Friday, October 14, 2011

Asymptote

My pal Brian Doyle has another of his terrific essays in the current Notre Dame Magazine, recounting a moment back in 1974 when, as an ND undergraduate, he bumped into the famed Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.

"I read some of your stories the other day and they were pretty good," said the smug young Doyle, and added that he had in mind becoming a writer himself.

The unflappably courteous Borges responded with a few words of advice: "Get as close to the truth as you can."

Thanks, BD, for passing on the great man's words, although at this point in my life I suspect I'm about as close to the truth as I'm going to get.

In fact, I'd say that my career as a teacher and writer has been one of moving away from the truth -- or at least away from Truth with a capital T.

I was at Notre Dame two decades before Brian, and it was the professed mission of that institution to supply me with the Truth. I was ready. I lapped it up. I steeped in it. By the time I graduated I was so armored with Truth that you could kick me in the shins and I wouldn't fall over.

It was an exhilarating feeling, being in possession of the Truth.

Smug. Self-satisfied.

Trouble is, it didn't stick. My bride was less enamored with Truth than I was. As were my new secular friends at UCLA. And then there was science.

Science offered a new kind of truth -- tentative, evolving, but manifestly reliable. Truth with a lower-case t. One doesn't wear science like armor. One wears science like a pair of warm socks.

Truth? I'll settle for authenticity. Respect for the thing itself, the thingness of a thing. Juice dripping down the chin when one bites into an orange. A brushstroke of comet in the pre-dawn sky. A snuggle with a loved one in the middle of the night.

Not something as grandiose as capital T, but a myriad of little t's that can pop up anywhere, promising nothing more than a momentary tingle in the spine. Real. Authentic.

As a matter of fact, that's what I like about Brian Doyle's writing -- the way a collection of authentically felt particulars adds up to more than the sum of the parts, something one would almost be willing to call -- carefully, tentatively, asymptotically -- truth.