A number of years ago, a pastor friend of mine told me that he only read nonfiction and did not read fiction at all. I told him I was considering doing something similar. “What’s that?” he asked.
“I am thinking of breathing with only one lung.” It took him a few seconds, but he got my point. He was employing an assumption about literature that I have often encountered: While nonfiction deals with truth, fiction deals with imagination. Why read about imaginary things when you can spend your time reading about truth? I was trying to tell him that sterile facts are not all we need in order to live a meaningful life.
In Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times, the constant refrain of the schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind to his children is, “Never fancy!” Gradgrind is the paradigm case of the narrow rationalist, who sees only the quantitative and the material aspect of things, and is blind to the qualitative and the poetic aspect of things.
My pastor friend, channeling his inner Gradgrind, would not have said it this way, but he was assuming that nonfiction is true whereas literary fiction is in some sense false. Shouldn’t our concern be with the factual rather than with the made up or merely fanciful?
Is it true to say that literature is false? Why would anyone think this? It is true that the events in the story are not factual. When I read Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, I am reading about people who did not exist doing things they never did. But are these stories therefore untrue?
And is it a fact that only facts are true? In fact, can we say that a mere fact is true at all? Doesn’t the word “truth” imply something much more than mere facticity? A philosopher will be happy to point out that facts are neither true nor false. Only statements can be true or false. Facts are the elements of truth, but in order to express truth, they must be put in some relation to each other in some meaningful context.
If we only know that something in the world is, we only know part of what we need to know. We need also to know its significance, otherwise why bother knowing it?
The facts are only important if they mean something. This is true even in science. A set of data means nothing without some kind of meaningful interpretation that makes sense of the data. The data tell a story, but it takes an intelligent mind to see what the story is—an intelligent mind that has an imagination, not just an intellect.
Several members of my family are software engineers. Time and again, they have told me that the problem in their field is not an insufficient amount of data, but making sense of the morass of data that they already have. This is the skill, they point out, that is in short supply in the tech industry: people who can see meaning in the data. A piece of information doesn’t speak for itself. It must be seen in some larger context.
C. S. Lewis once said that the intellect is the “organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.” If we only viewed the world through the lens of factual truth, we wouldn’t see it in all its depth and complexity. It would be like seeing the world around us with only one eye: We would see it, but only two dimensionally. We need both eyes—truth and imagination—to see the world in all its fullness.