Alastair Reid discusses journalism and truth in other domains.
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GUEST: Alastair Reid
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Because what we believe, what our opinions are, leads us to do what we do; to make war, or love, or peace, the vital doings of our lives; the way we form our opinions, come to believe what we believe, looms ever larger. As Walter Lippman wrote, “Each of us lives and works on a small part of the earth’s surface, moves in a small circle, and of these acquaintances knows only a few intimately. Of any public event that has wide effects, we see at best only a phase and an aspect. Inevitably, our opinions cover a bigger space, a longer reach of time, a greater number of things than we can directly observe. They have, therefore, to be pieced together out of what others have reported.” Which is why attention must be paid – ever more attention must be paid – to how and what others have reported of what goes on beyond that small part of the earth’s surface that each of us knows first-hand. But how many others rightly report these booming, buzzing events of the outer world? In fact only? In fiction partly? In faction, perhaps (that bastard offspring of the two)? Whatever, our attention was drawn to this concern sometime back when a young reporter discovered, miraculous to say, that a poet had actually used poetic license in describing what the people of Franco’s Spain were like, even in conveying the feelings of commencement at a large university. Distortion was the charge, with real news stories appearing seemingly everywhere, and editorials too – rather sanctimonious ones at that. Perhaps because these original writings that appear in The New Yorker, with its vaunted crew of fact-checkers, which perhaps led us dear readers unrealistically to believe that only facts are truth, and in that holy place only verified facts are printed. Well, the writer who exercised this poetic license and unleashed this storm is Alastair Reid, who is a poet. That’s as I first knew him 30 years ago and more, when together I taught history and he taught poetry.
So, I welcome you today, Alastair. Thank you for joining me.
REID: Thank you, Dick.
HEFFNER: You know, as I think back on the discussions that we’ve had about fact and fiction, I realize that in my field, history, the late, great Charles Beard would assure us that all written history is an act of faith. And I wondered why that hasn’t been transposed, that notion, from historical writing to the area of, shall I say, journalism? Shall I say writing for the general public?
REID: I think there is a line there that we haven’t yet given a name to, perhaps because we don’t want to recognize it, between what we, I suppose, must call objective reporting – that is, the truth as it appears objectively in the newspapers, who, as we know, claim to be objective – and subjective reporting – which is written by somebody who is present, alive, on a scene, in a context, and who signs the thing he writes. I think there is a strange frontier there that I … I know a great deal about that frontier, because I have been interested in that tremendously from the literary side, what is true, what isn’t true. It’s a thing that I’ve written a lot of poems about. But when it arose in this context, it was … the reaction to it, to me, was bewildering. And I think at the core of it is a very interesting thing that is worth being talked about. I don’t think anybody who reported on it really got down to a source of it.
HEFFNER: And that is our need, what, to look for absolutes, to look for a kind of truth that can be reported?
REID: Well, no. I think that what I’m saying … I would like to actually, to go back. I wrote and talk about the pieces that really occasioned this whole thing, because I lived a great part of my life in Spain from the early ‘50s on, and there was a village, a mountain village in Spain which I knew very well from about 1955, and where I eventually bought a house. And I wrote a series of pieces for The New Yorker. I used to spend about a third of every year in that village. And I began to write, in the ‘70s, a series of pieces for The New Yorker called “Notes from a Spanish Village,” in which I was writing about Spain as I had done before, but less as a reporter than as someone who had lived in Spain through the Franco years. And Franco was dying at that moment, and change was looming, and Spain was in a very tense and absorbed situation. And I wrote this series of articles about the village, oh, covering a period of seven years. Now, these articles were really doing two things at once: I was writing about Spain, about the death of Franco, about the aftermath of Franco, objectively, as reportage from the vantage point of the village. I had been to Madrid and Barcelona, seen my sources, and read a great deal. But, I was writing about the village as someone who had lived there for 20 years. I had seen babies grow up and get married, and I had seen people grow old and die. And the man who worked my land had done it for 25 years. And our village was in decline. When I bought the house there, there were 700 people in the population. Now there are 75. I was chronicling the decline of these remote agricultural villages that really … And so I was writing about the change politically in Spain, but the more difficult change and more intricate change of the villagers. And, naturally, since the people I was writing about I talked to every day or every other day, when I put down the conversations I had with them, I made them … I created them. They were the quintessential conversations of that person that summer. I was reflecting. There were five or six people that I talked to all the time. And they, to me, were like barometers of a certain … of the effect of the changes in Spain. And so it was another measure. And so when this quote scandal broke out, people said to me, “Well, did you maintain that there is a larger truth than the truth that can be verified by facts?” And I said, “Of course there is a larger truth. The truth that comes from, I guess, what we call experience, or from having lived in a place for a long time.” And also, the point I was really making was that, if a reporter were to come to do a piece on our village, the facts in our village would not fill a page. But, the long history of the village that I learned really by word of mouth, because some of our villagers neither read nor wrote, and had everything like tapes in the memory. That is a thing that you couldn’t get with your pad and pencil and an interpreter.
