Post-Truth and Chaos
I DON’T KNOW when prefixes stopped meaning what we think they mean, but it was a long time ago. I’m just wrapping up a course in recent American prose, where
the term “postmodernism” keeps coming up.
The students initially thought, quite logically, that postmodernism was a movement that
came after modernism — even though, since
they look around at a world they consider to
be modern, they had a hard time wrapping
their minds around its “post-” period’s being
in the recent past. We worked hard to get to
the place where modernist work could exist
simultaneously with postmodernist work; to
understand that postmodernism was following, reacting to, and in a kind of dialogue with
modernism that relied only tangentially on
Many of us have had a similar reaction to
“alt-right.” As I’ve written before, the “alt-”
sounds as if it’s proposing some sort of alternative to right-wing positions. Instead, its relationship to right-wing ideology is somewhat
similar to the relationship of the moon hanging off the right end of the horizon to the right
field of a baseball diamond.
Now we have, thanks to the Oxford English
Dictionary, at least one Word of the Year:
“post-truth.” Here, we do seem to find our-
selves in a Looking-Glass World. Isn’t truth
eternal? How can
something be post-
truth unless truth
itself has somehow
become extinct? The
takes a first stab,
defining “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are
less influential in shaping public opinion than
appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The
definition reminds me most of Wordsworth’s
famous definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” and
Keats’s dictum, in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Are the post-truthers Romantic poets, then?
Somehow I think not, but I suspect we have
arrived at this confused place in part because
of a deep misunderstanding of the relationship
of invention to truth. Other creative types
have tried to get at this. Albert Camus wrote,
“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the
truth.” Pablo Picasso said, “We all know that
Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us real-
ize truth, at least the truth that is given us to
My own experience has been rather more
quotidian. Called upon, years ago, to testi-
fy in a court of law against an unscrupulous
Manhattan landlord, my veracity was openly
questioned by a defense lawyer who was a dead
ringer for Dom DeLuise. “Ms. Ferriss, you
write fiction, isn’t that right?” he said, strutting
up and down before the witness box.
“That’s right,” I admitted.
“You make up stories,” he continued, “isn’t
“Yes,” I said, and my heart began sinking.
“Some of these stories,” the Dom DeLuise
clone said, stopping to fix beady eyes on me,
“are so good, they’ve been published. Isn’t that
I couldn’t resist. My ego rose to the fore.
“That’s right,” I said, and sat up tall.
But the landlord was sent to Rikers, anyway,
because the jury knew a fiction writer was not
a habitual liar; her fiction might be a conduit
toward metaphysical or moral truth, but what
she testified in court had to do with facts, and
RECENTLY, the philosopher Michael P. Lynch, writing in The New York Times’s Stone column, has tried to address the post-truth paradox. He
describes an atmosphere of deception, like the
infamous shell game, in which facts are lost
not only by our being persuaded of the factual
basis of a lie, but also by our doubting every
bit of information that comes across our path.
He writes, “Faced with so much conflicting
information, many people are prone to think
that everything is biased, everything conflicts,
that there is no way to get out of the Library of
Babel we find ourselves in, so why try?”
Lynch’s explanation seems right to a point;
that is, when everything could be fiction, we
follow our so-called gut and pick, almost at
random, certain stories in which we choose to
believe, and that assemblage constitutes post-
But I think Lynch is missing an element that
constitutes the other side of the coin, if you
will, from Picasso’s and Camus’s statements,
from the Romantic poets’ lofty claims, and
from my own experience in court. Poets, fiction writers, and painters all attempt to harness
emotion in the service of truth. Truth is the
end goal; there is nothing that lies beyond it.
We select among the emotions we choose to
excite — desire, fear, nostalgia, hunger, curiosity — but we hold to the final truth we are
attempting to unveil as a traveler holds to the
North Star. Those engaging in what the OED
has held up as post-truth are doing something
of the converse. They choose among truths
— that Hillary Clinton gave a speech, or an
undocumented immigrant committed a murder — and work those truths up, adding and
subtracting as they see fit, in the service of
emotion. The chief emotion they cleave to is
fear. But just as a particular artist’s work might
frame truth as our capacity to heal, or as the
constancy of change, the emotion these scam
artists (“post-truthers” seems far too polite)
aim at may not always be fear but could now
and then be hope, or pride, or disgust.
Truth, in other words, is a thing — a goal,
a bedrock, a provable hypothesis, a conclusion
from evidence, an insight to which, per Keats,
the perception of beauty can bring us. Post-truth is a strategy. Its relationship to truth is
strategic. Its goal is the exploitation of emotion. And while it cannot kill truth, it does in
a way look past it, as a hubristic traveler might
try to look past that North Star, and find beyond it utter darkness, nothingness, chaos.
Lucy Ferriss is writer in residence at Trinity
College in Connecticut.
By LUCY FERRISS
Language and writing in academe
For more, see
I suspect we have arrived
at this confused place
in part because of
a deep misunderstanding
of the relationship
of invention to truth.