June 10th, 2012

"Truths People Can't Fight"

Two characters in A.S. Byatt's Possession have a conversation about how every age is enslaved to "truths" that are so big, so universally accepted that no-one can get out of their shadow. For our own age (Byatt was writing in the 80s but I think the observation still holds good) the big, universally accepted truth is the Freudian one that sex is at the root of everything. One of Byatt's people momentarily rebels. A feminist reading of a Victorian poem that interprets a description of landscape in terms of the female body makes him queasy. He wants to see through other eyes-  for a pool to be just a pool, not a metaphor for bodily secretions, for maidenhair fern to be nothing but itself- and of course he can't. 

This slavery to "truths people can't fight" makes it very hard for us to understand the past. We can't unlearn our "truths" even if we suspect them of being bogus.  The Victorians' innocence of Freud shuts them off from us. And not only is it a case of us "knowing" things they didn't know but also of us having escaped the spell of the "truths" they couldn't question. How can we imagine ourselves back into a world in which "respectability" was all important and religious controversies we have either solved to our satisfaction or lost interest in were a matter of private and public obsession?