The Moon or the Mirror of the Moon? Reflections on History, Story and Narrative (Part 2)

When we return to the question I evoked earlier related to truth, Bruce Gatenby did offer some of his insights, if not comprehensively, on the intersection between truth, memory and narrative fiction. Quoting examples of Samuel Backett’s Molloy and Fernando Pessoa[1]’s The Book of the Disquiet, he underscored experience of self, and defined respectively truth as ‘facts’, memory as ‘perception of facts’ and narrative truth as ‘a blend of objective, subjective truth, the real and the made up’. According to Bruce, truth also refers to truth values, and values in its plural form imply that different disciplines highlight different values. Although Bruce did not go on explaining what substantiates the statement that ‘facts are objective’, as well as how the process of remembering and misremembering gives rise to a high degree of subjectivity, narrative fiction, nonetheless, is interwoven between what might have happened and what a writer think it did, together with his critiques.

Speaking of the word ‘happen’, it reminds me of its German equivalent ‘geschehen’ (English translation: to happen, to arise), which shares the same etymology and roots with ‘Die Geschichte’ (English translation: history). Judging from the linguistic aspect, German have the tendency to connect what has happened with history, and to elucidate any experience, narrative becomes essential. It is in this essence that fiction does not only offer entertainment, but it universalizes experience as a ‘higher’ truth at least in the continental context, as Bruce chanted. He quoted the expression “ecstatic truth”[2] used by Werner Herzog, which is a mode of representation of one’s “experience of sublimity”[3], if I understand the term accurately. This sublimity, for sure, then cannot sever itself from Romantic ideal of imagination, as the presenter explained painstakingly, citing Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey. Bruce hastened to move on to his definition of memoir, though, without dissecting further how rhetoric devices are employed as tools in the imagination, and how this imagination can be regarded not as conveying paradoxical truth, but as demonstrating what he coined the term ‘higher truth’.

Memoir, he characterized, is ‘self-fashioned’ and is ‘retold in the form of narrative’, and is thus a flow of fact and fiction. The term fiction he employed here seems to signify fictive elements instead of a genre. Nevertheless, Bruce quotes Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Œdipus[4], stressing that “there is always a flow-producing machine, another machine connected to it that interrupts or draws off part of this flow”[5]. This “flow-producing machine” then is controlled by not just the self, but a real force. In this aspect, a writer associated an object or his experience with another, and narrated it with various rhetoric devices not because of his pure imagination, but because he was under specific social and cultural condition that enabled him to tell his story in his own way. In other words, a writer does not fabricate out of nothing but, as Bruce quoted Geoff Dyer’s words, he always moves his pen “between reliable fabric and fabrication” in such a seamless way that a reader can hardly notice.

Again, if we accept the discourse of Platonic intangible truth, can we at least see His shadow through some sort of mirrors? In Raphael Foshay’s presentation, he highlighted that literary drama is a means to Platonic discourse, however useless art may seem to Plato. Meanwhile, Raphael brought in Derrida’s interpretation of “pharmakon”, which signify both poison and medicine, depending on the context[6]. Here the ambivalence of the word and several others (such as the famous différance proposed by Derrida) implied the impurity in the pursuit of truth. The incompleteness of écriture has shied a lot of literati and thinkers from the reality and most of them embraced nihilism, just as Nietzsche and Adorno Theodor did. In the book Of Grammatology[7], Raphael cited, Derrida prioritized speeches over écriture, and in the near end, he mentioned William Desmond[8], a contemporary philosopher and ended his speech by concluding that philosophy should be possession rather than practice and pursuit.

While following that truth should not be pursued through philosophical discourse, we may also ask whether idea has, should there be any, any ties with truth and/or imagination, and whether this idea is transferrable from one culture to another, or from one nation to another. In Samuel Malissa’s lecture on translation of Japanese literature, he introduced Miyamori Asatarō (宮森麻太郎;1869-1952)’s translation discourse among which a famous statement would be “only Japanese can translate Japanese literature” because “a cultural diplomacy” is involved in translation, and only a native Japanese can translate the essence. Published in Yomiurishimbun newspaper in the 1930s, “On the translation of Japanese” (nihon no honyaku nitsuite) mentioned several ‘bad’ translation of Haiku done by foreign translators, and provided readers with ‘good’ examples. For sure, what constitutes good and bad is subjective in this case, but bringing in historical context, we can see Miyamori’s linguistic nationalism aligned closely with Japanese imperial expansion, as Samuel rightly observed. In this light, literary works and essays are not internally sufficient but must be analyzed together with its historical and cultural context.

The conference is overall a very inspiring one, and I hope an equally active, exciting exchange of intellectual thoughts next time.

[The End]

[Photo taken on 2nd April 2017; Photo credit goes to Norman]

[1] Fernando Pessoa (1888 – 1935) was a Portuguese writer and poet. His work The Book of Disquiet, published in 1982 after his death, has invited various interpretations about the way it is organized. Fernando once said the book was a “factless autobiography” (“autobiografia sem factos”).

[2] Werner Herzog, “On the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth”. Trans. Moira Weigel, Boston University. (Web) (

[3] Ibid.

[4] Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. Anti-Œdipus (1972). Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane. London and New York: Continuum, 2004.

[5] Ibid., pp. 5.

[6] Jacques Derrida. “Plato’s Pharmacy” & “The Double Session” in Dissemination. Trans Barbara Johnson, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1981

[7] Jacques Derrida. Of Grammatology (1967). Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997.

[8] William Desmond is an Irish philosopher who has written a lot of critiques on philosophers such as Plato, Hegel and Derrida.


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