Truths in the Trenches: I


In poetry, which is all fable,

truth still is the perfection.




Wittgenstein responded to the outbreak of the First World War by joining the Austrian Army as an artillery corpsman. Twenty years later he abandoned teaching at Cambridge to enlist as a hospital orderly, while his colleagues (some of them) toiled at desks in British Intelligence during the Second World War. In his twenties he was true to his Austrian roots, and later he was true to his recently grafted British roots. He had a primitive, non-intellectualized hold on something he should be true to, something that was real to which he should witness. He lacked any articulate or systematic basis for regarding that witness as a witness to truth rather than to illusion or falsehood. Yet his actions showed that in his fifties he could be true to British soil without being false to Austrian terrain, and he could be true to Austrian terrain (earlier) without desecrating British soil. His later British loyalties were not a self-betrayal.

How is it so easy to malign truth, call it an illusion, deny that there is such a thing? Can’t we say Wittgenstein was true to his roots? Well, perhaps he joined up for a less exalted reason: say he wished to undermine a fear that he was an arrogant privileged aristocrat above the call of common duty? But if that is true, we wouldn’t be maligning truth, we’d just be arguing that someone could be true to his roots, but that was not true of Wittgenstein. We’d still have a robust notion of truth in play.

Wittgenstein read Kierkegaard and called him the greatest philosopher of the nineteenth century—better than Marx, Schopenhauer, or Nietzsche. We could say that Kierkegaard remained true to Christian roots even as he was true to his pagan, Socratic roots. To say that would be to keep a robust notion of truth in play. Kierkegaard was an unrepentant admirer of Socrates. A pagan could tell him something about how he should live, about where his loyalties lay. He knew he was fully Christian and fully Socratic, and that neither loyalty betrayed the other. Neither Christ nor Socrates, as he saw it, put much stock in winning anyone to a creed. He could be true to the paths they followed, though one path was Christian and the other non-Christian. He remained true to a path that crisscrossed wildly between Athens and Jerusalem. We might find integrity in his living while we puzzled how one could make sense of an amalgam of Christ and Socrates.

Truth gets maligned. We hear on the streets and in the academy that it’s an empty idol, that with the death of God we must also accept the death of truth. But does that mean it’s useless to wonder if there’s a true path one should follow, that we should think it’s bogus to say Kierkegaard was true to a Christian path and true to a Pagan path, or that Wittgenstein was true to his Austrian roots, and then true to his British roots? Of course, we might discover that Kierkegaard betrayed his Christian or Pagan roots, but then we’d still be maintaining a robust philosophical sense of truth. The notion of being true to something in one’s life isn’t jejune.

When someone speaks truthfully or acts on what she takes to be true to her path, or true to who she is, we have a notion of truth in play that allows us to speak of the integrity or virtue of Socrates, Kierkegaard, or Wittgenstein. Each, we could say, bears witness to something, in action and comportment. Each bears witness to a good. This is a noble sort of truthfulness, a truth embedded in character and ways of life. How do we come to recognize a good life—recognize that Socrates acts truly, that not caving before the Athenian public and not escaping his death sentence as his friends urge him to do, is not self-betrayal, but self-consolidation, integrity, being true to himself? This is a truth to cherish. Truth is not a hollow shell we toss aside as we become philosophically sophisticated, skeptical, and perhaps cynical.

On his deathbed, at the conclusion of what can only be called a tormented life, Wittgenstein asked his comforter, “Please tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” He spoke truthfully, I’m sure, though that witness was nothing that he, or anyone else, could confirm as true. He spoke truly, witnessed truly. I often imagine Kierkegaard witnessing from his deathbed, despite his Christian torments, “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful, wonderfully Socratic life.” The moral here is that a plurality of truths is not evidence for the absence of truths—or truth. This is an error Nietzsche and others can fall into. To say that truth is perspectival, always delivered from a perspective, does not entail that there is no truth. From the perspective of an ant, humans are very large—that’s a truth; and from the perspective of a whale, humans are not that large at all—that’s a truth.

Speaking at Syracuse, Helene Cixoux confided the sweet touch of shared words over the years with Jacques Derrida. She was a true friend to him as he lived and a true friend to bring him alive, as she did, far from Paris that day. She delivered truth to those with ears to hear: a resonant truth, a tactile truth, a truth that touched and blossomed from touch. Like Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, she witnessed truly to a quality of life. Truth matters.

Speaking in a large public stadium in the wake of 9/11, a Lutheran pastor shared a space of prayer with Imams and Rabbis and Priests, witnessing not to friendship but to true and truthful communion across sectarian lines. In distain of such truth, he was defrocked forthwith. Witness is not trouble-free. Through his comportment, he embraced Islam and Judaism while wedded to Christianity. He might have whispered, “Tell them that there, for the moment, I was Muslim and Jew.” He was truly exemplary of solidarity in mourning and compassion, across faiths and non-faiths.

