The Challenge of the Absolute

Mr. Fleming, the author of more than 40 books, both fiction and non-fiction, was head of the American Center of PEN. His latest book is The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown. He is a member of HNN's non-profit corporate board.

There is no more intriguing or more important question in the world of history and the arts than the role of the absolute. Modernism, pragmatism, deconstructionism—all these supposed varieties of recent wisdom have supposedly banished the absolute from our concerns. There is no such thing as objective truth—which means objectivity is also an impossibility and an illusion. Anyone who claims to be writing the absolute truth is a candidate for psychiatric treatment at worst and condescension at best.

I say nonsense. Without a belief in the possibility of the absolute, we are pitched into a pit of relativism that leads to a plague of psychological diseases. I remember going to the annual ceremonies called the George Polk Awards twenty years ago, when we were still in the backwash of the turmoil of the Vietnam years. A foreign correspondent for one of the best newspapers in the country accepted an award with a sneering speech that proclaimed journalistic objectivity was a “fiction.”

It is not difficult to see where this opinion leads. The results are all too prevalent in newspapers and on television and radio stations across the nation. Gross political partisanship infects the presentation of the news, almost everywhere. More and more, there is no attempt to impose standards of objectivity that once prevailed. Stories on the front pages of too many papers are based on unidentified experts or informants—a license to write semi-fiction as fact. Only a handful of newspapers still insist that major stories must be confirmed by two verifiable sources.

Similar slipshod standards pervade other aspects of the writing world. In a recent issue of a major book review, a biography hostile to Bill Clinton was given for review to the husband of a former Clinton White House aide. The review was predictably savagely negative. Would that sort of thing be done, if we all believed that objectivity was important—and to some extent possible? The abandonment of the absolute is on its way to becoming a disease of the public mind that may prove fatal to journalistic, artistic and moral integrity; If that happens, we are left with nothing for a political compass but power—a guide which the catastrophe of Soviet communism should make forever anathema to every thinking person.

All right, you may be saying at this point, without the absolute we are lost in a wilderness with so many trees that we can’t see the forest. But you still haven’t convinced me that the absolute exists. The answer to that plaint is—of course it doesn’t exist, in the real world. In almost every endeavor, from journalism to history to the realm of scientific theory, every piece of writing falls short of the absolute. But unless we believe that the absolute exists as a possibility; we are on a downhill slide into intellectual and spiritual anarchy and ultimately into moral apathy.

The story of modernism and its offspring deconstructionism can he summed up as too much of a good thing. At first it was exciting to realize, as the modernists loved to point out, that the pompous pronouncements of orthodoxy from religious, moral and political elites were full of holes. It was equally interesting to learn that works of high literary art could be understood in new ways by deconstructing the motives, prejudices and presumptions of their creators. The result was an exhilarating sense of escape from oppression and passivity that many people mistook for freedom and a workable substitute for objective truth.

But the popular success of these movements became infused with an arrogance that lost sight of the role of the absolute in the creative process. We are now in far more danger of succumbing to a sterile amoral rationalism hostile to good literary art, whether it be fiction or nonfiction.

There are ways of dealing with the problem of objectivity without claiming to have achieved it. One of the best biographies of recent decades is John Mack Farragher’s Daniel Boone, a book about a man long enveloped in myths. Farragher artfully includes the Boone myths in his narrative along with the many objective truths he has discovered in his research. We are simultaneously told that a good part of Boone’s image will remain mythical—while perceiving as much of the truth as objective research can recover from the distant past.

In my recent book, The Illusion of Victory, America in World War I, I employed a similar technique. I used stories from seemingly reliable sources about Woodrow Wilson. According to a top New York newspaper editor, on the eve of calling for war with Germany he spent hours with the newsman, begging him to find a way of avoiding war. According to Wilson’s White House secretary, after his address to Congress, Wilson returned to the White House and broke down, sobbing that his speech meant death for thousands of young men. I reveal that neither of these heartbreaking scenes ever took place. These fictions were created by Wilson partisans after the war, in a forlorn attempt to make their hero look good, after his reputation had been shredded by events and his own blunders.

Again, the clash between myth and the objective facts underscores the perpetual tension between the absolute and the relativity of most human truths. But we need a belief in objectivity in order to affirm that these discoveries are important.

The absolute also plays a role in writing novels of the historical imagination. My recent novel, Conquerors of the Sky, is set in a fictional aircraft company in California. I spent months interviewing dozens of retired aircraft executives and workers. I read exhaustively on the history of flight—the novel covers 80 years. Would any of this be meaningful if there is no such thing as objectivity? Cornell University critic Cushing Strout’s great principle, “the veracious imagination” (invented by George Eliot) comes into play here. The alternative is so-called “magic realism” in which the writer invents whatever drifts up from his unconscious. This indifference to objective truth, Strout maintains, results in the “voracious imagination,” which eventually devours all semblance of truth and the value of the historical novel in the bargain.

My first experience of the tension between objectivity and history goes back over thirty years, to an article I wrote for American Heritage magazine on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1918 battle of the Argonne. My father had fought in this tremendous clash and I went to France with the history of his regiment in my hand. For five days I followed him and his fellow doughboys across the huge blood-soaked Argonne valley, using the recollections of many other men as well as my father’s stories to recreate the struggle.

It was an enormously moving experience. But when I wrote the article, I called it “Two Argonnes.” I concluded that it was possible to write an historical account of the battle of the Argonne. But that account would not and could never be the battle as it actually happened. That totality—the immense demiurge of heroism, cowardice, horror; and suffering—would remain forever sealed in the minds and hearts of the men who endured it.

Even though the absolute is unattainable, faith in its existence spurs the writer to capture as much of it as humanly possible. We are better artists, more honest people thanks to a belief in an absolute. No one put it better than Ezra Pound in his Cantos, with his image of the Immaculata, the light beyond the sun and stars, which we will never reach—but toward which we must perpetually strive.

This article was first published in the fall 2003 edition of CONFRONTATION: A Literary Journal, published by Long Island University.

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