Truth in Literature: A Comparative Perspective

It might seem hopelessly quaint, even naїve, to write about truth in literature in an age when, at least in the realm of theory, postmodernism and poststructuralism have accustomed us to be skeptical of truth. While both related (or at least often linked) theories are still prevalent, this article will argue that they have never been universally accepted and may be in the process of being succeeded by a new paradigm known as post-postmodernism. Moreover, there should be nothing privileged about any theory. Rather, theoretical perspectives in literature should be accepted only insofar as they prove useful in evaluating works of imagination, where there can be little claim to truth in a literal sense. It can, however, be argued that there is an aesthetic truth in literature that is different from literal truth and that postmodernists have overlooked in their general skepticism. As this article will further argue, there is value in assessing this kind of truth for the pragmatic reason that it helps to assess what is useful and important in literature, which will be basically defined here to mean fiction that addresses more serious concerns than simply entertainment.

The motivation to write this article about truth in literature, beyond its pragmatic utility, is the postmodern failure to consider aesthetic truth as a possibility. While the more radical among them would almost certainly reject the notion, this article will argue that it deserves to be considered. The methodology of this article will be to address statements about truth in literature by William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Joseph Conrad, and the philosopher Donald Sherburne, the last of whom coined the term, “aesthetic truth.” The article will then apply their notions to novels and short stories by Philip Roth, Franz Kafka, and Ernest Hemingway to show how their concepts help to find what can be considered aesthetic truths in those three disparate writers, including Roth’s American Pastoral, in which the narrator questions the possibility of truth. While the range of authors is necessarily limited, it does extend from modernists like Faulkner, Welty, Conrad, and arguably Kafka to a postmodernist in Roth and from American to European literature. What unites these writers is their use of imagination to illuminate reality. They can hardly be said to represent all of literature, but their approaches are different enough to provide a reasonable sample for purposes of discussion.

A good place to begin a consideration of the kinds of truth that can be found in literature is a well-known passage in one of the novels of William Faulkner. Although Faulkner’s prose was notoriously long-winded and difficult, one of his most famous quotations is comparatively brief and clear. It comes from his novel, The Town, where Faulkner’s lawyer and southern romanticist, Gavin Stevens, says, “Poets are almost always wrong about facts. That’s because they are not really interested in facts: only in truth; which is why the truth they speak is so true that even those who hate poets by simple natural instinct are exalted and terrified by it.”1 Although critic Irving Howe pegged Stevens as Faulkner’s “intellectual alter ego,”2 we cannot simply assume that the author necessarily agreed with this statement.

That he did is suggested by Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950 (seven years before the publication of The Town). There, Faulkner speaks of “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about. . . . the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” Later he adds “endurance” to his list and says, “The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.”3

These words seem to confirm that Faulkner did believe in the universal truths hinted at in Stevens’s statement, although in Faulkner from Within, William H. Rueckert advises his readers not to accept the Nobel speech “as a thematic key to [Faulkner’s] fictional creations.” Rueckert also writes, however, that what Faulkner says in the speech describes “in an accurate way the change in Faulkner’s vision . . . in all of his fictional works after 1942.”4 But since Stevens often says things in Faulkner’s novels that are clearly not as astute as his learning might imply they should be, there is still some doubt that his comment about truth should be taken at face value.

Arguably, though, in putting the words in Stevens’s mouth, Faulkner states his own beliefs. His long story, “The Bear,” supports this argument through the protagonist, Ike McCaslin’s statement, “Truth is one. It doesn’t change. It covers all things which touch the heart―honor and pride and pity and justice and courage and love.” Shortly after Ike says these words, he qualifies them: “what the heart holds to becomes truth, as far as we know truth.” Earlier in the same section of “The Bear,” Ike reflects on “two threads [of cotton] frail as truth.”5 So obviously Faulkner recognizes that truth is not something we can know absolutely, but the litany of truths here is similar to the one in the Nobel Prize acceptance speech. As usual in his writing, Faulkner recognizes the complexity and ambiguity of reality.

