Believing We’re Alive When We’re Still Dead

This day last year I started my new job which I hoped would be my dream job and I hoped that in years to come, grandchildren would sit on my knee and I’d tell them about the cool things I did and learned as part of this role. How do I feel about it now? Well I know it’s not part of the agreement we make with the Big Fellow but I think I’d probably be happy to just stay here for the next few decades. Life being what life is though, as I sit here and consider how sweet a place it is to sit, I am already thinking about the next move.

A new month is a new banner and for the first ever time I have used a photo that wasn’t taken by me or one of my immensely more talented buddies. In this case it is a flickr user who goes by the name of fatcontroller. You should go peruse his photos, especially the zoo ones from which the banner image is taken.

Serious respect to anyone who can decipher the awfully clever reference I am making in my tagline.

Back when Zoomtard began, the reason I kind of wanted to start a blog was how much I loved Mimi Smartypants’ blog. Three years ago she mentioned James Frey and how this renowned writer had written an autobiography that she considered one of the worst books she had ever come across. Frey’s book, A Million Little Pieces, claimed to be the memoirs of a stunningly gifted man who engaged in all kinds of crazy shenanigans involving drugs and crimes and sentences and addiction. The Smoking Gun however, revealed this to be a bit of a sham. The accounts of the autobiography didn’t really square with the reality of the situation.

Oprah chose the book for her book club but when the TSG unveiled its truth-defiency, she was very angry. Thoroughly angry on behalf of her readers who may or may not have enjoyed the book but they expected it to be a True Story and they felt very cheated that there were in fact poetic licenses taken by this young upstart. So she did what any media mogul would do and she invited James Frey on to her show to give him a good talking down to. He submitted to the game and apologised on the show.

So the story went to sleep for a while until a big book conference this summer. Time covered the resuscitation of the story here. Joyce Carol Oates (another literary bigwig) delivered a talk where she argued that truth in memoir is a curious thing, much like love in a Huey Lewis And The News Song. She says,

the tradition of personal memoir has always been highly ‘fictionalized’ — colored with an individual’s own ’emotional truth’ — and that the James Frey memoir would seem to be in this category. It would seem that Oprah Winfrey was judging the memory from a more literal perspective, but this makes sense since the great majority of her readers would expect memoirs and autobiographies to be ‘true.’

The readers weren’t the only people to expect it to be “true”. The courts forced the publisher to pay $3.25 million in refunds to aggrieved readers shocked that the Truth of a person’s memoirs could be so subjective, so tainted by “emotional truth” which they feel is tantamount to a lie. Frey’s publisher, Nan Talese was drawn into the controversy at the same conference and her comments can be viewed here. (How weird is it that there is a tv station dedicated to books?) What really offended Talese was not that Oprah expected the books she endorsed to be “true”, but that she didn’t care either way. It was all an act. Oprah was getting slack from her fans and so she passed that flack out to Frey in a public atonement where the nature of Truth was allegedly contended for but in reality Oprah was just doing business.

This is the kind of story that I am sure excites real fans of literature. It probably doesn’t get your blood pumping. It doesn’t affect me a whole lot either. What makes it interesting though is how I can compare the two mindsets at work, one in the “Oprah camp” and one in the “Oates camp” through this story.

The Oprah camp believe in something called Truth with a capital T. When they bought, read and enjoyed Frey’s book their whole experience was utterly grounded in the idea that they were reading a recounting of actual events. The Oates camp of literary big-wigs believe in a concept of truth that is much more ephemeral. They are unwilling to say that the meaning of the events can be accurately captured by reporting the event. Something internal and personal charges the external with a value that can’t satisfy the demands of the T-truth people. What we have here might be a really good illustration of the difference between the Modernism mindset and Post-modernism. Truth for the first group is an abstract, objective standard that applies in all times and all places. truth for the second group is an intensely personal event that

A lot of energy is directed these days, not least in the church, to discussing and attempting to dissect the movement from modernism to post-modernism. Its a “paradigm shift” and a “Copernican revolution” and a whole bunch of other clichés that none of us are sure about the meaning of. In reality though (concentrate for Zoomy is making a Big Point), modernism is in labour and its spawn will be post-modernism. They are not against each other. They are in line with each other. Post-modernism is better understood as ultra-modernism. It is modernism taken to its logical end. And the discussion of Frey and his literary controversy gives me a chance to show all four of you how.

The Oprah crew are looking for Truth with a capital T. By that, I mean that they are looking for an objective, verifiable, abstract truth. When you search back through the intellectual family tree you find that this concept began with Francis Bacon and especially René Descartes. “Des-cart-es” held that truth could be perceived by the rational mind set loose to think. The individual can do it on his own. Modernism and the Enlightenment project that serves as our mental architecture arose from this. Truth slowly morphed so that it now means something like scientific proofs.

