What is truth?

I don’t mean to sound like Pontius Pilate, here.

Instead, I’m inspired by Allen Esterson’s comments on several posts (see A Possible Frame for the Novel, The Mileva Maric Controversy, and Regarding Lieserl) to think about the possible similarities and differences between writing a novel and doing scholarly research.  While I am committed to presenting as accurate a picture as I can–this is historical fiction, after all–and, in the Darwin novel, have not consciously fictionalized anywhere I’m aware that the record speaks, novels require the selection of detail to shape a narrative.  Narrative  is a construct that cannot report every detail, but must lift some higher than others to suggest a meaning that life itself might not readily offer up.  I discuss this in detail in the initial essay on my website at www.nancypinard.com, how literature becomes art by its structured repetition in the form of tropes.   So, when I’m reading the Einstein materials, I’m looking for tropes, repeated patterns in the people’s behavior.  When I suggested in one post, for example, that Einstein abandoned his student to move to Bern, Mr. Esterson takes exception to my use of the word abandoned, suggesting that there were other factors in Einstein’s departure.  My response is, yes, of course there were other factors.  I’m aware of at least some of them.  What I’m looking at, however, is that Einstein shows a pattern of abandonment including his German citizenship, his wife, his sons, and his second wife in acts of infidelity.  I’m asking myself if this is a pattern I can use to shape the novel.  That is not to say that the complexities of these abandonments wouldn’t be explored.

I would further suggest that biographies are also narratives and, as such, are not strictly true.  The biographer isn’t splatting all his research on the page.  He is choosing a viewpoint–dictated by his own issues and obsessions–and shaping a story about a person’s life.  In this sense, a biography is as much a blueprint of the biographer’s psyche as it is a story of the chosen subject’s life.

Which leads me to ask, is there any history that is not revisionist?  Every historian is selecting details.  Every textbook has a point of view.

This thought also informs the debate about truth in memoir.  I’m not talking about the outright fictionalizing  in James Frey’s Million Little Pieces, (which was originally written as a novel, but then, when it didn’t sell, was falsely presented as a memoir.) I’m asking if there is such a thing as 100% truth.  Is truth not affected by what one leaves out?  So, assuming there’s no deliberate falsehood, what percentage of fact must be on the page for us to declare a document true?  Is 95% enough?  At what point does the absence of some fact begin to mislead?  Can one even give an accurate account of him or herself?  In fiction, we like to say that all first-person narrators are unreliable.  They are interpreting the events they are reporting from behind their own peculiar lens.

Here’s the fact that remains:  We are all stuck in our own particular point of view.  I think that statement might be true.

About Nancy Pinard

Professionally-speaking, Nancy Pinard is an author-educator who spends her days writing, teaching, reading, and researching for her writing and teaching. She is the author of two published novels, Shadow Dancing and Butterfly Soup, and numerous short stories. She has taught the craft of fiction writing in many venues including Sinclair Community College, University of Dayton Life-Long Learning Institute, Antioch Writers' Workshop, Mad Anthony Writers' Workshop, and Molasses Pond Writers' Workshop. Personally, her faith is what sustains, inspires, and motivates her to continue to explore meaning through literature. "You are right in demanding that an artist approach his work consciously, but you are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct formulation of a problem. Only the second is required of the artist." — Anton Chekov to Alexei Suvorin, October 27, 1888
This entry was posted in Research methods, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to What is truth?

  1. phyllis Thompson says:

    very evocative..and worth re-reading!

  2. Nancy: I appreciate your taking time out to mention and discuss my comments on your blogs about Einstein and Mileva Maric.

    You write:
    “I would further suggest that biographies are also narratives and, as such, are not strictly true. The biographer isn’t splatting all his research on the page. He is choosing a viewpoint–dictated by his own issues and obsessions–and shaping a story about a person’s life. In this sense, a biography is as much a blueprint of the biographer’s psyche as it is a story of the chosen subject’s life.”

    Of course personal factors influence a biographer’s presentation, and to some degree this is inevitable (depending how conscientiously he or she tries to provide accounts of events and viewpoints as objectively as possible).

