Socrates was well-known among the Greeks as the old man who lived the life of an ascetic and taught younger Athenians to ask questions. Socrates and his friends believed truth to exist and they tried mightily to find it. The group discussed such questions as “What is justice?” and “What is it to die?”
The transcripts of these conversations, as rendered by Plato, have served as a foundation of European and American philosophy ever since. However, the vast majority of people know nothing of Socrates, and if they did, it would mean nothing to them. The Socratic texts are divorced from passion. They are, in the most emphatic sense, Platonic. It was Socrates that said, “I am the wisest man alive for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”
Socrates was aware of humans as irrational beings. It is the interaction between human weakness with the immutable ideals that mankind is apt to saddle itself with that is examined in Sherwood Anderson’s classic Winesburg, Ohio.
A good number of the problems of the world have their root in the fact that men decide that they have arrived at the truth, and, after reaching total conviction, ignore the world around them. I have done as much on a number of occasions. I own many books. They fill four cases and spill on to the floor of the closet; they line the walls. I have spent years reading these books, and often I find them to be true, within the context of the themselves.
But the world of books is not the real world; it is a world that the author has manufactured in such a way that whatever the author thinks to be true will be true. The warp and woof of reality is twisted to right angles, turned to nonsense, laden with symbols of symbols. “Or am I mad, my father, and did I weave these visions from the woof of my madness? I do not know, but it is true that I seemed to see them” (Haggard).
The human is the great mystery of any work of art. In the dream land of the fictional work, he sees the symbols that have been laid before him, like the monoliths of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001, and touches them, and becomes different; enlightened (as in 2001) or destroyed, deluded or disillusioned. The symbol is strong, but man is weak.
In Sherwood Anderson’s cycle of four short stories entitled “Godliness,” we see Jesse Bentley become so invested in the symbols and stories of the Old Testament that he loses touch with the physical world around him. Bentley cannot interact with people in a sensitive way because he spends all of his energy in interacting with symbols. “If I am fortunate and an angel of God should appear, David will see the beauty and glory of God made manifest to man,” Bentley says. It does not even occur to Bentley that some more mundane form of enlightenment might be desirable or possible.
No one can know the truth of another‘s soul; a novel’s characters are facets of the self. For this reason, Sherwood Anderson frees himself from attempting to render an accurate representation of Jesse Bentley as a real person.
None of the characters in Winesburg are what one could call ‘realistic.’ Instead of trying for realism, Anderson focuses on the symbol in the world, on the things that we convince ourselves of. In other books, characters are moved by the invisible hand of a controlling idea. They often have no ideas themselves; they merely react. Anderson’s innovation is that characters in his book are motivated by the stories that they tell themselves, which is closer to what happens in life.
Anderson’s story is that there are no stories in real life. There are only incidents, disconnected from one another, and impossible to truly connect. This, I think, is the reason for Anderson’s decision to use short stories rather than a single narrative arc. Many of the characters are desperately searching for happiness and order. For Anderson to impose a single narrative be for him to give order the lives of characters that can not find order themselves.
In the process of the search for order, the part of the soul or conscience that holds the self-story becomes warped, again like the loom, and hardened like a crucible. The unconnected incidents of life enter it and are either incorporated into the self image, forgotten, or, if they are traumatic enough and cause enough cognitive dissonance, they destroy the self-image. The end of an illusion is a crushing blow. No one wants to feel as George Willard did, “Seeing, as though they marched in procession before him, the countless figures of men who before his time have come out of nothingness into the world, lived their lives and again disappeared into nothingness.” Unfortunately, most of the inhabitants of Winesburg do feel that way.
Their self-stories have proven untrue; a crushing event or the disappointment of years has shattered them. In Winesburg, everyone has told themselves lies, and when those lies are exposed, there are terrible consequences. Wash Williams, who loved a woman, becomes a thing of consuming hatred when his unquestioning love is upset in “Respectability.” Elizabeth Willard, who fails to realize that only she can make her life what she wants it to be, is left a wraith (“Mother”). Enoch Robinson builds a world in a closet, and is crushed when it disappears (“Loneliness”). The citizens of Winesburg have told themselves stories, and the stories are false, and they are all made miserable, sooner or later.
Winesburg invites the reader to ask which is better: to live with comforting lies or the uncomfortable truth that there is no absolute truth, that the reason Socrates knows nothing is because there is nothing that it is possible to truly know.
I have no answer to this question. I only know what I think. I agree with Socrates that the world would be a better place if we could acknowledge that we know nothing. Too much harm is done by absolutes. For my part, I feel that things have value in themselves; that they existed before we were here, and will continue after we are gone. They are what they are and will continue to be whether mankind incorporates them into its stories or not. We are not needed. The universe exists whether we allow it to or not. Nothing that we say or think can make this more or less true; it is the one undistorted absolute. This is some comfort.
Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Signet, 1919.
Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. “Loneliness”; “Mother”; “Respectability”; “Sophistication”; “Terror”. New York: Signet, 1919.
Haggard, H. Rider. “Nada The Lily.” The Free Library. Farlex. 06 Apr. 2006
Socrates. “Socrates Quotes.” BrainyQuote. 06 Apr. 2006