The Victorian Sage

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Tag: truth

Men Lie to Women, Women Lie to Themselves: Deception and Gender in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1983) and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899)

With the new film adaptation of Pet Sematary (1983) due out in April this year, I have revisited this novel that I haven’t read since my early teens, a time when I devoured all of King’s earlier output. Sematary was one I enjoyed at the time. Of all King’s novels, it is for me the one with the most memorable physical setting: the pet cemetery (it’s written “Pet Sematary” on the sign, hence the novel’s title) itself, and beyond it the deadfall and the twisting path through the woods, across a swamp and onto a rocky hilltop where the Micmac Indians once buried their dead. Years after reading it, I could still picture Louis’ nighttime journeys to the Micmac burial ground.

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There’s a lot of other stuff going on in this novel. The basic plot is that the protagonist, university doctor Louis Creed, and his family move to a house in rural Maine. The setting is initially idyllic, but the house is set inconveniently close to a busy road, and – even more inconveniently, as it turns out – near the pet cemetery. Creed finds out from Jud Crandall, an elderly neighbour, about the Micmac burial ground, set miles deep in the forest, in a hidden path behind said pet cemetery. Jud leads Louis to the burial ground in order to bury Louis’s daughter’s beloved cat there, after the latter is killed outside the Creed house by a passing truck. They bury the cat quickly, before Ellie (Louis’ daughter) finds out about his death. The cat soon turns up outside the house again, albeit in an unsettling, zombified and quite smelly state. Ellie doesn’t take much notice though. That takes us to a third of the way through the novel.

So this is a novel about death. About the acceptance of death, and the refusal of such acceptance. By burying the cat at the Micmac burial ground, Louis appears to align himself with the notion of refusing to accept death. In fact, though, an earlier conversation between Louis and his wife Rachel has shown that while Louis accepts the idea of a pet cemetery as a healthy way for a child to learn about death, Rachel is horrified by the idea and doesn’t want Ellie to go there. This escalates into an argument about the propriety of speaking to children about death. Louis says:

There’s nothing wrong with a child finding out something about death, Rachel. In fact, I’d called it a necessary thing. (46)

Rachel disagrees, and her response to Louis’s calm, rationalistic approach to the debate is a host of emotional actions: she “cried”, “sobbed”, “hissed”, “screamed” (46). So Louis’s later attempts to avoid death are related to the need to keep Rachel on an even emotional keel.

pet-sematary-remake

The cat returns in a promotional shot from the new Pet Sematary film.

When Louis goes to the Micmac burial ground with Jud and his dead cat, he keeps it a secret not only from Ellie, but from Rachel as well. As he knows, she doesn’t want to hear anything about death. Jud, as a sort of father and mentor figure, offers some homespun philosophical reflections on themes of secrecy and gender:

“[A]ny woman who knows anything at all would tell you she’s never really seen into a man’s heart. The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis – like the soil up there in the old Micmac burying ground. Bedrock’s close. A man grows what he can, and he tends it. (136)

Later, Jud writes to Louis: “I’d guess most men tell their wives a smart of lies” and Louis mentally adds “[w]ives and daughters as well” (145). Louis, after his difficult encounter with Rachel, has now embraced Jud’s philosophy of masculinity. It’s about silence, secrecy and a hidden darkness. Femininity, on the other hand, is characterized both by an upfront emotionalism and by an inability to face the darker elements of reality.

This sort of gendered characterization is not a new idea in canonical literature. Indeed, it is very reminiscent of the famous closing passage of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), wherein Marlow decides to lie to Kurtz’s fiance about the manner of his life and death, in line with a philosophy Marlow has earlier outlined:

It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.

In HoD, what Marlow decides to hide, even though he purportedly “hates a lie”, is the violent and exploitative nature of colonialism, which resides behind the “great and saving illusion”. The importance of women in the HoD universe is that they really do believe in the illusion of benign colonialism – what was sometimes called the “civilizing mission“. Believing is what women do, and pretty much all that they do. Men do the work; they do everything except the believing. Feminine faith and simplicity is beautiful to Marlow. To protect that faith, men like Marlow and Kurtz brave the horror of colonial reality, and live a lie.

So, in deciding that women can’t face the truth and must be lied to while the men go about doing the dirty work needed to keep society going, Creed is trying to be a latter-day Marlow. But Marlow ends his story with the beautiful lie still in place, and the truth remains “out there” (specifically, in Africa); for Creed, living in a different age, it doesn’t end so well, and the beautiful illusions just can’t hold up against the horrible truth, which comes right into the home with unpleasant consequences.

Maybe that’s the 19th-century outlook versus the 20th century. Maybe it’s mainstream literature against the horror genre. Maybe the women of the 1980s were that bit more woke, such that a Conradian-style deception was not really feasible. Maybe the upcoming adaptation will provide a further perspective on the Creeds’ dynamics and their relationship to death. That’s one of the values of adaptations: by comparison with their originals we are given tools to think about our society and how our attitudes contrast to those of other places and times.

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Is it a Rhinoceros or an Elephant in the Room?: Reflections on Truth

A point that interests me greatly is the status of the concept of truth in contemporary intellectual thought. Insofar as postmodern and poststructuralist modes of thought remain hegemonic in intellectual culture, truth has very little currency. Similarly with our pluralistic and multicultural politics, which privilege a very relativistic approach to issues, rather than an insistence of a particular truth. Terry Eagleton writes, “No idea is more unpopular with contemporary cultural theory than that of absolute truth” (After Theory, Verso, 2004, p. 103). Rather than offer a devastating and unanswerable critique of this position in this blog post, I can only begin by noting that this idea has never been acceptable to me. I cannot do without the notion of truth.