HEFFNER: But, Alastair, that’s an explanation of what you did, which makes so much sense to me; but what I’m concerned about, and what you and I have talked about at various times over the past year since the incident, I think you summarized so well in something that I’ve read that you’ve written, you said, “Talk about a point of view that you find, I believe, more in Europeans …
REID: And in Hispanic writing, too.
HEFFNER: All right. But in those who can look at fact and fiction differently from us, that everything we write down in language is a fiction, even objective and personal reports, language by its nature does not reflect reality with measurable exactness, but rather creates a different parallel reality. Why can’t we deal with this idea in this country? And seemingly we can’t.
REID: Well, now we’re getting to the point, really. Yes, I believe that anything put into language is, as Borjes says all the time (a writer who I have translated at great length) that, you know, anything put into language is made into a fiction, “Fictiones” was Borjes’ book. And language, by its nature, is a distortion of reality. And I think that we are really, we have inherited the myth of objectivity from this pretentious attitude of newspapers. The myth of objectivity. Objective writing is not objective. It’s seen by somebody; put together by people, by minds. People who chose this word rather than that word.
HEFFNER: That, of course, is what Beard was saying, that there is history as fact – something occurred, but you and I don’t know what occurred; but someone will report it, and that reporting, that reportage, is an act of faith.
REID: Absolutely. Absolutely.
HEFFNER: Why in the world do we continue to press for this kind of factual statement when we must all know that it’s not possible?
REID: Except, it would seem to me, that in the context of this country, that there is a great deal that one doesn’t way what is the truth. And so people fall back on verifiability.
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
REID: That in not knowing what is true, what is real, the checkability or verifiability of a statement seems about the only thing that you can reach for.
HEFFNER: And the larger …
REID: Then it’s a measure of the lack of faith in the information that’s coming.
HEFFNER: Larger truth. You’re willing to accept that?
REID: Well, I think it comes when a writer lives his life, writes his stuff, signs them, says “This is what I saw, and I did.” And I think good writers carry, their writing carries a certain, carries its authenticity within it somehow. But I know that, for instance, when I read Jerod Brennan, I believe him because of the clarity of his perception, over a long time.
HEFFNER: Was it a mistake to write what you wrote in a publication that maintains that it checks everything for accuracy?
REID: Absolutely not, because everything in the five or six pieces I wrote from the village, are checked for accuracy, and are accurate. But, I said to the … I brought this matter up in a class, and I said to the class, “In this case, I say that I’m having this conversation with the taxi driver the day I arrive, but in fact I’ve traveled with that taxi driver from the nearby town once a week for 25 years and we’ve had a conversation that is endless in my mind, and transcribed would be larger than the Nixon Papers.” And so when I come to put down the conversation with him, it didn’t happen then, but it’s a recreation of the summer. I was … In that village one lives in a continuum. And you write out of that continuum. You try to convey the continuum of village life. And so that meant I just, that these two levels in the Spanish village pieces were never distinguished between; and they ought to be.
HEFFNER: What would you label what you did?
REID: Well, writing, I would call it.
HEFFNER: Well, you know, that’s interesting, because you say “writing,” and I wondered whether, as a writer – forget that we knew each other when you were identified for me as a poet – as a writer, is there some inherent conflict in the scribbling between the writer in you and the reporter in you?
REID: No. Not at all, because the reporter in me … The facts about a situation are absolutely essential. I mean, I have always done a great deal of homework, and in Spain I was very deep into the whole Hispanic wavelength, reading, writing, etcetera. And so the facts of a present situation are always there, but they’re all part of a much larger whole. And the writers one is interested … writers I am interested in reading are the ones who have perceived the whole. What comes over in the newspapers is very partial. As a matter of fact, I live half of the year out of range of newspapers, and I rely on shortwave radio news; and I get the same news within the same hour from Washington, from London, from Madrid, from Moscow, from Czechoslovakia, from Cuba. And I see the very same event. And that is much more clarifying than any newspaper I can think of.
