On truth

Consider this a thought, in a running series*, about truth (and memory, and authority, and authenticity) in archives:

This week, we’re reading two chapters from Postmodernism for Historians by Callum G. Brown, and, so far, I’ve made it through about half of Chapter 5 – “Text” – because I keep stopping to think. (Like: this is the coolest thing we’ve read all semester, and almost everything we’ve read this semester has been cool.)

I spent two years at Iowa thinking about the line between fiction and nonfiction, and where it intersects with the past (our pasts): how we tell our stories, how our memory winds itself around the truth. (I think a lot about Iowa, still: the way I read was forever shaped by that university, and those teachers. And the way I read influences the way I interact with the world. I went to Iowa to become a writer, and Iowa turned me into a reader. It’s the best gift I’ve ever been given. I digress, though.) Every writing class I took led to me writing about my childhood and – and! – almost nothing that I wrote was true. But it felt like the truth. And it became the truth. And I passed it off as the truth. If I were to ever write a memoir – nobody wants to read another memoir about a child with an alcoholic parent, about the child with the father who dies young – it’d be fictionalized, and I’d sell it at truth. Because I believe in what the memory creates. (There is a line. I was born in March, and I can’t lie about that. I have a brother, and I can’t – well, I shouldn’t – lie about that. But these things: the color of my mother’s sweater, the weather when my father died, the color of her hair underneath the kitchen lights, who cares? Her drink of choice. The details of her arrests, plural. The winter, and how brutal it was. The summer, and how brutal it was. His last night on earth. It all stems from feeling. The line you can’t cross are the lines that inflict pain, or consequence. I mean, I think. There’s a line. I haven’t crossed it in my own work.

What I mean is: there is a record of my father’s death – in obituaries, in death certificates. These are facts, and I cannot contest with them. But I’ve never seen the death certificate. And I wasn’t there when he died. But, I know what happened. I know how the sky looked, I know the car that noticed him on the road. I know these things. Records may refute them, but. But, but, but. And my mom: her arrests. I was present for many of them. And I know the official record doesn’t match the record I cling to. But when I write about these events the record is unfamiliar, and it distorts my truth.

But, the line. The line! I don’t know where the line is. And I think about it all the time.)

It’s interesting to consider the role of postmodernism in archives (obviously). There’s so much, in this one small chapter of Brown’s, that I want to highlight. Here’s what I’m thinking about the most, though:

Another method is the historian’s use of ‘playful’ techniques – including the use of the fictionalized account. This diversity becomes endorsed through the postmodernist notion of the unknowability of the past – that it is an unordered and chaotic thing, sometimes referred to as a ‘sublime.’ As Keith Jenkins puts it, ‘the past in all its sublimity can never be grasped fully in narrative form.’

Here’s the whole point of this post: I read William Maxwell’s magnificent novel So Long, See You Tomorrow twice at Iowa. (And probably ten times since.) It’s a short and haunting piece of work, which is why I revisit it so often, I think. In the novel, Maxwell recounts a murder in his hometown, and weaves it through his past: the loss of his mother, childhood, winter, his friend, his dog. And, in doing so, he lies. Not to distort, but to remember. Maxwell lies because, you know, that’s how you write about the past. I don’t care where you stand with regard to the line between truth and nonfiction: there is no truth when talking about the past. We can get close, I think. But the ultimate truth? I’m not sure that’s possible.

Anyway, from Maxwell, and his glorious book:

I seem to remember that I went to the new house one winter day and saw snow descending through the attic to the upstairs bedrooms. It could also be that I never did any such thing, for I am fairly certain that in a snapshot album I have lost track of there was a picture of the house taken in the circumstances I have just described, and it is possible that I am remembering that rather than an actual experience. What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory – meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion – is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life to ever be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.


*Consider this a running series because, in the fall, I’m doing an entire independent study on this very topic.

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