We think that the shift to post-modernism is a shift away from and against modernism but I actually suspect that it is a superficial distinction. At root, post-modernism is really best seen as modernism’s ultimate culmination. Admittedly they seem to be different beasts when they are fighting about whether Frey is a lying charlatan or a literary treasure. But this is just one little skirmish in a bigger battle as the child dispossesses her parent. The Oprah club think that objective truth is out there somewhere and it can be accessed by any reasonable human who so wishes to apply their gifts with discipline and effort. The Oates club have just taken that to the logical conclusion and assumed that if all human beings as individuals can equally pursue this project then the objective truth becomes the subjective experience. In modernism we could each individually pursue the truth by looking outside with our rationale. In post-modernism, our rationale encourages us to pursue the truth as individuals and so we look inside.

Oprah’s Club were offended on behalf of Truth and dishonestly set up an ambush of the offender. Oates Club are offended by the dishonesty but in their dismissal of the idea of right and wrong and true and false they loose the grounds for offence. So this brings me round to the biographies that I think are the best ever written. The Gospels are composed in the genre of Greek biography. They are technically, I suppose, bioi. Those in Oprah’s Club typically dismiss them because their assumptions rule them out since they can’t be “historical”. Those is Oates’ Club typically dismiss them, well, I don’t know why they aren’t captivated by them but it might have something to do with the very clear and dominant message they offer (the metanarrative?).

I can side with neither Oprah nor Oates. One thinks you can grasp an objective truth that is beyond our reach and the other makes the individual, by definition a finite proposition, the ultimate standard of all truth. Modernism: You can’t reach for the truth without being a “You”, totally subjective. Post-modernism: You are wasting your time if you reach for something that isn’t there, so in your reaching you are surely admitting the existence of the objective standard you then try to dismiss.

Against the “scientific biography” of Oprah and the “emotional biography” of Oates there stands the Gospel biographies of Jesus. They are explicitly dealing with events and meanings that they claim are objective. John for example admits that he is writing his account so that you, the reader, will come to believe that Jesus was Messiah. But they deal with these objective issues fully aware of their subjective positions and the influence of their emotions and experiences on how they perceive. Thus we have for example in the Gospels, a detailed account (written by the disciples themselves) of how Jesus’ disciples took a long time to understand the Gospel.

Many of the things I hate most about Christianity takes the form of Modernist thought imported into the church. The kind of evangelism that gets my blood boiling, the mode of dispute that is most common, the moral positions we take- it’s all so shallow to my eyes. Many of my generation are therefore receiving post-modernism as a welcome antidote to the excesses of modernism. I understand why. But I fear the excess of the child will turn out to be just as great as the parent. I’d prefer to try and reach past both to try and figure out a way of replicating the view that Jesus had on the world- where the real Truth, the definition Truth, the source of all Truth, actually became a person.

When Truth walks around and explains itself by means of parables and crucifixion, it’s time for Oates and Oprah and every other desperate attempt to catalogue reality that the human mind can generate to get off the stage.

Your Correspondent, A roly-poly little bat-faced girl

3 Responses to “Believing We’re Alive When We’re Still Dead”

  1. jimlad says:

    1 Corinthians 1:
    22 Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

    It seems to be the best way to do it, rather than via “wisdom”. Any logical school of thought humans hold rely on axioms that may be agreed or disagreed with, as much a matter of opinion as whether truth is objective or subjective in the first place.

  2. zoomtard says:

    If the objectivity/subjectivity of truth is just a matter of opinion are you not just short-circuiting the conversation to force a “win” for subjectivity?!

  3. jimlad says:

    No. I am just stating the obvious as far as I can see it, but in such a way to make it seem like I’m making some subtle argument, thus making me appear clever. Anything is impossible to prove purely by logic, because logic just connects certain axioms with certain conclusions. Axioms are a matter of opinion and depend on experience in order to convince us that they are not purely subjective. When confronted by eg a falling rock and are not of the opinion that the rock that is falling on top of us, we will soon discover that we can be effected by something we don’t believe in if the rock does in fact fall on us.

    When it comes to opinion on God it is very difficult to find an axiom that everyone agrees on from which to base an argument, but a serious examination of Jesus seems to turn up all sorts of problems for those opinions that result in atheism and agnosticism. I would say that Jesus is the falling rock, and if you like, modernism and post-modernism could be likened to the feet of a certain giant statue in the book of Daniel, but only if you like, because it was supposed to represent more material empires than those of thought.

    I think that we Christians should really look to Jesus rather than any theory of our own, regardless of how clever it seems to make me, erm, I mean us.