Let me say right off the bat that I very rarely argue with my wife. There are a number of reasons for this, the most excellent being that we almost invariably see eye-to-eye on everything. On those rare, virtually nonexistent occasions when our eyes don't quite match up 100 percent, I am more than happy to admit openly and freely, and I can't help a certain upwelling of manly self-esteem at the thought of my decency, objectivity, and forbearance, that, for a woman, she shows a remarkable and praiseworthy attempt to deal with the nature of logic and coherence as fully as one could hope. It is when I point this out to her in our conversations that I often sense a need to retire to the kitchen to make her a cup of tea.
I am writing this soon after we viewed the film Sands of Iwo Jima on the telly. If you fail to grasp the connection between this fact and the previous paragraph, I should explain, first, that in this old movie, in which John Wayne defeats the Japanese army, there is a scene showing the famous raising of the American flag on the summit of Mount Suribachi by U.S. Marines, filmed by a war photographer whose name I have forgotten, and later immortalized in a statue in Arlington, Virginia; and second, as I think is generally known, the photo does not show quite what it appears to show.
As I quietly explained to my wife, the flag had been waving there some while before the cameraman had arrived on the scene, so the original flag raising had not been filmed. The cameraman then prevailed upon a group of other Marines standing nearby to take down the flag and its pole and then raise them all over again, this time for the camera, which was duly done, though by different Marines than those who had done it originally, when there was no cameraman to record the ceremony. I went on to explain to my wife that, to my mind, this fact slightly vitiates the meaning of the whole thing. My wife maintains that it does not, that the photo was inspirational, whether or not the actual flag-raising was taking place for the first or second time, as a spontaneous gesture or at the request of the late-arriving war photographer.
This caused me to mention that the almost equally inspirational filming of General Douglas MacArthur coming ashore on Leyte Island in the Philippines and announcing, "I have returned!" was shot three or four times before the cameramen got it right, in General MacArthur's carefully considered judgment.
This, in turn, caused me to reflect on three wonderful films made by the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, surely one of the greatest filmmakers: Battleship Potemkin, October, and Alexander Nevsky , absolute classics of the cinema, beautifully produced, exquisitely crafted, breathtakingly filmed, and almost total fabrications, by which I mean, lies.
Who can forget the scene where the rightly mutinous sailors have a large tarpaulin thrown over them while they await the fiendish order from the smirking, moustachioed captain to the firing squad to shoot them down! Which of you, capitalist to the core, does not feel his heart beat faster as, at Petrograd's Finland Station, while searchlights play over the upturned faces, young or grizzled, of the staunch, gaunt revolutionaries, Lenin addresses the assembled soldiers, workers, and peasants, followed by the indescribably thrilling storming of the Winter Palace!
None of this ever happened.
I mean, Eisenstein made magnificent movies in which all this happened, but it never happened like this in real life. All the scenes I've just described are the creations, vivid enough, of Sergei Eisenstein. They are, so far as actual history is concerned, complete and utter crap. True, Alexander Nevsky did defeat the Teutonic Knights at the Battle on the Ice, saving Novgorod and becoming a great hero in the eyes of Russia, but Eisenstein (and Stalin) failed to make clear that Nevsky was and remained throughout his life a vassal of the bloody, all-conquering Mongols, not a fearless, independent defender of the freedom of the Russian people against the invader.
So the question arises, comrades and John Wayne fans: What is truth? And the next question pounces on us before we even have time to answer the first: Should we permit ourselves to be inspired by things we know to be gross distortions of the true events, the ones that really occurred, these distortions being vernacularly known as lies?
I'm not just talking about photography, stills or moving pictures. I'm asking, is there such a thing as artistic truth or spiritual truth or emotional, inspirational truth that differs in every important detail and particular from--what can I call it?--real truth and is in some mystic, overarching way more true, more real than what truly took place? Did Galileo really drop balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa and did he really murmur, "Nevertheless it moves" as he was escorted out from the chamber of the Inquisition? No. Does it matter? Yes. Why? Because truth matters, whether it is artistic or not. Whether it is the poetic license of a John Wayne or a Sergei Eisenstein. Whether it is happening or has happened on Iwo Jima or in Petrograd or Rome or on a star in a galaxy at the far end of the universe. Truth matters. The actual, as opposed to the fictional -- the revisionist -- matters.
Lies matter too. Truth, reality, the actual, exist outside us, but lies can only exist within us. I think this distinction in locality is important, though I cannot say why exactly. I think it must have something to do with the objective, outside-us nature of truth and the subjective, inner condition of untruth.
Still, how much does it matter if we embroider just a little? Is it really so terrible? After all, it is a fact that some Marines did raise the flag on Mount Suribachi. MacArthur did, after all, splash onto the beach at Leyte. The Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 really did take place! So, does it really matter, all that much, that one of the greatest scenes in cinematographic history--the Czarist soldiers marching in perfect cadence down the never-ending Odessa Steps, firing in perfect order as they descend, the old woman with the broken eyeglasses, the screaming baby in its carriage bouncing ever downwards--sprang from the brilliant imagination of one of the cinema's greatest directors? Isn't it artistically true? Doesn't inspirational genius mean something more than mere, common fact! What is wrong if we revise truth ever so slightly.
When Art transforms itself into propaganda and propaganda transmutes into lies, somewhere, there is a line to be drawn. Truth matters more than men, even geniuses, more than Art, Science, Spirit, Inspiration, Comfort, Hope, and Fear. Truth matters more than anything we create, no matter how wonderful, and it is a great crime to pretend otherwise, whether to others or to ourselves alone, whether massively or just a tiny smidgen.
Okay. I've made my point. So I think I'll stop and go out into the kitchen and make my wife a nice cup of tea.
Ralph Estling is a columnist for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. He lives in Ilminster, Somerset, England.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.