    Without any intention of being offensive, may I suggest you’ve chosen a relatively minor item to illustrate the point you are making (one admittedly open to more than one interpretation – though any interpretation by a biographer should be based on a knowledge of, and full presentation, of the historical facts of the situation). Other points I made (e.g., about the erroneous contention that the Soviet phyicist Abraham Joffe saw the original 1905 special relativity manuscript and that Maric’s name was on it) are far more important.

    You write:
    “I would further suggest that biographies are also narratives and, as such, are not strictly true. The biographer isn’t splatting all his research on the page. He is choosing a viewpoint–dictated by his own issues and obsessions–and shaping a story about a person’s life.”

    Let’s get straight to particulars. The biography in question in relation to Mileva Maric (that of Desanka Trbuhovic-Gjuric) contains a considerable number of statements, presented as as historical fact, that in many cases can be proven to be false or grossly misleading by checking against original documents that have been mis-described. In many cases these have been recycled and cited by other writers (Andrea Gabor immediately springs to mind) as if they are definite facts. There are other supposedly factual statements that can be shown to be based on an ignorance of the science, and of Einstein’s capabilities and of his publications. And there are assertions presented as reliable historical information that are dependent on sources that someone with knowledge of psychological phenomena immediately recognizes as doubtful (for instance, knowledge of the extensive research demonstrating the unreliability of second or third hand accounts of events, especially when they occurred more than a half-century earlier, and were obtained from interested parties).

    Now it may be fine to play fast and loose with ascertainable historical facts in a novel, but it goes against all standards of scholarly integrity (or just plain integrity) for a *biographer* to tackle a subject from the basis of “choosing a viewpoint” and misrepresenting or cherry-picking from the subject’s life story and accomplishments according to his viewpoint. (And I don’t believe that any serious biographers do ever take anything like that view of the nature of their task).

    Incidentally, while not “splattering all his research on the page”, any biographer worthy of the name will provide relevant reference notes to enable the interested reader to follow up the sources.

    You write:
    “Here’s the fact that remains: We are all stuck in our own particular point of view. I think that statement might be true.”

    Sorry, some of us are very much aware of how one’s personal experiences, and so on, influence the way we see the world, and that’s why we spend a great deal of time endeavouring to challenge our own perceptions by consciously setting out to read views and arguments that run counter to them. We certainly can’t *completely* overcome this limitation – it’s part of the human condition – but we can go a long way to neutralizing it if a profound respect for accuracy and facts (insofar as they can be ascertained) is part of our basic philosophy of life.

  3. Nancy Pinard says:

    Hello, Allen,

    I’m not clear from the above which of my points you consider minor.

    You seem concerned that I might be swayed by the material on the PBS Documentary. I feel I was clear in saying that I consider the material speculative and controversial and even provided a link to the argument against. Are you concerned that I described the content of the DVD but not of the argument against? Here’s my thinking: The argument is available to the reader. A DVD requires an order from Netflix or a trip to the library.

    I have no way of evaluating the Desanka Trbuhovic-Gjuric biography because I don’t read Serbian. You, and other sources, have made me aware that the material is suspect.

    I have just checked my notes regarding the Andrea Gabor material. I took very few, did not order the book, and have returned it to the library. But perhaps it would help if I quoted from the notes I took:

    “Legend has it the couple met with Albert asking Mileva how she arrived at the solution to a particular problem, likely math, which he couldn’t solve. (gabor, 7)”

    Now, in deciding whether to use that, I note that it says “legend.” So, here’s how I might play “fast and loose”–your term–with that note. I might envision a scene in which Albert sees Mileva in the library at the ETH. They are both first year students. He finds her attractive. He wants her attention. She is shy and rarely speaks in class but is working on her math problems. How can he get her to talk to him? Aha! He will say he can’t get the answer to the very problem she is working on. In fact, he has not tried to solve it, but it doesn’t matter. He gets to sit next to her. She talks to him about the problem. He gets what he wants.

    That is written as a summary, not as a scene, but you see how the legend can inform the scene without making a statement about anything except that he wants Mileva’s attention? And that, I believe, as it all played out, contradicts no known fact.

