“We all know something...but you'd be surprised at how many people are always letting go of the fact." Thornton Wilder in “Our Town.” This quote came (with message) from Tom Foral, a former classmate at NU where we were in classes with the legendary Alvina Krause. Tom is playing the Stage Manager in a local production of the beloved play back East.
I’d been mulling the subject of knowing things for weeks. It’s clearly human to want to know true stuff, even to know more than anyone else, especially things you’re not really supposed to know, but always in the back of our minds echoes Jack Nicholson sneering, “You can’t handle the truth!”
We could talk about facts. Good luck on googling that one. It’s a LOL project. So let’s move on to knowing. What is human “knowing?” Oddly, we know that there are a lot of things we don’t know, but we don’t know what they are. Like, we can conceive of something being greener than green, but not perceive it. The conception is not the perception. But we like to think that if we can think of something, it must exist. We can think of God, so therefore he (though how do we know God has gender?) must exist.
Brain research is evolving -- just as brains themselves evolved -- which is what the most exciting research is researching, and the methods are also evolving -- the very definition of “knowing” is now under reconsideration. The brain began with a knob at the top of the spine, evolving other parts on top of that as the organism in which it was located was also evolving in reciprocity. When the zygote develops in the womb, it follows the same sequence as evolution. There are arguments about when this budding creature can “feel” or “think,” most of which depends on how one defines “feeling” and “thinking.” Is feeling the ability to generate a reaction, like withdrawing from something harmful, which we might interpret as painful? I’d accept that. Is “thinking” the ability to record such an event so as to avoid it altogether in the future? I’d accept that. So what do we call the elaboration of those abilities into a fully operational human being capable of claiming “facts”?
I say “claiming” facts because clearly they change when there is new information. Pick a common topic, gender assignment. Until we could look at the genome we had no idea that it was a matter of entwined strings of molecular code. Then we saw that the “female” side of the code carried two X strings and the “male” side carried X and Y, but it was possible for a viable (more or less) zygote to go into humanhood with XXY and XYY strings. Then we thought gender might be more ambiguous than we believed but surely it was clear that the infant had a separate genome from the mother, even as it grew in her womb. Last night I listened to Radiolab.org’s podcast about “Fetal Consequences” (I LOVE Robert Krulwich, who has such an insouciant attitude towards facts!) Scientists gave us the fact that fetal cells (identifiable because of their genome) travel into the mother’s blood stream and inhabit her body for the rest of her life. And that, like a lot of startling facts, raised a lot of questions. Like, what does it mean? And the answer, like a lot of answers, is “we don’t know.”
We keep evolving new instruments that tell us more about the world and also about the instrument that is ourselves. No two people see the world in the same way because no two human bodies/instruments have the same perceiving equipment, let alone the same capacity to sort and “know” what information we have gathered. The first step in knowing is the knowledge of how little we really know. The next step might be curiosity about what others know that we don’t, and how much they know about us. Later on we’ll get around to what we know about them -- or don’t know.
The character Nicholson plays thinks he DOES know about everyone else but himself. He thinks he and those like him are the only ones who can handle the truth. Those like him. Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc? Naw, they’re civilians. He means hardened military men like himself who know what it is to be at war. That’s his truth: war. So let’s look at “handle,” what is “handling?” He means seeing war as inevitable, loss of life as necessary, lying and hiding are simply strategy made necessary by a contemptible nation, the obligation of every soldier to suck it up and stop having feelings. In short, he’s headed for post-traumatic stress syndrome. (My opinion. Not a fact. He’s fiction.) Facts, however, can be represented by fiction, and that’s presumably what the movie is up to.
What would the character’s mother consider a fact? I leave you to guess. My guess is that she didn’t tolerate her son lying and she located the bright line for him through the use of force. We know what we experience. If we think it’s a fact, we act on it. It sounds pretty clear that she expected her bright line to stay permanent and her son is not about to disagree.
But Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” is about opening hearts, reconsidering each other, seeing life while we are in it. A different kind of truth but knowing it is just as hard, as Emily discovers. Here’s a factoid: “In 1946, the Soviet Union prevented a production of Our Town in the Russian sector of occupied Berlin "on the grounds that the drama is too depressing and could inspire a German suicide wave."
The play was first presented in America in 1938 in Princeton, just before WWII, but it depicts a time just before WWI which we now think of as a time of innocence and grace before the fall. Not that we're hopeless now. I saved off the Internet a photo from a contemporary production in which Emily is white and George is black. Each speaks from the top of a ladder to show that they are upstairs in adjacent houses. We appear to be looking for new truths. We are a hopeful people. We CAN handle the truth but change is painful. This is what the Nicholson character is really telling us. And here’s “Emily’s” version. She can’t handle the truth.