Recovering Reality: A case for the ‘truth’?

Call them what you will for it, romantics, perhaps even naive in this regard, but Gramsci and Marx describe the ‘intellectual’ as one who possesses a  heightened sense of consciousness  – a sense that enables the intellectual to extract or recover reality from a world made purposefully hazy. For these thinkers, the mystical gift of acumen also comes with its burdens. The role of the intellectual is not simply to seek, collect and retain knowledge, but also to unveil and act in relation to these carefully hidden ‘truths’.

To this end, the aspiration of good journalism is not so different.  The ethical role of the journalist is often expressed in terms of “reporting the facts”. In this formulation, ‘reporting facts’ is tantamount to ‘good journalism’ when ‘reporting’ is synonymous with ‘truth telling.’

We also know that ‘truth seeking’ maintains a centrality in our everyday experiences, both present in our most ardent and public socio-political concerns as well as our most private existential and interpersonal questions about life. But why does the notion of ‘truth’ matter to us? What purpose does such a concept have and for what reasons should it be retained?

Ironically, finding answers to such questions becomes a truth seeking endeavor in and of itself; one that is particularly tricky in the face of literary and philosophical works which suggest that any such search is always already futile.  Supplement these ‘truth dispelling’ works with the knowledge produced by our own interrogations and experiences with the ‘stickiness’ of life, and we step away from truth seeking, concluding that such efforts are best approached by suspicion.    

And yet, we also cannot deny that despite knowing of and experiencing the impossibility of truth, we continue to desire seeking it. Is maintaining this paradox an ultimately fruitless endeavor, or a generative and necessary contradiction? In what follows, Errol Morris, Harold Pinter, and Philip Gourevitch offer their takes on this conundrum, revealing how they came to terms with this confounding and yet ‘transcendable’ difficulty.  They describe how and where they ultimately decide to blur the lines between what is right or wrong, real or imagined, fact and fiction and, importantly, where to draw them. 

1) In “Recovering Reality,” producer, director and writer, Errol Morris notes:

Our vision of reality is incomplete in every respect, we find out about the world by collecting evidence, by thinking about things,  by looking at things.  Nothing that we ever create is complete, but you try to figure out what our relationship is to reality, to what happened,  to what transpired.  You use every means at your disposal. To me journalism is an attempt again, to recover reality.  

2) In 2005, the Nobel Prize winning playwright Harold Pinter begins his Nobel Lecture with the following sentiments: 

In 1958 I wrote the following:

‘There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.’

Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavor. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.

And then, in the same lecture, Pinter elegantly shifts, drawing a line between the role of ‘the writer’ and ‘the citizen’ in relation to the concept of truth:   

I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false? 

When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror – for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.

I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

3) Lastly, journalist, author and editor of The Paris Review, Philip Gourevitch discusses the difficult but necessary task of ‘truth telling’:

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