“The world exists to end up in a book” – Stephane Mallarmé
Journalists lie pretending to tell the truth. Novelists and poets tell the truth pretending to lie. Journalists lie by definition. They are supposed to gather objective facts. It is obviously an impossible mission. There is no such thing as an objective truth, everything is subjective, everything is seen through the individual’s perception. Not only that – simply choosing a subject is already an exercise in exclusion of other truths. It’s inescapable.
When, as a journalist I found myself on the border between Guatemala and Mexico with undercover police units wearing a bullet proof vest, chasing gangsters who assault immigrants, I thought I was experiencing facts that I would then be able to translate into an objective reportage. It is obvious that my state of mind, the excitement and the fear had directed my attention towards something rather than something else. That’s why the superficial facts I described in such context, maintaining journalistic standards, are actually limited in depicting the truth of that experience.
Reality requires different tools.
The misconception is the belief held by the reader, or the viewer, that a journalist reporting for radio, TV, newspaper or the Internet is able to deliver all the relevant facts. It is no surprise that lately the journalistic profession in the U.S. and in parts of Europe is encouraging development in the direction of what is basically data gathering. However, compared to traditional journalists, even data-gathering is not that much closer to the truth, presuming such a thing exists. Meta-analysis is a fad. Don’t be fooled by the mechanization of analysis. Don’t be lured by the mermaids of the robonews tsunami.
It is not a problem of scope or of the amount of data. It is a problem of depth. It is not an issue of who observes, but of how things are observed and especially, and more importantly, how they are told.
It is a problem of language.
The journalist is expected to rely on facts. Readers believe they are absorbing facts to compose a reality, or rather the truth. Even those who are relativists and who understand that the journalists’ article, reportage or TV show is limited to the narrator’s point of view, can’t help but open their perception to that specific truth – and herein lies the fallacy.
The impossibility of describing the truth lies at the source of journalism. It started with the birth of this mode of communication which now seems to be seriously suffering.
There is no magazine, there is no newspaper, there is no TV, no radio, no Internet site that can tell you the truth. The so-called news is not the truth. Of course, there is no such thing as the truth. But there is something that could get closer to a commonly shared experience of reality. Something that makes us understand more deeply the meaning of such experience.
Humans have at their disposal a more ancient tool that is able to expand the experience of reality in a much more appropriate and useful way than journalism ever developed.
The problem lies in the fact that, at one point in history, many people who belonged to this ancient craft, were forced for economic reasons to migrate their talents into this new growing and well-paying activity called: journalism.
Before that, storytelling, even before it took on the guise of writing, was much more interested in describing not simple facts, but the deeper truth which deals more directly with the emotional, sentimental and true issues concerning humanity.
This is what most good writers do. However, instead of pretending to be able to be faithful to an objective, independent aspect of reality, they plunge into their own interpretation. Sometimes imagination abounds, sometimes it is just a simple tweak into the observed reality, however voluntary or involuntary that distortion maybe. “There are plenty of records of everyday life,” Italo Calvino said in a BBC interview right before dying. “Literature has to give something more, as a fantastic interpretation of reality.”
The fact that novelists, poets, fiction writers in general do not even attempt or pretend to report objective reality makes their tale, for some strange and seemingly unexpected reason, much closer to a deeper truth.
Once we tap into the feelings, empathy and identification with characters, suddenly something more universal emerges from the depths. That is why the freer “creative non-fiction” writers of today may be getting closer to a syncretic view which would join the forces of the intuitive power of fiction with the lucid grasp into detectable reality.
Between Homer and Herodotus, I choose Homer.
As we read, as we watch a story well expressed by an artist, a writer, a poet, the feeling of the true experience being communicated, a real event happening in front of our eyes, even though that event is obviously imagined, or obviously distorted from the original it’s trying to rebuild, we are touched – in that moment our understanding and experience of the story makes us feel we are closer to something real.
By contradiction, the more unreal the tale the more real it may feel, if the talent warrants this effect.
To give the first example that comes to mind, you may read the best reportage on whale hunting in Norway or in Japanese waters, and yet nothing will be as close to experiencing something that goes much deeper and beyond the experience of hunting a whale then reading good old Melville’s Moby Dick, isn’t that so?
And isn’t that what the Romantics were saying? Unfortunately, the word “Romantic” has been glazed over by a kitsch effect, the maudlin and flowery interpretation taking over the Anglo-saxon connotation of “romantic” as “non-real,” more evocative of a literary style that integrated fantastic knighthood tales into a more or less accurate historic context. It was the degeneration of the “pittoresco” which deteriorated the concept.
Sensibility based on imagination was the tool used to go beyond reason. The French Revolution, product of Enlightenment, had lead to the years of Terror, the ugly side of rationality, which, pretending to soar above humanity, stoops to inhumanly cruel lows.
But humankind’s tendency towards the mystery of infinity, according to philosophers Schopenhauer and Fichte, lead us always back to search for something else. Sensibility, inspiration, intuition lead our search, backed up by reason. Reason alone will lead to the cold world of meta-data.
What is different now, compared to the religious context of the Romantic era, is the decreased power of the Church and of Religions in general in the Western world. And this is thanks to Rationality, this must be granted. But this makes it possible, today, not to jump any longer from the Light of Reason into blind Faith, like Kierkegaard or Pascal would.
Atheistic spirituality is not a contradiction in terms any more, just like, well, creative non-fiction. Another ugly development of Romanticism, nationalism, has less reasons to exist in a globalized world. Take away irrational Faith and close-minded Nationalism from Romanticism and you will have Nomadism (rarely before as common as today); Exoticism (investigating what’s foreign, drawing upon the great inspiration derived from feeling alien to the context); embracing of subjectivity and individualism; Spirituality as investigation into the unknown (a useful scientific tool also according to Einstein’s interpretation); and the study of History to remember that humankind is in constant change. And also a very healthy sense of Socratic Self-irony.
Friedrich Shelling, a leading thinker of German idealism, reminded the world of the central importance of myth and aesthetic sensitivity in order to go beyond the philosophy of Enlightenment. He gave value again to intuition, underlining the impossibility for reason alone to grasp the Absolute. Romanticism pointed out reason’s basic limitedness in capturing the most intimate essence of reality, juxtaposing the tools of feeling, irony and instinct to Reason.
It is Hegel’s conception of Reason as immanent Spirit of reality which can be seen as the great-grandfather of the last century’s ideological massacres perpetuated both by Nazi and Communist states and by ideological terrorism incarnated both by nation states or paramilitary groups of all sorts. French post-revolutionary Terror was just the prodrome of the thirst for blood of Rationality of the 20th Century, which now could maybe be glimpsed at in our out of control reality of the contemporary Techonopoly.
It just might be that a new interpretation of the Romantics could save us from the next massacre, presuming that the genocide of traffic accidents is not already such slow and silent horror, a price of the embrace between humankind and the machine.
Session for the Nepal Literature Festival (Kathmandu, Nepal on Sept. 20th, 2014)