Saturday, May 22, 2010

Just the Facts?

In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the narrator Ishmael spends an entire chapter explaining why he believes that whales are really fish. There is just one problem: whales are mammals, of course.

In this blog, I have written a lot about “the Truth” or “truths”—how the humanities express some of the deeper realities of life. But what about the inaccuracies, when works of art are just mistaken? What do we make of texts when they get the facts wrong?

This isn’t a minor question. Literature has a long memory because we still read classics composed hundreds—sometimes thousands—of years ago. Almost any historical piece of fiction will get something wrong. Any cosmology written before the seventeenth century will be geocentric, even though the solar system is heliocentric. There are numerous anachronisms in Shakespeare’s tragedies. In his Julius Caesar for example clocks struck time, when in fact the mechanical clock was invented in the fourteenth century.

The first response to these errors is: so what? We don’t read Shakespeare to learn about the history of technology, but to gain his insights. We don’t read Moby Dick to learn about whales, but about Ahab’s very human obsession. We can usually compartmentalize the authors’ insights away from their flawed understanding of the world. The only one who can be upset about Ishmael’s mistake is, well, a whale.

But the situation is actually very complicated. Factual errors are one thing, but what about flawed perceptions of other human beings? There’s reason to interpret Richard Wagner’s deformed and corrupt character Alberich as a Jewish stereotype (although this isn’t entirely clear—but Wagner really was a renowned anti-semite). With this in mind how should we approach his Ring Cycle? We can’t simply discount it, because it’s a musical masterpiece. Its impact on European music cannot be measured. But we can’t pretend that he didn’t hold and express offensive opinions. Nor can we take refuge behind that old staple, “he reflected the beliefs at the time.” Many people in the nineteenth century did not share his beliefs, and some challenged Wagner’s anti-semitic writings. Cultures are never monolithic, after all. What now?

It comes down to insightful readers. Writers don’t simply dictate to passive readers; readers aren’t mere sponges, absorbing indiscriminately everything the author thought. Readers engage with and interpret literature. It is the on-going interaction between works of literature and their readers over the years that makes them great. The acknowledgement of objectionable opinions doesn’t change the writers, who are usually dead, but it destroys two-dimensional images of them. And that can be a positive development. Calling people “great authors” glosses over the fact that they were human beings who blew it sometimes.