The absurdities of a position entirely dispensing with the notion are well illustrated by the famous anecdote about Wittgenstein and the Rhinoceros in the Room. On one of Wittgenstein’s first meetings with Bertrand Russell, he challenged Russell’s empirical epistemology and the argument somehow arrived at the point where Russell was prodding Wittgenstein to admit that there was no rhinoceros in the room they were occupying, but Wittgenstein insisted that he couldn’t be sure of that on an empirical basis and would not conclusively say there was no such animal in the room. So the matter remained unresolved. Perhaps by finding where people’s opinions lie in this matter, we can find out a lot about their general philosophical stance. I am certainly a Russellian on this point. But I wonder how he approached the argument: I suppose he tried to prove that there was no rhinoceros in the room, and failed as far as Wittgenstein was concerned. But did he confront Wittgenstein: did he say, “it is not provable that there is no rhinoceros in this room, not in the absolute theoretical sense you desire, but I do not believe that there is one, nor have I any reason to. And you, do you actually believe that there is one?”  Surely Wittgenstein would not be able to say he did, would have to admit that he didn’t really think there was one, at which the Russellian might say, “Then why argue? We neither of us think there is a rhinoceros here. If we did, we would be acting very differently, and feeling considerable fear, no doubt. Therefore let us not argue over what we both consider false, and what, so far as we know, no one has ever considered true. That is proof enough.” This is perhaps naïve, but constitutes somewhat of an appeal to honesty, and an appeal to argue over genuine points of difference, not over things that are simply unprovable at a very abstract level of rhetoric – and everything is unprovable at a certain level.

So there is a simple and direct truth about certain matters that we should be able to agree about, such as the non-presence of a rhinoceros in any given room (one can imagine exceptions, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, i.e., almost certainly never). These truths will only take us so far, of course, but they should be kept in mind. Hence I am wary of Žižek’s attempts to rehabilitate truth in a new form. Žižek, unlike most contemporary thinkers, writes about truth a lot. In one of his most accessible books, How to Read Lacan from the Norton How to Read… series (New York, 2007), Žižek gives his own version of truth, related to the Lacanian dictum Les non-dupes errant, which he translates as “Those in the know are in error”. His gloss on this dictum is as follows:

What is missed by the cynic who believes only his eyes is the efficiency of the symbolic fiction, the way this fiction structures our reality. A corrupt priest who preaches about virtue may be a hypocrite, but if people endow his words with the authority of the Church, it may prompt them to do good deeds. (33-34)

This is not a particularly impressive passage, and Žižek has probably made this point more convincingly elsewhere, but taking this as representative of his position, we can note a few things: firstly, he equates empiricism with cynicism, and he essentially contrasts it with hypocrisy, preferring the latter. In the old argument, then, between Burkean  “pleasing illusions” and liberal “inconvenient truths”, Žižek is a conservative. Secondly, his example doesn’t make his point. The notion of fiction structuring our reality sounds impressive, but the religious example of “good deeds” tells us nothing about the structure of our reality, but only of individual deeds. (I’m only taking into account this passage here. I’m sure I’ll come across other passages where Žižek makes the point about structure more satisfactorily.) So the example brings the rhetoric down to earth with a bump, and invites numerous questions. Or course, such a priest as Žižek describes may cause good deeds to be performed, but don’t we need to take into account all the consequences of his corruption and his whole being, rather than dismissing it all with the possibility of some good deeds?

Žižek is not wrong to suggest that good deeds as a result of social fictions need to be taken into account in any cultural analysis, he’s only wrong to introduce it not alongside, but at the expense of other criteria. Here again I put forward the approach of Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend suggested that in the evaluation of any theory, both the logical force and the material effect need to be taken into account (Against Method). The Žižek of the above passage only wants the latter – and he gives no way of knowing how the latter can even be measured. Given his anti-empiricism, it would not be easy to do!

So if Žižek’s rehabilitation of the concept of truth is really the rehabilitation only of the name, to cover a quite different concept (material effect, in Feyerabend’s term, although it doesn’t even cover that very well), then we’re worse off than when we started. We can’t even agree on basic truths, as we always have to give way before material effect. As unfortunately often with Žižek, in the guise of making a basic philosophical statement, he’s muddying the waters and redefining terms in arbitrary ways. The real truth is, that we’re in agreement about the truth of many things in our everyday life; it is only in theory that there is a massive stumbling block. We can’t wholly solve our problems by appealing to the definitively and unproblematically true, but we certainly can’t solve them by discounting this factor altogether. That is the worst possible starting-point. So, though we like to argue about truth, let’s admit that practically, we do agree what truth is in many basic situations. Let’s admit that there is, in fact, no rhinoceros in the room. That this fact is, indeed, the elephant in the room!*

 

 

*”There’s no rhinoceros in the room” = rhetorical way of saying, some really basic empirical truths are worth accepting and not arguing over. “That’s the elephant in the room!” = figure of speech meaning the truth everyone knows but no one says. So the import of my final sentences is simply that we all having working definitions of truth, so let’s admit it, and not pretend we don’t, a la Wittgenstein and various post-modernists.

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