Sigrid Undset on Lies, Truths and the Catholic Writer
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in America June 13, 1942.
[A paper read at the Tenth Anniversary Celebration of the Gallery of Living Catholic Authors, New York, May 24.—Literary Editor.]
At first glance, it would seem that for a fiction writer at least, it might be unrealistic to follow the maxim an old Norwegian farmer’s wife once gave me, as the principle on which she had been brought up and in his life. tour had raised a large family of worthy men and women: “Never lie. And don’t tell the truth unless it’s necessary.
This is a principle that has worked very well in our peasant communities. It promotes honesty and courtesy, it causes people to develop a pleasant art of conversation about the weather and the crops and the facts of your neighbors’ lives which are already known to all. It keeps people from talking too much. I found it developed to perfection among the English. And recently, here in America, I had the privilege of meeting some utterly lovely New Englanders who also practice the same principle. They were so kind, yet so reluctant, I almost felt like I was among my own again.
Sigrid Undset: “Never lie. And don’t tell the truth unless it’s necessary.
After all, I think old Gurø Dalsbøe’s maxim is a very good principle to follow, even for the author of fiction. That is, if the fiction writer wants to be a creator of living art. Of course, the word “fiction” itself is rather equivocal, like so many words in our current vocabulary, which has suffered from generations of vague thinking and keyword abuse. So you often come across the word being used as if fiction is the opposite of fact. Certain types of fiction are, of course. But even this kind of fiction doesn’t have to be the opposite of the truth. Facts must be true, but they are not truths, just as wooden boxes, fence posts, doors or tables are not woods, the society of living and growing trees from which come wooden tools.
Practical people can manipulate facts without knowing the truths from which they derive, as a baby can sit in his high chair and enjoy his meal of porridge, knowing nothing of the tree from which his chair was fashioned, or of the wheat field and the cow which were the sources of his meal. Of course, we hope that Baby will live to experience the delicious encounter with the woods, the wheat fields and the cows. And we can hope that the practical people who manipulate the facts will one day be able to get acquainted with, at least, some of the truths from which the facts derive. And true fiction, if you see what I mean by that, must necessarily manipulate the facts, but its main concern must be the truths behind the facts – the wild mountains from which the tame stones of the pavement were extracted and the cultured stone for statuary. , the living woods that have provided the material for sawmills and carpentry shops and the pulp for the million tons of paper we use or misuse. Facts then become things of secondary importance to the writer, even though they are things of primary importance in practical life. However, these are not origins; they come from something.
For the Catholic writer, all of the facts and truths behind the facts will appear in relation to the Ultimate Origin from which everything emanates.
For the Catholic writer, all of the facts and truths behind the facts will appear in relation to the Ultimate Origin from which everything emanates – the mountains from which stones are mined and ores are mined, the woods that give us give wood and blueberries, the jungle of civilized or uncivilized life, where human beings wander or float and sometimes remember, and sometimes forget, and most often do violence to themselves and others in a vain attempt to deny that man was created in the image of God, and to shake away the terrible responsibility that is involved in the idea that whatever you do can have consequences throughout all eternity.
We know that everything in this world, animate and inanimate, ultimately depends on God. I don’t mean we always think about it – no one has ever managed to always think about more than a fraction of the things they know. But I hope, for all Catholics, that it is still the submerged knowledge that prevents us from certain aberrations of thought, as the submerged knowledge that the sea is deep and cold and very wet prevents us from turning right or left , when we have to board a ship through a narrow gangway. We don’t consciously think about how bad it would be to fall, but we still walk straight.
After all, I think my old compatriot’s advice is also very good advice for fiction writers. Never lie. And just tell the truths you must. In fact, a writer – someone who has a genuine urge to express themselves in writing – can perhaps be described as someone who has to speak truths more often and speak more truths than most people, who can get along very well when they stick to the facts of daily life, cultivate benevolence and reluctance, never lie and only attack the truths behind the facts on the rare occasions when they have to.
