Reality? Is there such a thing in the Age of Untruth? Authenticity in Narration
It’s all just stories - none of us knows the truth about anything. But stories are good. They are what we tell ourselves to keep fear at bay, to make sense of our lives, to see things as we want to see them so everything is skewed really. - Stephen Mangan The Times March 5th 2016.
“There’s always a story. It’s all stories really. The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything’s got a story in it. Change the story, change the world.” - Terry Pratchett – A Hat Full of Sky.
Do you sometimes feel that you’ve turned up in life just after the cop cars and the ambulances and the fire engines have just disappeared round the corner, the smashed glass has been swept away and there is nothing left to see? How much of life is lived just out of sight, just round the corner? It sometimes feels to me as though I’m listening to the world through cotton wool, touching it with boxing gloves. All I perceive is the shallow and shaky and occasional fleeting moments of experience instead of those big, defining events that everyone else seems to enjoy.
I guess that’s partly my fault. My young friend Skidmore would sneer at me on his way to the casino or a day out bungee jumping and say “You live your life second hand. What do you expect? You only see the world through Facebook and Twitter, through mediated and filtered web sites. If you’ve got a problem with the world, it’s your fault. You live in a bubble of shared opinion. You only see the world through a tiny knothole of the rotting woodwork of your front door.”
And yes, all sadly true, Skidders, Old Man. As a writer I need to indulge in the reality of the world around and to provide an all-embracing experience for my audiences. I want to record and comment on what it is like to be human. I do it, not by an exact reproduction of the world around, a one to one scale model, but by observing and adapting what I see so that others may see my vision. To agree or disagree as they see fit. But at all events I must understand and report with veracity. What I need is for my audience to trust me, to believe in the world, the ideas I put before them that they are willing to accompany me on my journey and not keep noticing the hollows and blank spaces I have been unable to fill. Where can I find the authentic, real and plausible in this world of the fakery and sham?
What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer – Francis Bacon
“Anyway, we don’t do Truth anymore. Truth is so… last year.” says Skidmore warming in his opinion.
“What in God’s name “do you even mean when you ramble on about authenticity and vomit up words like “reality” or “plausibility”? “Veracity?” You make up stories. You’re a professional liar. What on earth do you know about truth? What right do you have to criticise other people for not telling the Truth?”
Good point. I’m not a journalist. I’m not out to record the details of car crashes or bank robberies. Not the events themselves at any rate but I do believe I’m trying to capture an authentic human response to what’s going on in the world.
I am, as I might have said to Skidmore if he’s hung around to listen, an observer. Even if I miss the car crash, somehow, I’ve got to observe the way people react to this sort of event. I’ve got to sniff the air and see which way humanity is heading. And having got some sense of what’s going on I’ve then got to try to interpret and construct a narrative. Not necessarily about the big events and occurrences but about the little details, the way people react, how they change.
I realise that as an artist, and more particularly as a playwright, I’m wrestling with two sorts of authenticity. The authenticity of my response to the world around. In other words, trying to relay what I see with minimum bullshit. But I’m also faced with the task of providing an emotionally satisfying and gripping first-hand experience for my audiences that will draw them in and cause them to be engaged in the way that I am.
Before I write poetry or fiction I need to understand what truth is.
“They’re all liars, cheats and fakes” says Skidmore. “I wouldn’t vote for any of them” An all too familiar line and largely accurate. What is worrying, moreover is that these rogues and charlatans have learnt how to manipulate the press and social media and have discovered that lying and cheating is just as efficacious at moving opinion as a reasoned argument used to be. But by abjuring from voting Skidmore has let the liars and cheats off the hook. There is no possibility of the world being any different. Not all politicians are self-serving and mendacious, but those who are will always have louder voices than those who are not. So, why is it when we seek out people of authenticity to be our representatives in government, do we almost always end up with the self-regarding, bullies, liars and cheats?
The culture of celebrity on television, the celebration of mountebanks by news media provide an ecology in which everyone is fake because we expect nothing else. We have lost trust in politicians and people in authority and thereby we have lost trust in humanity as a whole. People who appear to be decent enough chaps in the pub we find are working for multinational companies and banking corporations. They defend what they have to do by saying “We are forced into a course of action by our shareholders. We are legally obliged to consider the interests of our investors first.” Those at the bar have an uneasy feeling that this equates to “I was only following orders.” And we all know where that led. Not only are we uncomfortable with this, it seems to require a form of doublethink way beyond mere hypocrisy. Can we ever accept a pint from someone like this or trust them to drive our kids to school?
Can I as a playwright do anything to reverse that? How can I show a more authentic view of humanity that would contribute in some small way to restoring everyone’s faith in the essential goodness of human nature without compromising the truth that people are, indeed, venal, grasping, selfish, prone to violence, self-centred and so on and so forth?
We give out medals for a single act of physical prowess. How do we reward a lifetime of caring?
