Monday, January 28, 2008

Quote of the Day: And I Don't even Believe in Truth

(((Leo Tolstoy's "Sebastopol Sketches;" Errol Morris's efforts to understand the relationship between two Roger Fenton photos of the Valley of the Shadow of Death; so much of life can be summed up as a dogged quest for something we will never have, and which may not even exist -- or anyway not as something one will ever "have.")))

Now I have said all I wish to say on this occasion. I am, however, beset by a painful thought. Perhaps I ought not to have said it. Perhaps what I have said belongs to the category of those harmful truths each of us carries around in his subconscious, truths we must not utter aloud lest they cause active damage… Where in this narrative is there any illustration of evil that is to be avoided? Where is there any illustration of good that is to be emulated? Who is the villain of the piece? And who its hero? All the characters are equally blameless and equally wicked… No, the hero of my story, whom I love with all my heart and soul, whom I have attempted to portray in all his beauty and who has always been, is now and will always be supremely magnificent, is truth.
[Written June 26, 1855, 60 days or so after Fenton’s letter to his wife.]

I'm quoting here from the second part of documentary film-maker Errol Morris's mesmerizing series of essays on Roger Fenton's photographs of a strip of land where many, many people died in the Crimean War, a war Morris describes as "perfect" in the following sense: "Started for obscure reasons, hopelessly murderous, and accomplishing nothing. [ . . . ] A war defined by innovations in wardrobe – a sleeve [the Raglan sleeve], a sweater [the cardigan] and a hat [the balaclava]. " I've not yet even read the third part, which is where I gather we finally get the solution to the puzzle.

But I'm not quoting Morris, exactly. I'm quoting Morris quoting Tolstoy's "Sebastopol Sketches." Perhaps it's too tidy or unfair to grab a Tolstoy quotation out of this set of essays, but I also think Morris enjoys the confluence of Tolstoy's having been in the Crimea at the same time as his protagonist, if we can call Fenton that, and Tolstoy's summing up so nicely the nature of the work Morris himself has been undertaking in considering the pictures and traveling himself to Sebastopol for genuine field work.

But here maybe war is like life in ways that Morris (and I) would be uncomfortable with, an analogy Morris calls attention to elsewhere in the essay and marks as troubling and deeply problematic. That is, in war as in life, worrying about who are the villains and who the heroes only obscures the truth.

Whatever that is.

[Update: "third part" now actually links to the third part. The NYT didn't do a good job of updating this and I didn't pay close enough attention when I initially grabbed the link.]

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