In February 1959, Faulkner’s editor at Random House, Albert Erskine, was checking the three novels of the trilogy, The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion, for discrepancies in the details they related. Faulkner wrote Erskine, agreeing to the fact checking. But he insisted that “the essential truth of these people and their doings, is the thing; the facts are not important.”6 This is totally in line with Gavin Stevens’s quotation about facts and truth. (Incidentally, it also provides an interesting comparison with the narrator’s statement in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: “But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”7)

Further evidence for Faulkner’s basic belief in truth comes indirectly from Bennett Cerf, co-founder of Random House, who quotes Faulkner in his Reminiscences as saying to Erskine when the editor pointed out the discrepancies after delivery of the manuscript for The Mansion: “That doesn’t prove a thing, Albert. As I wrote those books, I got to know the people better. By the time I did the third volume, I knew a lot more about them than I did in the first volume.” To this comment, Cerf appended “as though they were actually real people.”8 His comment to Erskine suggests that to Faulkner they were real and that through them, he was trying to reveal truths about reality. Irving Howe seems also to believe this when he writes in his critical study of Faulkner: “In some basic sense The Sound and the Fury is about modern humanity in New York―and apparently Paris―to the extent it is about modern humanity in Mississippi.” The novel, Howe added, “seems a terrible criticism not of the South alone but of the entire modern world.”9

Another theme of Faulkner that relates to truth and his deep sense of reality is the past. In Requiem for a Nun, he has Gavin Stevens respond to the statement by the deeply flawed Mrs. Gowan Stevens (Gavin’s niece by marriage) about her former, unmarried self, Temple Drake: “Temple Drake is dead.” To this, Gavin says, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.”10 This pithy statement can be interpreted as only specifically related to Gavin’s attempt to get the former Temple Drake to accept important aspects of her life and herself.

But that interpretation seems too limiting within the context of Faulkner’s other writings. His sense of the past, especially as universalized from the Southern experience about the Civil War, runs through much of Faulkner’s fiction. In Go Down Moses, for example, Faulkner has the narrator talk of protagonist Ike McCaslin’s education by Sam Fathers, son of a Choctaw chief: “gradually to the boy those old times [as related by Fathers] would cease to be old times and would become a part of the boy’s present, not only as if they had happened yesterday but as if they were still happening, the men who walked through them actually walking in breath and air and casting an actual shadow on the earth they had not yet quitted.”11 This is obviously less pithy than Gavin’s statement about the past but says the same basic thing. In a literal sense, what Gavin says to his niece by marriage is false, though true in the figurative sense of the longer quotation. This illustrates a statement by philosopher Donald Sherburne in his book, a Whiteheadian Aesthetic, that a “bluntly, clearly false” statement “can be aesthetically true in the highest degree.” Sherburne is referring specifically to Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.”12 Gavin’s two sentences are less “bluntly” false (i.e., literally implausible) than Kafka’s having Gregor Samsa wake up as an insect, but in the everyday sense of the term, the past is already over, hence dead.

An even clearer example of Sherburne’s point occurs in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, where Quentin Compson remembers a statement of his grandfather, a general in the Civil War: “no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.” The statement occurs in the context of “the long diminishing parade of time you didn’t hear [in the sense of hearing a clock or watch tick]”13 and is relevant to Faulkner’s point about the past because, according to Jean Paul Sartre’s interpretation, “Quentin sees the present only in terms of the past.”14

Faulkner nails down what he means about the past not being past in a statement made in 1957 while writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia. Answering a student’s question about the long sentences he usually wrote, Faulkner said:

There is no such thing really as was because the past is [my italics]. It is a part of every man, every woman, and every moment. All of his and her ancestry, background, is all a part of himself and herself at any moment. And so a man, a character in a story at any moment of action is not just himself as he is then, he is all that made him, and the long sentence is an attempt to get his past and possibly his future into the instant in which he does something.15

This statement has the advantage of offering one explanation of Faulkner’s long sentences, made fun of by critic Clifton Fadiman in his review of Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! Fadiman calls them “Non-Stop or Life Sentence[s],” and he writes, “To penetrate Mr. Faulkner’s sentences is like hacking your way through a jungle.” Of the novel as a whole, Fadiman opines that it is “the most consistently boring novel by a reputable writer to come my way during the last decade.”16

William Rueckert, by contrast, adjudges Absalom, Absalom! to be “Faulkner’s greatest, most complex, and most intricately narrated novel.” Rueckert does agree with Fadiman to the extent that he refers to the style of the novel as “so opaque as to be nearly impenetrable at times.” But Rueckert has a much more intricate and sophisticated (and not at all humorous) view of what he calls Faulkner’s “verbal density” in Absalom, Absalom! (and elsewhere) than does Fadiman. Rueckert writes that Faulkner’s “unbroken series of words . . . [his] handling of time and the jumbled release of narrative details” are “deliberate obstacles to the rapid taking in and comprehension of the fiction . . ., a stylistic trait deliberately employed to a specific end, even if Faulkner did it ‘unconsciously.’ ” This is an acknowledgement of “the complexity of things and the inability of the mind or imagination to reduce any of the truly difficult human questions to simple terms.”17 We may interpret Rueckert here to mean that Faulkner’s style created the ineffability necessary to express the ambiguity and impenetrability of reality―itself a kind of truth, although one that at least moderate postmodernists might accept.