"Everything is relative. Stories are being made up all the time - there is no such thing as the truth. You can see how that has filtered its way indirectly into post-truth." A.C. Grayling
At the same time, this yearning for authentic experience drives the apparent hunger for thrill laden activities and dangerous sports. I’m convinced that’s one of the reasons that Skidmore spends so much of his time in casinos and bars. Or dangling by his feet from an elastic band over a waterfall. Our quotidian existence is so far from feeling any sort of natural engagement with the world that we must seek out experiences that are near to death. Or bankruptcy. We seek the outlandish, the dangerous, the bitter. But our search for the authentic experience forces us closer and closer to the inauthentic. We yearn to hike through authentic countryside, we long to eat authentic Mexican food. And yet, the closer we get to them the less authentic the experience. In reality the countryside is cold wet and muddy and entirely mundane. It is a working environment for those who live there and residents experience all sorts of discomforts and disadvantages such as non-existent public transport, thirty miles drives to the local hospital, intermittent phone and broadband and village shops, schools and pubs that close down leaving ghost communities. The countryside is, frankly, tedious. It is no more than a factory floor with bushes. We do not want the authentic countryside, we want convenient car parks and defined footpaths with the brambles trimmed back. We need easy access to viewpoints where we can look at the scenery for a few moments and let the dogs run after the sheep before driving back down to the authentic village pub run by a chain from London where we can order Authentic Chipotle straight from the freezer and microwave. We settle for a facsimile of the authentic.
But there is a dissatisfaction in this clearly hollow view of the world. It has permeated the whole of 21st century existence. And the more we are squeezed economically and socially, the more we demand to satisfy this emptiness.
Those who live their lives in extremis, who feel crushed by poverty or by a world they no longer feel part of, will lash out. They will follow any narrative that offers them a glimmer of hope. That narrative may be entirely fictitious., It may be a fantasy offering a pot of fairy gold at the end of a rainbow, but for those who have nothing it is everything.
An authentic experience is one validated by our senses. Touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight. The more senses that are involved the more authentic an experience becomes. It can be brought into even sharper focus by having others experience it with us. “Did you see that?” we ask and are happy is someone else witnessed it at the same time as we did. Afterwards, we construct a narrative around the event so that it becomes a reality. It could be an hilarious dinner table story or a heart-stopping drama. We encompass it and draw delight from the fact that we experienced something truthful at last. But it still doesn’t mean that an experience is true. Truth, as we are constantly urged to believe, is conditional on context and frames of reference. It may be possible to say that the authentic experience occurs within space – the here and now while the narrative about it occurs within and over time. We stand on a clifftop and feel the wind in our face and hear the waves crashing below and smell and taste the salt on the air. It is the punch in the face, the kick on the shins. This is a moment of experience. We need to be absolutely involved in the moment for it to be more than something fleeting and ephemeral. It requires total engagement. And later, the contemplation of that event, the story of that moment, becomes the narrative truth. We sit in front of a roaring fire and recall that cold, the rain trickling down the back of our necks. We may laugh about it whatever the shock and discomfort we felt at the time.
But not everyone has the time or the conditioning to go and stand on a clifftop gazing at the ocean waiting for some epiphany of the soul. And not everyone has the capacity to capture that moment in a form that can be transmitted to others. Sometimes we need an intermediary, a playwright or other artist for instance, to draw our attention to that experience and give us a reason for paying it attention. If we artists and writers do our job properly we can weave a narrative that carries the audience through the emotional landscape and gives a more accurate, fuller picture of humanity. Fiction or not.
It’s important to be able to understand both the ideas of authenticity of world view and authenticity of experience in order for the playwright to construct a narrative by drawing these two ways of experiencing a moment or an event together.
Having observed the world and its people the playwright can construct a narrative bringing together elements that would never meet in real life. Their prime function is to ask the question “What if…?” of the world and the people they observe. “What if Donald Trump did meet Nelson Mandela?” “What is time travel is possible and we could go back to the beginning of 2016?” The writer then applies their Imagination. The creative narrator imagines themselves inside the mind of their character. She gives it life and credibility and tries to examine what the possible outcome of the question is. The writer inhabits the multiverse where all outcomes are possible, providing that we apply the rules of humanity and human nature.
John Le Carre, the eminent spy novelist makes a subtle distinction between “authenticity” and “plausibility” meaning, I believe, that merely to present our reality is not enough for a writer. The world we create may be as far removed from the world we see through our window as we like; what is crucial is that we create a world that is so dense and thought out that the reader or audience never needs to question its veracity. In just such a way that the work of great scenic designers and directors go unrecognised because they create an all-encompassing world on the stage of such breadth that we never see round it. By creating such a total world and guiding our audiences through it, we are providing a totally immersive, authentic experience where we can explore issues and ideas that might sit uneasily with our own small experience but which in some way we can describe as True.
Music doesn’t have to be beautiful all the time. It has to be True. It has to have meaning. It has to articulate something that’s important to be said. - Natalie Clein Cellist. BBC Front Row January 12th 2017