“The task of truth is divided among us, to the number of us… We must grasp the Subject with the tongs of our individual littleness; take the measure of it with what we are.”
“Teller and listener, each fulfills the other’s expectations,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her beautiful meditation on the magic of real human communication. “The living tongue that tells the word, the living ear that hears it, bind and bond us in the communion we long for in the silence of our inner solitude.” But what exactly is this act of telling that transfigures our isolation into communion — how, why, and what do we actually tell, and to whom do we tell it?
That’s what the poet Laura Riding (January 16, 1901–September 2, 1991) set out to explore half a century ago.
Eleven years after she composed her extraordinary letters of life-advice to an eight-year-old girl, Riding renounced her vocation, feeling that she had “reached poetry’s limit” as a means of probing human truth and that there existed “something better in our linguistic way of life than we have.” She fell in love with TIME magazine poetry critic Schuyler B. Jackson and became Laura (Riding) Jackson. The Jacksons went on to live a humble yet intensely intellectual life in Florida, working as citrus farmers to fund their work on an ambitious, unorthodox dictionary that distilled each word into a single definition.
But Jackson, animated by her intense love of language, remained restless about the problem of truth’s articulation. It took her a quarter century to formulate just why she had abandoned poetry and what greater frontiers of truth-telling there may be. Her formulation first appeared in the New York magazine Chelsea in 1967 and later became the small, immensely profound book The Telling (public library) — an unusual manifesto for the existential necessity of living for truth.
Jackson frames the promise of the book in a prefatory note:
Life of the human kind has been lived preponderantly so far according to the needs of the self as felt to be the possession of itself. This self-claiming self is a human-faced creature, existing in the multiple form of a loose number reckonable only as “the human aggregate.” The needs of this self issue from a diffuse greed, which is imparted from one to the other in garrulous sociality.
There is an alternative self, a human-faced soul-being, a self conscious of ourselves who bear in manifold individualness, each singly, the burden of the single sense of the manifold totality. This self is implicated in the totality as a speaking self of it, owing it words that will put the seal of the Whole upon it. On what we each may thus say depends the happiness of the Whole, and our own (every happiness of other making being destined to disappear into the shades of the predetermined nothingness of the self-claiming self, which encircle it.)
The book is structured like Pascal’s Pensées and Descartes’s The Passions of the Soul — as a series of short meditations each presented in a numbered paragraph. In the first, Jackson considers our primal hunger for the telling of core human truths yet untold:
There is something to be told about us for the telling of which we all wait. In our unwilling ignorance we hurry to listen to stories of old human life, new human life, fancied human life, avid of something to while away the time of unanswered curiosity. Many of the lesser things concerning us have been told, but the greater things have not been told; and nothing can fill their place. Whatever we learn of what is not ourselves, but ours to know, being of our universal world, will likewise leave the emptiness an emptiness. Until the missing story of ourselves is told, nothing besides told can suffice us: we shall go on quietly craving it.
In the fourth fragment, she suggests that at the heart of the pervasive sense that our stories are unheard lies the fact that they are first and foremost untold:
Everywhere can be seen a waiting for words that phrase the primary sense of human-being, and with a human finality, so that the words themselves are witness to what they tell… In the eyes of all (in the opaque depths in them of unacknowledged presentness to one another) are mirrored (but scarcely discerned) concourses where our souls ever secretly assemble, in expectation of events of common understanding that continually fail to occur. We wait, all, for a story of us that shall reach to where we are. We listen for our own speaking; and we hear much that seems our speaking, yet makes us strange to ourselves.
She considers how our cultural modes of truth-telling fragment rather than unify our truths:
How our story has been divided up among the truth-telling professions! Religion, philosophy, history, poetry, compete with one another for our ears; and science competes with all together. And for each we have a different set of ears. But, though we hear much, what we are told is as nothing: none of it gives us ourselves, rather each story-kind steals us to make its reality of us.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s prescient admonition that “information will never replace illumination,” Jackson adds:
The time, in love with easy knowledge and fast knowledge, has created a new materialism to minister to the appetites of the intellect. Human things are broken up into unreal pieces by this hasty learning-lust, studied in their supposed particulars at scientific remove; and in their reality they are far less visible through science’s glass than with the naked eye of human selfhood.
How can it be that there is both a waiting, everywhere, for true words of ourselves, and a not-waiting? … a hunger both kept pure, unprofaned by false satisfaction, and stilled with the state of expedient alternatives to our truth? We are both purely and impurely ourselves: … purely, in that we are ourselves, and impurely, in that we do not know our whole nature, and live much in misknowledge of ourselves, part-corrupted into what we are not. Thus has it ever been with us. But we have reached the end of the possibility of self-ignorance, and can no longer draw on innocence to purge us of self-mistaking.
Truth, Jackson suggests, is a quietly self-propagating organism, the ultimate corrective:
Truth rings no bells. When we have corrected ourselves with ourselves, joined that of us which sustained us in false notions of our truth to that of us which sustained us in our waiting for our truth itself, we shall have the force of truth in us, and immediately begin to speak true. Later, we shall know that we have begun to speak true by an increased hunger for true-speaking; we shall have the whole hunger only after we have given ourselves the first taste of it.
In a passage of particular prescience amid our age of oppression by untruth, and in resonance with Hannah Arendt’s timeless inquiry into how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression, Jackson considers the vital self-protection and self-liberation which the telling of our truths makes possible:
We can best defend ourselves against those who would crowd us all into a prison of shrunken-destiny … by knowing our missing story, and dwelling in it, as in the home of our thought. Let them move us to take our souls fully unto ourselves, and to speak from soul-self to one another as ourselves in truth: that speaking will be our story, and it will silence them. To defeat them we need only to tell our truth, which is theirs also.
Our truth cannot be all-told, from the beginning told, unless we tell it to one another.
Such a commitment to mutual truth-telling, Jackson asserts, is the only real force of unity across our innumerable differences, which cannot and should not be eradicated but can be and must be understood. In her closing paragraphs, framed in extended parentheses, she writes:
Among human beings there are true differences of understanding, come of their having spoken so little with one another as beings of the one life-story. By speaking out of their different story-sense of human-being to one another, the differers can learn their life-sameness, and the different understandings be loosed to join.
In a sentiment of chilling relevance to our climate of “alternative facts” wielded by exploitive politicians as a weapon of separation and polarization, Jackson adds:
But — yes — there are also false differences of understanding. There are inventors of difference, bent greedily on having their own to say… Those of false-different understanding who might press forward to have a part in the making of our truth, stealing the name of it for their inventions, could do nothing other than follow the trace of old falsity, drawing the false circles that turn back upon themselves half-way. There is nothing new of false truth to suffer from. It will be repeated to the extinction of its capability of seeing new, true; we shall suffer from it only to the extinction of our capacity for being deceived.
A decade later, Jackson wrote in piece titled “A Preface for a Second Reading” accompanying the 1972 edition of the book:
My purpose is to remind us that there remain still to be told the fundamentals of our being, and that we are the natural tellers of them — each a natural teller of a story of which we and Everything, together, are the Subject, the story of ourselves and everything that touches on us, everything we touch on… The task of truth is divided among us, to the number of us — however large truth’s subject is, truth can be no more than the speaking of an exact self, a being exactly one (nor can it be less). We must grasp the Subject with the tongs of our individual littleness; take the measure of it with what we are.
The Telling is a beautiful, pleasantly challenging and thought-expanding read in its entirety. Complement it with Le Guin’s “Telling Is Listening,”, Toni Morrison on how to be your own story, and Hannah Arendt on thinking vs. knowing and the crucial difference between truth and meaning.
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