Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a fan of realism. I take the strange, bizarre and surreal over realism any day.
I was reading Peter Englund’s blogg (he is to take over for Horace Engdal in the Nobel Foundation) about biography writing and noticed a nice Burges quote that I hadn’t stumbled upon before. I tried to find it in English but couldn’t so I translated it as it stands on his blog into English. I hope I’ll be forgiven for this:
“Reality is so complex, and history writing is so fragmentic and simplified, that an all knowing viewer would be able to write unlimited, near infinite number of biographies about the same person, were each one of these biographies uses different facts; vi would be forced to read many of them before we understood that it was about the same person. Let us simplify the whole thing greatly, and think of one life consisting of 13.000 facts. One of these hypothetical biographies would be built on the serie 11, 22, 33…; another on the serie 9, 13, 17, 21…; another on the serie 3, 12, 21, 30, 39… . A history over a person’s dreams is not impossible to imagine; another about the organs in his body; yet another about all the mistakes he’s made; another about all the moments he thought of the pyramids.“
When I was about ten years old I got a small blue book with the letters “DAGBÓK” on it. The cover was blue velvet and the letters looked golden. I got it for Christmas and I believe I wrote my first diary entry that very day. It was simple, a badly written account of what had happened that day.
Since that day I’ve rarely written a diary describing my entire day, although I’ve kept an idea diary more or less since that day. It wasn’t until the early days of blogging that I started to try to keep somewhat of an account again. I’ve long since given up trying to describe my life however.
Of course Borges is right. It is impossible to write an accurate account and any such attempt is fragmentary at best. This goes for biography writing as well as diary writing. There is no way to tell it all.
In the early days of the web log it was mainly a thing you did anonymously. You wrote a blog describing some aspects of your life and you let the readers, whoever they were, get to know you through that account. This is of course a major change from all previous diary writing which up until that day had rarely any audience until the diary was published – often after the diary writers death.
And the audience changes everything, especially now that web logging has changed yet again. Now more and more people are keeping online blogs in their own name, recording their thoughts, observations and different aspects of their lives for anyone to find – even their mothers.
The secret element of the diary is obviously absent from these blogs. The diary that’s hidden in a locked drawer, under the mattress or under a floor board doesn’t seem to have its place on the Internet. Still those diaries still exist in the form of the anonymity blogs, often on the closed spaces of the Internet, the secluded hideouts although some are hidden in plain sight.
While biographies are specially meant to attract readers, especially written to be sold to the public and to describe as broadly as possibly the life of some interesting individual, the blog is only meant to capture snippets, a fleeting thought or a single moment and like the biography it is written to attract readers. It is written for the reader.
Which brings a whole new dimension to Burges number series I think. Because audience changes everything. A diary is supposed to be written for your own benefit. You write a diary so that you won’t forget some aspects of your life that you would otherwise not remember 30 years later. In a diary you write for yourself you have no reason not to put down the honest truth, at least if you’re sure that nobody but you will ever read it. Why lie to yourself?
But the biography and the blog brings the element of audience, the demand to be interesting and entertaining. And suddenly you have the element of fabrication and exageration.
People get very angry when they feel they’ve been lied to. Here in Sweden author Liza Marklund got critizised greatly because her book “Gömda” was not as accurate of the truth as some people saw it. [Read about it here]
The truth, reality as it is – how do we tackle this great monster?
There is of course such a thing as telling the story wrong, lying to the public and when such things seem to, deliberately or not, pull people’s name into the mud we grow enraged. How dare they lie to us? And deliberately lying to smear someone’s name is illegal, immoral and wrong.
But reality is fleeting. There is a fine line between telling the story your way and actually lying. Because nobody knows exactly what the truth is. It’s a monster we can’t catch. It’s fleeting and it seems to change. If you ask people who have witnessed an accident what they saw, they will tell you a different story. Sometimes the same person is wearing a blue sweater, sometimes the sweater is green or black or red or orange.
I like it when authors write fiction which is based on their own lives. I like to read the fiction that was directly pulled out of their own lives. And of course every writer does that to some extent but some do it more than others. It’s only when they start putting the “true story” label on the book that I start to frown and am liable to avoid the book at all cost.
To me fiction brings you just as much truth as the so called “true accounts” of things. They may not have happened exactly as they have been described but all fiction brings you some truth. And it is the readers responsibility not to believe everything they read, to recognize the difference between truth, fabrication, art and built an image of reality from what they think is right. All fiction brings you the artistic aspect of life, it’s always an interpretation of something and the more bizarre the story the more enticing to find the hidden truths.
At least if you ask me.
We often forget that there is no absolute truth. We forget that truth is just as mythological and beastly as the Medusa or the Fenris wolf. We forget that it cannot be tamed, cannot be put in a cage and told in simple words. It’s just not possible because as Burges says, the variations are to great – the aspects to many. We don’t have the mental equipment to grasp it completely and hence we create our own version of it. Which is good – it’s our responsibility to keep it right, whatever that word means.
The truth has many faces and it’s good to keep that in mind when you read “true accounts” – the label is dangerous and sometimes overused. They are all just aspects, believes and thoughts. They may not be deliberate lies but even the dullest description of things has chosen what to depict and what angle to use.
There is no such thing as objectivity. It’s good to keep that in mind when you read a “true” account of something. it’s good to always remember that behind the view there is a person with a unique and interesting perspective.