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· Style as a Test of Truth ·

I found an impressive essay Wednesday exploring the frontier, the frontier "between politics and culture, between continental Europe and the Anglosphere," as its author writes, "between academia and journalism, left and right, history and reportage." Author Timothy Garton Ash essays still another theme, however, one exploring what he calls "the literature of fact" or, better, how a fact can be deduced verily, he claims, from the style of literature.

Although I don't want to repeat Ash's essay (you can read it here), his concern for what he calls "veritas" seems today an apt subject, since that term I've adduced already. What I have in mind is Ash's particular use of literary style as a test of truth, as this passage makes clear:

If we find witnesses accurate on things we know, we are more likely to believe them on things we don't; but sometimes, there is little that we can know or check. What test works here? The best I can come up with is the quite unscientific litmus of veracity. Do we feel, as we read the text, that the writer is making what Orwell, in praising Henry Miller, called "a definite attempt to get at real facts"?

For me, the model of such veracity is Orwell's own Homage to Catalonia. Actually, Orwell got some of his externally verifiable facts wrong — not least because most of his notes were stolen during a secret police search of his hotel room in Barcelona. But we never for a moment doubt that he is trying to tell it exactly as it was. And when we reach his plea of veracity at the end of the book, it is the very opposite of Theroux's.* Orwell writes, in that wonderfully plain, conversational style that he worked so hard to achieve, "In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events." In effect, he says, "Don't believe me!" — and so we believe him.

Veracity is revealed in tone, style, voice. It takes us back to the artistic reasons for defending this line. You can often tell just from internal, stylistic evidence when a writer has strayed.

You can of course supply your own examples, maybe recognizing that curious form of judgment epitomized best in Cardinal Newman's apt phrase, "A Grammar of Assent." If it's unfamiliar to you, its logic is simple: in an insufficiency of data there emerges a developing sufficiency of informal detail marking (but not verifying, strictly) the discernable shape of the verifiable still: what Ash calls the "line" to be defended. And of course his conclusion follows: we may reasonably find — and assent to — in literary style, at least an emerging local equivalent (grammatically) of a less strict but partially verifiable insight into substantial truth.

But as that's poorly styled, E. B. White may say it better (though I'm afraid, like Orwell, I've lost my references — and you may thus rightly question my veracity): "Facts have an eloquence all their own."

But of course, as Ash claims, "so too does style."

*Ash is here questioning a previously-cited passage from Paul Theroux:

Paul Theroux's travel book The Great Railway Bazaar, which is full of amusing incidents and wonderfully entertaining dialogue, concludes with an elaborate plea for its own strict, reportorial accuracy. He describes in detail the four thick notebooks in which he wrote things down as they happened "remembering to put it all in the past tense." On this railway trip through Asia, he writes, he had learned "that the difference between travel writing and fiction is the difference between recording what the eye sees and discovering what the imagination knows. Fiction is pure joy — how sad that I could not reinvent the trip as fiction." At which I found myself thinking, "Well, you did, you did." Perhaps I am wrong, but even the production of four weather-stained notebooks containing words identical to those on the printed page would not dissuade me, for the invention can come at the moment of recording.

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I just stopped in for a look and don't have time to linger just now, but this article put a grin on my face. What a delightful thought: when short on facts, try examining style. It is perhaps a bit like the judging at ice dancing competitions, with points awarded for artistic merit as well as technical difficulty. I *will* come back and read this more thoroughly later...

Posted by Scott Lucas on December 8, 2002 02:20 PM

Though I like your happy analogy, I suspect Ash had more in mind than such amusements. You might compare his "Truth is Another Country" with this. Ash is perhaps one of those pen-wielding, Oxford-educated, Hitchins-like PPE majors on the loose today. There's one, so to speak, behind every Bush.

Posted by Styles on December 12, 2002 11:12 AM

Speaking of which, last Saturday I saw George Bush, Senior, at the Bush Library (C-SPAN, 10/24/03), moderate remarks by Gen. Tommy Franks and New York Times reporter John Burns. Burns suavely altered Ash's earlier remarks, implicitly adding his British style to the general's more aw'-shucks, shock-and-awe American military manner. Whenever he ascends to power, maybe George III will simply try to combine such two-step style maneuvers.

Posted by Styles on November 3, 2003 02:26 PM


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