The Skeptical Empiricist

J.D. Nasaw '08, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

Mono Lake consumes the only flat ground in between hundreds of miles of the indiscriminate beasts that populate Eastern California, the Sierras. It is here that a small town has sprung forth, with gas stations and diners and tourist information centers that give out free stickers baring the dictum, "I [heart] Mono Lake." As soon as we walked through the doors, my companions shoved the sticker into my hand and I just as quickly ripped off "Lake" and slapped it on my water bottle to commemorate the illness that had obliterated the previous three months of my life.

It was the end of my senior year of high school, a year that usually means tearful goodbyes, raging parties, and if you were like everyone else at a college-preparatory institution, receiving some rejection letters and some acceptance letters and bitching about the application process either way. But to me senior year meant realizing I had no classmates that I wanted to keep in touch with next year and being relegated to a bed fifteen out of sixteen waking hours a day for the better part of my second semester, a time I was supposed to be neglecting work beside my constantly inebriated classmates. Instead, I wallowed in four-movie marathons in between breaks of eating apple sauce and mango sorbet and delightfully losing sixteen pounds in my first week in bed. The thing that was special about my case of mononucleosis, a virus that I knew relatively little about considering that I had not yet crossed its raging battlefield (college), was that it accompanied another legendary virus that only compounded the damage. I managed to wash out the pneumonia with only a week or two of spitting up more than I consumed each day and comfortably sleeping a number of hours any insomniac would envy. Two viruses engaged in hand-to-hand combat inside my body, the pneumonia trying to keep me awake to cough up the phlegmy baseball lodged in my throat and the mono trying to begin my two month coma.

That's essentially what it was, a coma. I was completely cut off from my friends (not to mention being cut off from what would have been a promising romantic exploration that had begun the night before I contracted mono, but that's another story), and by the time I got back to school, I found myself alienated from students and teachers alike as I skipped current classes in order to make up reading for old ones. I took the second history test of the semester while my classmates took the fourth, and I took the fourth while my classmates slaved away on the final exam. I spent the entire semester making up work and attempting to salvage any friendships I had begun before my hiatus. I finished reading and testing just in time to resolve my "incompletes" before graduation, but I remained in a relationship wasteland. It would take an act of God to settle that calamity. Too bad I don't believe in God.

So I decided to go on the notorious Senior Vision Quest. A "vision quest" is an ages old retreat similar to a Native American ritual where, basically, you go off by yourself for a while. You go for anywhere between a day and a month, very often you don't eat for the duration of your quest, and you generally undertake it in a secluded and undeveloped locale, often referred to as "Nature." It's called a "vision" quest because between the constant contact with nature and lack of nutrition for an extended period of time, you will most likely start to hallucinate at some point along the way. I was skeptical about all this vision stuff, but I went to Mono Lake with twelve other graduating seniors to camp alone for three days and three nights hoping to resolve some of my recent woes. This is where the story begins.

My view of the world was irrevocably altered by going on a vision quest. Yet, upon returning to the life I had left back in San Francisco, I realized for the first time that the life-altering experiences are the ones we cannot put into words. Most of the vivid mental impressions from my quest have faded into obscure random pictures and all I have to remind me of my time near Mono Lake is the cheap woven bracelet the twelve seniors received upon returning from our solos. Life-altering experiences are inexplicable. I could certainly recount the events of what happened out there in the desert, but I am reluctant and skeptical of what that would do. What do I really want you to get out of it? Do I want you to have the same revelation just by reading my description? No. It's impossible. Here is a selection from my journal during my vision quest.

I just sat on a rock for a while with my thoughts. After a few minutes I moved to a rock just down the hill from my site and did the same while putting on sunscreen. In that period I didn't really think about much. It would be the equivalent of not thinking at all, although that concept is more described as thinking about random stuff and forgetting what you're thinking about right after you think it because you've moved on to another topic. Then I went around the rocks to the left of my solo spot and went to the bathroom and now am sitting just below on the hillside against a small rock in the shade.

No way. Is this really what I did for three days? Where are the revelations? Where is the stuff that altered my view of life forever? Answer: it's not there. I didn't do anything for three days. Okay, so I went to the bathroom and wrote and walked around a little. But that's it. I can't show you where the revelation is. I can show you where to find it yourself though. I can show you on any map of California. I'll show you the exact spot where you can find my revelation, right on the border to Nevada, just above Yosemite National Park. That's where it is. Now go find it.