  4. Beth says:

    I liked the example you gave above, Nancy. That sounds like it would be a cool scene, and not at all historically inaccurate. You’re suggesting a possible interpretation for a tidbit that’s out there, not presenting it as a hard and fast fact. That’s where the fiction part of historical fiction comes in. 🙂

  5. Nancy, in response to your points:

    The only example you gave to exemplify a point about accurate information, out of some items I mentioned on another of your threads, is the interpretation of the word “abandoned” in relation to Eduard, in regard to which I suggested that Einstein’s overall relationship with Eduard was rather more nuanced than that word implies. Compared with specific erroneous statements of much greater import, such as that Joffe stated he actually saw Mileva’s name on the original 1905 manuscripts, this is relatively minor.

    I don’t see any mention of the PBS documentary in my previous post. If you’re referring to the claims about Joffe, that wasn’t specific to the documentary, it is a claim going back to Trbuhovic-Gjuric’s book, Troemel-Ploetz’s recycling of the claim in 1990, and Andrea Gabor’s further recycling it in the Mileva Maric chapter of her 1995 book, from which on another thread you acknowledge getting information. If you said I was concerned that you were swayed by what you read in *Gabor’s* book, then you would be right! (And, checking, I see that on that other blog I didn’t refer there to the PBS documentary, but specifically cited the Gabor chapter.)

    You don’t have to know Serbian to read Trbuhovic-Gjuric’s book. It has been translated into German and French. Fortunately my knowledge of French is good enough to read that version, and I have a sketchy knowledge of German that is sufficient to enable me to cross-check against the German translation.

    In relation to your example of how you might write up that “legend” cited by Gabor, I don’t know if you have toned down the scene in the light of the critique of Gabor’s chapter to which I directed your attention. Your description is far from Gabor’s account – in your imagined scenario Einstein contrives to speak to Mileva by *pretending* he couldn’t solve a problem she is working on, whereas Gabor recounts it as his *not being able to solve the problem*, which Mileva solves for him. Your account also implicitly includes a misconception of Gabor’s, that the seventeen-year-old Einstein “must have been somewhat in awe of his unusual classmate, who was three and a half years his senior”. In fact Einstein was a brash and self-confident young man way beyond his years who had already had a fairly lengthy girl-friend relationship and would hardly have had to dream up a conversational device to engage in conversation with Mileva in such a tiny group. (There were only six students in their mathematics and physics teaching diploma group.) Since your scenario differs so much from the source on which you based it, it is difficult for me not to suggest that you would have presented it rather differently had I not drawn your attention to my showing that the Gabor “legend”, which (characteristically) she recycles on the basis of nothing more than that she read it in a book (Trbuhovic-Gjuric), is unlikely in the extreme:

  6. Nancy Pinard says:

    Hi Allen,

    I’m headed out of town so will have to settle for answering this one.

    BTW,and FYI, the Einstein-Marity signature business IS in the PBS Documentary. They even show a picture of it. Now, I have no idea where that came from–we know that such things can be doctored these days–but what would be PBS’s motive?

    I don’t read much French and no German, so I’m afraid I’m dependent on you and endnotes. It’s the curse of living in the middle of America that we don’t encounter the languages we learned in high school/college so as to keep them fluent. When I’m in Paris, I so admire the tourist office personnel–the way they flip from one language to the next.

    Regarding my scene proposal. Of course, I’m influenced by(and interested in)your input. How many people get an Einstein scholar/physics professor as a fact checker? At the same time I wonder what the stakes are for you. This is time consuming. Why is it so important to you to guard Einstein’s work from Mileva’s influence?

    With regard to your argument concerning Einstein’s output of 1905, you mention that no one suggests Newton’s wife worked on his science. But might I suggest that in the seventeenth century it is highly unlikely that his wife would be a scientist, let alone a classmate in the same discipline.

    But back to the proposed scene: Here’s another wrinkle to factor in how he might approach Mileva. Though Einstein is brash, he is also still involved with Marie Wintuler, at least to the extent that she is doing his laundry. His letters to her mother, to my read, are filled with guilt. Of course, there’s the interesting contrast to his own mother, which might also modulate his tone. It seemed to me that he would have preferred Mama Wintuler to Pauline Einstein.

    (Speaking of Marie, there’s another person he abandoned. I read that she did a stint in a psychiatric hospital, too. But then there are all the family murders to factor in, so dates might be significant in figuring that out. My source said that in the hospital notes, she is mentioning Einstein, but I’m not sure why those notes would be opened to anyone. Perhaps privacy laws were different in Switzerland? We are really squirrely about such things in the States.)

