Essay: “On Truth,” “An Incomplete History of the Art of the Funerary Violin” and “The Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature”

25 Feb

Three recent books suggest the age of “essential truth” may be over

When Oprah Winfrey expelled James Frey from her book club last year after he confessed to fabricating large portions of his best-selling memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” the move sparked a nationwide conversation about the importance of truth and the categorical value of not being indifferent to it.

At that point, Frey was the latest, and most conspicuous, in a long line of fabricators that included Jayson Blair of the New York Times, Stephen Glass of the New Republic and Jack Kelly of USA Today, all of whom were exposed to have invented stories, undermining journalism’s raison d’etre.

None of these garnered the same kind of attention as Frey, because none of them had ever been given Winfrey’s seal of approval, which means big money is at stake. Frey’s book sold 2 million copies in three months. It was the fastest-selling book in the history of Winfrey’s club.

Not long ago, Winfrey may have accepted Frey’s defense that his book, about his battle with addiction and search for redemption, represented the “essential truth” of his troubled life. That details were inaccurate, or made up in toto, was irrelevant to a kind of profound truth one cannot express when hemmed in by mundane details.

In the mid-1990s, no one, including Winfrey, seemed to suffer pangs of conscience when John Berendt, after the publication of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” admitted to “rounding the corners” of fact to provide better narrative grip. The book ranks among the best-selling works of nonfiction of all time.

Something has changed and 2006 may prove to be the benchmark of that change. This week, the New York Times’ Website posted the most widely read book articles of 2006. Third from the top, beating out the 100 most notable books of the year, is, you guessed it, Winfrey’s rebuke of Frey. Of the 10 most viewed stories, in fact, three are about Frey’s fall from grace.

In light of this, two new books — one a philosophy, the other a history — take two completely different approaches to truth. These books follow a landmark debate, reprinted recently, by two eminent 20th-century philosophers arguing over the essential question of human nature, a conversation that’s perhaps more relevant to the Frey affair than we think.

The first is Rohan Kriwaczek’s “The Incomplete History of the Art of the Funerary Violin,” (Overlook Press, $24.95, 224 pages). On the face of it, the book, published last year in the United Kingdom and this month in the U.S., is a work of historiography outlining the rise and fall of a lost funeral music derived from the Protestant Reformation and suppressed by the Vatican by the middle of the 19th century.

Sounds interesting. Problem is, the book, energetically written and elaborately illustrated, is a complete falsity, a hoax, according to the New York Times and the London Guardian. The newspapers report there was no such funereal music and there was no such papal conspiracy to eradicate it.

The author and publisher have since admitted the book is spurious. Peter Mayer, the book’s publisher, told the Guardian that he didn’t know if it were true or false but that either way it’s “a work of extraordinary nature.” Kriwaczek said his critics misunderstood his intention to write a “serious artistic statement” and a “musical philosophy.”

Like Frey’s memoir, what matters to them is the book’s “essential truth,” not its factuality. Unlike Frey, however, Kriwaczek’s tome is not a personal meditation on subjective experience, but a history that’s supposed to include footnotes and a means of verification. It doesn’t and it can’t be.

Qualified truth like this worries people like Harry G. Frankfurt, a former professor of moral philosophy at Princeton University and the author of our second book, “On Truth” (Knopf, $12.50, 112 pages), published in November.

Kriwaczek’s book comes during a era in which, Frankfurt writes, “what a person regards as true either is a function merely of the person’s individual point of view or is determined by what the person is constrained to regard as true by various and inescapable social pressures.”

Frankfurt calls purveyors of this viewpoint “shameless antagonists of common sense — members of a certain emblematic subgroup of them call themselves ‘postmodernists’ — (who) rebelliously and self-righteously deny that truth has any genuinely objective reality at all.”

We expect this kind of attitude from politicians, businessman and publicists, Frankfurt writes, but recently, a “more reliable class of people,” including journalists, historians and memoirists, many of them self-regarding postmodernists, has tolerated or endorsed a relativist attitude toward truth.

“As for the entitlements of deference and the respect that we ordinarily assign to fact and to truth, the postmodernists’ view is that in the end the assignment of those entitlements is … simply a matter, they insist, of how you look at things.”

Is postmodernism really to blame for the likes of Frey and Kriwaczek? Does a 35-year-old intellectual movement skeptical of universal truths and Enlightenment ideals (like truth, justice and objectivity) but devoted to a quantitative assessment of the nuances of power explain how someone like Frey could believe the “essential truth” to be true enough and someone like Kriwaczek could believe a made-up history to be an artistic statement?


By happenstance, our third book, reprinted in September, is one of the benchmarks of postmodern thought, “The Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature” (New Press, 128 pages, $14.95). The book, among many other things, strips down the concept of human nature into two camps.

One, expressed by Noam Chomsky, the linguist and political commentator, believes human nature to be a universal attribute. The other, posited by French philosopher Michel Foucault in this 1971 debate on Dutch television, holds that the existence of human nature doesn’t matter.

What matters for Foucault and postmoderns is how the concept of human nature is employed by those in positions of power. With a Realpolitik stance on ideals, they say: What is just or true depends on the socio-political position of who’s telling you something is just or true, and the socio-political context in which the statement is made.

Thus, in this postmodern view, truth (or justice, or objectivity or fill in the blank with the universal principle of your choice) depends, to paraphrase Frankfurt, on how you look at it.

A major flaw of this brand of thinking, of course, is moral bankruptcy: The postmodernist never has to take a stand. In the bargain, a principle like truth becomes malleable, supplying Frey the intellectual undergirding for claiming his memoir is mostly true, nevermind that some of it is false.

Which is why Frankfurt felt it necessary to follow up his 2005 treatise “On Bullshit” with this new book. A sequel was needed, he said, because the first book, which did define why indifference to truth is deleterious, however failed to define why truth is important.

The strength of his case rests on his assertion that truth has practical utility, and that judicious application of the truth is the hallmark of a just society. “How could it possibly flourish, or even survive, without knowing enough about relevant facts to pursue its ambitions successfully and to cope prudently and effectively with its problems?”

On balance, though, postmodernist thinking can be argued to have done more good than harm. Many Americans used to think they were being objective in their assessments of African Americans. We now know that perspective was erroneous, if not criminal.

And Frankfurt does allow for the possibility of something good to come from something like Frey’s and Kriwaczek’s books, “showing, in other words, what conclusions those statements would rationally warrant if they were actually true rather than false.”

However, why bother? Frankfurt writes: “This display of reasoning might be an entertaining and even, perhaps, an impressive exercise … Under ordinary conditions, however, there would not be much point to it.”

Savannah Morning News
January 28, 2007

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