November 3, 2013, by Stephen Mumford
Yesterday was a remarkable day. It was not just that it lasted 32 hours, spent mainly on my way from Kuala Lumpur to Nottingham with an 8-hour time difference. But on the flight and since, I have come to think afresh on the question of truth in fiction and the place of storytelling in our mental landscape.
To many, this will all seem obvious. But it hasn’t been to me so far. As a metaphysical realist in my philosophy, I have always liked the idea of there being objective truth based on facts existing in the world. I am well aware of the difficulties attending this view. It suggests we could describe the world as if with a view from nowhere, which is not possible. But even knowing this problem, I’ve read more philosophy and non-fiction than fiction, perhaps in a search for real truth.
Stuck on a thirteen-hour flight, I had to do something with my time. I’d been reading the gigantic Alan Moore-written (graphic) novel From Hell and was too gripped to put it down. It’s seemingly a story and purported explanation of the Jack the Ripper killings in Victorian England, showing how the murders were part of a conspiracy involving freemasonry, the Royal Family, and Sir William Gull. The killings are officially unsolved and there have been many explanations advanced. Moore had meticulously researched the book but the Gull theory is not a new one. Certain parts of it seemed plausible but Moore is very open (in an appendix) about the parts he had made up. And he was entirely unapologetic about doing so. What counted was the story that could be woven around the killings. The facts themselves can probably now never be established to any degree of certainty. But the storytelling can become an end it itself. The point is that while every story must be more or less concretised – situated in some time and place and involving named people and particular events – the truth of fiction is an abstract one that can transcend those details of fact. In Moore’s case, the abstract truths concern our pagan worship, recurring totems, power, architecture, madness and the fruits of poverty. It is these truths the story tells rather than attempting to prove who did what in the autumn of 1888 in Whitechapel.
It took me around seven hours to finish the novel and reading so much of a book graphically-depicting cold, calculated murder in one sitting was quite a harrowing experience. I decided to look for a light-hearted movie. But Moore’s explanation of the role of the story stayed with me. The film I chose was Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, which I know has won critical acclaim. I’m a big fan of Woody Allen but it is Cate Blanchett who steals the show here with a virtuoso portrayal of a life unstoppably falling apart. The in-flight magazine told me how Allen’s story came about. There was speculation that it was based on the facts of someone’s life, though Allen denies this. Of course many people have experienced breakdowns. Jasmine could be any one of millions. But again the story was bigger than its concretisation. Allen wanted to explore a general theme: one that many people can recognise from their own experiences.
In the early hours of this morning, which felt like part of the same 32-hour day, another story made a big impression on me. Through Twitter, I came to look at the blog of an American Intensive Care Unit nurse called Jessica (@ECBlade). Last night she posted a blog on the death of a patient she calls Dennis. You can read it here but you’d better have some tissues to hand. The story is true – perhaps with some names changed – but having just read From Hell and watched Blue Jasmine, it seemed to me how little it mattered whether Jessica’s story was true or false. The point is that it was an important story to tell irrespective of it being factual. To whom do matters of life and death not count? It brought back memories of my own grandfather’s death of which I bore sole witness, being his closest remaining relative. Many of us will have to watch a loved one die. It is the hardest thing to do but, in this as in much else, stories can help us prepare for such moments and to understand them afterwards.
The storytelling’s the thing, you see. These three stories made a big impression on my 32-hour day. The abstract truths of fiction are often far more important to us than the concrete truths of fact. Almost all facts are utterly meaningless and banal. It is through an ability to abstract from them that we develop learning and understanding sufficiently deep for our moral and intellectual advancement.
It’s not often that I’m completely unsure as to what to say, but I am now. I would like to say, I think, that bearing witness to many of these events in the ICU and other places in the hospital, each one is individual, personal, to everyone involved.
And while these things happened last night, I really agree that it would have been important had they happened differently, or had just the story been told as a story. I think this because that’s how relational knowledge comes about, and when you have something to anchor new information to, it becomes a way to better understand and assimilate these happenings in our lives.
Of course, I didn’t know of your long travel day, or your activities, but now that I do, I can see the synthesis. Even my writing what happened is flavored by how I remembered what happened. I wasn’t recording, I was writing, so perhaps some language was not quite right, or the times not clear in my head. But, what happened did happen, and you know what it is to be witness to that.
I’ll be several days assimilating the events of last night into my larger self, but, reading this has helped me begin to process it. Thanks.