How many ways are there to explain something? (DYM II.102)

By John Allen

When I was a student teacher at a small high school just west of Boston, my supervising teacher invited Tim O'Brien (who lived in Boston at the time) to speak with students about his novel, The Things They Carried.



"I'd like to tell you about myself..." O'Brien said, "about the time I was drafted to serve in the Vietnam war."  He'd spent the summer before reporting for duty working in a "pig factory," a slaughterhouse where he sprayed down a line of pig carcasses with a giant water gun.  He had trouble getting dates because he could not get rid of the stink of their blood and guts no matter how many showers he took.  

As his summer wore on, his doubts and fear about going to war became so intense that he stole his parents' car and drove north to Minnesota's border with Canada where he planned to dodge the draft.  He told the students that he spent a week on the border working at the Tip Top Lodge for Elroy Berdahl.  They were hanging on O'Brien's every word as he told them how Elroy Berdahl took him out in a canoe on the Rainy River and gave him the opportunity to swim to Canada.  As Elroy waited, O'Brien thought about his friends, family, community, and country.  He didn't swim to Canada.  He went to the war, feeling like a coward.

There was a heavy silence in the room; the students were clearly moved by O'Brien's story. "Actually," he confessed, "there was no pig factory, no stolen car, no Tip Top Lodge or Elroy Berdahl, no canoe trip. I made that stuff up. I just lived with my parents that summer and played a lot golf."

The students groaned in disapproval, shifting their collective weight in their seats, deciding whether or not to walk out in protest for being so abused by this self-proclaimed fraud. O'Brien held up his hands in a "wait a minute...let me explain" pose. 

"Everything you felt when you listened to my story," O'Brien said, "I felt that summer about going to Vietnam.  I needed to make up that story to get you to feel what I felt."  If he told them what he actually did that summer, he would not be able to communicate his very real emotions and thoughts about going to war.  

As a writer of fiction, he'd made up a story to tell his emotional truth.  

The Things They Carried explores how difficult it is to get at the truth, how our explanations can fail to provide the emotional texture or core of the experience, something required for truth, according to O'Brien.  Near the end of the novel in the chapter titled "Form,"  the novel's own Tim O'Brien narrator/writer admits that virtually all of what he has written is "made up" so that he can make the past real again and full of feeling:
I want you to feel what I felt.  I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth. 
Here is the happening-truth.  I was once a soldier.  there were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look.  And now, twenty years later, I'm left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief. 
Here is the story-truth.  He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty.  He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe.  His jaw was in his throat.  His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole.  I killed him.

What stories can do, I guess, is make things present. 
I can look at things I never looked at.  I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God.  I can be brave.  I can make myself feel again.

Daddy, tell the truth," Kathleen can say, "did you ever kill anybody?"  And I can say, honestly, "Of course not." 
Or I can say, honestly, "Yes."

Fiction writers work in a powerful paradox: they make up rich and beautiful stories to express truth. The folks at Edge, an online community of leading scientists, philosophers, and artists, also seek truth, but through the scientific method. Each year these great thinkers ask themselves a question that will "inspire unpredictable answers— that provoke people into thinking thoughts they normally might not have."  

Their question for 2012 was "What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?"  According to its founder, John Brockman...


Perhaps the greatest pleasure in science comes from theories that derive the solution to some deep puzzle from a small set of simple principles in a surprising way. These explanations are called “beautiful” or “elegant.” Historical examples are Kepler’s explanation of complex planetary motions as simple ellipses, Niels Bohr’s explanation of the periodic table of the elements in terms of electron shells, and James Watson and Francis Crick’s explanation of genetic replication via the double helix. The great theoretical physicist P. A. M. Dirac famously said that “it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment.”
You can read their explanations in This Explains Everything: 150 Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works.



Finally, Robert Frost and Walt Whitman echo the scientific and artistic approaches in the stunning poems below.  

Frost's "Choose Something Like a Star" addresses our need for explanation in the midst of the mysteries of the universe; being proudly obscure is not acceptable.   We need knowledge--"a certain height"--to protect us from mob mentality and the bitter fruits of ignorance.  

Whitman's "When I heard the learn'd astronomer" reminds us not to lose our sense of wonder in the midst of deep, rich explanation.  

A nice balance between both sentiments, I think, is the right place to be.  

Choose Something Like a Star  
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud --
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed. 
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says "I burn."
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend. 
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

When I heard the learn'd astronomer
When I heard the learn'd astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wandered off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.