Happy Glass Day
Today is the anniversary of the online publication that brought down Stephen Glass' House of Cards. I just re-watched the film Shattered Glass
which dramatizes the event quite well. My wife, who has had the great courage to overtake with me a fourth anniversary of our own, has a fascination with blurred genre: those works which unclassifiably bridge fact and fiction. As she has explained it to me, Glass' story would be ripe for further study along these lines. One of the key examples my wife has relayed to me is the life and memoir of Rigoberta Menchu. The dramatized account of her story lends itself to the criticism of those who opposed her politics and their canonization with a Nobel Peace Prize. Glass is not a similar lightning rod, however it does highlight the increased likelihood of gullibility we bring to stories we want to believe. I recommend reading the entire Glass round-up at Slate
with Jack Shafer's pieces being especially insightful. For example, from Shafer's own personal mea culpa
for being too trusting as a reader:
But I didn't even bring my usual editor's skepticism to reading them, because I wanted them to be true.
The Glassworks contain what editors crave--stories with energy and imagination and originality. The filigree of detail dazzles. Some of his better pieces read like textbook examples of New Journalism, fusing the world of fact with the literary power of narrative.
If you consider this comparison with New Journalism, and start thinking about the even more brilliant fusions of literary techniques with real life in Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, or Gay Talese, you find yourself questioning this impulse to believe these pieces not just because they mesh with your particular worldview, but also because the method predisposes you to a suspension of disbelief. I consider Slouching Towards Bethlehem
, for example, one of the truest representations of the Sixties both because I like the image of America coming apart at the seams, but also because Didion's prose creaks with a dramatic precision. If you know how to use words, then it feels true regardless of whether it comports with reality.
The scary thing about this is that is the way all faith works. I believe fictional modes, and artfully-delivered words, have the ability to reveal truth, just as any believer begins placing faith in religion. Considering John's Word/God construction seems to bind up in this even more that is difficult to unravel. My personal feeling is that too rarely do I ask the question--"but is it true?"-- following the initial assessments of artistic and social value. Even then, I'm not sure that I resolve the many conflicts that spring from battling worldviews within various elements of my spiritual, political, and scientific life. I like that maybe I don't have to, but it is frustrating as hell that so many seem to demand it. It makes up the balance of the kind of questions we ask each other.
To salve conscience, one asks the type of questions loathed by the Little Prince in St. Exupery's book. These questions ascribe a meaning to existence, and provide a means by which individuals measure each other: How much does he make? How much did his house cost? Where did he go to school? Eventually, we replace these modes of knowing each other through familiarity, but that is not before comparision, and does not preclude more measurings in the future. However, that said, the more human impulse, exemplified through the Prince, also emerges in Saul Bellow's fiction. When Artur Sammler barely discovers his best friend's exemplary life may have been marred by a fortune derived from illegal abortions performed for rich and well-connected (read mafioso) families, Sammler's eulogy upon his friend's death bed reflects not the lapse as it were but fullness of Elya's life.
Remember, God, the soul of Elya Gruner, who, as willingly as possible and as well as he was able, and even to an intolerable point, and even in suffocation and even as death was coming was eager, even childishly perhaps (may I be forgiven for this), even with a certain servility, to do what was required of him. At his best this man was much kinder than at my very best I have ever been or could ever be. He was aware that he must meet, and he did meet--through all the confusion and degraded clowning of this life through which we are speeding--he did meet the terms of his contract. The terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. As I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it--that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know. (260)
It feels like either a moment of extraordinary self-deception or extreme generosity. I think it is meant to be both. Human's are just fine with unresolved shortcomings and worthy of encomium. Sometimes, we may even have to self-deceive to accept them as such. We can be skeptical about stories in the news, but our desire to believe certain ones should be exemplary of how we view lives: be they leftist activists' like Rachel Corrie's or Marla Ruzicka's or conservative Pope's (instances I bring up specifically because of the ghoulish responses some have made in their demise). Whether we disagree with a life, we should panegyrize it. And our ability to do so after the truth outs in every one's life as it will, is a true measure of humanity. And maybe that's what we can take from Glass Day. Find something false you want to believe in, transfer that feeling to a recently departed individual you might dislike (I'm picking Reagan), and accept things of value and the human within the mistakes. But as C.S. Lewis suggests, don't begin with the tyrants right away, but still realize that we'll need to deal with them eventually.