The Clare Spark Blog

April 4, 2010

“What is truth?”

Giotto’s Pontius Pilate

Wander about public space these days and wear dark glasses, for it is very bad out there, and friends can turn out to be bosom enemies. I cannot recall a period during my lifetime (with the exception of the 1960s) when our country was this polarized about the very meaning of words.

In the pivotal chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab addresses the crew in an attempt to gain their allegiance as he pursues the White Whale, leaving commercial considerations aside. At the climax of his peroration, he declares, “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” This is not a statement that has inspired much commentary from the academic establishment that tries to control acceptable [i.e., anti-Ahab] readings of Melville’s masterpiece, but it has inspired me for decades, and made me a renegade. In my reading, Ahab’s ruling idea is ultra-democratic and aligned with the antislavery men and women for whom the immorality of slavery was paramount. It also recapitulates the significance of popular sovereignty as partially established in the American and French Revolutions, and prefigured in the English Civil War of the 1640s. Over a period of centuries, mobs have been turned into citizens*, a process that is nowhere near complete, either in the West or elsewhere.

To continue Captain Ahab’s impudent assertion:  ruling classes, whether they were comprised of English aristocrats or Southern slaveholders who dominated the American government in the antebellum period (while Melville was writing his major fiction), could not keep their secrets from the public with impunity. (See Godwin’s Caleb Williams, a book Melville read before he commenced on his great whale hunt.) These new “levelers” (my sympathetic readers and I) expect the powerful, like all others,  to cough up the truth so that citizens may choose their representatives, not out of coercion or blind charisma, but because concrete policy, enunciated without double-talk,  protects them and helps improve their condition.

I looked for images of Pontius Pilate on the internet, and was not surprised to see a website entitled “What is truth” that asserted the subjectivity and relativity of all knowledge. That is the winning line in our age of multiculturalism, an ideology and a practice that asserts that cultural (read “racial”) differences mean just that: we cannot reach each other over the “racial” or national divide to arrive at an agreement over what is or what is not a fact, as opposed, say, to an opinion based on limited knowledge. That we are all entirely irrational is now the ruling ideology, and if you want a job in academe or wish to ingratiate yourself with the mass media establishment, you had better adhere to that line. Sadly, some persons of my acquaintance who have a background in science, seem to doff their hats to power when they leave their laboratories or classrooms. When challenged, they wash their hands and defer to force. (For a related blog see

*Think about the title of the “greatest”  movie ever, Citizen Kane. I had focused previously on the link to Cain and the Wandering Jew myth, but the word “citizen” is ironic and suggests that the writers had a dim view of the French Revolution, emphasizing the Terror as its essential gesture, rather than the movement away from absolute authority toward popular sovereignty.


  1. […] This is not the first time I have broached this subject. See […]

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  3. Well–I’m only a literary historian, so that’s the best I can do. My book on African American literature and the law should have some answers for you, though. Or some questions.

    Comment by jon-christian suggs — April 5, 2010 @ 12:59 am | Reply

  4. I think all that goes without saying. The question is what to make of the situation in which you find yourself once you have eliminated the UNlikely meanings and are left alone in the room with the survivors. I think with fiction and poetry, the answer is within reach. I remind myself that these texts are the world imagined, not reproduced. Among the surviving imaginaries are all the probabilities of play that make us human. For historians, I’m afraid the answer is the same and I think that is less satisfactory. But we remember that history is what we say about what happened, not WHAT happened, and so even we make our peace with competing histories. I lost interest in literary theory a few years back, but I always liked the post-structural notion of _aporia_, the opening in the text, despite the author’s best efforts at control, into which the reader strides and fills with her own assumptions about whatever she imagines the imagined world she has just entered consists of. My favorite story from teaching days is of the student who wrote of Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye)that his problem was that he smoked too much marijuana. The reading of the text was flawless from that assumption but I could not recall where in the novel we saw Holden smoking dope. At our conference over the paper, the student pointed out to me two passages to support his reading. Understand that this was a working-class kid from NYC, Hispanic. In two places, if I remember this correctly not more than two, Salinger wrote something like, “Holden closed the book, pulled on his reefer, and went out into the rain.” So Salinger had no antivipation (or did he?) that a city kid 4 decades later would not know that “reefer” was New England-speak for “foul-weather gear” but would know that “reefer” was an acceptable term on the block for marijuana. The meaning of “reefer” was unimportant by this point. The student had understood something about Holden that was “true” if Holden’s imagined world had both marijuana and rain. What Salinger had also understood, in his preppy head, was also true.

    Comment by jon-christian suggs — April 4, 2010 @ 11:40 pm | Reply

    • Or, Salinger could have had both meanings of the word “reefer” in mind. And many pot smokers will tell you that a joint is indeed gear that protects the psyche from foul weather. But my blog was not about fiction, but about the possibility of writing history. Some pomos say that it is utterly impossible to reconstruct the past. I say, it depends on the point being made by the historian, and the quality and quantity of the sources available. This is where discipline, training and skill comes in.

      Comment by clarespark — April 5, 2010 @ 12:39 am | Reply

  5. Re that “truth”–back in the day, in the classroom, my undergraduates would insist I help them find (or tell them), “The meaning” on portion or another of some text. I usually begged of, just so they would keep thinking, but when pressed i would ask how many in the class were married. How many, I would ask, have some significant other person intimately connected to your lives. That usually rounded up everyone, and caused the few who had neither spouse nor “other” to sit up straighter–I suppose to affirm their independence. I would then asked who had NOT ever had a serious argument with that other person. Everyone had, even the youngest. I asked if they remembered what the arguments were about. Most did not. I asked then how many remembered participating in the following interchange:
    “That is not what I meant!”
    “But that is what you said!!!”
    They all had done so.

    So it is with these texts. We are in an argument with these texts and they seem to only want to say–“That’s not what I meant!” and we seem only to be able to reply “But that is what you said!!!” I am not a marriage counselor. You must learn how to speak a new way to each other; I can’t tell you what the other meant.

    Of course no one was satisfied with that, but it was what I said—and meant.

    Comment by jon-christian suggs — April 4, 2010 @ 9:16 pm | Reply

    • But as a scholar, do you seriously believe that all interpretations are equally valid? I doubt it. So one can define a range of likely meanings, given what is in the text and the circumstances of the text’s creation. That is how an historian would view the problem. Otherwise you leave the student floating all at sea without a compass or tools to decipher the language of those who have control over them.

      Comment by clarespark — April 4, 2010 @ 10:37 pm | Reply

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