To return to Sherburne, his difficult and little known study corroborates two other points about Faulkner, made above: even though Sherburne does not mention Faulkner, who in turn is unlikely to have known about Sherburne’s Whiteheadian Aesthetic, published in 1961, only a year before the novelist’s death. Sherburne argues, in line with what was said above about Faulkner and reality, “art is not a realm apart, it is a realm indissolubly linked to the world, to reality.”18 And with regard to Faulkner’s differentiation (through Gavin Stevens) of facts and truth, Sherburne himself distinguishes between a “literal sense of truth” and “truth in art.” He writes that “falsehoods are of great aesthetic importance—grass in paintings need not be green; people in novels need not act as our neighbors do. A man couldn’t wake up one morning as a cockroach, but Kafka’s story [“The Metamorphosis”] is a work of art.” What is “aesthetically true,” he says, has to be “compatible with . . . dim emotional patterns.” He emphasizes “truths of feeling” in much the way that Faulkner does, as quoted above.19

But in an age of postmodern skepticism about truth, can we trust Faulkner’s (as well as Sherburne’s and this article’s) views about truth in literature? Two philosophers, Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugom Olsen have written a lengthy book entitled Truth, Fiction, and Literature in which they reject literature’s truth claims. Although neither critic cites Sherburne’s earlier book (1961) nor Faulkner, each seems to disagree with the specific notion of aesthetic truth (though not aesthetic value). Certainly Lamarque and Olsen’s skeptical view of truth in literature is complex in that they distinguish between literature and fiction and reject truth in literature while accepting that we can learn from it. Thus, they argue in Truth, Fiction, and Literature: “We have denied that literary value can be located in a truth-telling function. At the same time we have argued that ‘literature’ is an evaluative concept, which bears with it a commitment to some sort of universalist view of value.” They accept that “works of fiction” (distinguished from literature in terms of the “literary aesthetic value” and “humanly interesting content” in literature) “can . . . be about all of us but not about any one of us” and that we can “learn from fiction.”20

These quotations from the two philosophers are consistent with their admission that “the problems of the relationship between literature and fiction have no obvious solutions,” but Lamarque and Olsen do insist: “the problem itself is at least clearly defined in relation to the description of particular characters, situations, events, actions, plots, etc. which constitute this level of a literary work.” Further complicating the picture, they argue that for many commentators, “although literary works are not literally true, . . . they are none the less metaphorically true.” Lamarque and Olsen themselves reject this view, stating “the unfamiliar juxtapositions effected by metaphor can, on a modest view, reveal previously unnoticed aspects of the world or, on more radical views, even create new realities. But this does not solve the truth problem.” Ultimately, what the two philosophers seem to conclude is that “literature like philosophy challenges the reader to make his own construction, to invest time and effort in reaching a deeper insight into the great themes, though this insight is ‘literary.’ ” And: “When we reject literary truth we do not reject literary value, even of a cognitive kind, properly understood.” This last point is perhaps best elucidated by one further quotation: “Much of what we know about life, mortality, pride and prejudice we have learned from fiction, not by adopting ‘the attitude of scientific investigation’ but by an imaginative engagement with fictive content which can be judged to be about these conceptions.”21 In short, although Lamarque and Olsen do not accept the concept of aesthetic truth per se, they do accept the existence of value in literature in a way that is not far removed from what Faulkner, Sherburne, and this article have been arguing.

Lamarque and Olsen are not postmodernists,22 despite their skepticism about truth, and writers of a postmodern persuasion would be even less likely than they are to accept literature as providing essential truths about reality, however aesthetic. But throughout our allegedly postmodern age, critics and book reviewers have not stopped referring to truths in literature.23 And postmodernism itself may be passing out of fashion in favor of a category that has been clumsily labeled post-postmodernism, which is not yet clearly defined.24 When (or if) it is clarified, it, too, will not last forever but will be succeeded by another viewpoint in the same way that postmodernism succeeded modernism.

In the meantime, whether or not we fully accept Sherburne’s argument for aesthetic truths as relating to reality, his and Faulkner’s views about truth as distinguished from mere facts can be useful in discerning what is of value in works of literature. Calling them aesthetic truths does not obviate the certainty that truth is elusive. We can accept that much from postmodernism. But the concept of aesthetic truth does have a pragmatic utility.

