There Are Truth & America
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are very glad to publish here a short discussion by Eli Siegel on the big subject of lying. It’s part of a lecture he gave in July 1973, and is ever so needed now, at a time when the matter of lying and truth is being talked about and fought about in a way that’s new in our land.
As I comment on the subject, I’m looking at it not in any political way but in terms of ethics, and an intensity about ethics in America. Every day, people of differing political views are accusing others of lying and being accused of lying themselves. One could use all this to feel truth is up for grabs, since anybody can claim to have it and claim an enemy does not. But one would be wrong to use what’s occurring that way.
What is more accurate is: even amid a certain hideous fakery, there is now in America a fury at lying; there is a new sense that truth matters, is important, that the twisting of it should make one indignant and irate. Usually, people talk about truth in an unenthusiastic way, because truth, with its facts, is something people have found it hard to like. After all, the facts so often interfere with one’s ability to have one’s way, to present a picture one sees as advantageous to oneself. The pitting of “my way” against the facts is certainly still in people. However: in these early months of 2017, there is a new non-tepidity about truth—at least some aspects of it. And this non-tepidity, this intensity that truth matters, is a big thing in American history.
The discussion by Mr. Siegel that’s published here occurred at the time the Senate Watergate hearings were going on. And while the Watergate scandal involved politics then, it’s now something persons of all parties speak of as unethical and un-American. Watergate has become a term politicians use when they want to present an opponent as elaborately dishonest: “What he/she did is even worse than Watergate!”
In the 1973 discussion, Mr. Siegel speaks of Watergate differently from any other commentator of then or historian of now. He speaks about it in terms of eternal and immediate ethics. He mentions John Ehrlichman (Nixon advisor, who wound up in jail) and Sam Ervin (who chaired the Senate hearings); but he is looking at the feeling in people about truth and lies—and explains that the summer of 1973 was notable in history because of the clear showing that certain clever lying was indeed lying.
2017 is different from then. But as I said: while there can be much worry in America and much disgust—because the meeting of lie after lie can make for nausea—truth is a Subject in our land. It gets talked about in the media, both the old-fashioned media and social media. It gets talked about in offices, on streets, in living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms. Truth today may even be more a subject of “news” than fashion is, or the doings of celebrities. For truth to be seen as a living matter, for there to be an uproar as to whether and where truth has been insulted, is important in the centuries of America and humanity.
Always: Self & World
The central principle of Aesthetic Realism has to do with the might and beauty of truth and the ugliness of lies: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The biggest opposites in everyone’s life are self and world. We will either feel 1) that the way to be ourselves, take care of ourselves, is to be fair to the world, see it justly; or we will feel 2) that to take care of ourselves we should be able to look down on what’s not ourselves, including the facts—twist them, manhandle them, make them subservient to us. The second is contempt.
And even if a person twists the facts himself, when he sees someone else doing it he’s angry and disgusted, whether he says so or not.
As a preliminary to Eli Siegel’s 1973 discussion, I am going to quote from his great 1964 lecture Instinct Is Concerned with Truth:
Truth is the most avant-garde idea still, and always has to be. Truth can be defined as fairness by an individual to reality, and there is nothing that is more avant-garde than that, nothing more terrifying, and also nothing sweeter....
The instinct to lie...is a terrific instinct....The lie that I am talking of is the tendency to carry on a successful war with reality and have something so because it suits the convenience of the individual....As soon as somebody seems to be careless with truth, we may admire his or her finesse, but we do have—and in this instance it is justified—a contempt. This never fails. We don’t have to know what truth is, but we know that someone is careless with it, and it makes for bad air....
At the base of everything that is bad there is this inaccurate love of the lie....The first thing we should do about reality is see it truly. [TRO 613, 615, 616, 617]
In that extemporaneous spoken prose of over half a century ago, Eli Siegel’s passion and logic, ease and conviction are alive. This can be said with great simplicity: he loved truth, loved it always, never wavered in his fidelity to it.
Famous Lines on the Subject
In American literature there is a famous quatrain about truth. It is by William Cullen Bryant, from his 1837 poem “The Battle-field.”
Bryant, who was editor of the New York Evening Post, met many lies in the America of his time. He heard the lie, promoted fiercely, that slavery was a good thing, was a “right” of the Southern states, and that people of the North should not object to it. He opposed that lie. He heard the lie that workers should be seen as acting illegally if they formed a union so as to be treated with less brutality by an employer. He opposed that lie.
The first of these four lines has been much quoted. In the third line, the word Error means reliance on what’s false:
Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again;
Th’ eternal years of God are hers;
But Error, wounded, writhes in pain,
And dies among his worshipers.
These are very fine lines, not only in what they say but in how they say it; they are art. I’ve quoted them because what they’re about is very much of us now: which is stronger, truth or lying? I agree with Bryant; the answer is truth. That has sometimes been hard for people to believe. Meanwhile, again: though the matter of truth versus falsity was in our land in 1837 and earlier and later, today the awareness of it is more, and more intense, than it ever was.
We need to use our anger at lies to love truth more.
People have praised truth but they haven’t felt that truth made them big, glorious, expressed. And so, mostly, they haven’t loved truth. We need to understand truth and lying. We need to see that justice to truth, the facts, reality, makes us more, expresses us, makes us important—because that’s the one way we can love truth. Aesthetic Realism is the means of our seeing this. It has what our turbulent nation is clamoring for.