HEFFNER: Clarifying because you know …
REID: Because of the rashomon-like nature of reporting.
HEFFNER: Why do you say “clarifying” though? Mystifying, I would think.
REID: Because somewhere in between … You realize that an event is something that creates attitudes towards it immediately. And what you are presented with are these events with the accompanying attitudes.
HEFFNER: Alastair, you know, I don’t think there is a chance in the world that this approach could be one that would respond to what most Americans feel about truth, about reporting, about accuracy.
REID: Uh hum.
HEFFNER: Do you think I’m wrong?
REID: No, I’m sure not. But I think there are writers one trusts. Aren’t there writers you trust?
HEFFNER: Yes, but trust to do what?
REID: Trust to put down their perceptions with some reliable clarity.
HEFFNER: Yes, I trust you. I’ve read you all these years, and I trust you. And, therefore, I’m concerned that your approach to what it is you have presented us is not one that can be, by any stretch of the imagination, accepted by most Americans. Maybe Europeans, maybe your friends in Spain …
REID: You frighten me, Dick. I would think …
HEFFNER: Do you think otherwise?
REID: Well, I think, you know, I think that what I have said about writing about the village is acceptable. I think you understand that; people do. And the factual reality is, has to be balanced by the person perceiving it, by human perception.
HEFFNER: Well, Alastair, I’m not quarreling with you. What I’m saying is that I find it difficult to believe that most Americans could accept this, and I think that’s what accounts for the essay in Time magazine at the time of the to-do …
REID: Uh hum. Uh hum.
HEFFNER: … and editorial in the New York Times. There was very little acceptance of this notion of a larger truth.
REID: Absolutely not. It was verifiability or nothing.
HEFFNER: Verifiability. Not verifiability of the larger truth, but of the details.
REID: Yeah. It had all to have happened, or else.
HEFFNER: Okay. Then I guess I need to ask you whether, if you agree with me that that is likely to be the American response, whether there isn’t some obligation then on the part of the person who writes, to know that here in this country we believe what we read and we accept it basically as gospel. “All I know is what I read in the newspapers.” Some of us have claimed, “All I know is what I see on television.” And whether there isn’t some special burden then placed upon the person who communicates with large numbers of people.
REID: As presenting the credentials in every case and every instance?
HEFFNER: Well, perhaps going the verifiable route. I’m not urging that it’s something good, but I’m suggesting that we live in a situation in which people expect that what is written for them, presented to them, put on television before them, whether it’s docudrama or fact, fiction, faction, that we had built into us the assumption that this is truth.
REID: Well, I think it’s the truth that … it is the truth, and it is fleshed out, as it must be in order to be communicated. And that is put into language. Now, reporters I think will not enter readily into an argument that language is a distortion, because if you get it down it’s all right. But if you’re taking, if you’re writing down your own perceptions included in, then the writing it down becomes more complicated. It’s as children say when the glass falls on the ground, and you come in and they say, “It broke.” That’s rather what reporting is like: “It broke.”
HEFFNER: That writing is distortion itself? Words are?
REID: That the notion of objectivity is a very questionable one, I think.
HEFFNER: You know, I came across the poem that you wrote in 1966, “Where Truth Lies,” and this morning I tried several times to read it so that I might read it here. And I realize that it doesn’t make sense. I don’t read well. Read it, would you?
REID: I’d almost forgotten this poem until it loomed again. It’s called “Where Truth Lies.”
Maps, once made, leave the impression of a place gone dead.
Words, once said, anchor the swirlings in the head.
Vows, once taken, waste in the shadows of a time forsaken.
Oh, understand how the mind’s landscape grows from shifting sand.
How where we are is half on solid ground, half head in air.
A twilit zone where changing flesh and changeless ghosts are one.
And what is true lies between you and my idea of you,
A friction, restless, between the fact and the fiction.
HEFFNER: The word “friction, faction,” I couldn’t help but think that 20 years ago almost you were putting your poetic stamp upon an issue that is not much talked about these days, but is very important to us. And, Alastair, strangely, in this fuss over this past year, I’ve been so deeply sympathetic to your point of view, and yet I am aware of the fact that on other levels I find myself – and I think society, too – largely done in by people who take – not like you, a poet’s liberty – though that’s not a good word – but take liberties with the truth. And I wonder whether you weren’t caught, as a poet, at a time when we are aware that all around us there are those who, not for the reasons, the philosophical reasons you offer, but who do nevertheless take the kinds of liberties with truth that should not be taken.
REID: I would absolutely say that I have not taken liberties with the truth.