This can be illustrated, for example, by an examination of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, American Pastoral. This is a particularly interesting example because the novel is often considered to be a representative of postmodernism in literature. Yet Faulkner’s conception of truth works as a way to interpret it. Roth’s novel tells the story of Seymour “Swede” Levov, a Jewish athlete and businessman who acquires his nickname from his Nordic appearance. He marries a beauty queen of Irish extraction (Miss New Jersey), has a daughter called Merry (short for Meredith), and moves from a Jewish section of Newark to a non-Jewish suburb of the city. Merry becomes a radical opponent of the war in Vietnam, blows up a post office in protest, and in the process, kills a person outside, who is mailing a letter. This act destroys the lives of her parents, though they, too, oppose the war. Merry goes into hiding and, according to her comments in a later meeting with her father, explodes more bombs in protest, killing more innocent people. By the time of the meeting she has become a radical Jain and refuses to eat much or even wash so as not to injure other living beings of any kind, including bacteria.

Roth’s narrator is his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who reflects on truth in the early part of the novel: “The sight of a coffin going into the ground can effect a great change of heart―all at once you find you are not so disappointed in this person who is dead―but what the sight of a coffin does for the mind in its search for the truth, this I don’t profess to know.” He also says, “That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.”―a curious (though unstated) inversion of the basis of Descartes’s epistemology, “I think, therefore I am.” Zuckerman/Roth also states about Seymour, “He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach―that it makes no sense.” In one other place, the narrator quotes himself in a conversation, “Writing turns you into somebody who is always wrong.” Then on p. 83 of the novel, Roth has Zuckerman shift from a self-reflective narrator making these skeptical comments about truth to an omniscient author telling Seymour and Merry’s story in the third person with quoted dialogue that Zuckerman could not plausibly have taken precise notes about.25

Zuckerman’s comments about truth, whether Roth agreed or not, at least superficially separate this novel from Faulkner’s claims for truth in writing and Sherburne’s related conception of aesthetic truth. Yet in the largest part of Roth’s novel, the part narrated omnisciently by Zuckerman, Faulkner’s “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself,” which he identifies with universal truths, are movingly evoked in Seymour’s states of mind, as are Merry’s sacrifices for what she believes in: first radical opposition to the war and then an equally radical Jainism, which of course conflicts with her violence in supporting her earlier belief.26

Here, some views of Eudora Welty, a great admirer of Faulkner, and also of Joseph Conrad come into play and help to make sense of Roth’s complex novel. In On Writing, Welty holds that “Making reality real is art’s responsibility.” She says this could be achieved through “a cultivated sensitivity for observing life, a capacity for receiving its impressions, a lonely, unremitting, unaided, unavoidable vision” to be transferred “without distortion . . . onto the pages of a novel.” Here, it seems, Welty means to equate the reality made real by art with life and with truth about it. 27 She writes, “Human life is fiction’s only theme.” And, a bit later, “it is not to escape his life but more to pin it down that [a writer] writes fiction.” She also states that Faulkner’s novels about his invented Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi are “twice as true as life.” And relatedly, in novelist Joseph Conrad’s preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ he writes that his task is, “by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel . . . before all to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.” 28 This obviously is highly similar to Welty’s comment about reality and also to Faulkner’s and Sherburne’s statements about art and feeling, through which it is related to their conceptions about art and truth.

In accordance with Welty’s dictum, the later sections of Roth’s novel (as distinguished from the self-reflective comments of Zuckerman in the earlier sections) make the complexities of reality real, and Roth also makes the reader feel the horrors Seymour experienced, per Conrad’s prescription about the power of “the written word to make you hear, to make you feel.”

Faulkner, Welty, and Conrad are likewise helpful in elucidating Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.”29 The pathos that Kafka does not state but implicitly evokes in the character of Gregor Samsa―as contrasted with the egotism of his family―Samsa’s sacrifice and the pity we feel for him30 (without any rhetorical suggestion from Kafka) fit into Faulkner’s universal truths. James Wood makes a different point about truth in “The Metamorphosis.” After admitting that truth in fiction is highly problematic, Wood writes that while the story does not portray “likely or typical human activity,” it is nevertheless “harrowingly truthful. This, we say to ourselves, is what it would feel like to be outcast from one’s family, like an insect.” Also “strik[ing] us with [its] truth” is “Gregor Samsa, being pushed [actually, chased] back into his room by his own, horrified father.”31 And, as seen above, Sherburne sees the story as art without explaining exactly what is artistic about it. 32 But clearly, as quoted above, he sees Kafka’s masterpiece as exhibiting aesthetic truth.

