Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Truth According to O'Brien

When a story begins with the line “This is true,” as in O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story,” the reader is immediately led to question whether or not the story is actually true. Just as Poe’s narrator’s claim about not being “mad” leads the reader to question his sanity in "The Tell-Tale Heart," the opening line in “How to Tell a True War Story” suggests the possibility of the story not being true, merely by claiming that it is true. “This is true” is a statement that is non-falsifiable. O’Brien claims that the story he tells is true, but merely claiming that something is true does not make it so, which is perhaps, one of the point’s O’Brien is making about truth.

A common belief about truth is that it is self-evident. By this rational, if a story is true, the storyteller will not start off by attempting to convince us that it is true. People tend to believe that which is believable and disbelieve things that seem outlandish and far-fetched. Because of this tendency, O’Brien’s claim that his story is true leads to suspicion. However, O’Brien suggests that common notions about truth are incorrect, and that “often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.”

Another incorrect notion about truth, according to O’Brien, is that a true story will have some kind of moral to it. “If a story seems moral, do not believe it,” he tells his readers. For O’Brien, the truth just is. It needs no moral lesson attached to it in order to achieve higher meaning. However, there is some ambiguity on this point, as seen later in the story when Sanders tries to attach a moral to his story about the soldiers hearing music in the mountains. This attempt at a moral lesson coupled with Sanders’ admission of embellishing details makes the story appear false, but it is still possible that the story is true.

Kierkegaard believed that the only truth we are capable of knowing is subjective truth. O’Brien appears to agree with this idea when he admits that when telling a war story “what seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way.” The truth that anyone knows is known to them through their own experience, and is therefore, always subjective. With this in mind, a story with false details may not necessarily be a false story, but a true story that developed embellished details because of the story teller’s personal perspective.

O’Brien also admits that sometimes a true war story is “just beyond telling.” This statement suggests that the truth is ineffable – it can not be expressed or understood. Sometimes truth is something that is beyond our grasp. The term “ineffability” is often ascribed to God or spiritual experiences. Taken in this light, O’Brien could seem to be describing truth as something comparable to God, and given the contradictions that arise in attempting to understand God, the comparison is not without merit.

The truth is contradictory. “In a true war story nothing much is ever very true” and “the only certainty is absolute ambiguity.” This contradiction exists in truth because it exists in life. O’Brien describes war as being close to death, and in being close to death we are most alive. Every person’s life is full of opposing, paradoxical forces – love and hate, body and soul, life and death. It is only natural that expressing the truth of experience will be paradoxical as well. In this paradox of truth, it is possible for a story that never happened to be true. This notion once again rests on the subjective nature of truth. For Kierkegaard, if we are passionate about something it becomes our subjective truth – that which we would live or die for. Likewise, for O’Brien, if we care about whether or not a story is true, it is true, even if it never happened.


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