But remember, never lie. Not even the lies of kindness, the lies to hide hideous or painful or disheartening truths. These are the kinds of lies that represent the greatest temptation to people of goodwill, and they are certainly not so morally revolting, perhaps less sinful too, than lies told for grossly selfish reasons, reasons of greed and concupiscence. At least I hope they’re less sinful, because I shudder when I think of how many times I’ve told these kinds of lies, and more often than not I’ve thought them and tried to fool myself to believe them, even if I don’t think I have engaged them to write very often.
Sigrid Undset: “It really should be our rule, never to lie and to tell the truths that need to be told – the truths that we don’t need to tell should always be implicit behind our work.”
But they grow on you; we get into the habit of using it more and more often. To perpetuate them in writing – I should say, to try to perpetuate them – is generally very detrimental to a work of fiction, for most readers discover, as soon as the interest of novelty has passed, whether a story is false, untruthful. Don’t you know all those stories of the spectacular conversion of a hardened sinner, by Catholic authors as well, if not more frequently, than by authors of other Christian denominations? The conversion of a hardened sinner is such a tremendous miracle, with God being Almighty, and the sinner still having his free will, that I think very few writers of fiction are able to adequately deal with such a subject. marvellous. I would say, leave that to the theologians — and don’t expect them to write well or clearly about it. Another thing: Religious vocations aren’t too common anywhere except in the characters of some Catholic fiction writers, and their stories aren’t always entirely compelling.
And tell the truths you must. Even if they are sinister, absurd, shocking. After all, we Catholics should recognize what a shocking undertaking human life is. Our race has been revolting against its Creator since the dawn of time. Rebellion, betrayal, denial or indifference, laziness, laziness – who of us has not been guilty of one or more or all of these sins at one time or another? But remember, you must also tell other more encouraging truths: about the grace of God and the effort of souls strong and loyal, or weak but trusting, and also about the natural virtues of man created in the image of God, an image that is very difficult to entirely erase. Even in the days of true paganism, in the days preceding the Incarnation of Our Saviour, when mankind, in good faith, wove their beliefs and myths about the Divinity of which they were aware and the Powers which ‘she perceived behind the pageantry of spring and summer and autumn and winter, behind the procession of living beings from the womb of the mother to the grave, through health and illness, the noble passions and bad, through joys and sorrows – even then the hands that honestly groped for the truths of the hereafter managed to touch them, as was later revealed on the great day of Our Lord.
It is true that the ancient pagans had also discovered the presence of the Devil, pure and personal Evil, and that many of them worshiped him, through witches, wizards and magicians, in the hope of make a bargain with the lower powers. , while the higher ones, the good ones, would be less easy for man to understand or accept. The worship of demons already had a long history, when a group of Germans decided to devote themselves to the Power which encourages men to murder, betrayal, cruelty and to wallow in all kinds of moral filth, offering them in return the Sovereignty on Earth, and the wealth accumulated by generations of honest work of others.
But it is equally true that even in pagan times, wherever men believed in supernatural powers which were on the side of honesty, righteousness, justice, which sometimes even encouraged mercy and patience, and more often were seen as guardians of family loyalty. and filial piety, those who have lived these beliefs have forged treasures of beauty and moral greatness that have come down to us through the ages. And it is an interesting thing to notice how these pagans, after their conversion to Christianity, when they tried to live according to their new faith and to love their neighbors as themselves (they did it very imperfectly, although course, just as we do) how they then always tried to foster and share with their fellow men the things they had considered the best in life, since ancient pagan times. The expansion of freedom and personal freedom among ever wider sections of the population among the British and Scandinavian peoples, the creation of new and magnificent Church festivals and rejoicings in the Latin nations, the conversion of mysticism tribal in mysticism of the saints among the Germans of the Middle Ages, are such fruits of Faith among peoples who had loved freedom, or festivals, or mysticism, from the beginning of their history.
We Catholics have the source of Truth to draw from, and we are heirs to the accumulated truths of pre-Christian times. For us, it shouldn’t be fiction versus fact, but fiction should connect facts with truths, through knowledge, imagination, intuition and conscientious work. It really should be our rule, never to tell lies and to tell the truths that need to be told – the truths that we don’t need to tell should always be implicit behind our work.