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Fiction and Beauty: More on James Frey

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I was talking to a wise friend today, and this quote from Keats came up:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty"--that is all
ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

We were talking about James Frey and an article written in the Times today by Michiko Kakutani, which suggests that the furor over Frey’s book has introduced questions about the value of truth at all in contemporary society. The issue is put into further relief by Oprah’s newest choice for her book club, Elie Wiesel’s Night, a book whose author takes the value of truth and memory very gravely (he has devoted his life to ensuring the Holocaust will not be forgotten). Instead of necessarily praising veracity, objectivity, and fact, contemporary thought is interested in being (merely) imaginative or creative. As the minimalist artist Donald Judd declared in the early 60s, at the end of modernism, in his manifesto towards establishing a new art and cultural climate, “A work need only be interesting.” Or, as Kakutani quotes the critic Stanley Fish saying, the death of objectivity “relieves me of the obligation to be right”; it “demands only that I be interesting.”

The more I think about it, resistant as I am to proclamations that sweep judgment across our entire cultural landscape, Kakutani is on to something. There really is a lack of concern about what’s actually true. A comment on my last Frey post is something that I can sympathize with--the idea that it doesn’t matter if it isn’t true story as long as it’s a good story--but deep down I think that’s a damn lazy way of looking at it. It really should matter.

Bringing up Keats, for me, brings it closer to home. The idea of losing Beauty if we lose truth wakes me up. While it’s easy to philosophize these things, Beauty is bold and unruly, and won’t be wrapped up in rhetoric.

A memoir that takes its small liberties is one thing. Memory is subjective and personal and I am willing to believe that one cannot help losing a strict sense of the truth in the process or narrativizing memories--it is our human tendency. What Frey did is manipulate his past in order for the “message of redemption” to be greater. He abused the power of fiction, its tonic gift for washing us in a sense of truth.

The critic and novelist Julian Barnes wrote a fictional book of “essays” (imagine that) in which he discusses, via a widowed doctor in search of the truth about “Flaubert’s Parrot”, things like postmodernism, story, and the power of fiction. “Flaubert teaches you to gaze on the truth and not blink from its consequences,” the doctor writes. “He teaches you not to approach a book in search of moral or social pills...Do you want art to tell the truth? Send for AMBULANCE FLAUBERT: though don’t be surprised, when it arrives, if it runs over your leg.”

In Conrad’s 1902 novel Heart of Darkness, Marlowe must tell Kurtz’s wife the man’s last words. In recounting the story of his journey into the jungle, he makes clear that "I hate, detest, and can't bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies - which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world - what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do." However, when he sees her innocent beauty and her love for Kurtz, he cannot bring himself to tell her the truth. As Kurtz’s final whisper lingers in his head--“The horror! The horror!”--he tells her instead that his last words were her name. “I knew it--I was sure!” she cries, weeping. “I couldn’t tell her,” Marlow laments. “It would have been too dark--too dark altogether....” In this hollow gong note of silence, the book ends, with a man’s ultimate failing as his lack of courage to tell the truth.

It seems clear that we have lost the gravity of this view. Do we need to go back this far in fiction to find it?

Kakutani writes that postmodernism does not only make note of the obstacles to objective reality--it celebrates them, elevating relativism into “a kind of end in itself.” She's right, and somehow this seems lazy to me--just as lazy as the sweeping narratives that postmodernism is suspicious of. Certainly the questions postmodernism raises about the nature of reality and the inescapable way the world is experienced subjectively as individuals are valid--they need to be asked. What we can’t allow is for the tangling questions to serve as answers, and thereby to allow a kind of non-accountability for the ways we think and behave. It matters whether it's true or not.
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    Anonymous alexanderbeh 

    oh blake.

    this is paramount, this is revolutionary, we are starting the new age, neo-subjectivism. its not about being the best, but being among the best, being a part of the organism.

    is no one right?

    whats wrong?


    Anonymous kyle 

    if you are beginning to lament the stranglehold of the french pomo theorists...maybe it's time to jump ship.

    in my view, the american pragmatists and neopragmatists have much more to say.

    this is what i was "doing" when i was trying (lazily) to create a forum among my friends wherein we could dissolve that fact (truth)/value binary.

    find truth in practice, isn't that what (krazy) kurtz unravelled (and what marlowe couldn't)?

    besides, would you have cared about frey if you hadn't been told about frey?

    of course, these questions aren't new. flaubert's parrot was written in the early 80's, and even it was an attempt to supplant foucault, barthes, and derrida with literary practice.

    but i think barnes is making precisely the point that you are railing against...that even if we want the truth, we never accept we've found it without validation (which, like braithwaite/flaubert, is ultimately untrustworthy).

    meaning in practice. like the truth i felt while drinking wine with my two buds in the L.E.S.