HEFFNER: You presented the larger truth.
REID: Well, I recreated what I had learned to be true over a long period of time.
HEFFNER: But, you see, here, as sympathetic as I am, I find myself – and you’re quite correct – incapable of expressing, finding the right words, or that I find that I use the words that those I consider essentially the know-nothings use. And I think you’re correct in what you’re saying; but aren’t you caught at a time when there is so much distortion and so much lack of concern for the distortion and the impact of distortion …
REID: Absolutely, absolutely. It’s as though people had lost the kind of antennae and fine feelers that they used to have about language. People are snowed by language much more now than before. And language has been violated considerably since NcNamara’s time. He was one of the great murderers of the English language, and so was Haldeman, after all. Remember that thing that Haldeman said once? They asked him if he, when something had gone wrong, if he had investigated, and he said, “There was some attempt to reduce the area of the non-knowledge.” That’s what we have got to.
HEFFNER: Do you think phrases like that, when we first met 30-plus years ago, do you think what has happened to language has happened in this period?
REID: Yes. I think that the language has, this passive nature, this passive impersonality has come really from that time, from the ‘60s on. From, McNamara, really, was responsible for a lot … syntactically for the formation of …
HEFFNER: Why do you keep beating on McNamara?
REID: No, I’m not. I mean, he just, this language came in with him, when, instead of the dead body counts were invented, or the impersonality about the reporting from Vietnam. And this passivity, as though nobody had done anything. Just, it’s the child saying, “It broke, it broke.”
HEFFNER: When the glass …
REID: Looking startled, saying, “It broke.” And I think it’s very hard for people to find their way in language. In objective language that is. I think if somebody is actually speaking out in his or her own voice, then it’s much easier to make up your mind whether you like them or trust them or don’t like them or don’t trust them or agree with them, don’t agree with them. At least you’ve got somebody to talk to, as it were. It’s impersonal language, objective language that doesn’t really present you with that kind of communication.
HEFFNER: And the poet speaks differently?
REID: No, I think the poet is after the same thing. We’re all really looking for the whole of something, not sifting its elements as though facts were things that could be sifted out of a very complicated context. No, we’re all trying to get a perception of life that is whole.
HEFFNER: But aren’t you avoiding the matter of deception? You talk about Vietnam. Aren’t you talking there not about a strange misuse, but an effort to use language to deceive?
REID: Well, language used in that way is deceiving, by the nature of that way of using language, by impersonalizing it. But all language is deceiving in the sense, I mean, there are many views of art as a deception, which is quite true. If you’re painting, you paint something on a two-dimensional space to make it look as if it were three-dimensional. Deception. Deception. Lying, cheating, etcetera, but art, you say.
HEFFNER: You mean you wouldn’t distinguish …
REID: Of course you would distinguish.
HEFFNER: … between the one kind of political deception …
REID: No, but it … Oh, no. The political I would distinguish, absolutely. But, I mean, when we begin to talk about language in the notion of art as deception is very common. It’s been very common as an esthetic notion.
HEFFNER: Then how do human beings communicate? How do they come together?
REID: We manipulate through language, but we also communicate through language. We reach out and actually connect with people through language used well. But we bewilder people if we don’t tell people what’s going on in language. Language used badly, language used irresponsibly, language used with this ghost of objectivity which I come back to again and again. Which of these objective vices is the truth?
HEFFNER: And when do you stop? Just with the question mark?
REID: Yes, well, the question mark is always there, believe me. But I know writers whose voices I trust. And that comes by the nature of their writing.
HEFFNER: I’m surprised you haven’t spoken about the other creative artists. You haven’t spoken about music.
REID: I have done … I have thought of that, but that would take us off into another thing. One thing that does crop up often though is, I have translated a great number of books. And it’s always interesting to me, this question of translation of, because translation is impossible. And when you’re trying to recreate poetry from one language into another, there are interesting kinds of translations that are absolutely accurate translations, which are mechanical, measurably accurate, but dead. There are wild translations which take off into the private ether of the translator. And they’re too far away to bear much relation to the original. The translation that grasps and sees is hovering somewhere again in there.
HEFFNER: I guess the problem, Alastair, is that you were translating your feelings …
REID: I think that all people who put things into language are translating. And there’s a great deal of bad translation. We might have to … We should issue translator’s licenses. And a number of them ought to be revoked almost instantly.
HEFFNER: I hope yours will never be.
REID: Thank you very much.
HEFFNER: Thank you for joining me today, Alastair Reid.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again next time, here on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”