Friday, May 11, 2007

Seeing Truth

A Literary Anthology

1. “Cathedral" by Raymond Carver
2. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" by Wallace Stevens
3. “Axolotl" by Julio Cortázar
4. “Monet Refuses the Operation" by Lisel Mueller

"El arte es una mentira que nos acerca a la verdad."
Translation: "Art is a lie that leads us to the truth."

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso’s claim about art and its relation to truth may at first glance seem paradoxical. After all, how can a lie, or an Un-truth, lead to the Truth? Perhaps a better question to ask first would be: what is Truth? This is a very profound question, one that many intellectuals throughout the ages were asking themselves. Truth is what’s “real,” beyond any reasonable doubt. Truth is pure fact – objective reality, un-skewed and un-biased. But, what does one “truthfully” know for a “fact”? Simon Blackburn writes in his book Think:

These are problems of the self, and its mortality, its knowledge, and the nature of the world it inhabits; problems of reality and illusion. They are all raised in the oldest philosophical texts we have, the Indian Vedas, stemming from about 1500 BC. The generation immediately before Descartes had included the great French essayist Montaigne, whose motto was the title of one of his great essays: ‘Que sais-je?’ – what do I know? (16)

This is what mathematician and philosopher René Descartes was asking himself when he “shut himself away in a room heated by a stove, and had a vision followed by dreams, which he took to show him his life’s work: the unfolding of the one true way to find knowledge” (16). Descartes’ famous maxim in Meditations, “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), resulted from first banishing from his mind all beliefs, assumptions, and everything else he took for granted and “starting from the foundations upwards” (16), after which he realized that the ONE thing he was absolutely sure of was his own existence. The esoteric teacher G. I. Gurdjieff says this about Truth:

To speak the truth is the most difficult thing in the world; and one must study a great deal and for a long time in order to be able to speak the truth. The wish alone is not enough. To speak the truth one must know what the truth is and what a lie is, and first of all in oneself. (Ouspensky, 22)

This is clearly similar to the famous Ancient Greek aphorism, “Know Thyself,” which is usually attributed to the philosopher Socrates. Gurdjieff teaches that “knowing thyself” is one of the hardest quests any human being could embark on, because the human experience is so heavily shrouded by a subjective “veil” of assumptions and basic mechanical desires, that barely anything that one observes and thinks is Truth, but rather a distortion of it – an illusion or lie made by oneself to benefit solely oneself. Only by purging these subjective and mechanical “sacred cows” from one’s mind, as Descartes did in his little room, can one gain a glimpse of the Truth. Put differently, the “mechanicalness” of one’s daily life often requires certain “shocks” to snap out of it (to wake up) in order to begin to fully appreciate the essence of one’s being – the Truth in oneself and, by extension, the world.

Considering all that has been said about Truth, it can be deducted that art may serve as a “shock” to one’s mechanical nature so as to lead one to the Truth. Art itself, however, is a lie – it is the artist’s subjective “representation” of the Truth. Picasso’s famous mural “Guernica” is a classic example of this; the artist used distorted figures and abstract, dark imagery to represent the unbearable suffering of the townspeople during the Nazi bombings of the Spanish city. One can only guess whether the reality of the tragedy was as horrible as this mural makes one feel – it is exactly this kind of thinking that leads one to consider the objective reality of the actual event, leading one, in effect, to the Truth about the bombing of Guernica in particular and the evil of war in general. In this way, art elicits strong responses from people, causing “shocks” to their pre-conceived notions and subjective assumptions about reality and waking them up, so to speak, from the “mechanicalness” of everyday life to consider something greater and more profound.

In this anthology of carefully selected literary works, the goal is to expand on Picasso’s claim about art through an analysis of how each piece of literature adds to the definition of Truth (which is yet to be given) and how it may hint at ways of seeing the Truth in oneself, as was discussed before.

Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” provides a prime example of a character whose pre-conceived, subjective ideas about the world blind him from seeing the Truth. The irony in the short story is that Robert, a genuinely blind man, actually “sees” more than the narrator, a man from whose point of view the story is told. Throughout the exposition, the narrator exposes his ignorant nature by making dull comments such as these:

She’d told me a little bit about the blind man’s wife. Her name was Beulah. Beulah! That’s a name for a colored woman. […] They’d married, lived and worked together, slept together – had sex, sure – and then the blind man had to bury her. All this without his having seen what the goddamned woman looked like. It was beyond my understanding. And then I found myself thinking what a pitiful life this woman must have led. […] Robert was left with a small insurance policy and half of a twenty-peso Mexican coin. The other half of the coin went into the box with her. Pathetic. (Carver)

The narrator is incapable of understanding the deep bond that Robert and his late wife must have shared; this goes far to explain the rather dry relationship between the narrator and his wife, who invited Robert to stay at their house after Beulah’s death. It can be deducted from the story that the narrator is anti-social: he constantly drinks alcohol by himself, he doesn’t have any friends besides his wife, and he barely ever leaves the confines of his own house. The bulk of his “intelligence” and understanding seems to be based on clichés and sound-bites that he hears on television, all twisted in his mind to fit into his egotistical, subjective world-view. All of the above help to explain the narrator’s rather shallow personality; it is as if he is living in a self-made cage, either un-interested in or afraid of things that he doesn’t understand. It should be of no surprise, then, that nowhere in the story do we get the narrator’s name except the generic “bub” by which Robert refers to him in conversation.

Carver’s short story has a very unique ending. It is at the end that the reader really experiences the “shock” through which this literary work of art leads to a glimpse of Truth. After the narrator tries to explain to the blind man what cathedrals look like, Robert comes up with an idea for them to both “see” a cathedral: they would draw one together. The event becomes a moment of epiphany for the narrator, especially after Robert tells him to close his eyes:

So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.

Then he said, “I think that’s it. I think you got it,” he said. “Take a look. What do you think?”

But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.

“Well?” he said. “Are you looking?”

My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.

“It’s really something,” I said. (Carver)

It appears that the narrator has finally opened his eyes to the Truth; he did this by closing them. The Truth he observes is more of an experience, a realization that he isn’t “inside anything” in particular, that this self-made cage was only an illusion and that the Truth is “out there,” waiting to be discovered and truly “seen” for what it is. The focus in this short story is clearly on sight, and Carver seems to be trying to make the reader realize that when one’s eyes are taken for granted, they can blind more than they allow to be seen.

The second work in the anthology is Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Each of its thirteen stanzas presents a seemingly unique image, the only obvious similarity being the presence of a blackbird. This difficult poem is full of powerful imagery, the possible interpretations of which are numerous depending on one’s point of view. It is my interpretation that the blackbird represents objective reality, or the Truth.

In stanza II, the narrator in the poem says that he was “of three minds, like a tree in which there are three blackbirds.” Here, the narrator’s mind was split three ways between three interpretations of some idea or event – three semi-Truths, so to speak; if he was of one, unified mind, there would be no conflict and only one Truth. This seems to be reinforced in stanza IV, where it is said: “A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one,” meaning there is only one Truth, the objective reality, no matter the gender. In stanza VI, the “barbaric glass” which further obscures the “shadow of the blackbird” and presents “an indecipherable cause,” refers to the distortion of Truth that happens when one looks through the subjective veil of assumption. Stanza VII seems to be a criticism of religion and wishful thinking; instead of trying to “imagine golden birds,” the narrator is advising men to “see how the blackbird walks around the feet of the women about you,” meaning that the Truth is in the here and now, not in the world of imagination. In stanza VIII, the narrator affirms that “the blackbird is involved in what I know,” that the Truth is something inseparable from his knowledge. Stanza X refers to “bawds of euphony,” or people who try to make money from words with no substance, who “would cry out sharply” at the sight of blackbirds, which makes sense if blackbirds represent Truth. These are just a few of the stanzas in which the replacement of blackbird for Truth gives the poem a unified meaning.