    Anonymous michael 

    this truth/value binary that jyle keeps espousing shouldn't be glossed over as an answer/solution to postmodern difficulties. maybe it is, but not an easy one. it makes us consider the value of value; if it isn't truth, then we have to be ok with that. I agree with jyle, braithwaite wasn't. however, unlike jyle, i am not willing (yet) to just accept a total dissolution of the binary; like the pomofos, i find self-defeating structures (language, logocentrism, perspective) that make objective truth impossible, and, like it's supposed to, that does bother me. but in the end i don't freak out computer-style; i realize that all the pomo mumbo jumbo should be viewed neo-pragmatically, and that there are good (valuable) things that are not truth-related. the result ends up as a conflict between postmodern intellectualism and (anti-intellectual?)pragmatism (bourdieuean practice before the postmodernists spun it), a conflict that can't be intellectually resolved, but one that by its nature shouldn't be.

    so basically in response to your conclusions: blake, i agree that it matters whether something is true or not, and kyle, i agree that truth and value should be distinct; my deal is that while staying concerned about unknowability and the derridean problems it causes, we should also chill out, enjoy the practice, and be ok with that too.

    or maybe ill move to berlin and become a nihilist

    Anonymous Michael 

    i wrote a pretty long post here but something ate it. so instead i'll just tell you what i wrote.

    i said that i start with postmodernism and end in neo-pragmatism. that is, i agree with pomo (and I mean derridean here, no other strain) contradictions and difficulties with truth and logocentrism. then i care about that impossibility. then (like a neo-prag hag) i stop caring, or, better put, i start not caring as well.

    i also said something about needing to be conscious when dissolving the truth/value binary, something about questioning the value of value.

    then i said something about bourdieu that really wasn't useful and was probably just churching up my post and dropping names to make me sound smart.

    then i closed by agreeing with blake that it does matter whether something is true or not (even if it may be impossible because of structural collapse of language/logocentrism/perspective), and i also agreed with jyle about a necessity of finding truth in practice, particularly if it includes drinking with friends. i think we all do this latter anyway, but I agree that it's important to be aware of it.

    Anonymous Duncan 

    I had a pretty drunk (notice the reoccurring theme) conversation with a friend about how there needs to be less focus on binary relations: how you think about yourself in relation to the "other," that is, finite versus infinite, yin versus yang, male versus female, or even (what I'm sensing from the previous posts) Derridean versus Pragmatist (the Cartesian dualism a la structuralism). It is more important to think about the connections or network you create through communication with others. Everything is multifaceted: truth may be linked with value, but it is also linked with many other different ideas: interpretation, experience, whether you prefer Johnny Walker Red or JW Black et cetera. This would be Derrida's idea of "differance" or that every word contains pieces of other words--to borrow from Sununu's elegant phrasing: the drips and drabs that cling to everything we say. I think the important thing here is to note that there are drips and drabs--are ways we can form multi-faceted, evolving links with what is around us. That means something. Ghandi said in his autobiography (and I'm paraphrasing): that there is an absolute truth, we just can't know it fully. All we have are glimpses of what is beyond us--and that is what we follow, what we believe. I like this emphasis on belief over knowledge...This may smack of being a grand narrative (and may elicit scepticism from our postmodernists), but I think it's more of a coping mechanism, a method of interpretation--because isn't that what all of this is? Just different ways to try to understand? Even if you do choose to move to Germany and become a nihilist.

    Anonymous kyle 


    a binary is useful tool, and much less something you can escape. in fact, by the end of your response you had slipped back into a discussion of truth/value.

    binaries ARE pragmatic, in that by practicing discussion (interpretation) with binaries you are many times engaging in the unspoken agreement that makes communication possible

    i agree that binaries are like cute story-telling devices. but then so are periods and compound sentences. so is irony. that we USE them gives them their prescriptive values.

    duncan, you absolutely cannot have a conversation about truth/value without having a conversation about interpretation. this was my original point. that looking for truth involves surmounting a range of insurmountable rhetorical devices (including the way one explains that one has found truth).

    and i never said that it "doesn't matter if something is true"--in fact i would argue quite the opposite. that's why it is so frustrating to debate with philosophers of science...

    i lie. i don't care much for Truth with a cap T. but that debate has little to do with my point, which was that Frey never had it to take it away.

    whether Truth exists is entirely different matter (one for which i am unqualified).

    i'll put it this way: just look at the recent flood of docs in filmmaking. why is this? it's because ppl actually believe that truth is stranger than fiction. i don't.

    good discussion y'all

    in other words duncan, i agree with almost everything you said. it just happens to have been said before. in fact, it's almost sophist/anti-foundatinal writ. have you ever read rorty/fish/benn michaels?