But what kind of a writer says that? A writer that tells the truth. If I told you that nothing happened out there on my vision quest, I would be telling you the truth. Too bad I don't believe in truth. At least not in writing. There are just too many stages between my experience and your reading, so there is no possible way that…

Wait. Looking back on what I have written here I am noticing that all of a sudden I threw in the word "truth," one of the most loaded terms in human language. Why did I bring up truth all of a sudden? Because what I did not tell you is that after I told you where on the map to find my revelation, I stopped writing. I got up from my desk in this stuffy library cubicle, got a drink of water, and read ten pages of a book. Most writers do not stop to tell their readers where they are writing or what they do on breaks from writing, and most readers would not want the constant interjection of such information. However, these circumstances are exactly what we need to focus on. These circumstances are as important as anything I will actually write so I feel that you must know them. I read ten pages from Albert Camus' The Fall on my most recent break. What I read immediately began to affect what I wrote in my vision quest story, and will affect everything I will write from now on. The fact is, the writer changes as the writer writes. A passage from what I just read:

Don't lies eventually lead to the truth? And don't all my stories, true or false, tend toward the same conclusion? Don't they all have the same meaning? So what does it matter whether they are true or false if, in both cases, they are significant of what I have been and of what I am? Sometimes it is easier to see clearly into the liar than into the man who tells the truth. Truth, like light, blinds. Falsehood, on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object. Well, make of it what you will, but I was named pope in a prison camp. [119-120]

Is this not entirely relevant to what I am saying here? How can I go on writing in the same state of mind in which I began? I cannot. I will not. With this new information I must forge ahead, and hasn't Camus stated the problem at hand in a way I could not have dreamed? So fact or fiction, it does not matter. In reality, Camus tells us, the reader can "see more clearly into the liar than into the man who tells the truth." I accept, then, that non-fiction writers like Joan Didion or Annie Dillard, who desire the world to see into them through their writing, may need to distort experience so that the reader can see clearly. Distort as much as you like, Joan and Annie, it makes no difference to me! because now I see that it is not the honest depiction of experience that should be expected. However, each book should come with a warning label for the less mindful reader. "Halt! for this is a book to which the literati have bestowed the category of ‘non-fiction,' but within each page you, the ravenous reader, mustn't take each word and description as such, for this is a book that has been written by an author, an author only slightly more knowing than yourself, and with the author's human faults come tendency toward fabrication. So, read on! but do so with caution, for the experience of the author has undoubtedly been altered in order to impart upon you some worthy message, and with that in mind, Godspeed."

Now that you understand this warning label, I am itching to get back to my mononucleosis masterpiece. I'll begin a little behind so that you can find your spot. I was skeptical about all this vision stuff, but I went to Mono Lake with twelve other graduating seniors to camp alone for three days and three nights hoping to resolve some of my recent woes. This is where the story begins.

Wait. No. This is not where the story begins, and I would hate to tell you anything other than the truth. The fact is, birth and death are the only beginning and end in a person's life story, and even then they existed in their parents before birth and will exist in the memories of others after death. There is no beginning and end to any experience; these concepts are merely methods of control for desperate writers, clinging to the notion that life can be contained on a page. Annie Dillard declares in The Writing Life, "It is the beginning of the work that the writer throws away," but she says this in order to get the writer to realize that the first thing we write should not be the beginning of the story. And so, it is the beginning that I will throw away, not to choose a new beginning as Dillard would urge, but to concede that there is no beginning to any story.

Truth. Experience. Non-Fiction. These are the issues at hand. Is truthful depiction of experience what we are to expect from non-fiction? Let us look at a few examples. Joan Didion seems to believe that experience is essential if we are to make any sense of the world at large. She travels and writes to discover the essence of different regions, an essence that is often fractured and unclear. The most common thread that Didion seems to find in each of her excursions detailed in Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the existence of multiple identities within each city, many of them having to do with how one remembers the city. Didion does not fear that memory hampers her ability to relate experience, however, but concedes that what we forget or remember actually tells us what is important.