Truth matters. We yearn for it and we’re up to our necks in untruth.

Disparaging Big Truth, Richard Rorty left a constraining Princeton for a looser Virginia, and then moved on to hang-loose California. Harry Frankfurt speaks for tactile truths from Princeton in a little book called Bull Shit. If you want to expose BS, you’d better believe in truth. Truth is triumphant as BS gets outed.

It glows also in true witness, true communion, true friendship, true service—in being true to oneself and others. My apprentice must “true up” the juncture of that beam and its support. Perhaps it’s asking too much to have politicians live truly, but we want John Wayne to have true grit. To dump truth is to dump the goodness of Wittgenstein’s service, the beauty of Cixoux’s friendship, the witness of a Lutheran pastor, the incisiveness of Frankfurt’s polemic against BS. To scorn truth is to leave untruth standing. If a madman cries out that truth is dead, you can block your ears or send him away.

                                                     Against theory

We don’t need a theory of truth to grasp truths of witness, communion, or friendship any more than we need a theory of music to grasp Beethoven’s invincibility, his immortality. We don’t need a theory to grasp Thoreau’s witness to the Concord and Merrimack as revelatory sites of truths. Knowing the landscape, we have an instinctive grasp of BS (Frankfurt helps us sharpen it). Knowing the field, we have a grasp of the quarterback’s true vision, true grace under fire. Doing considerable reading in Thoreau country, we can grasp the truths of his witness—in writing, walking, and civil resistance.

Getting to religion’s tactile truths is getting around in the landscapes of prayers, tears, and apocalypse; getting the feel of confession, pieties, and beloved mothers; of absent fathers, envies, loyalties, fear, and trembling. These terrains are enlivened as we trace how Buddha or Jesus or Gandhi cut through them, interrupting and disrupting and reassembling as they go. We get a knack for their witness to the lay of the land and to the things and practices it embraces. We move among tactile truths.

The thought of tactile truth is linked to Wallace Stevens’s invitation to let poetry give us “Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself.” And to be given “the thing itself ” is a gift to touch, not an idea about what touches us. For Thoreau, death appears on a Fire Island beach as the bones of his friend Margaret Fuller, close enough to touch. He works for a harmony of head and heart, ear and eye, nose—and hand.

A few years ago, at a conference at Wheaton College, a speaker evoked El Capitan’s walls in Yosemite as a site where a climber could have tactile knowledge of an exhilarating, timeless moment, an Augenblick, or series of them, high above the valley floor. There was witness to tactile truths revealed to the living body, truths of the most extraordinary kind, available nowhere else and in no other way than by inching one’s way up the granite face ‘til a thousand feet dropped off below, and thousands more beckoned above. Truth spoke from the rocks and the climber alike—from the skies—and to those viewing rooted in the meadows below. The moral is that tactile truths, and witness to them, get us through the night.

Pilate asks, What Is Truth? but his interlocutor ducks, as he should. The question is doubly mocking, of truths and of the exemplar before him. If my son gathers his equipment to attempt an ascent that I think he’s ill-prepared for, I won’t halt him at the curb and ask “What is truth?” I’d ask, if he were young and ill-prepared, “What’s up with you? Why shouldn’t I ground you?” Pilate is also asking, but of Jesus, “What’s up with your foolhardy ways? Why shouldn’t I ground you, or worse?”

He needs a tactile sense, a grip on what’s up with an ill-dressed man who, it’s rumored, witnesses to being all that a true human being is and should be, who comports himself as an exemplar for others. Perhaps his detractors fancy that he takes himself to be a true king relative to others. Pilate wants a story to tell, to himself and any who might question him later, about what’s up with this trouble-maker/prophet/ teller-of-parables/harmless-miracle-worker/delusional-self-styled-king/insufficiently-humble-wanderer/disrupter-of-the-temple-stock-exchange—what’s up with this person who says he’s the way and the truth—what’s up with him, and what will he, Pilate, do about it. On my view, Pilate couldn’t care less about the truth that good academics in theology and philosophy ask graduate students about in PhD qualifying exams.

In their allotted hours, our good students run the gauntlet: “What is truth?” Well, let’s look at skeptics, conventionalists, pragmatists, deconstructionists, pre-postmodernists, semanticists, Platonists, nominalists, Aristotelians, etc., etc. What’s wrong with this picture? Well, this is precisely not truth-seeking—but why? Truth-seeking culminates in a witness to truth or to its absence. It does not culminate in a theory about truth.

