Monday, December 01, 2008

Truth vs. Faith

“Truth for him is faith, since he has faith in the truth; he sincerely believes in the credibility of all significations… The most diverse forms of expression – from mimicry to the “language of flowers” – are related to meanings – verbal or nonverbal – which are true, that is, believable simply because they are expressed… Thus the child, replacing truth with ordered belief, from the beginning confuses error and truth, bondage and liberty.”
Jean-Paul Sartre, The Family Idiot (page 128)

In his biography of Gustave Flaubert (quoted above) Sartre equated faith with truth. Or rather, Sartre said Gustave confused the two. Or rather, not so much confused them as considered them synonymous – with an unresisting, un-present, unfounded (hence, “idiotic”) belief in their individual legitimacy. For Jean-Paul, Gustave’s faith in what he was told made as much sense as if I believed everything I found on the internet because, well, they wouldn’t put it on the internet unless it was true, right?

But I like the part about the language of flowers as a form of expression. At first, I was thinking that the language plants and flowers spoke to people was non-verbal, that it was without words.

But the language of flowers is not non-verbal. Flowers mean things. Flowers can communicate things. Even J-P, when he says Gustave “pronounces sentences,” that “he repeats words or puts them together like flowers in a bouquet.” The trouble with bouquets of words is that they’re slippery. What you take unproven – on faith – depends on which flavor of “ordered belief” you subscribe to.

Like spoken words, the language of flowers could be tricky too, and just as subject to being misunderstood – faith taken as belief. For example, suppose someone sent you a bouquet which contained a pretty mushroom pictured here, a spring of white chestnut, and some lovely pink cyclamens?

Let’s start with the ‘shroom pictured here. (Image: Franck Richard). Even the Encyclopedia of Life admits it looks comfortingly like several edible species, “most notably the straw mushroom.” In fact, it is Amanita phalloides, aka “Death Cap”. According to in the ordered belief we call Modern Science, Death Cap is the most poisonous of all known toadstools, and because of its unfortunate resemblance to several species of edible mushroom, thus increasing the risk of “accidental poisoning.” Oh, dear.

Is the white chestnut sending a mixed message? According to the Doctrine of Signatures whereby signs of nature are assigned meaning based on the resemblance of a plant or a part of plant to a part of the body, White chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) helps people “who feel resentful and bitter about the way their lives have gone.” Perhaps, bitterness and resentment are symptoms of homicidal accidents. In which case, the mushroom and cyclamen communicate a perfectly consistent message.

According to the Victorian Language of Flowers, sentiments were communicated by flowers. Cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum), for example, signifies resignation and good-bye. Regardless of who's resentful, bitter, or exiting, the sender of cyclamen is saying goodbye.

So, employing at least three different systems of expression - or ordered belief systems - the message of the bouquet would differ depending on whether the recipient liked to eat fresh mushrooms and/or white chestnuts; or on which system of communication sender and/or recipient favored; or whether either or both simply loved cyclamen and/or chestnuts.

Whether or not I have refuted Sartre’s criticism of Flaubert’s “credulity” in apparently believing everything he was told, I hope I have established that there are virtually infinite things to believe in and ways of ordering one’s beliefs. Whether we try to communicate verbally, through symbolism, one or more obscure and occult means, or other non-verbal methods, the one constant seems to be that misunderstanding is always likely, or at least possible. Unprovable truth ends up being as slippery as unfounded faith. Seems to me Satre didn’t know that some unprovable things are better taken on faith.


tina said...

Misunderstanding is of course always a given, it all comes down to perspective, so maybe faith is the way to go.

walk2write said...

The faithful one either submits like your bonsai to ruthless pruning/restrictive containment and adapts, or it dies. Prodigal posturing eventually takes its toll, no matter what belief system is behind it. By the way, what is that specimen in the pot? Is it variegated thyme?

Weeping Sore said...

The bonsai is a variegated lemon-scented pelargonium. Instead of ruthlessly wiring it into shape, I left is in a shady corner for a few years, where it grew leggy and straggley.
Then, I potted it up, trimmed it up, and put it into the sun, where it immediately sprouted leaves where I wanted. All I have to do now is trim it with scissors now and then to keep its pretty shape.

colleen said...

Dear WS

I've always found hope easier to manage than faith; isn't that the wonder of the garden?

Thanks for visiting me - hope you enjoyed dipping into chillier climes.


emmat said...

this post has the best labels of any blog post i have ever read, definitely.