The Lie of Truth
The idea that “truth” as we know it isn’t true is hard to swallow. It’s one of those mind-bending concepts that turns your world upside down if you think about it too hard. So, most of the time, you don’t. You accept what is called truth and leave it at that. You live your life based on the things Nietzsche calls “[lying] according to a fixed convention” (117) and call yourself honest while condemning those who lie differently from you. It’s convoluted, but it isn’t complex. Our truths are nothing more than metaphor, made-up concepts with a label stamped on top telling us they’re real, telling us: “This is poison. This is wine.” when both are simply water. But, unknowingly, we drink. And we drink. And we drink. And then, someday, we forget the labels are there at all, taking them as part of what we drink, and not questioning it once.
Of course, we’re all in this stage now of not seeing the labels. We are all in this stage of taking the truth for what it claims to be because it’s all we’ve ever known. So, apart from that hard-to-swallow aspect of this new view of reality, there is the challenge of considering something you have been trained your whole life not to see. In order to do this, to see the world as the mask of language it is, we must look to language itself: to literature, in all the ways it attempts to peel those labels from the glass.
Jack London’s White Fang provides a particularly useful lens through which to see the invention of truth. Throughout the course of the novel, the reader is tasked with following the life not of a human but of a wolf. London uses language to get inside the beast’s head; in his attempt to show us reality from the wolf’s point of view, he must alter true and false—must create a new reality—by redefining the lies that are good and the lies that are bad. The fact he is able to do this, and successfully, insists there is no ultimate truth in the name of things, and the set of metaphors we use to define this world are in no way tied to it.
The third and fourth chapters in Part II of White Fang deal with the early life of the wolf by that name. Titled “The Gray Cub” and “The Wall of the World,” respectively, these chapters explore the development of the young wolf as he struggles from birth to make his entrance into the world. The character White Fang learns to understand his world by naming and classifying the things he encounters. Though, as the narrator explains, “the gray cub [is] not given to… the kind of thinking customary of men” (London 82), London and his readers are, and the only way he can unveil the perception of the growing cub to them is by laying it out according to “man-fashion” (86) reasoning. So White Fang creates his own syntax and, with it, a worldview. In doing so, he models how we, as humans, have created—have fabricated—ours.
The wolf cub spends the first weeks of his life in a small cave with his parents and the rest of the litter. The dangers of the wild are made immediately apparent to the cub, and, before long, White Fang and his mother are the only survivors of their clan. The world he inhabits is a cruel and unusual one. Life is subject to change—or disappear entirely—at any moment; the only constant for the cub is the cave around him. To White Fang, this cave is all there is of existence. As soon as he can open his eyes, White Fang begins “to learn his world quite well” (78). The narrator comments, “His world [is] gloomy; but he [does] not know that, for he [knows] no other world” (78). See, the wolf cannot know ‘gloomy’ without context. His is an isolated life, with no outside world to compare to and no inherited vocabulary to fill gaps in experience. All that is available to White Fang are four sides of stone, and stone, and stone, and light that encompass him. So London builds his reality with language—shows the reader how, as each thing gets a name, its truth becomes a part of the cub’s worldview.
So let’s start with something simple. Let’s start with the walls. The cave in which White Fang is born has walls in every direction. Take a moment. Let that sink in. The cave has walls in every direction. These walls are made of solid rock; they are hard, and gray, and hurt the tip of the little cub’s nose. All except one. This last wall he doesn’t come into contact with for quite some time, but he learns from his mother’s reproaches that this wall, like the others, is something he must not approach with his tender snout. Unlike every other wall of his world, this last is bright, white almost, but it still has those characteristics which define the quality of wall-ness in his mind: it exists as a landmark of the edge of his world. White Fang comes to know this particular boundary as “the wall of light,” but, as much as he is aware that this “one wall of his world [is] different from the rest,” he knows it—first and foremost—as a wall.
Of course, to those of us who were raised learning “wall”, “floor”, “ceiling”, “door” since before we could speak, this seems absurd. We can accept it, maybe, as a beast’s formulation, but never as a legitimate concept! A cave mouth is simply not a wall. A door, perhaps, or a window, but never a wall. If we take a step back, however, we should be able to understand. What is ‘wall,’ but something we’ve named the thing? Or ‘mur’, or ‘mauer’, or whatever else you like. It is beside the point. Through our many human languages, we have defined the concept of wall, but repetition doesn’t make it any less of a fabrication. Go ahead and bang on whatever is behind you. What you feel is not wall. It is plaster and paint, brick, concrete, drywall, wood, glass… but it is not wall. Nothing is, inherently. So when White Fang names the wall of light, a wall it becomes. ‘Entrance’, on the other hand, has no meaning in this walled-in cave world. White Fang “[does] not know anything about entrances—passages whereby one goes from one place to another place” (81). How could he, when he has never been to another place, and his mother has no way of telling him there is such a thing? He has no understanding of the concepts ‘passage’ and ‘place’, so he has no understanding of the concept ‘entrance’ either. Without a word naming it, without the language to define that concept, ‘entrance’ is not just beyond understanding to the wolf cub, it is out of existence. Just as with the wall-ness of the wall behind you, there is no inherent quality of entrance-ness in the mouth of the cave. So that entrance is a wall just as much as anything else is—not only in name, but in truth. The language White Fang applies to his “wall of light” is the only thing that can define it.
This conceptualization of things—this naming and, thereby, defining—carries into this section of London’s novel beyond the moment of the gray cub and the wall. As White Fang grows and explores his world for the first time, he continues on this same path, classifying and giving meaning to things as he encounters them, and, simultaneously, embodying the idea that nothing exists until there is language to name it. When he first ventures out of the cave, first steps through that “wall of light,” White Fang understands his situation as “sprawling through solidity” (88). Once his eyes have readjusted to brightness around him, the cub does not write off his definition of the wall, does not discount that sensation of “sprawling through solidity.” How could he do that when, all along, those things had been his truths? Instead, he does what humans do constantly: he shifts his definitions to make the “truth” fit. When he looks out, he does not find the wall of light gone. No, it is only that “the wall, inside which he had thought himself… [had] leaped back before him to an immeasurable distance” (88). Everything he encounters after the expansion of the wall is new to White Fang, not just in the fact that he had never experienced these things, but in that they truly did not exist before in his world. He discovers ‘fall’, ‘distances’, ‘things alive and things not alive.’ Each of these he encounters for the first time, not as a an adventurer finding things he’d never known, but as a one who had “without any antecedent knowledge, without any warning whatever that such existed… found himself an explorer in a totally new world” (91). The word new is key here; this world had no meaning until White Fang began to classify it.
When White Fang first encounters something strange, he bristles at it. He does not know, precisely, what he is bristling at, only that it is “something unclassified, therefore unknown and terrible” (87). In this sense, humans aren’t all that different from wolves. We don’t like what we don’t know, and, moreover, we are afraid of it. We are comfortable with the distinctions we have made, comfortable with the difference between truth and lies, between right and wrong, between entrance and wall of light. The greatest difficulty in accepting the idea that nothing is true and all is metaphor lies in the simple fact that we don’t want to accept it. It is unsettling to realize there is no non-literary language. How are we supposed to keep our feet on the ground if there’s no such thing? It is important, though, that we try to accept this. Just as White Fang remodeled his truth upon leaving the cave, we are constantly remodeling our own. If we aren’t aware what an easy mutability this is, we are liable to get reckless. We must know we are defining our truths if we want to define them well.
This, of course, is easier said than done. After all, don’t we want to know the difference between poison and wine?
London, Jack. White Fang (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966)
Nietzsche, Friederich. “Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense” (1873)