truth, always has), seems to have been convinced that since I was doing it, it must be okay, and blithely showed our mother the gap in the fence.

Mum wasn't mad; she would have hesitated before discouraging us from exploring, in general. And if she was conscious of my having lied initially, she didn't show it, which is why I think my lie may have been imperceptible to the less idealistic adult eye. I think I almost felt more terrible because no-one but me was aware of my crime (and there was no way I was going to tell anyone).

As I got older, my notion of honesty grew. Somebody once referred to the idea of giving some real part of yourself on stage as 'honesty', and the idea took root in my head and flourished beautifully into an idea of being true to some genuine feeling when you express yourself. When I see it in other people, I actually find it the sexiest thing on Earth.

On a slightly different note, which is more truthful: a factual statement from which people might get the wrong idea, or a statement which is not strictly correct, but which is more likely to give people the right general feel? That is, is the truth of a statement in ordinary conversation best measured by its content, or by the way it will be heard?

What about poetry? I used to have trouble with Keats:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever...

Yep, that's right, folks, when the sun has turned into a red giant and long since engulfed the Earth, those crocuses on the way to college will still be a joy.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever
Its loveliness increases, it will never
Pass into nothingness, but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

That's the beginning of Keats' Endymion, by the way. My quiet bower is up at the top of the rhododendron tree, with the sunlight streaming through the spring leaves of the ash tree, and me, twelve years old, relinquishing pain for a while and only seeing beauty.

A poem can be 'honest' in the same way that a freely given emotion can be honest; a rich way that goes beyond what can be factually contained in a given set of literally interpreted words. This increased breadth in what can be conveyed admittedly comes at the price of complete and definable accuracy. "For ever"? No, not really. But which of us knows forever?

We are getting close to what a friend of mine (who just happens to write poetry) calls "truth of the heart" as opposed to "truth of the mind". If it conveys some truth about the way you see the world, is it okay to paint your life with metaphors? With myths, like the ancients did, personifying the power of the storm and the fertility of the crop?

Can a religious ritual act as a physical metaphor? If so, does this mean there is "truth" in it, if it embodies some genuine feeling?

When people say that religion will die, that it's just too stupid, I don't know if they are right. I do know this. The non-scientific part of us that goes into poetry isn't going to die. And there will always be people who value that way of thinking above hard objectivity, who will discard the clear evidence of their own senses in favour of "melodies unheard" (Keats again, and that line in the second verse was the part of the poem that first caught my eye; it hits me like a sharper version of deja vu).

I think it is possible to care for both ways of thinking. I suspect that we require the more objective input of our senses before the imagination could even take flight. I know we need to trust our senses in order to survive. Still, the experience of beauty, the feeling of love - these things are part of what makes survival worth it in the first place. I love science, but I have never been short on imagination.

I tend to think that the line between an imagined story and the truth or an attempt thereof should never be blurred. [EDIT: Even when I'm taking some belief as given, I almost always make a little note in the back of my mind that that's what I'm doing. Somehow that doesn't get in the way of the purpose of believing it in the first place]. Some people disagree, and always will. That doesn't make them right, but many of them are worthy people, nevertheless, who contribute to the world in other ways.

Back to Ode on a Grecian Urn:

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

No, no, Keats, no! Rightfully lauded poet though you are, I will never forgive you for that one!

Edited slightly for The Humanist Symposium - but all I did was cut a basically irrelevant paragraph, alter some punctuation here and there, and add the sentence above that is declared as an edit.

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