The Truth Is Out There

‘Truth is real; it exists. Positivistic thinking has had such a strong influence on our basic assumptions that we tend to identify the real with what we can touch, taste, feel, see or hear. We need to ditch this preconception if we are to think psychologically. Most psychological realities do not have the property of extension or tangibility: a dream, a hallucination, a belief, a thought, a relationship, love, hatred or desire. But it is not true that these realities exist in some non-material sphere only. They are inextricably linked with the physical – this is so even of thought. Truth is a reality of this nature. It cannot be measured but it does exist; the fact that it is difficult to define does not detract from this. Truth does not exist though as some eternal idea, as Plato thought, but as a reality that exists in between: in between two persons seeking it, in between psychoanalysis, sociology, psychology, economics and religion. It will not be possessed by any one person or group. Someone who proclaims ‘I have the truth’ has lost it. For truth can be seen or glimpsed, not possessed. When I see the truth some change occurs in me. I can never be the same again. Something in my personality has altered; a previous preconception gives way to truth, but it is in the very nature of truth that each glimpse only emphasizes the degree to which truth still lies outside or beyond. This means that the individual is always in relation to truth and is in a state of potentia. By potentia I mean a state of movement towards.’

from Neville Symington, The Analytic Experience


I found this such an interesting paragraph, and it’s been playing around in my mind since I read it. I’m writing on Gabriel Josipovici’s work at the moment, and this struck me as pertinent for the way his books unfold into meaning, which could be described as: nothing happens and nothing happens and then everything happens, although it’s hard to say exactly what has happened. That makes him a real challenge to write about, although it’s the kind of itch I can’t help scratching. I’ve always felt that it’s the job of the literary critic to bring things out of the shadows on the page and into the light a bit more, to take what’s dimly but powerfully felt and give it form, say what it means and why. You certainly don’t have to have access to literary criticism to enjoy a book, or be moved by it, but good criticism can sharpen and enrich that reading experience. At least, that’s the definition of good criticism for me.

The more I think about it, the more I think that this process of formless, uncertain truth glimpsing lies at the heart of all literature, which is a good in between sort of location, between the words on the page and the mind that reads. I think that we read partly for the sensation of change that can happen inside us, the sensation of something being unblocked, or freed, or falling into place that stories can cause sometimes; not all stories, by any means, and not necessarily the stories that we expect to alter us. But sometimes it just happens, that a book gives us the words for something we never realised we longed to express, or it shows sympathy or understanding for something that touches us surprisingly deeply. And brief, but precious, peace descends. This is the process that Symington is describing as the point of therapy. Here, as in reading, it is no good simply being told what’s true, or handed meaning on a plate; the process involved in getting there is essential to the effect.

But there’s a passage further on in the Symington that keeps making me laugh. It’s where he describes how psychoanalysis hopes to effect change in the patient’s life for the better. But Freud, in order to curb reckless enthusiasm in his disciples, had ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of one of his patients on his desk. In the former, the man looked hopeful and well and contented, in the latter he looked dejected and downcast. I don’t know why this strikes me as so funny, but it does. I suppose it reminds me of my much-loved PhD student’s oft-quoted saying that the truth would set you free, but first it would piss you off. Or perhaps, joking aside, it reminds me of something else I read, that it takes tremendous courage to face the truth of our lives. Which is why, perhaps, truth is something we glimpse, out ahead of us, or through a glass darkly in fiction. Much like looking at the sun, we can’t take it directly. But I’d rather find the courage to face the truth than the energy it takes to fuel denial and resistance, to cultivate fantasies and to avoid inconvenient feelings. And then there is that curious sense of physical well-being, of rest, that comes when the jigsaw piece falls into place in the puzzle, and which is, in its own way, addictive.


7 thoughts on “The Truth Is Out There

  1. So what you’re saying is, is that quantum mechanics applies to truth? Because in quantum mechanics, the act of observing a particle changes everything so you can never really see it in the way you want to see it, thus when it comes to truth we only get glimpses. Ok, so that’s a stretch. The Josipovici article sounds like it is going well though and that is a very good thing 🙂

  2. I can’t remember where I read this but it was some research that said they had found out that people who are depressed often have a much more realistic view of life and of themselves, whereas total optimists just keep on lying to themselves. It seesm as the art is to get beyond the point of being depressed and keep the knowledge. I’m certainly simplifying, still, I think there is some truth in it.
    I’m curious to hear more about the Josipovici. Which of his books do you recommend?

  3. The observation that there’s no shortcut to what’s true makes observing adolescents at work much less worrying, don’t you think? I have never thought of literature as operating in the way you describe, but I think you are very right and this brief descent of peace is what makes reading so addictive. Like Caroline, I would really like to read Josipovici, who has the BEST name — where should I begin? (And I am so looking forward to reading your article!!)

  4. Fascinating! You describe the experience of reading and the glimpses of truth that it can bring so beautifully. I agree completely. It reminds me of Flannery O’Connor who objected so strongly to people reducing her stories down into themes or morals. You can’t reduce a story, or why tell a story at all? The story as a whole says something true that can’t be said in any other way.

  5. I really liked it when you said you would rather find the courage to confront the truth rather than find ways and means to avoid it. In this era where you are hardpressed to find good articles on sensible and relevant issues, your post was a delightful read for me.

  6. Lilian – oh thank you! You get a hug for that. {{{{Lilian}}}}

    Stefanie – I think I blew a fuse in my brain thinking about your comment! 🙂 Josipovici was going well, but then I paused to reread In a Hotel Garden (very good second time around) and have lost momentum a bit….

    Caroline – yes, I’ve heard that too about optimists and pessimists, and my own experience certainly bears it out. I think the problem comes when pessimism means expecting and anticipating ONLY the worst. That’s no more realistic than expecting only good things to happen. Josipovici is a very good thing, however. I began by read Everything Passes by him, which I loved. I’d also recommend In A Hotel Garden, although he is best known for Goldberg: Variations, which I haven’t read yet (am saving it up!).

    Lily – I’d love for you to read Josipovici – no one does dialogue quite as well as he does, or manages that literary lift-off thing, whereby what you are reading suddenly moves from the mundane to the marvellous. I’d recommend In A Hotel Garden; it’s very accessible as well as brilliant. But he is best known for Goldberg: Variations, which I’ve yet to read but which I don’t doubt is fab. I loved your remark about teenages – so true!

    Dorothy – I love the way you put that into words – perfect! And you remind me I must read Flannery O’Connor.

    Aishwarya – oh thank you, that is so kind and I really do appreciate it so much!

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