All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which it disappears . . . It is hard to find California now, unsettling to wonder how much of it was merely imagined or improvised; melancholy to realize how much of anyone's memory is no true memory at all but only the traces of someone else's memory, stories handed down on the family network. I have an indelibly vivid "memory" for example, of how Prohibition affected the hop growers around Sacramento: the sister of a grower my family knew brought home a mink coat from San Francisco, and was told to take it back, and sat on the floor of the parlor cradling that coat and crying. Although I was not born until a year after Repeal, that scene is more "real" to me than many I have played out myself… You see the point. I want to tell you the truth... It should be clear by now that the truth about the place is elusive, and must be tracked with caution… Which is the true California? That is what we all wonder. [176-179]

Even Didion's memory is jumbled by fact and fiction. California is disappearing from her memory and some of her most vivid recollections never even happened to her. For these few fleeting moments, Didion relates the difficulty of her need to "find" a place and how it may be imagined. She is caught up on truth. She wants to find it, to track it, and she stubbornly persists in the belief that there is a true California. She wants to tell the truth but she can't, because she wants to expose the truth behind other people's fictions, yet truth for her is fiction for everyone else, and she cannot get around that. Most readers probably overlook her concession that "I have as much trouble as the next person with illusion and reality" (32), or have forgotten by the time she reaches California. For these few moments she realizes that memory and truth are flawed, but she soon returns to the illusion that she can discover the identities of cities through experience.

In both California and Hawaii, Didion finds the existence of multiple worlds, and experience alone allows her to find the divide between them. With Hawaii, however, she sees the multiple worlds before she even gets there, and it is experience that allows her to see the connection. There is the Hawaii that she first saw on an atlas, the Hawaii she first saw in newspaper photographs, and "then, always, there was a third Hawaii, a place which seemed to have to do neither with war nor with vacationing godmothers but only with the past, and with loss" (189). But where is the connection? Only after she travels to Honolulu and then returns to write does she find that "War is in the very fabric of Hawaii's life, ineradicably fixed in both its emotions and its economy, dominating not only its memory but its vision of the future. There is a point at which every Honolulu conversation refers back to war" (196). Now, all of this sounds very romantic and clear-cut, and if I had never been to Honolulu, or even if I had not been recently, I might believe Didion on this point. Actually, I will admit that as I was reading this essay I started to believe that War was indeed the common link between Hawaii's multiple worlds. But I visited Honolulu less than six months ago and stayed with two natives I had met on the mainland, one who lives in the poorest sector of Honolulu and a closer male friend who lives on the more remote East side of the island. If it will help you to picture it better, Steven Spielberg filmed Jurassic Park just beyond his backyard. So I got to stay next to Jurassic Park. Now, other than the two times that I drove by Pearl Harbor (and I will admit I never went in to visit), I can't remember a single time that I heard the word "war" or even a hint of warlike belligerence in the speech or actions of the Hawaiians I encountered (except the few scathing comments I received on my offensively pale torso while sunbathing on a nearby beach, but those seemed to be more out of pride than antagonism). My memory of the natives and my interactions with them is entirely pleasant and most seem to be fun-loving people.

So where is the discrepancy? Well, there is the fact that Didion was writing almost forty years ago, when the memory of the war was still fresh, but I don't know if that is the issue. One of the first things we learn as we move into adulthood is that the world is not black and white, and there seems to be too much black in Didion's observations. How can the one uniting force behind the Hawaiian consciousness be something so negatively polarized as war? And, for that matter, is it even conceivable that "every Honolulu conversation refers back to war"? Highly unlikely. So if Didion is stretching the truth that much, why do we call this writing non-fiction and why do we continue to read into deceit? Because we want to be deceived. The only reason we categorize fiction and non-fiction is because most readers do not understand that a strict line between truth and make-believe in literature does not exist. Most readers never go beyond the words on a page to question an author, or analyze how an author is manipulating their experience through language, rhythm and form. Most readers want to be deceived into a false sense of security, a label that will tell them how they are supposed to read a book they pick up, if they're supposed to believe it or not. But it is simply not that simple. I find much more truth in Albert Camus' observations from his fiction novellas than in Didion's biased and memory-altered essays. But are we really that weak as to allow mere writers to deceive us just because we need security? Why do we really believe them? Perhaps it has something to do with how the write. Let us find another example.

