Did you know that the striking distance of a rattlesnake is at most half of its body length? This means that if you’re out hiking and encounter a four-foot rattler, which is about the longest you’ll ever find in Colorado, as long as you stay at least two feet away, you’ll be perfectly safe. I learned that fact in the fourth grade, but it was not for a school assignment. I had a much better motivation for learning this life-saving information. I was afraid of snakes. And that’s what I do with things I’m afraid of. I study the shit out of them. Or maybe I should say I study the fear out of them.
As the final part of this series, I’d like to look at a specific form of emotional bias that deserves its own discussion: fear. To recap the first two parts of this series, I’ve identified the two main goals of this blog: exploration of Truth, specifically as a means to overcome bias. If I’m to serve as a good writer (and I’d argue that this is what partly makes a writer good), Truth must ultimately be my subject. And fear is probably the biggest obstacle, for me at least.
Searching for Truth leads us into the wilderness of the unknown, into some uncomfortable and at times terrifying places. It can reveal our darkness, our shame. It leaves us vulnerable. And if we’ve designed our lives or based our identities on falsehoods, Truth can destroy us. Or at least it can feel that way. That’s fear. And it gnaws on me as a writer, as well as for the reader.
Fear operates on the writer in two ways. First, it can keep us from examining a subject as thoroughly as it should or even examining it all. If we are able to overcome fear and look at a subject closely and deeply and arrive at some semblance of a truth, fear can still hamstring a writer by way of the internal censor and block the way we try to communicate that truth. We will present Truth in an untrue light. Sometimes we’ll lack the trust in our audience to grasp or accept our presentation. They won’t believe us. They won’t get it. Other times we may simply not want to reveal that we believe such things or can entertain certain ideas even if we don’t believe them.
Fear operates on the reader in the much the same way but as receivers of information. If we know a little bit about the author or work beforehand, we may not want to read it to avoid examining the subject entirely. If we do read it, we can interpret the work based on false assumptions designed to dismiss it before we’ve even read past the title. Ultimately, as writer or reader, we either stop speaking to avoid revealing our presumed darkness, stop listening to avoid recognizing our presumed darkness, or shout down the speaker to deny the confirmed darkness within. In all cases where fear rules, the result is silence.
It’s important to note that fear is not necessarily a bad thing. It protects us from danger. If you ever face a tiger in the jungle, it’s fear that will give you a chance at survival. More importantly, it’s fear that can help us avoid facing the tiger in the first place. The real problem with fear is that sometimes what can seem dangerous really isn’t. How do you tell the difference? By examining the truth. But fear can keep us from making such an examination. Welcome to the catch-22 of fear. It can protect us from truly dangerous things, but it can also keep us from knowing what’s truly dangerous.
If communication is paramount to overcoming bias on our way to understanding Truth, but a specific kind of bias, fear, can keep us from communicating, what’s the solution? The problem is how to deliver the truth in a way that encourages us to step into and face those terrifying places. The answer is indirect communication. By “indirect” I mean in a personally indirect way. Indirect communication focuses on the subject or idea, not the speaker or listener. This creates separation between the person and the Truth and allows us (I hope) to transcend our fear. Think of it as the difference between encountering a rattlesnake on the trail versus in a terrarium. Isolating Truth behind glass allows us to view it without fear of being bitten. It allows us to drop our defenses and move in for a closer look. It’s how we learn the striking distance of a rattlesnake. And once we can view Truth up close but safely behind indirectness, when it’s time to face Truth in real life, we can, because we’ve already faced a similar situation. Telling the Truth indirectly allows people to venture out from their defenses. It allows us to look at that rattlesnake when it’s coiled on the trail and shout, “Look what I found!”
My intuition tells me that art can fill this role. While it provides a means for exploring Truth, it is not unique in this capacity. A philosophy essay or even a technical manual can also achieve this. However, art is unique as an indirect method of communication. This indirectness allows us to more fully engage an idea, which in turn allows us to connect with each other. Because art is fictive, we’re never dealing with real people or situations. All we have to deal with are the subjects themselves as presented, which are necessarily outside both the artist and audience. Indeed, art can’t connect us directly. Instead it provides a common point for us to connect with each other (more on this some other time).
Since art can be such a powerful tool to understand Truth more accurately and more completely, over the course of this project, I’d ultimately like to find some overarching aesthetic theory or set of principles, specifically with writing and language. A theory that allows for the production of art (and by extension any other creative work) specifically designed to discern Truth. A theory that explains how we can bridge the gap between our own subjective experiences (bias) and objective truth (exploration). A theory that explains how we can better relate to each other (intersubjectivity) and the world around us (objectivity). A theory to help us avoid the breakdowns in our understanding of Truth and encourages the revelatory and connecting aspects of art. So far I think I’m on the right track with the idea that art is the most complete form of indirect communication and therefore the best method to reveal and understand Truth.
I wish I could say this was an original thought. But as usual, a greater writer than me already said it. And if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. So I decided to name this here blog after a line from one of Emily Dickinson’s poems. One of the cliches about Emily (yes, I feel we’re on a first name basis) is that she always wrote about death. This view is justified somewhat because she did write about it a decent amount. But this view shortchanges her. She wrote about many things. But what’s always intrigued me most about her was that she dealt with these many themes, including death, repeatedly but always from different angles. If you read her poems in aggregate, it’s hard to discern a unifying point of view. Except for this — exploration. She was an explorer of Truth (and dashes).
The eponymous line comes from poem #1263 (because fuck titles): “Tell all the truth but tell it slant…With explanation kind…Or every man be blind”. This is part of the nature of art — a means to confront our blindness. And it is blindness we must confront. And that is the vision of this site. A vision of sight.