truth and fiction

The man crossed the street.

Question: is the above sentence fiction or nonfiction?

There’s no way of knowing, is there. Which man? Which street? When? We’d need to know these things before hazarding an answer.

Bob Carlson crossed 5th Avenue and entered the office building by a side door.

What about this sentence—fiction or nonfiction?

We still don’t know enough. There is no doubt a real Bob Carlson—many of them—and one or more of them have almost certainly crossed a 5th Avenue somewhere at some time, and one of them might have then entered an office building by a side door. I personally don’t know of any, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. The reference to “the” office building implies that a particular office building is meant, but we don’t know which one. We need more context to decide.

Here’s what Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (tenth edition) says under its entry for fiction:

1a: something invented by the imagination or feigned; specifically: an invented story

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says that

The word comes via Old French from Latin fictio, a derivative of the verb fingere “make, shape,” from which English also gets effigy, faint, feign, figure, and figment.

Interestingly, Webster’s also connects fiction etymologically with our word dough, as something that is kneaded and shaped.

If fiction is “an invented story,” that pushes the question back to: what is a story? Here Webster’s gives, as its first and “archaic” sense, “history.” Sense 2a is “an account of incidents or events.”

The Dictionary of Word Origins has this entry for story:

Story comes via Anglo-Norman estorie from Latin historia “account of events, narrative, history” (source also of English history and storey). It originally retained the senses “factual account of past events” and “past events in general,” but since the 17th century these have gradually been taken over by history, and the use of story has been concentrated more on “fictional narratives.”

But if story and history both come from the same Latin word, historia, what does the Dictionary of Word Origins have to say about history?

Etymologically, history denotes simply “knowledge”; its much more specific modern meaning is a secondary development. Its story begins with Greek histor “learned man,” a descendant of Indo-European *wid- “know, see,” which also produced English wit and Latin videre “see.” From histor was derived historia “knowledge obtained by enquiry,” hence “written account of one’s enquiries, narrative, history.” English acquired it via Latin historia, and at first used it for “fictional narrative” as well as “account of actual events in the past” (a sense now restricted to story, essentially the same word but acquired via Anglo-Norman).

So our words story and history have only become distinguished from each other relatively recently. In a sense, our ideas of fiction and nonfiction have become differentiated from a single source, like a cell dividing.

Here is what Mortimer J. Adler has to say in his essay on History in volume 1 of the Syntopicon from The Britannica Great Books of the Western World (compressed):

Since he is both an investigator and a storyteller, the historian stands comparison with the scientist in one respect and with the poet in another. The special character of history as a kind of knowledge distinct from science or philosophy seems clear from its object—the singular or unique events of the past. The historian uses particulars directly observed by himself or testifed to by others as the basis for circumstantial inference to matters which cannot be established by direct evidence.

The contrast between history and science is formulated in Aristotle’s statement concerning poetry, that it is “more philosophical than history, because poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.”

Unlike poetry, history and science are alike in that they both attempt to prove what they say. But in distinction from science or philosophy, history resembles poetry, especially the great epic and dramatic poems, in being narrative literature.

And yet fictional stories too require “proof” in a sense, according to Robert McKee. Even when we know a story to be fictional, we need to “believe” it in the sense of finding it plausible. As Aristotle says in his Poetics, the chain of events called a plot needs to seem either necessary or probable, or the plot will not produce its intended effects on us. The dramatic storyteller needs to persuade us of the plausibility of his account just as the historian does.

Back in 1980, when I was 21, I had decided that I wanted to be a writer of serious fiction, and I had also awakened to a deep desire to learn the truth of life—the deepest spiritual truth I could find. I wanted to believe that these two desires were somehow linked, and I set out to try to prove it by writing an essay which I was going to call “Truth and Fiction”. I remember sitting at the drawing-board that I then used as a writing-desk and writing the title on a sheet of ruled looseleaf paper, then struggling through another paragraph or so. I sat there looking at it, then I gave up; I just didn’t know what I was talking about.

In some sense I’ve been working on that problem ever since. At least I can now offer some comfort to my 21-year-old self, put my arm around him and tell him, “Friend—it’s not an easy question.” Now, at age 52, I’m in a much better position to tackle it. For one thing, I don’t expect to resolve it. Rather, I expect to experience only the pleasure of discovering and relating the ideas involved, and of setting them into a pattern that works for the projects I intend to do.

But my intuition is that this fuzziness of the boundary between fiction and nonfiction is telling us something profound about our relationship with reality. We experience our dreams as stories, and we experience our lives as stories. So the power of storytelling is, I suspect, the first power of the gods, who give skilled shape to this dough we call reality.

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