    What do you think of this notion that Einstein had Aspergers Syndrome? This might also affect his approach, I would guess. I have a personal friend who is a neurologist, so I can ask him. What another friend who has dealt with Aspergers has told me is that the person may be able to initiate relationships successfully, but not so readily able to sustain a relationship, preferring instead to retreat into his/her head. That does sound like the pattern that Einstein demonstrated.

    What do you know about this Serbian student who allegedly lived with the Einsteins? He’s mentioned in the Reminiscences, too. Gabor has a scenario where he helps Mileva with housework since she’s up all night working on the physics.

    Here’s something I think about: We know that Einstein’s math professor at the ETH called him a “lazy dog” for not attending class, etc. This same man worked the four- dimensional geometry for the time-space ideas. When Einstein’s marriage began to disintegrate, he paired up with Marcel Grossman. Doesn’t this indicate that he’s accepting help with the math end? But only Michele Besso is acknowledged by Einstein.

    Regarding your request for my email, isn’t it more to your purpose (disabusing people of perpetuated inaccuracies) to have this conversation on my blog? (I have one reader who is a relative of Einstein’s.) If you write your responses in another program, then cut-and-paste them in, you won’t lose them if the software plays some trick. I don’t understand how software works, so I have no explanation for why it failed. Nor can I guarantee it won’t happen again.

    I’m sorry that happened. If my response disappears right now, I’ll be chomping on rocks.

  7. It goes without saying–so of course, I am going to say it–that the historian has to select material from the vast array of facts and events that surround her subject. Do we need to know what Einstein was wearing? Who cut his hair? What he had for dinner? If his indigestion influenced his decision to hop that train, then perhaps the answer is yes. If the writer fails to include every fact, every conversation, every trip to the corner store, is truth distorted?

    There you go, the central issue. The writer must first select and define her “truth,” and then she selects how to present it to the reader. That, in my opinion, is THE inalienable right that writers possess–to define our own truth. And it’s not just our right, it’s our job. You go girl.

    Some years ago, as the exponential growth of the internet began to alarm certain governmental bodies with control issues (imagine that) some D.C. functionary tried to secure funding to take a “snapshot” measurement of the world wide web. She likened it to dipping a soda straw into a parfait and pulling out a core sample. Unfortunately, the web moves so fast, faster than any straw yet conceived, that such a measurement proved unfeasible. Plus, it would already be obsolete one nanosecond after it was taken. So what would be the point?

    The point, she said, was that future historians could never hope to shape a truthful vision of the internet’s development and progress, unless a series of cores were taken, laid in like vintage wines for future evaluation.

    Whether or not you think a history of the internet would be worth the paper it’s printed on–wow, wouldn’t that be the height of irony–you have to grant that such a telling couldn’t possibly include every single site, posting, blog response, spam attack, pop up window, and trojan horse? There have been literally billions of screen shots generated through the individual interactions of billions of users.

    And there is the kicker–everyone’s internet is the same, but ALSO DIFFERENT. We have all created our own experience with our own filters, qualifiers and selections. Some people actually like all those popups.

    Everyone who interacts with Einstein, either in his lifetime or yours, has a unique soda straw comprised of unique screen shots, one after the other. Your core sample is just as truthful as Mr. Esterson’s. You choose what questions to ask, what qualifiers to apply. In webspeak, you select and deselect facts, filters, speeds and settings to fit the task at hand. What emerges is shaped by you.

    Every core sample drawn from the parfait is the truth. If you wrote this book in five years, it would be different, because you would be different. But it would still be true.

  8. Nancy Pinard says:

    This is interesting, Leslie. I have this image of an apple corer rather than a straw. I’ll take my corer to the material. Your point about the book being different if I wrote it 5 years from now is very relevant, because the emotional tone would change depending on what was impacting my life. And hopefully, I would be a different, better writer. Additional facts might also have surfaced.

    That said, I am committed to conforming to the facts where they are available. That’s a personal commitment, not a rule for all historical fiction writers. (If such “rules” exist, I don’t know where to find them.)

Leave a Reply