Now, my eyes may be a bit blurry from writing in this damn library for so long, but Annie Dillard's brand of so-called nonfiction in "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" that I have sitting in front of me appears to be nothing more than fictionalized literary devices. her use of metaphor, for example, in this passage:

Some sort of carnival magician has been here, some fast-talking worker of wonders who has the act backwards. "Something in this hand," he says, "something in this hand, something up my sleeve, something behind my back…" and abracadabra, he snaps his fingers, and it's all gone. Only the bland, blank-faced magician remains, in his unruffled coat, bare handed, acknowledging a smattering of baffled applause. When you look again the whole show has pulled up stakes and moved on down the road. It never stops. New shows roll in from over the mountains and the magician reappears unannounced from a fold in the curtain you never dreamed was opening. Scarves of clouds, rabbits in plain view, disappear into the black hat forever. Presto chango. The audience, if there is an audience at all, is dizzy from head-turning, dazed. [13]

Wow. This carnival sounds amazing! What a magic show! That's what Dillard is talking about, right? Nope, and with a little less knowledge of her sensibilities and less allusion we would never be able to recognize the euphoric sunset hidden behind this lavish metaphor. And yet it seems that Dillard's metaphors, quotations from other authors, and worldly wisdom scrawled after her firsthand experiences provide the delectable moments in Pilgrim. When she describes a tree, she claims that "a blind man's idea of hugeness is a tree" (88). What?! Pure fiction, fiction at its best. This is a statement of fact, a definition. But wait, no, it's a metaphor. A lucid, brilliantly formed and stated metaphor that defines a tree far better than anything in a dictionary. So where is the rift? I thought "non-fiction" meant "true" and "fiction" can inconspicuously replace "bullshit."

No. Dillard is not in love with the experience of nature, she is in love with the metaphor of nature. How do we know that Dillard has watched the sunset she describes, that she has spent hours and hours beside trees the way she claims, that she has actually watched a giant water bug liquefy the bones of a helpless frog? We don't know, we can't know. But we believe her for the same reason that we believe Didion and all the other nonfiction writers who claim to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; for the same reason that we want to be deceived into a false sense of security: because they write so damn well. So who cares if Dillard didn't see a sunset or if Didion uses poetic license to create a thesis of multiple identities? They have learned something that they want to share and we want to hear it, so we endorse the poetic license that they so willingly espouse. Fact or fiction, regardless of the label a publishing company adds to the book jacket, we will find truth in anything if it is well written. So what exactly does "well written" mean? Clearly it is not accurate reflection of objective reality, but beyond that lies mostly a gray area of debate. In her essay "Why I Write," Joan Didion wrote, "in many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It's an aggressive, even hostile act… an invasion, an imposition of the writer's sensibility on the reader's most private space" (2). Maybe this is where to find the key to so-called good writing. Through their deft use of rhetorical effects, nonfiction writers like Didion and Dillard force the reader to put aside their own questions and reservations, their own histories and sensibilities, and let the writer take over. Writing well is the ability to put the reader at ease in order to accept the flow of words as something transcendent, something indelibly connected to their own lives and yet completely removed. It is the power to make the reader forget that they are persons at all, and transform them into a vessel, ready to accept every word the writer has to say. It is the sheer literary muscle to dictate the rhythm, mood, and mindset of the reader at all times. A great writer can gain the trust of a reader solely through rhetoric. Of course, then they can do whatever they want with that trust.

But even if we wanted writing that conformed truthfully to life, is that possible? Part of the problem lies in the time and space of lived experience and the impossibility of translating that to the written page. Although we experience life in a linear fashion, we have information inputs from five different senses processed and remembered simultaneously. It is impossible to output this sensory stream onto the written page in any form similar to our experience because we can only read word by word. In addition, we can only read as fast or slow as our own personal limits, and while many writers can control pace through word choice and punctuation, the reader's experience is very much their own. They choose when to start and when to finish, they choose what to remember and what to forget, they choose what to laugh at and what to brood over. Isn't reading an imposition of the reader's sensibility on the writer's labor of love? Writers spend a great deal of their waking lives thinking, writing, editing, rewriting, and editing ten more times to shape their words into exactly what they want to say just so that they can let it go off into the world to let anyone who picks up their work completely misinterpret everything they wrote. Granted, great writers will usually communicate their message effectively, but the reader is the last stage of the process, the last person that can muck it all up. So can you trust the writer? Only if they write well. And if they write well, we must trust them. If they write poorly, we cannot trust them even if what they write is true — especially when hampered by memory. And yet, isn't all writing hampered by memory? Isn't all writing based on some past experience, even if it is the experience of thinking that surges through your nerve synapses until it emerges from your fingertips onto the page (or the computer)? Isn't all writing on some kind of delay?

