Truth v. falsehood: Sir Thomas Browne and fake news

Sir Thomas Browne, Christian Morals

 First published posthumously in 1716: it purported to be advice to his children, but ‘may be considered as advice on obtaining individuation and self-realization as much as Christian virtue’, with sections on appearance and perspective (Wikipedia). The following passage strikes me as particularly pertinent in these sad times when prominent leaders take ‘post-truth’ positions, where all commentary with which they disagree is ‘fake news’, while all of their utterances (including tweets) are presented as if unequivocally, unanswerably true. Britain’s implausible new Prime Minister, for example, asserted in his characteristically pompous, bombastic first parliamentary speech in his new role yesterday (heaven help us) that Britain under his premiership is about to enter a ‘new golden age’. Right.

An extract from this passage by Browne is an epigraph to Jocelyn Brooke’s wonderfully strange ‘Military Orchid’ trilogy (highly recommended), according to an entry in an old notebook of mine, as it obviously appealed to me when I copied it out in 2012. I seem to have mislaid or disposed of my copy of the book, so can’t verify this.

I’d like to think Browne’s argument supports a sceptical or suspicious attitude to all such groundless statements (or tweets), rather than advocacy for ‘anything goes’, ‘quodlibet’ or fake news. I offer it here as a hopeful spot of light in an increasingly dark world.

The notes at the end are what I had to check up online for clarification (I’ve emboldened these terms in his text; otherwise the orthography is as it appears in the first edition). I thought they might help readers follow Browne’s typically labyrinthine style and arcane references (see yesterday’s post on his contributions to the English lexicon. I also recommend the website dedicated to him and his work).

Pt II, section 3 (from the online edition at the Univ. Chicago website, taken from the first edition)

LET well weighed Considerations, not stiff and peremptory Assumptions, guide thy discourses, Pen, and Actions. To begin or continue our works like Trismegistus of old, verum certè verum atque verissimum est, would sound arrogantly unto present Ears in this strict enquiring Age, wherein, for the most part, Probably, and Perhaps, will hardly serve to mollify the Spirit of captious Contradictors. If Cardan saith that a Parrot is a beautiful Bird, Scaliger will set his Wits o’ work to prove it a deformed Animal. The Compage of all Physical Truths is not so closely jointed, but opposition may find intrusion, nor always so closely maintained, as not to suffer attrition. Many Positions seem quodlibetically constituted, and like a Delphian Blade will cut on both sides. Some Truths seem almost Falshoods, and some Falshoods almost Truths; wherein Falshood and Truth seem almost æquilibriously stated, and but a few grains of distinction to bear down the ballance. Some have digged deep, yet glanced by the Royal Vein; and a Man may come unto the Pericardium, but not the Heart of Truth. Besides, many things are known, as some are seen, that is by Parallaxis, or at some distance from their true and proper beings, the superficial regard of things having a different aspect from their true and central Natures. And this moves sober Pens unto suspensory and timorous assertions, nor presently to obtrude them as Sibyls leaves, which after considerations may find to be but folious apparences, and not the central and vital interiours of Truth.

Notes preceded by J: from Dr Johnson’s commentary to his 1756 edition of Browne’s text, from an online edition in Google Books. Others are adapted from the likes of Wikipedia

The Emerald Tablet, also known as the Smaragdine Tablet, or Tabula Smaragdina, is a compact and cryptic piece of the Hermetica reputed to contain the secret of the prima materia and its transmutation. It was highly regarded by European alchemists as the foundation of their art and its Hermetic tradition…Although Hermes Trismegistus is the author named in the text, its first known appearance is in a book written in Arabic between the sixth and eighth centuries.

The layers of meaning in the text have been associated with the creation of the philosopher’s stone, as well as with other esoteric ideas – which would have appealed greatly to polymath Thomas Browne.

Extract from Newton’s translation (from his alchemical papers, now in the library of King’s College, Cambridge) of the text’s beginning:

Tis true without lying, certain and most true.
That which is below is like that which is above
and that which is above is like that is below 
to do the miracles of one only thing.

Cardan: Gerolamo Cardano (1501 – 1576): Italian mathematician, physician, scientist, astrologer, astronomer philosopher, writer.

Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540 – 1609): French Protestant religious leader, historian and scholar. While travelling as a young man in England, he formed an unfavourable opinion of the English (surely not?). Their inhuman disposition and inhospitable treatment of foreigners especially made a negative impression on him (little has changed: see Brexit). He was also disappointed in finding only a few Greek manuscripts and few learned men.

Compage: consistency, solid structure; contraction of separate parts into a whole.

Quodlibetically: in academic contexts, ‘in the manner of a subtle or elaborate argument or point of debate, usually on a theological or scholastic subject.’ Here Browne seems to be using the adverb in the sense of its Latin root, ‘quodlibet’, literally ‘whatever you please’, hence its usage in music for a pot pourri or medley; so he seems to mean here something like ‘ambiguously’ or ‘in a randomly mixed way’. J: ‘determinable on either side’.