    Anonymous Duncan 

    Yes I have read Rorty and Fish. And Kyle, I never said you can't have a conversation about interpretation: in fact my comment supports the view that we need interpretation as means to engage this truth/value question--and if that includes binaries, then that's fine too. To clarify: there are many ways to try to understand what is truth and what is a fabrication of our own making--the key lies in the existence of these ways--that there is a continual engagement that, as Blake says, shuns the laziness that leads to unaccountability (which we definitely aren't headed towards on this blog thread).

    And I just thought the Ghandi quote was damn cool.

    Anonymous kyle 

    "And Kyle, I never said you can't have a conversation about interpretation"

    i never supposed this. reread. i was supposing that we (all) already agreed on this.

    and i recall proposing the dissolution of a binary (fact/value). i'm scraping my knees trying to agree with you guys (on some points).

    most of my points on Truth were ignored, not addressed.

    i'm supposing we stop trying (so hard) to understand "what is truth and what is a fabrication of our own making" in terms of language (the linguistic turn, if anything, has shown the impossibility of this enterprise). this does not mean we should abandon the search for truth or Truth. (enter pragmatism)

    "the key lies in the existence of these ways"--i don't follow this. what do you mean?

    accountable to whom? oprah? the media? the market? God? himself? the reader?

    that Ghandi doesn't sit well with me. i, for one, certainly don't have glimpses of what is beyond me.


    Anonymous Duncan 

    In an attempt at reconciliation: I'm sorry I misread your sentence, although the diction made it seem opposed to something I had written.

    I suppose the "existence of these ways" is what you mean by not abandoning the search for truth or Truth. Just the simple fact that we can communicate with others about these things is something worthwhile. It also might benefit readers of the blog (myself included) if a working definition of pragmatism (neo or otherwise) could be presented. It was talked about as finding truth in practice i.e., drinking with friends.

    The accountability question would depend upon the specific context in which the question is asked--so yes, you may be accountable to Oprah or God--or both if (1) you believe in God and (2) equate Oprah to a kind of divinity. As Blake wrote: "What Frey did is manipulate his past in order for the “message of redemption” to be greater. He abused the power of fiction, its tonic gift for washing us in a sense of truth." Here, the accountability would be to the reader and perhaps to the ideal that fiction is great fiction because it holds something that resonates with and inspires us.

    I would very much like to explore the idea of dissolving the truth/value binary. Michael's notion of questioning the value of and why we place value on certain things and why this is important. Maybe "truth" has more to do with the ability to know something--reasoning it out logically, while "value" seems more tied to belief or faith: something that explicitly cannot be reasoned out. People usually talk about Truth when they are referring to a personal spiritual belief, while truth is often equated with fact. To get back to Frey, the inspirational nature of his work can be construed as a transcendence over an obstacle, much in the same way belief in a greater power allows for a transcendence over the wordly obstacle. I think the offense proves particularly heinous if the reader links Frey's story with a deeper spirituality, rather than only with the interesting story about a feckless alcoholic. Frey undoubtedly provided the reader with this interpretation by making it "message of redemption".

    And I am sorry that you don't have glimpses of what is beyond you. I think Ghandi was only referring to a personal belief.

    All the best,


    Anonymous kyle 


    final post.

    4. a. Philos. The doctrine that the whole ‘meaning’ of a conception expresses itself in practical consequences, either in the shape of conduct to be recommended, or of experiences to be expected, if the conception be true (W. James); or, the method of testing the value of any assertion that claims to be true, by its consequences, i.e. by its practical bearing upon human interests and purposes (F. C. S. Schiller). Also, the philosophical method of inquiry of C. S. Peirce; = PRAGMATICISM 2.

    meaning in practice, not truth/Truth in practice. (i should have said "the meaning i felt while drinking...) on the contrary, duncan, you seem not at all interested in dissolving the binary (with your frequent reappraisal of "truth"). dissolving the fact/value binary would involve acknowledging that many (or all) things we consider to be facts are actually values (or, yes, beliefs).

    you've made a number of rather obvious and unnecessary points. "Maybe "truth" has more to do with the ability to know something--reasoning it out logically, while "value" seems more tied to belief or faith: something that explicitly cannot be reasoned out." ??? I don't believe that any one of us needs a crash course dialectic on truth, knowledge, and value. i think michael was more addressing the accessibilities of truth and value. right mikey?