The blackbird is a common type of bird, and seeing one everywhere reminds the narrator to keep an open mind and look for the Truth wherever he goes. The powerful and varied imagery of this poem and its representation of the Truth through a blackbird is the lie through which the careful reader can be lead towards seeing the Truth in his every-day life. Stevens also warns readers against the misuse of the imagination as it can blind one from seeing the Truth around the very “feet” of the people one associates with.

The third literary work in the anthology is Julio Cortázar’s short story “Axolotl.” The narrator here says outright that he has become the animal known as the axolotl, which is a strange claim to make at the outset of a story. Nonetheless, it becomes clear that the narrator’s obsession with the bizarre animal has a purpose. The narrator, through hours of observation, by focusing on every single detail of the axolotl in the aquarium, actually engages in very deep “self-observation.” In other words, the narrator begins to “know himself” by objectively observing himself through the eyes of the axolotl:

The eyes of the axolotls spoke to me of a presence of a different life, of another way of seeing.


In that instant I felt a muted pain; perhaps they were seeing me, attracting my strength to penetrate into the impenetrable thing of their lives. They were not human beings, but I had found in no such animal such a profound relation with myself. The axolotls were like witnesses of something, and at times like horrible judges. I felt ignoble in front of them; there was such a terrifying purity in those transparent eyes. […]

No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I understood. Only one thing was strange: to go on thinking as usual, to know.

To realize that was, for the first moment, like a horror of a man buried alive awaking to his fate. (Cortázar)

When he sees the axolotl for the first time, the narrator is intrigued by the possibility of “another way of seeing.” It’s important to note that the axolotl’s eyes don’t have lids – they are always open and they see everything. The implications of this are obvious: the axolotl’s eyes are able to penetrate through every weakness of the narrator’s being. Every flawed assumption in his subjective worldview is exposed by the “terrifying purity in those transparent eyes.” The epiphany of having seen himself through the eyes of another being is like awakening from a life of sleep for the narrator.

Cortázar presents an important exercise – introspection – for helping to “see” the Truth. Gurdjieff says that in order to tell the Truth, one must be able to see the Truth in oneself – to truly “Know Oneself.” This means to be entirely objective with oneself, and to be able to, like the narrator, see oneself through the eyes of someone else. Picasso’s claim still applies to this literary work; the story about becoming an axolotl was truly an ingenious way to lead the reader to the Truth by presenting such a strange and “shocking” lie.

The last literary work of this anthology is Lisel Mueller’s poem “Monet Refuses the Operation.” Here is perhaps the best example of a creative mind who has succeeded in abolishing many of the assumptions of the every-day world. Monet, as the narrator, says in a monologue to his doctor, a man of science: “I tell you it has taken me all my life to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels, to soften and blur and finally banish the edges you regret I don’t see.” Through hard work, it seems, Monet is finally able to “see” the unity of the world through his own eyes, and does not want to acknowledge the old assumptions, which he calls his “youthful errors,” of “separateness” and unfamiliarity between objects and people.

Lisel Mueller’s poem proves that Truth is such a fundamental part of the human experience that it is impossible to give it a straightforward definition, especially with all the limitations of language. It appears that Truth must be, first and foremost, experienced in a personal nature. Just like the narrator in “Axolotl,” who sees himself for who he really is, and the narrator of Carver’s “Cathedral,” whose enlightening experience makes him realize how “blind” he really is, the function of art seems to be to give people necessary “shocks” to start thinking about their role in this world. What seems to be the crux of the matter is the destructive nature of the deceptive cage of mechanical subjectivity in which people tend to lock themselves. Art comes in at this point to offer us the possibility to “wake up,” even if temporarily, from the sleep of every-day life, in order to recognize the Truth that is to be found everywhere, even at our very feet, if we only wished to look for it.

Works Cited

Blackburn, Simon. Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy. New York: Oxford, 1999.

Ouspensky, P. D. In Search of the Miraculous: The Teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1949.

No comments: