I Hate Truth

I have to say I’m puzzled by Dispatches #29 – on truth and the new totalitarianism.

At first it seems to be a kind of jeremiad lamenting the decline of “the very concept of truth in its simplest form – the state of that which is the case, the result of accurate representation.” The essay then cites Sean Spicer’s lies about the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration: “How big was that crowd? Once upon a time we could just count and arrive at the truth. Once upon a time . . .”

But, of course, most of us are still able to count, and Sean Spicer was loudly and roundly mocked for his absurd fables. Additionally, that type of naked political propaganda is much less common than it was, for example, in the 1930’s – or virtually any time before that, so the period of “once upon a time” would seem to be less than a century. Continuing in that vein, the piece bemoans “the shrinking attention to newspapers and other traditional modes of truth-telling.” Ironically, however, that claim is not true: digital subscriptions to the Washington Post tripled between September 2016 and September 2017[1]; the New York Times doubled its digital subscriptions between July 2015 and July 2017.[2] Other newspapers have seem similar jumps in circulation.

Although the essay begins by suggesting it’s not interested in “some big, fancy metaphysical Truth,” that’s also not really true. It abruptly switches from empirical truth to poetic “truth,” and that’s where the problems begin. In poetry, “truth” is aesthetic, and its aesthetic components are supported by and/or freighted with millennia of metaphysical baggage. That becomes explicit in this section of the essay:

“I John saw/I testify,” H.D. wrote in The Walls Do Not Fall. That is the truth poetry          knows. That’s why poetry will always testify against totalitarianism in any form and          arena.

But, of course, poetry has often testified for totalitarianism, as Pound, Aragon, Marinetti, Neruda, and many others obviously demonstrate. (In another irony, the essay later cites Heidegger, who testified for both poetry and National Socialism.) Additionally, the first sentence seems to misread the section from The Walls Do Not Fall, which I’m quoting more extensively here:

I John saw. I testify;

if any man shall add

 

 God shall add unto him the plagues,

but he that sat upon the throne said,

 

I make all things new.

I John saw. I testify,

 

 but I make all things new,

said He of the seven stars

“John” here is John of Patmos, the nominal author of the Book of Revelation. (Biblical scholars agree that he was not the author, although there’s no consensus on who might have written it.) John presents a view of the Bible as unerring and invariant: it, or at least his book, is the word of God, and anyone who modifies it in any way will be smitten by a pissed-off deity.

It’s clear that H.D. rejects that view: she opposes it to Jesus’ statement that “I make all things new.” For, H.D., truth – which, for her, means the human experience of the divine – comes with an expiration date: it must change or it ceases to be true. The essay’s misreading is instructive since it seems to unintentionally advocate a literally dogmatic and potentially totalitarian view of “truth.”

Poems acquire their poetic truth not by reference to the material world to which they are often opposed, but through their resonance in the “soul,” a word that is at best an empty placeholder that can never escape its religious origins. The quotation from Emerson suggests as much: “Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.” That’s a familiar Transcendentalist trope, and it’s echoed in both Emerson’s famous claim that a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Emerson and Whitman embrace contradiction because the divine force they claim to be in touch with is transrational and continually frustrates logic and reason. In other words, its truth is spiritual, and it not only overrules but often contradicts empirical truth.

However, most (although not all) of us in the po-biz don’t believe that poetry comes from the divine, so for us “poetic truth” must be an oxymoron: it is rooted neither in the empirical or spiritual world, but in the messy, limited subjective experiences of reader and writer. I’m surprised I have to repeat that, since Emily Dickinson, Oscar Wilde, and Wallace Stevens all said that much earlier and much better than I have.

There’s a larger problem here as well: the Transcendentalist celebration of contradiction blends nicely with totalitarian visions of the malleability of truth. Whitman’s claim that “[w]hatever satisfies the soul is truth” is a perfect encapsulation of the way that the supporters of Hitler, Stalin, or even Trump can waive away their leader’s frequent departures from fact. For me, that’s the most ironic part of the essay: it endorses a poetic version of the same political tendencies it critiques.

There is no “truth” in poetry, and I don’t know why we would pretend there is. To me, all “truths” say the same thing, so I’m tempted to exaggerate, as Stevens did, and proclaim an abhorrence of “truth” designed, as was his castigation of “the sonnet,” to rid us from reiteration of the past dragged on in formal habit. I HATE TRUTH.

[1] . http://money.cnn.com/2017/09/26/media/washington-post-digital-subscriptions/index.html

[2] . https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/new-york-times-record-subscriptions_us_5979e57fe4b02a4ebb734f5f