The act of traveling as experience wraps itself into the very fabric of this delay and the problems of nonfiction, for isn't all non-fiction writing travel literature in some way? If I don't travel to Walden Pond to dispel my most recent ruminations, do I not travel through time or through the pages of other books to some distant place in order to write these words for you while I sit in this stuffy, fluorescent alcove in a library appropriately deemed "The Rock." I had to travel here to write this didn't I! But alas, now I traveled yet again, this time back to my bedroom, to my desk to be exact, to edit this essay and insert the sentence that you are now reading. Are you right now? You've traveled in order to read, in order to repeat these words in your head and imagine that it is my voice you hear and not your own and my actual fingers that are typing these words and not your mental representation of them.

So am I in a different mindset because the book was awarded in the category of non-fiction? Absolutely, although now that I look at the back of the book, the only listing is for "LITERATURE." Maybe it's all the just literature. Why do we even need non-fiction and fiction? We all know how much fiction draws on truth, and it appears that most of non-fiction is saturated with metaphors or mediated by the blunders of human memory. Are dreams real just because we actually have them? No, they are creations of the mind, based on our experience, that have no physical correlate. However, after painstaking analysis, of which Annie Dillard clearly engages, oneiric episodes morph into metaphors and life lessons that Dillard can use alongside her "real" experiences and quotations from other writers.

Just a moment, I can't keep it all in my head. I've been gone for a week now and the spark has already left me. The frantic writing sessions in the Rock, resurfacing memories of my time in the desert, overwhelming piles of notecards with Didion and Dillard quotations. Funny how wide one week can span. Okay. Now to recap the week before we move on.

  1. A final exam I did not care about
  2. A social date I did care about
  3. Packing up my life to take to California for the summer
  4. Rhode Island in the morning, San Francisco at dinnertime
  5. Staying up until 2 in the morning the night I returned and forgetting how that means 5 in the morning but not caring because my best friend and I were reading poetry and Woody Allen notebooks aloud
  6. Seeing people I love and seeing others that I don't
  7. Having a crisis about what I am doing this summer
  8. Returning to this essay

So now we can begin. But understand that my attitude towards writing is different than it was before. Partly because of where I am mentally and physically, and partly because of Dorothea Brande. I want to be a writer and she is trying to help me. The trouble is that she is helping me from 70 years away with a book she first published in 1934 called Becoming A Writer. She says that to be a writer I need to train myself to write at any time and write with a continuous flow. The first step is learning to write first thing in the morning before eating or drinking, before reading other writers, before anything. This is the product of that first session. The problem with continuing this essay is that now it must all come from memory. At least for this fifteen minutes I lack the crutch of my vision quest journal, all my Didion and Dillard, and even Dorothea Brande herself whose book I am itching to pick up right at this moment. Okay, back to work.

The heart of the issue is whether any trace of actual physical experience can be translated to the written word. You tell me. Can we go from the present, physical sensation of an event (mediated by our limited and often distracted consciousness) to the recorded map of that event in our minds (which has been affected by every event before it and will be affected by every event after) to the shaky tip of a pen as we retrace that map for readers that will read our words in their own voice, with their own inflections, and their own interpretations? Well, can we do that? I know I tried to leave this one up to you, but I simply cannot do that. I don't trust you. I can't be sure that you just interpreted my question the way I intended it, so just forget the whole thing. Why am I even writing this if you're not going to receive it in exactly the way I want you to. You're not going to remember all the words from this page, you may remember none of them, or only a few, the few that are probably the only ones I would allow you to immediately forget. But maybe, just maybe, you will get some of what I want you to get, and isn't that really why published writers write, because they are the select few that have the right "stuff" that allows them to get their message across. Okay, if Annie Dillard and Joan Didion and pretty much every other writer out there wants to tell me about their "real-life" experiences, fine, I accept, and you should too, but they can't be trusted, and neither can you and neither can I. None of us can. This is where the story begins.

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Last modified 25 May 2005