Of course, it is something of a paradox to associate Kafka with truth since, in the words of one of his biographers, “he set out to find the truth and discovered instead its infinite ambiguity.”33 Kafka himself writes in “Prometheus,” “The legend tried to explain the inexplicable. As it came out of a substratum of truth it had in turn to end in the inexplicable.”34 The same could be said of all Kafka’s stories, which range in type from parables to fantasies. Perhaps Kafka’s major truth is that life and reality are in essence incomprehensible, absurd, and futile, as he well illustrates in his posthumous novel, The Trial, which he had asked his friend Max Brod to burn. Fortunately for us, Brod did not comply with this wish.35 Faulkner’s novels suggest he would agree about the ambiguity and the inexplicability of truth, and Kafka certainly makes his particular view of reality absolutely real in Welty’s sense and makes the reader feel its palpability in accordance with Conrad’s dictum.

Further illustrating the utility of Faulkner’s conception of truth in literature as well as the perceptions of Welty and Conrad is Ernest Hemingway’s Spanish Civil War novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. In it, Hemingway presents the nature of the war and of Spain through the narration and self-reflections of his fictional (if partly autobiographical) character, Robert Jordan, a former Spanish instructor at the University of Montana who journeys to Spain to fight in the war. Jordan as narrator also quotes dialogue with other characters in a guerilla band he partners with. Jordan has become a specialist in demolitions and is sent by a general on the Republican side to work with the guerillas to destroy a strategic bridge in support of an offensive against Franco’s anti-Republican forces. Through the narrative and the different perspectives of the characters, Hemingway succeeds in portraying the atrocities committed by both sides in the war.36

The novel provided an artistic and balanced picture of the war through the microcosm of the guerilla band and its members plus a number of other characters whom Jordan reflects about and quotes. Hemingway’s narrator makes the characters in the book come alive, causing the reader to share their emotions, to grieve with them over their dead, and to empathize with all of the suffering the war brings. This is so despite the “lack of political sophistication” with respect to events in Spain that Kenneth Lynn attributes to Hemingway in his acclaimed biography of the author.37 Nevertheless, the novel exhibits Faulkner’s point in his Nobel acceptance speech about love, compassion, and sacrifice as constituting universal truths. Clearly, Hemingway’s account in no way presents literal truths, but it does, I think, capture the feel of the war, an example of Welty’s “making reality real” as well as Conrad’s description of his task as a writer.

Even more, perhaps, than most novels, For Whom the Bell Tolls has been evaluated in widely disparate ways by critics. J. Donald Adams calls the novel ““the fullest, the deepest, the truest book that Hemingway has ever written.”38 Ralph Thompson characterizes the novel in a 1940 review as “a tremendous piece of work,” adding “the bell that began tolling in Madrid four years ago [when the Spanish Civil War began] is audible everywhere today [France having recently fallen to Nazi Germany].” Thompson even claims, “the dialogue, handled as though in translation from the Spanish, is incomparable. . . . A few of the scenes are perfect. . . . Others are intense and terrifying, still others gentle and almost pastoral, if here and there a trifle sweet.” It is, he proclaims, Hemingway’s “finest novel.”39

Distinguished critic Edmund Wilson writes in only partial agreement, “Hemingway the artist is with us again; and it is like having an old friend back.” But Wilson holds that the novel’s shape is “sometimes slack and sometimes bulging.” He also criticizes the narration of the love affair between a character named Maria and Jordan. Lynn himself assesses the book in terms of Hemingway’s dark psychology and the novelist’s own biography. The biographer also points out that Communists had attacked the novel for its portrayal of the Communists in Spain. At the same time, Dwight Macdonald, an opponent of Stalinism, criticized the portrayal of anarchists. This appears to indicate the balance of the novel, though Lynn does not say so. However that may be, Lynn believes that “while the novel’s most memorable action scenes had the immediacy and fluidity of a motion picture, they also were suffused with the magic of Hemingway’s language.”40

In short, while truth is elusive, whether in works that attempt to portray reality in a more or less literal way through journalism, history, political science, economics, sociology, and anthropology, or in literature, which offers more aesthetic kinds of truths, the views of Faulkner, allied with those of Sherburne, Welty, Conrad and others are worthy of consideration even in a still at least partly postmodern age. While we may not be fully able to accept them in an uncritical way, they are helpful in a pragmatic sense in elucidating themes from literature that have at least a ring of truth and help us to understand our world in a deeper way than we can grasp without their help. This is even the view of Lamarque and Olsen, even though, as we have seen, they did not accept the notion of truth in literature.41 And this is something that the skepticism of postmodernism, post-structuralism, and other recent paradigms do not help us to do.

