Beautiful Facts

The wonderful Anne Barton has an essay in The New York Review of Books that is relevant to the creeping infiltration of gossip and story into areas where they do more to confuse issues than clarify them, that I keep remarking on. The relevance of this subject to Butterflies and Wheels may be remote, but it is relevance all the same. The reasons and motivations behind the novelization of biography, for instance, are probably closely related to those behind the long-standing quarrel between Literature and Science. And then it’s a popular move in Lit Crit circles to say that ‘everything is narrative’, very much including science, in fact science most of all.

It’s easy enough to understand the wish fulfillment at work behind these ideas. If we can only do away with the difference between fiction and fact, then the world is our oyster: wishes are horses and beggars will ride. Facts are tiresome, interfering, unyielding, hard, cold things. They are indifferent to us, they don’t care what we think or want or need, they just are what they are. That’s why we hate them. In fiction we can shape the world to our liking with the swiftness of thought. And that’s a good thing, of course, it’s both useful and beautiful. But it’s not the only good thing. An acquaintance with that very adamantine unyieldingness of facts is also necessary, also useful and even beautiful. Moves to elbow facts aside in favour of stories are not good for clear thinking.

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