“Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.”
Those who don’t study their history are doomed to repeat it. We’ve all heard this sage advice before, but there is an inherent problem to studying history in the first place: it’s his story. As much as we would like to think that we are hearing or reading the objective account of what had actually transpired, every story is colored by the perspective of the storyteller.
Sometimes, these “shadow truths” become the accepted reality… and for intents and purposes, they may as well be the reality.
We go through life assuming there exists but a single objective reality with which we all interact. We see the same things that our neighbors see. We hear the same sounds, smell the same smells, and touch the same textures… except we really don’t. Experience is inherently individualized and even when we hear the stories told by others, those stories immediately become colored by our own prejudices and pre-conceived notions about what the world is and what it should be.
The passage above comes from The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman and it reminds me of a tangentially related notion about the nature of truth and reality. Before he started his gig with CBS, the actual person Stephen Colbert played the character of Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central. Since we so rarely saw him “out of character,” the character of the ultra conservative pundit was our truth. It was our reality.
And it is through this character of Stephen Colbert that we came to understand the idea of truthiness. An idea or “fact” simply needs to “feel right” in order for it to be true for the believer. It does not need to be backed up by actual facts or reality, as long as the believer has a “gut feeling” about its “truthiness.” For this person, the “objective” truth really is forgotten, turning into dust and ashes. This is particularly frightening in the context of our current political landscape.
Neil Gaiman is an English author who explored a broad range of subject matter and genres, constantly reinventing a new reality for his readers. The Sandman is a series of graphic novels, exploring a person who makes a deal to live forever. Neil Gaiman has also written short stories, novels and even film. You might know him from Coraline or The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Myself, I’m currently listening to his short fiction collection Trigger Warning as an audiobook.
The worlds he creates and tales he tells will indeed endure through time, living on as printed words on a page or words uttered on an audio CD. What actually happened, fictional or otherwise, is inconsequential.
Image credit: ActuaLitté