    "What Frey did is manipulate his past in order for the “message of redemption” to be greater. He abused the power of fiction, its tonic gift for washing us in a sense of truth." no, Frey did not "manipulate his past." he manipulated the representation of his past. this process is the VERY STUFF of fiction. rhetoric. manipulation. he employed the power of fiction (poorly).

    do you adopt that Frey has entered into some sort of contract with oprah, god, the reader? i certainly don't. who do you write for? i write to be honest with myself, to arrange my thoughts with or against my values, my beliefs. i submit that this is the most i can do (unless you're going to hit me up with some categorical imperative type shit--well, that won't work either).

    "And I am sorry that you don't have glimpses of what is beyond you." your "apology" is didactic, offensive, and reprehensibly religious. if i had more respect for you i'd demand an apology. nevertheless, the best to you all, but this discussion has lost its fun.


    Anonymous Michael 

    duncan: as for your thoughts on truth/value, i am inclined to think the opposite; to me "truth" is the more faith-based, while value is the more tangible. how do i know something is true? that question forces all sorts of new questions about methodology and epistemology. whereas value, at least to me, is much more instinctual and certain; i can know if a book is "good" without knowing if it is "true." unless it's a instruction manual, but that's a special case. i think the difference is you have faith (i mean that at once ironically and unironically) in truth-obtaining practices (reason, observation) that i do not. and no, my description of value has nothing to do with some truth-with-a-capital-T; i can immediately think of some very capital-F-False things that to me have been quite Valuable to me.

    kyle: recall the fish essay on the inability of one's knowledge of one's own situatedness to help one transcend his situatedness (the essay name is "anti-foundationalism, theory hope, and blah blah blah").does this apply at all to your ideas about dissoltion of fact/binary and the serach for truth/fabrication? that is, does the realization of the futility of truth-searching help, when such a realization itself seems to be truth-searching? i think you would respond with something about the value of neo-pragmatism as being separated from its truth-functionality, but don't you have to believe in its truth-functionality for that value-separation to be, well, true? i give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you aren't preaching epitemological anarchy a la Feyerabend.

    Anonymous kyle 

    he shoots he scores.

    "i think you would respond with something about the value of neo-pragmatism as being separated from its truth-functionality, but don't you have to believe in its truth-functionality for that value-separation to be, well, true? i give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you aren't preaching epitemological anarchy a la Feyerabend." i'm unfamiliar with Feyerabend, but i would cite that fish essay as a great springboard.

    i think asking about the truth-functionality of (neo)pragmatism (qua theory) would be begging the question/ignoring the central tenet, which isn't actually a tenet (well maybe in the sense of OED b.), but a self-aware conceit (which can't explain meaning-retrieval but [seems to] yield its presence as a practical consequence)

    you made it fun again.

    i wrote a poem, check my profile.


    Anonymous Blake 

    Fun discussion all, if a touch cantankerous. I feel somewhat unqualified/unintiated to enter the discussion, but I am fascinated by the ideas regarding the basic tools of language and the duality of their futility and necessity. Kyle is right in correcting my phrase about Frey "manipulating his past" to "manipulating the representation of his past." This is important: memoir or novel, Frey is using language, rhetoric, etc. to tell a story, and these elements also are necessarily linked to a kind of manipulation. In some sense, it is the reader's responsibility to anticipate the futility of a "real" story being told--any other approach is naive. It is also a scary and sobering question to ask who, exactly, this "accountability" is to be checked against--Oprah, God, the reader, etc. It's almost pointless in this context, though--believe Frey, don't believe Frey, etc.--did the guy ever really strike a deep enough chord to have the right to ask these questions? That it's all become such a large issue begs the question of why we care so much about him/his book in the first place.

    Anonymous Sheila19857 

    May I point your attention to Obadiah Shoher's book, Samson Blinded: A Machiavellian Perspective on the Middle East Conflict?
    Yahoo and Google banned the book's website from their ad programs for "unacceptable content," and Amazon deleted all reviews. The book, however, is only honest, and the measures suggested are only rational.
    Shoher is a pen name for veteran politician. He dealt with antiterrorism issues for most of his career. The Samson Blinded dissects honestly the problems accumulated since the Jews returned to Palestine. Advocating political rationalism, it deplores both Jewish and Muslim myths, and argues for efficiency and separating politics from moralism.
    Please download a copy from
    Being banned from Google, we depend on links to bring Shoher's message. May I ask you to link to us from your site?

    Thank you,


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  • Blake
  • Chicago, IL, United States

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