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Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.


Writing for Faith & Culture

We welcome the submission of articles of between 600 and 1,500 words on topics related to Catholic faith and culture. Articles should be emailed as Word attachments to Joseph Pearce.

Truth is Stranger than Fiction

Truth is Stranger than Fiction

It is said, quite truly, that truth is stranger than fiction. It is, however, equally true to say that the strangest thing in fiction is the truth. This is not to say that truth is strange to fiction and is strange when we find it there. Quite the contrary. It belongs in fiction as an integral and inextricable part of the story; so much so, that we can talk about truth as being the very heart of the story, the invisible yet palpable force that infuses the fictional narrative with the life-blood of meaning. No, the reason that the strangest thing in fiction is the truth, is that the truth in fiction is beguilingly elusive whilst being immanently present. Although it is the very life of a story, it is all too easy to neglect or deny its presence, or even its existence. It is, therefore, essential that we learn to see the truth in fiction and to recognise its role as the conveyer of applicable meaning, the bridge that connects the fictional story with the real story in which we are living.

So how do we recognise the truth in fiction? First, as in life, we need to distinguish between the two types of truth; between the physical facts and the deeper metaphysical truth. With regard to the former, every fictional story must conform to the facts that govern our lives in this world. We have to be able to recognise reality in the fictional characters that are introduced to us by the author. They have to be believable; they must be credible. They have to be real people even if they are only realized in the imagination. Furthermore, the real imaginary characters have to live in real, believable places. If, for instance, we are reading an historical novel about the wild west, we will not tolerate our gun-toting hero, riding home from the range at sundown and switching on the television with the remote! Even fiction must conform to believable fact. And this rule must be followed even in the realm of fantasy or science fiction. If an eight-headed monster attacks a five-legged alien, in a landscape of orange mountains capped with purple snow under a turquoise sky resplendent with green clouds, we will still picture in our mind’s eye real heads, however ugly, and real legs, however oddly positioned beneath the torso. We will know or presume, unless told otherwise, that the head contains eyes and a mouth, and the legs are for walking, or perhaps running as fast as possible considering the nature of the eight-headed beast in hot pursuit. The mountains will be mountains, regardless of their colour, and the clouds will be clouds. We can change the colour of things, or multiply them, but the things are still things that are facts in our world. If the alien landscape is so alien that we can’t imagine it, the story will be unintelligible, and indeed untellable.

So much for the physical facts, the solid material, or nitty-gritty, with which the story is told; what about the metaphysical truth that breathes the breath of life and meaning into the story? This is more difficult to discern because it depends upon our own ability to see it. We all recognise a cloud when we see one but we don’t always recognise a philosophy, even when the philosophy is much less nebulous than the cloud. If we are blind to metaphysics, we will not see the metaphysical truth pulsating through a story even if it stares us in the face. And this is the problem facing modern man in his reading, or misreading, of classic literature. He no longer sees as the author of the novel sees and is therefore blind to the deepest meaning that the author’s work reveals.

The modern critic is bogged down in Dante’s inferno because he doesn’t see the efficacious and edifying power of repentance in Dante’s purgatory. He is stranded in hell because he doesn’t understand the theological brilliance of Dante’s vision of heaven. Moving into the age of the novel, the modern critic sees only the decorative decorum of the social etiquette of Jane Austen’s novels and not the decorous dignity of the edifying Christian morality that transcends the ornamental trappings. He sees only the highly-strung emotions of the characters in the romantic novels of the Brontë sisters without perceiving the orthodox Christianity that informs the works. He sees only the (homo)sexual undertones of Brideshead Revisited and not the workings of divine grace that is the supernatural thread binding the novel together. He sees The Lord of the Rings as an escapist fantasy not as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”, to quote the author’s own description of his timeless epic.

The tragedy of the modern critic is that he refuses to see through any eyes except his own. He believes that his eyes see more clearly than anyone else’s, even those of the novelist himself. His self-centred vision allows him to see nothing but his own prejudices reflected back to him. A novel can teach him nothing because he is convinced he has nothing to learn. Every novel is not a window through which he can perceive reality through the visionary eyes of the artist, but only a narcissistic mirror in which he sees only images of himself and his own ideas.

Let’s leave our poor deluded critic admiring himself in the glass.

As for the rest of us, let’s see the truth in fiction by seeing through the eyes of the author (as far as possible).1 In doing so, we will escape from the vanity of the mirror of illusion and will step miraculously through the looking glass of true perception into a wonderland in the presence of genius.

1 Since an author’s philosophy and theology informs his work, we need to endeavour to understand the author’s deepest held beliefs in order to see as he does.

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