Delphian Blade: J – The Delphian Sword became proverbial, not because it cut on both sides, but because it was used to different purposes (i.e. ‘positions’ in discourse can be multivalent).

Royal Vein: J – I suppose the main vein of a mine

Pericardium: J – The main integument of the heart. Lovely word, ‘integument’.

Parallaxis: J – The parallax of a star is the difference between its real and apparent place

Sybil of Delphi, by John Collier, 1891.

Sybil of Delphi, by John Collier, 1891. Art Gallery of South Australia Website Webpage PictureOld source [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1077695

Sibyls leaves: oak leaves on which their notoriously riddling answers (‘singing the fates’) were written by the famous women oracles, like those at Delphi, or Cumae (who was consulted by Vergil’s Aeneas before his descent into the underworld – of which she acted as guide). The epigraph to Eliot’s The Waste Land is a quotation from Petronius about her longing to die. Browne appears to be invoking epistemological distinctions (as stated in Aristotelian logic) between assertoric propositions – assertions that are unreliable, speculative, possibly untrue or unverifiable, as opposed to apodictic ones, which are a priori (deduced from pure reason), clearly provable and logically certain.

 

 

 

Occluded lives: John Cheever, ‘O City of Broken Dreams’

This post will be a response to Michael Pucci’s thorough and thoughtful account of the plot, themes and merits of  ‘O City of Broken Dreams’ at the Mookse and Gripes site earlier this year.

The New Yorker published the majority of Cheever’s stories: 121 appeared there between 1935 and 1981. This one was published in the Jan. 24, 1948 issue. It’s the fourth in the Collected Stories, first published in the US in 1978; I’m using the Vintage paperback edition published in the UK in 2010.

Michael contrasts the relatively healthy nature of the marriage of Evarts and Alice Malloy as portrayed in this story  with that of the Hollises in ‘The Summer Farmer’, his (and my) previous Cheever topic; I’d also contrast it with the rancorous relationship of the Westcotts in the story I wrote about last time, ‘The Enormous Radio’.

Cheever, whose struggles with alcoholism and his sexuality are well known, was a connoisseur of fakery. His stories often explore and expose the surfaces his characters assemble to present to the world, and the contrasting, occluded reality underneath. This duality or complexity is apparent in ‘O City’, as it is in many others: there is no single ‘true’ reading.

The Malloys’ marriage, it seems to me, is what this story presents, through the fable of the pursuit of the American dream in New York. But despite its apparent wholesomeness, there are fissures in this marriage.

At first it’s Alice who’s the sensible one; back home in Wentworth, Indiana she had been known as ‘the practical member of the family’; Evarts ‘would have misplaced his head if it hadn’t been for Alice’, it ‘was often said’. She ‘studied the timetable’ and told her husband not to take the luggage down from the rack too soon as their train approached New York. She’s the one who’d pressured the big-shot New York producer giving a talk in Wentworth into reading Evarts’s script, and it’s her ‘businesslike strain’ that causes her to urge Evarts to work on his script once they are installed in the delightfully named, seriously dingy Hotel Mentone. She ‘forbade’ Evarts from asking directions once they’d arrived at the big city, and had studied the map so that she knew where to go: ‘”If they find out we’re green, they’ll fleece us.”’

Evarts demonstrates how ‘green’ he is when he fails to tell the elevator operator what floor he wants when he visits the Hauser agency skyscraper, and is sneered at by him as a consequence. A butler at the superficially grand house of the producer Sam Farley reveals the sham nature of the place’s grandeur, yet Evarts only guesses he’s a butler because he wears ‘striped pants’. (By the way, it’s worth pointing out here that this story is often, as here, painfully  funny. I’m aware that I’m not showing this emphatically enough.)

Yet Alice is not very bright, as her ‘rind/Rhine’ malaproprism indicates. She fancifully considered the ‘frosty glitter’ of the paving in the station as they arrived at Grand Central station, and wondered naively if ‘diamonds had been ground into the concrete.’ She’s maybe more of a dreamer than Evarts.

By bringing his family on the long journey away from their dull mid-Western town to the big city, Evarts Malloy has rashly exposed them not only to its surface glamour and potential for the luxurious life, but also to its dangers and capacity to chew up innocents like them.

As Betsy Pelz perceptively suggests in a comment on Michael’s analysis, there are two

Arthur Rackham illustration to a 1912 edition of the Aesop fable

Arthur Rackham illustration to a 1912 edition of the Aesop fable (Wikimedia Commons)

stories co-existing in the narrative: one  –  the more obvious — is the Country Mouse and the Town Mouse fable: the ‘very green young man’ who has burnt his bridges, ‘takes on Manhattan and almost survives a string of adventures’, and who shows every sign, after being deceived by the people he meets, who all try to exploit his naiveté, from the hotel bellboy to the agents and producers, of dusting himself off and maybe even heading for Hollywood and fame.