The framework of ideas from Faulkner, Sherburne, Welty, and Conrad has wider application than could be illustrated specifically in this article. It clearly could help to illuminate classical as well as contemporary works of literature ranging from, for example, the writings of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Hardy to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other writers of postmodern and magic realist fiction and to Jhumpa Lahiri, who arguably is post-postmodern. This framework perhaps hearkens back to the older paradigm of humanism in a sense, but it does so in a way that recognizes postmodernism’s elusiveness of literal truth. Yet it recognizes values in literature that postmodernism and its allied paradigms would reject. This does not mean that all postmodernists do so. This can be shown by a conversation between Günter Grass and Salmon Rushdie, who often are considered magic realists, a category closely allied with postmodernism.

Their discussion takes place in 1985. In it, Grass says that in the post-World War II period the official position about the Nazis “didn’t tell the truth.” He wanted, he says, to show that all the atrocities the Nazis committed “happened in clear daylight.” So he tried in his novels The Tin Drum (published in 1959 in German) and Dog Years (1963 in German) to tell the story of how Germany went “slowly, with all knowledge, into crime. Political crime.” Rushdie responds, “What you’re saying is . . . that the fiction is telling the truth at a time in which the people who claimed to be telling the truth were making things up. You have politicians or the media or whoever, the people who form opinion, who are, in fact, making the fictions. And it becomes the duty of the writer of fiction to start telling the truth.” Grass does not respond directly to this comment, but he obviously agrees. A bit later in the conversation, he speaks of fairytales and says, “They are telling truth. The flying horse is really flying.”42 Clearly Grass does not mean this literally but in the sense that Rushdie speaks about stories like the Arabian Nights in which carpets fly, “the belief was that by telling stories in that . . . marvelous way, you could actually tell a kind of truth which you couldn’t tell in other ways.” 43

This conversation, although it does not use the word “aesthetic,” clearly is talking about the same kind of truth in literature that Faulkner and Sherburne discuss in the quotations above. This convergence of viewpoint provides a kind of postmodern imprimatur upon Faulkner’s and Sherburne’s views, and thereby, upon the arguments made in this article.

Finally, in their quotations about emotions, Faulkner, Sherburne, and Conrad help us to grasp what is beautiful in many novels that evoke Faulkner’s “problems of the human heart” and that make the reader feel, hear, and see, as Conrad says. These are not the only ways in which novels can be beautiful, but they help to understand some of the beauty of novels which such theories as postmodernism and deconstruction totally fail to capture because of their emphases on uncertainty and finding contradictions. Nevertheless, beauty is a difficult concept either to define or to pin down. As Eudora Welty wrote, “beauty is not a blatant or promiscuous or obvious quality; indeed, it is associated with reticence, with stubbornness, of a number of kinds. . . . beauty we may know, when we see it.” She also associates it with truth.44

Clearly, however, neither her association here of beauty and truth nor the more famous ones of Plato and Keats 45 are in any way definitive or simple. And her subjective view of beauty as something we know when we see it is valid in the sense that not everyone agrees on what is beautiful any more than critics agree in their interpretations of literature. But not everyone accepts beauty as being subjective in nature. It is perhaps suggestive of the problems of associating truth and beauty that Lamarque and Olsen in Truth, Fiction, and Literature do not even include the words beauty and beautiful in their index, even though both men are aesthetic philosophers. Thus it may be more relevant for us to conclude this article by repeating their quotation about the utility of literature: “Much of what we know about life, mortality, pride and prejudice we have learned from fiction, not by adopting ‘the attitude of scientific investigation’ but by an imaginative engagement with fictive content which can be judged to be about these conceptions.” The ideas of Faulkner, Sherburne, Welty, and Conrad together with Sherburne’s conception of aesthetic truth help us to pinpoint what it is that we can learn from literature in ways that cannot be simply stated in terms of eternal truths or the master narratives so criticized by postmodernism. Such knowledge is too ineffable to be straightforwardly articulated, but it is imbedded in the prose of the greatest of our novels in ways that engaged readers can equate with wisdom if not necessarily with beauty.

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