This is the Information Age, a century choked with facts and factoids, bites and gigabites. Yet, for all the blizzard of data, it has been a century of drought for Truth.
As the century has progressed, we have become increasingly suspicious of the very idea of Truth, to the point that many younger people simply no longer believe there is such a thing.
I ran into this attitude in a university art seminar I was asked to address. The brightest and most talented student in the class took exception to my exhortation that they use their art to discover truth.
Art, of course, often pretends to address “universal truths.”
“There is nothing universal,” she said, giving words to the common belief, which in itself is a sweepingly universal statement. “It’s all just personal preference.”
I asked her if she didn’t think that her art had validity for her viewers.
“No, it’s just my version. I don’t expect anyone else to believe it,” she said.
Why, then, I wondered, did she bother to make art? What was the point, beyond self-gratification?
It was, as I saw it, utter capitulation.
Yet, I still understood why she might think that way. It was a previous “universal truth” held by everyone from Aristotle to Southern Baptist Convention that prevented women from making art in the past — or at least kept them from being taken seriously. Universal truths held people back, subjected them, disenfranchised them, enslaved them, justified the status quo and glorified local circumstances — that is all she cared about the subject.
The century has had its belly full of horror perpetrated in the name of “universal truths.” Cambodia cleared out its cities and slaughtered its citizens in the name of a great truth. The Soviet Union starved its provinces and imprisoned its best in the name of a “historical truth.” Germany’s big truth was a big lie and ended in genocide.
And in the centuries before ours, truth had a nasty habit of justifying colonialism, war, racism, the subjugation of women and the worst aspects of jingoistic nationalism. Just read any 19th Century justification of slavery. Is it any wonder that we have become nervous and twitchy about anyone claiming a franchise on Truth?
Even in our own time, those who profess to know the Truth habitually kill those who don’t agree. It doesn’t matter if they are Christian or Muslim, Tamil or Sikh. Truth is too often just a good excuse to blow each other to kingdom come. The nightly news carries new proof of this every day.
Yet, the loss of a sense of universal truth is in some ways just as bad.
We have no core beliefs to unify our culture; it fragments into interest groups and the groups fragment into individuals, each with his own desires and directions. The groups quarrel and soon, like Tutsis and Hutus, they are at each others throats.
Seven billion screaming ids. Either way, people wind up dead.
It used to be one of the functions of art and literature that it tested the veracity of purported truths, taking exception to ideas that had become outworn and making provisional stabs at creating substitutes. Art was the attempt to find universal truths that could stand up to the sulfuric acid used to separate the gold from metals more base.
As D.H. Lawrence said about the novel, meretricious ideas are easier to spot in fiction than in everyday life.
But the problem now is that it isn’t just that we no longer know which truth to believe, but that we simply don’t believe there is any truth.
We have reached an uncomfortable impasse. We need belief to make life meaningful, yet we cannot allow ourselves to believe in anything. Every faith, institution, political faction and ideal has proved at some level to be a tissue of hypocrisy. We decry our own cynicism, but recognize that at some level, it is merely realism.
Some retreat into conventional orthodoxies; others free float, aimless in an increasingly valueless society.
But there is another alternative: starting from scratch to see if we may discover for ourselves something like universal truth and build the whole thing all over again.
If we could only find a starting point, a single truth that everyone can agree is universal.
I suggest there is one such truth: We all die.
Death, if nothing else, is common to all 7 billion people on this planet. It is common to all living things, and metaphorically, common to all inorganic things, too. Perhaps if we recognize the universality of death, we can allow the possibility of other universals, even if we tread such territory gingerly.
If there is one truth, perhaps there are others. At the very least, it puts the lie to the canard that “it is all just personal preference.” At least one thing isn’t.
Death may seem a grisly place to start, but it doesn’t have to be.
The raw fact of death, when we are willing to be aware of it, also brightens and colors the gray ordinariness of daily life. It is what philosopher Martin Heidegger meant by the term, “authenticity.”
In simple terms: Death makes life more immediate.
If we ignore the fact of death, we can become bored with small things. But if we keep our death in mind, even mud becomes magic.
Perhaps just as important, it isn’t our own death that we feel most poignantly. We may not experience our own deaths at all — at least we have no reliable reports from after the fact — but we do feel the deaths of those around us in a profound sense of loss.
A sense of loss may be our second universal truth: It is certainly at the root of much mythology, from the expulsion from the Garden of Eden to the current New Age belief that Native American culture is somehow “in harmony with nature” and that our own culture is somehow cut off from it.
This loss is not merely generated by our awakened sense of our own mortality — in the face of loss, our own deaths often become insignificant — but of the recognition that we extend beyond our egos: We love.
Love — this opening up beyond self-interest — is perhaps a third truth, for whatever cultural inflection it picks up — and make no mistake: despite the rumblings of the Republican right, love is manifested in a million forms — the basic truth is that we all manage to break out of our blind egos and forge connections with others.
From love, we can begin to build a sense of morality. By breaking from our own egos, by imagining what it is to be other than ourselves, we begin to understand how our behavior affects those around us.
Young artists often deal with death in a symbolic fashion: skulls and blood. It is the mainstay of prison art, tattoos, heavy metal music and adolescent — primarily male adolescent — fantasies. Yet such doodling has as little to do with death as with art.
Such things are mere conceit.
It isn’t until we are older and come face-to-face with loss, that we begin to understand the meaning of death and the hundreds of emotional consequences that follow.
Beginning with one uncomfortable truth and wind up with a complex web of things, including that which makes us happiest.
I recommend to artists, not that they get all morbid, — quite the opposite — but that, starting with the universality of death, they may begin to build once more a fabric of belief that will sustain the human spirit.