For a theory of truth, we assume that there’s a neutral “view from nowhere” from which we can announce “there is no truth” or “truth is what works” or “truth is the interest of the stronger” or “truth is a distillate of gender, history, and genes—not to mention a distillate of party affiliation, income, and having or not having resolved one’s Oedipal issues.” Or “truth is a distillate of anyone’s mood, his mood of the moment.” But I’ll get off this train, if you please. There’s something deeply untrue in the direction these tracks are going. I’m not skeptical about truth. I’m skeptical of proceeding at this nonliving level of generality, at this great distance from the street, from the trenches.

“Is it true that Derrida had an aversion to binaries?”—I can handle that. I’ll consult texts and come up with something at least passable. “Is it true that binaries bully our perceptions and discourses?” I’m not clueless about how to argue, one way or the other. “Does JD smuggle in a false absolute, the ‘absolute truth’ that you can’t get deeper than binaries—or is his view here just an offhand remark that he’d retract in a moment?” I can handle all this. Truth has a grip, there’s a road and the rubber—one hits the other. However, if I hear yet again, “But come, just what is this … this ‘truth of the matter’ that you so confidently invoke?”—if I hear that, I shut down. I head for the door. Or get shrill or insistent. The question sounds deep but is in fact bloviation.

Asking about truth is not asking about One-Big-Thing, but asking about true witness, true friendship, true communion—no more, no less. It’s asking about true liars and true BSers, in the White House or anywhere—about true heroes and true villains; it’s asking whether binaries push us around or whether global warming is upon us—no more, no less. There is no Big Question about Truth left over, still to tackle, after thinking about these truths (or falsities) from the street. There is no Big Question about Truth—say how to define that Big Thing—that we have to answer before we dig in to ponder true witness, true friendship, and so forth. If someone persists “But what is truth—in general, overall?” then we should, like the good Socrates, artfully change the subject, or tactfully get off the train. Or offer very modest, push-cart versions: “a ‘true X’ is the best of its kind”—whether a true musician or true Christian, a true description or a true scholar. To give the idea a range of application, from low to high, I’d offer a parallel push-cart version: “a true X is a legitimate instance of its kind”—not a counterfeit or a forgery, but not necessarily the best of its kind.

I’d stick with push-cart versions, but not because Big Truth is a messy and difficult part of the city. I’d get off the train advertising Big Truth as destination because like Gertrude Stein will say of Oakland—“There’s no there there”—no there to go to. To knit one’s brow and worry the question “What is truth?” is to try to think from a supra-celestial nowhere, surveying all time and eternity. It’s to try to think oneself into divinity. More ornately, to ask The Big Question is to beg a release from Dasein, a release from Heidegger’s “there-ness.” It’s to presume exemption from the only field from which sensible questions about truth can be safely launched.

“What is truth?”—overall, in general—is a rootless, hopeless, slightly inane question. It flutters weightlessly in gossip and chatter. Emerson anticipates wonderfully. “We are place,” he announces. That is, we are not gods, not disembodied consciousness, not exempt from placement, from the street, the trenches, or the village. Thoreau would agree—from a pond not far from the village of Concord.


  Tactile truth

Getting truths from the trenches (or the streets) calls for a kind of tactile ability to sense what to trust and what to mistrust, what’s exemplary and what’s third-rate, what’s “true love,” “true friendship,” “true pitch,” “true aim”—and what’s a shoddy simulacrum. Working toward the genuine, toward the shining exemplar, is a knack, something we pick up—or don’t. Some can’t miss a shill or a conman. Others predictably do. Some light up at a true Cabernet, others don’t. Some see Jesus as king, others won’t. Some will hear genius in Dickinson and others will miss it. There’s a knack for tactile truths, visceral truths. We get it from the streets, or in classrooms or under temple roofs or Concord skies.

We are the place where these truths get worked out and negotiated, where we absorb their touch and scent and ring. The truths we have a knack for detecting are not true propositions we can pocket and consult when we’re lost. Having a knack for the tactile ones allows us to hear the truth in Wittgenstein’s deathbed words, “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life,” or to grasp the truth in his honoring newly grafted British roots, or to grasp the truth that he doesn’t thereby uproot his Austrian ones. With this knack, we hear Cixoux’s celebration of friendship.

Is truth objectivity? In science, in law courts, in serious journalism, we aim to attain it. We aim for objectivity, and when we achieve or approach it, we pride ourselves on realizing some passable degree of it. In science, law courts, or serious journalism we aim for objectivity in reports and descriptions, because in those contexts, objectivity is the genuine thing to pursue, the real thing, the best of its kind. If we miss objectivity, we feel shame.

Is truth subjectivity? It is when conscience insists that I be true to what I am and must be as a human being, insists that I probe and weigh my passionate investments, and not refuse an awareness that I count for something and that the world can surprise. Subjectivity is, among other things, acknowledging responsibility, and that’s a good thing, something to be true to. To answer for oneself is an individual imperative that flows primitively from me, not from the “objective” spirit of culture or city or commonplace gestures and platitudes of the time.

[part one of two]

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