I've been stewing about this James Frey controversy for some time now because I know the ancients have something to say about it. Since the flavors in my stew have yet to marry, I offer some thoughts in tandem with an email from a former student of mine who is a brilliant young writer and thinker. My comments are interspersed.
Have you been following the unfolding of this scandal about James Frey's A Million Little Pieces and its misrepresentation as nonfiction? My mother, for one, and it seems others, too, are so concerned about reading a "true story" that they're completely lost since Frey has admitted that his "memoir" was really mostly fiction that I can't help but think of the ancient Greeks-- that they, perhaps, would not have called into question so harshly the truth of the story and how that relates to the validity of the plot/storytelling. But what I do wonder is if Greeks, after they began to separate mythos and logos for themselves, would have had the same reaction to false representation as Americans are having to Frey's work.
Footnote 1: At the beginning of Greek civilization, truth was a malleable concept, and absolute truth did not exist as a concept. Mythos, from which we get our word myth, meant "a tale," and logos, from which we get our word logic, meant "an account." There was not much difference of meaning between the two words, just as there isn't today between "tale" and "account."
Before the philosopher Plato, the Frey controversy would not have existed. But by the late 5th century BC, a group of men called Sophists started using what we would call "spin" to gain advantage in public life. Plato reacted, and famously separated mythos and logos into their polarized meanings of "a lie" and "the truth."
(For another version of this footnote, see this post)
(I.e. Would Greeks have been tied up in knots if, after slotting the Iliad stories in the "myth" section of their brains, someone were to tell the stories to, say, the next generation as bona fide truth?)
Footnote 2: Non-philosophical Greeks would not have been able to comprehend that sentence. For them, the events of the Iliad happened, because they had a living memory of ancestors and consequences of the war. The operative word is "living;" that is, it was true for them and made a difference in their lives-- not that they had irrefutable proof of all the events in order as they happened. Philosophical Greeks (of whom there were comparatively few) would have their own way of interpreting the Iliad, often allegorically, and wouldn't easily change, either.
It seems ridiculous to me how much Americans (and maybe others, too?) crave and credit truth. Did Frey lie because he wanted to play into this craving for something true?
Call me cynical, but I sometimes lose faith in the ability to sift out what's true or false. And here Oprah's got priceless publicity because readers are scandalized and she and Frey feel obligated to apologize to their respective audiences with much grandeur and much ado. No simple marginal note of correction will do here. Publishers are being faulted, too-- which seems a strange thing to hold them accountable for. Are they supposed to play at being detectives?
Footnote 3: We (and by "we" I mean everyone-- if it's important to Oprah, then it's important to the American mainstream) have taken over Plato's attitude towards logos, with the help of two scoops of Christian heart and precedent. When St. Paul wrote that if the Resurrection didn't happen, we are "of all men most to be pitied," he was saying that The Truth With a Capital T matters. Because if there was no resurrection of Christ, there is no resurrection of other human beings, and death ("where is thy sting?") has still got mastery over us.
I love the idea of Absolute Truth. I live with the reality that we cannot apprehend it.
I don't like to idealize the Greeks as I am often tempted to do, but it does seem simpler and pleasanter to take a story as a story, with all the power offered therein on its own. I really do admire folks who can search after "truth" as if it is something they will really be able to find and value—
Footnote 4: Me, too. I wish James Frey had said he was writing a novel. But then he may not have gotten it published, poor guy.
Now a footnote to my footnotes: the LA Weekly magazine and the News & Observer of Raleigh (NC) broke the story last week that Nasdijj, the celebrated "Navajo" memoirist, is not Navajo at all but Timothy P. Burrus, a middle-class white guy from Michigan.
I am willing to concede that we must take our memoirists with a nice, big crystalline grain of salt. But then someone like Nasdijj comes along. You will want to read (in LA Weekly) about all the Red Flags that went up among true Native American writers (and were ignored) when Nasdijj was getting all his recognition. It is one thing for a man like James Frey to falsify his personal experience as James Frey. It is another entirely for a European-American writer to pose as a Native American and to gain fame and recognition for it (even though real Native Americans were raising objections). So, for the sake of egregious examples like Nasdijj, I am willing to see James Frey get raked over the coals.
The subtitle to BwP is "For a diet rich in mythos and logos." That means we need stories, we need truth, and we need stories-and-truth in all its forms.
Comments welcome. I haven’t even begun to sort out all the layers of this in my mind.