The other is more interesting: the Indiana night-bus driver with ‘callused hands’, but who’s an artist and has written the first act of a play, but who’s ‘bogged down’ by a wife who lacks imagination, common sense and intelligence. He is evidently susceptible to more alluring and glamorous feminine prospects. There’s the beautiful actress who feigns interest in starring in his play, which he dimly perceives she can’t even have had time to have read when she professes to admire it: ‘he was too confused by her beauty to worry or to speak…he felt as though he had fallen in love.’

I think this is a more satisfying reading: it’s true that there’s a hint at a possibly upbeat ending: on the train as it leaves New York Evarts tells his wife he’ll wait till they reach Chicago before deciding whether to take the line home, to return to their ‘dismal town’, and the safe but dull, artistically numb life there, or to head for Hollywood and chase his dream.

Michael is clearly rooting for Evarts to become the hick who hits the big time; the narrator hints at this as being the option that’s ‘easier to imagine.’ I’m not so sure: Evarts has only written the first act of his play, and fails to write a word while in Manhattan; he yearns for the smells and sounds of Indiana to inspire him: in New York he’s blocked – though admittedly he’s in a state of turmoil because of what’s happening to them; he and Alice are full of awe at the novelty and modernity of the city. Is he really capable of writing more? Is he even any good? Would Hollywood care?

Michael also shows that the narrator, who is usually consistently omniscient and largely shows an ironically knowing tone in portraying the ways in which this innocent couple is repeatedly cheated, perplexed and exploited by the decadent, rapacious inhabitants of the metropolis (‘many innocents had been there before them’, the narrator tells us early on; there’s Cheever’s characteristically pointed use of pathetic fallacy to set the tone: ‘they could see the pitiless winter afterglow beyond the Hudson River’). But the narrator noticeably relinquishes all knowledge and prescience in the final paragraphs, and prefers to use the low modality of the auxiliary verbs ‘may have’.

This is a technique he uses in other stories, in order to give the ending the enigmatic quality that leaves interpretation open. I’ve discussed this in previous posts on Cheever. In ‘O City’ he similarly refrains from providing an authoritative, conclusive ending. As Henry James might have agreed, in life, in relationships, there are no endings: all the artist can do is ‘draw the circle in which they appear to do so’.

To conclude, I find this story too long. It has all the virtues of the typically well crafted New Yorker story, but also some of the formulaic qualities of the O. Henry sort of plot (as I’ve suggested in previous posts about Cheever stories). You can see the workings. There are too many sequences with rascally conmen keen to exploit Evarts.

It’s clear to see, as Michael insists, that it’s a kind of ‘fable’ or ‘parable’. I take him to mean by this that a moral lesson is adumbrated. Because of the story’s ambiguities and its open ending, however, this lesson is clouded.

Aesop’s moral is clear: ‘better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear’. Better the poverty, hardship, simplicity and peace of the country than the luxury, plenty, sophistication, privilege and nerve-shredding dangers of the shark-infested city. When they arrive the Malloys are described as ‘the hard-working children of an industrious generation’, but as they leave the Grand Central station the weather as always is an index of the mood, and the narrator reminds us of Alice’s naïve perception when she arrived:

It was a rainy night, and the dark, wet paving, deep in the station, did not glitter, but it was still Alice’s belief that diamonds had been ground into it, and that was the way she would tell the story.

The symmetry here – the repetition of her belief in diamonds in the paving – seems to me too pat, a bit contrived. But it does serve to show that Alice is maybe not so sensible and has learnt nothing (apart from the superficial ‘lessons’ of travelling arrangements: ‘they arranged themselves adroitly over several seats.’)

Evarts, however, has possibly changed as a result of his abrasive contact with urban slickers, and may well have developed the capacity to adapt and reinvent himself. Does this suggest, however, that achieving the promise of the American dream involves becoming tainted in the process? Evarts seems to have lost his innocence by the story’s end. When Alice performs her melodramatic swoon at the end of her party piece song in the over-long middle of the story, the sophisticates at the party cruelly laugh at her. She’s mortified, and Evarts comforts her – but she’s shown him up, too, and embarrassed them both. This epiphany reveals to him the perception he’d previously been unaware of: Alice is a liability. If he’s to hit the big time her small-town limitations and unsophisticated ingenuousness will possibly hold him back.

Robert Henryson’s moralitas to his Middle Scots version of Aesop has this serene message:

Quha hes eneuch, of na mair hes he need…

Sir Thomas Wyatt’s is:

And use it well that is to thee allotted,

Then seek no more out of thyself to find

The thing that thou hast sought so long before…

This Zen-like message, with its binary opposites, is: be content with what you have, seek inside yourself for the answer to your prayers (and dreams), don’t quest needlessly far afield for it . Cheever gives this reassuring but constraining, ‘be content with the limited life you lead/home is where the heart is’ message a cynical spin: that mysterious, deliberately open ending refuses to conform to the fabulist’s black-and-white morality tale strictures.

Maybe Evarts has learnt a different lesson: to succeed it’s necessary to emulate the sharks.

Chris Power’s illuminating survey in the Guardian newspaper of The Short Story includes Cheever at no. 45 here.