I had the opportunity to read through Harold Pinter’s Nobel essay the other day. He explored his theme, truth and falsity, as it applies to art and to civic colloquy. He posits that, in art, there is an elasticity to truth, that things “may be both true and false”, and that the artist’s task is to probe and explore reality to elucidate the truth in its infinite variations:
But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other.
He will brook no such relativism in the hands of politicians, however, and the greater part of the lecture excoriates the United States for the Iraq war and its way of dealing with the world since WWII.
the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition: playrights and artists use a set of inventions, or falsehoods, if you will, in an attempt to present truth, or the version of it that they apprehend. Politicians attempt to use real people and events to obfuscate.
It may be an overly naive view of artists, and an overly jaundiced view of politicians. Maybe not. I guess I accept the need for both artists and politicians to frame reality using fact and metaphor in order to sway a target audience. It depends, in the end, upon whom you trust with this task. Haven’t you come away from many a play or movie saying, “Huh?”. On the other hand, I definitely do not trust the current U.S. leadership’s representation of much of anything, even the weather. So, the lesson may be that one must never abandon critical thinking when anyone is spinning out what Joni Mitchell long ago called “pretty lies”.
The lecture will always be remembered for its political content. But what struck me as really radical was what Pinter put forth as his method of writing. I have much more experience as a consumer of literature than as a manufacturer of it, I have only a vague notion of how that particular kind of sausage is made. My presumption has always been that someone has an idea to convey, a set of situations to represent and, most important in my view because I was never very good at it, multiple characters with strong individual voices. Whether by using a storyboard, an outline, or sleepless nights of turgid imagining, the writer then creates the sinuous linear stream of words that will be reconstituted in our brains as sound and visual image.
Pinter, on the other hand, says:
Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image. I shall give two examples of two lines which came right out of the blue into my head, followed by an image, followed by me.
The plays are The Homecoming and Old Times. The first line of The Homecoming is ‘What have you done with the scissors?’ The first line of Old Times is ‘Dark.’
In each case I had no further information….In each case I found myself compelled to pursue the matter. This happened visually, a very slow fade, through shadow into light.
I always start a play by calling the characters A, B and C.
If we are to believe Pinter’s “creation myth”, then, we have to accept that his plays reveal themselves to him much as they are revealed to us when we see them. A fellow in my book group always urges us to never believe an author when he talks about his work, and I have more than a little scepticism about what Pinter has told us here, but I’m fascinated with it and am tempted to try it myself. It’s sort of a “trust the force, Luke” idea - you essay the task unburdened by doubt or baggage, armed only with the notion that your talent will suffice.