by Julian X  /  fiction  /  4 Oct 2007
Because of my respect for him and the difficulty I found in understanding him, I began to write down particular statements of his.
“A man once believed in the preeminence of facts. Hearsay was to him heresy. Operating under the belief that all statements are either true or false, he went about examining each of the statements in the books of his library, beginning with his earliest grade school textbooks.
He began to gloss each sentence in the first book, but found that each statement had to be labeled ‘false’ because it had so many exceptions. He found that most sentences required certain value judgments, and that the number of assumptions each sentence made dwarfed the number of claims based on evidence presented. Increasingly more dismayed, he came to the conclusion that the book’s arguments relied entirely upon assertion, at best referring to other assertions as evidence.
He abandoned the book as worthless in terms of truth, and switched to another of his earliest textbooks, but the result was the same. The problem, he suspected, was the rudimentary nature of these books. The more advanced books, he reasoned, would have the space and willing audience to provide for exceptions and offer direct evidence. Consequently, he switched to an analysis of a history book published by one of the world’s best universities and written by a well-respected scholar.
The book focused on a provincial French village during a span of some ten years. At first, results seemed better. Assertions seemed grounded in evidence, all properly cited and of the highest caliber.
But as the reader ventured to read those sources, he found that those books too had themselves relied upon assertions grounded in other books, and the result was a circularity which he endeavored to diagram on a massive piece of paper that he constructed by taping together smaller pieces and laying them on his largest table, the excess neatly folded at the table’s extremes so that, through a process of folding and unfolding, references could be tracked over meters and dozens of points, each labeled with the appropriate citation. What was more, this careful reader found many terminal points in these networks, where sources were not given, and also found oversimplification and even misinterpretation between sources, all of which he carefully noted beside each citation in various colors of ink. The overall impression this map increasingly gave him was that of rumor, passed around from person to person, from age to age, deteriorating like copies of copies until new shapes seemed to emerge.
All claims about anything but other texts themselves seemed so unreliable as to become irrelevant, but even those claims of other texts, unless quoted directly, contained an element of imprecision simply by result of rewording, a result magnified again and again over time. Even direct quotations altered context, but at least this was only one copy removed from the original.
Yet, in researching for completeness the most basic of books referenced, works seminal to civilization, disturbing questions began to loom. As the careful reader followed each edition back to its progenitor, he found nearly every word of translation doubtful, inscribing beside each word a numerical ranking reflecting a relative level of dubiousness. Worse still, such works, even ones less than a century old, contained discrepancies ranging from typographical errors, commas that changed meaning, to passages that were relocated or simply omitted.
Doubt of authorship and origin dates overwhelmed the careful reader, who found that the chain of evidence for the most established of books would not hold up in a court of law. There seemed no way of discovering whether the person to whom the act of writing had been attributed had written at all, especially considering that in most cases no evidence directly tied the person to the act of inscription. Indeed, in many cases, the closest witnesses to the act offered their evidence years, even decades, later. Issues of pseudonyms and dictation made the chain of evidence more complex.
Eventually, the careful reader had to stop. After so many years, he could do nothing but declare that there existed little evidence that the original copy of any text had been written by anyone at any specific time, that any historical figure had ever lived, or that history itself was not the product of fiction, of invented claims propagated through time until they became the most basic of facts. Socrates and Hitler bared every resemblance to Prester John in terms of quality.
Writing his suicide note on an exposed corner of the map, now of indeterminate size though the folded edges stood in coffee-stained piles, the careful reader wrote that any lover of truth should believe nothing heard nor read, nor try to discern truth in anything heard or read, adding, in as much as we may adequately decipher his last hastily scratched letters, that this must apply to his own note as well.”
(20 November 2000)
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