Front Page Reviews & AIR
The Truth Is Out There
“Here’s a theory for you to…disregard…completely…”
- Lester Bangs in Almost Famous
Sometimes the truth can only come to us as a question, or as a hope for an answer rather than the answer itself. Regardless of what you believe—about the nature of the universe, what is known and unknown, the empirical data, the legitimacy of religion or psychology—the most basic questions and elemental yearnings remain. The greatest of these questions has become somewhat of a cliché, yet it remains forever unanswered: “Why?” Art pursues this question in a unique way that neither science nor theology can quite explain, and I believe this is why art has persisted throughout human history. Art expresses what some have called “emotional truth,” but I believe it goes deeper than just a feeling. Some psychologists will tell you that the ambiguities of art leave room for us to fill in what we want to believe, to craft our own satisfying answers to life’s eternal questions. And thus, they say, art is a coping mechanism, something to mollify our belief that there is a meaning to things. According to this line of reasoning, when we hear that song or see that movie and feel it is speaking directly to us, it is only because we want to believe we are the center of significance in the universe. And maybe it’s like that for some people, but I think it goes deeper. I would argue that art is indeed a window into the truths that cannot be expressed by explanations, no matter how logically reasoned. Great art bypasses our defense mechanisms and goes straight to the core of our being—beyond simply “emotional truth”—giving us a glimpse of a truth we may not see any other way.
I think this is why the best songwriters refuse to explain their songs. Bob Dylan famously bristled at the question of what his songs meant, “If you like ‘em, you like ‘em, if you don’t, you don’t, ok?” Paul Simon once said that the lyrics to one of his songs came from the fact that he “liked the sound of the vowels.” I don’t think it’s just false modesty going on here. I think these guys realize that the reason they deal in songs, like painters deal in color, is because what they are saying simply can’t be said any other way. There’s no way of telling you what Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” means, any more than you can make a proof out of the truths in "Desolation Row." That said, I still think the mystery they’re after is worth delving into, not for the sake of explanation, but to illustrate the singular power of art as it relates to truth.
I’ve always been moved by a Tom Waits song called “Georgia Lee.” It is one of the saddest songs I know, but I’m not usually one to go for a song this hopelessly sad. Usually I like sad songs about loneliness or breakups, the idea being that the heartbreak is ennobled by the fact that the love was true. But “Georgia Lee” is something different. It tells the story of a young girl, presumably murdered for no good reason, found dead in a “small grove of trees.” Obviously sad. But what gets me is the refrain, which isn’t angry or even particularly pleading:
Why wasn’t God watching?
Why wasn’t God listening?
Why wasn’t God there for Georgia Lee?
It is a simple question, and an eternal one. It has confounded theologians for years. And, while science may tell us that there is no answer, that shit just happens, we don’t seem to be satisfied with that, either. We keep asking. Why do these things happen? Why did no one seem to care about Georgia Lee, not even God? In this song, Waits captures the question in the simplest of terms, cutting right to the heart of it. As for an answer, the most he offers is this bit of narrative:
There’s a toad in the witch grass
There’s a crow in the corn
Wildflowers along by the road
And somewhere a baby is crying for her mom
As the hills turn from green back to gold
In other words, this is how it has always been. There have always been “crows in the corn,” the wolves among us while the wildflowers grow. And so it will continue, through new generations, as the seasons march on. So why do I find this somehow comforting, in the face of this pointless death and hopeless sadness? I mean, this isn’t an answer at all. And yet, I believe in the truth of it. I don’t know how else to explain it, other than to say, “Yes. You’ve said it, Tom.” Sometimes we don’t have the answer. Sometimes the truth is in the question. And this is something only art can do, turning an unanswerable question into a truth that touches the core of our being. The reason we keep the question inside is because the scientist or the theologian (or even a good friend) would want to offer an answer, and that isn’t exactly what we’re looking for. Deep down we know that the answer cannot be known, at least not here, not now. Art allows us a meaningful way to simply acknowledge the question.
I’ve recently been re-watching one of my favorite shows on Netflix: "The X-Files." For anyone unfamiliar with the show, one of the central storylines follows Fox Mulder’s quest to find his long-lost sister, who he believes was abducted by aliens when they were kids. For seven seasons he is teased with answers, only to find more questions. Along the way, Mulder is forced to question everything he believes, including his own memories; he has been lied to so many times that he thinks he may also be lying to himself. Finally, as he closes in on the truth, he admits that he just wants it to be over. He realizes this after failing to find his sister in a burial ground of children abducted by a serial killer. The story of these children parallels the story of Georgia Lee, begging the question of why these horrible things happen to the innocent. Like Waits, Mulder’s answer is also not a concrete answer. Yet it takes a different form than Waits’ question; Mulder’s response is a hope. As the Moby song “My Weakness” begins to play, we see a vision of the dead children resurrected in the moonlight, laughing and playing, as Mulder reveals his hope:
“The eyes of the dead were closed, as if waiting for permission to open. Were they still dreaming of ice cream and monkey bars, of birthday cake and no future but the afternoon? Or had their innocence been taken along with their lives, buried in the cold earth so long ago? These fates seemed too cruel for even God to allow. Or are the tragic young born again when the world’s not looking? I want to believe so badly in a truth beyond our own, hidden and obscured from all but the most sensitive eyes, in the endless procession of souls, in what cannot and will not be destroyed I want to believe we are unaware of God’s eternal recompense and sadness, that we cannot see his truth, that that which is born still lives and cannot be buried in the cold earth, but only waits to be born again at God’s behest, where in ancient starlight we lay in repose.”
Mulder’s hope is not really an answer, but I believe it is a truth. It is an articulation of the hope of countless religions, cultures, and individuals throughout human history. And I should mention that this scene never fails to make me weep uncontrollably—for it is my hope as well. The whole point is that it is not a literal explanation of any sort of answer. It is only an artful articulation of the hope buried in so many of us, even if we feel foolish for putting it into words. For words are very literal things, and our world very material. And, while we are comforted by the fact that the scientists pursue the empirical truth and the theologians pursue the spiritual, we still turn to art to touch that place inside of us that nothing else can: the truth of the imagination.