Have we yet tarried with the mystery that is writing?
More than midway through Ted Chiang‘s second collection of short stories, Exhalation, is “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling.”
This story is two stories.
“The truth of fact”: writing as self-critique, self-realization
This story narrates a writer’s developing critique of a technology that searches through “lifelogs,” being a video log that is constructed of the entirety of a person’s experience. The new technology, which will somehow go through and tag and organize the immense data within these video logs, will then enable anyone to quickly (before you can say prosthesis) find the images and feed from that moment. In short, the application, called Remem, will replace human memory.
The narrator is skeptical, primarily because he worries that people will not accept the truth of their lives without experiencing its violence. They will use the truth to justify themselves in conflict with others (“no, you said …”) and do the concomitant damage to precious human relationships.
He treasures his relationships and knows, for example, that he would never want his daughter to relive the moment where she said that her mother, his wife, had left them because of him, even though the event provoked him to change his life and improve his relationship with her.
Like a good writer, he decides to try out the app before he finishes writing his story. On a lark, he goes back to that specific instance when his daughter had said such hurtful thing, and discovers that it was in fact he who had said those things to her.
He doesn’t believe at first that he was the author of those statements, but eventually owns up to this reality and then confronts to his now grown daughter.
“The truth of feeling”: writing as forgetting
A primitive, illiterate tribe is joined by a European missionary who teaches the narrator, the son of an important figure in the tribe, how to write. He is hesitant because the missionary is characteristically obtuse and unable to appreciate the valuable features of the tribal culture.
But the narrator is intrigued by the ability to write down stories and then retell these stories.
Two, three moments stand out. When the narrator wrote down the tribe’s storyteller’s stories and then realized after a year that he had not told them in the same way. He confronts the storyteller who is not pleased by the report and insists that he had told them the same way.
The narrator’s father is effectively the tribal adjudicator and when a scribe is needed because of a demand the Europeans had put upon them, the narrator is selected. This is viewed as fortuitous because the previous experiences with scribes who had not grown up within the tribe is one of disappointment because those scribes eventually lie.
The father is engaged in intratribal disputes about from whom each is descended and which special relations should follow therefrom. The narrator realizes that the Europeans have records that could answer this. He gathers them and presents them to his father, only to be rebuffed.
A distinction between the truth of right and the truth of fact is introduced, revisited. The truth of fact fails, yet this is all writing can given testimony to.
The narrator does not give up writing, but he sees that the tribal ways and traditions surpass the invention of writing.
Would you like to know more about what I’ve read during this month of short stories?