"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, March 18, 2018

It Didn’t Happen That Way! Faulty Memory, A Life Of Fake News, And An Overrated Search For The ‘Truth’

The story of Uncle Harry was told each Easter after the pasta and before the ham pie at the Grillo dinner table. One of the family’s black sheep, he was known for his debonair bella figura, silk foulards, silver-topped cane, and Italian shoes and also for his daring financial dealings.  It was Uncle Harry who had financed the Tomasso brothers and in return got Wall Street cover for his questionable Bahamian investments.  Uncle Harry who had been one of the first to spot a special new Hollywood talent, backed her first movie, became a silent partner in Warner Bros. foray into independent films, and had two children by her before he was dunned out of Hollywood by a jealous producer.  Uncle Harry who had boxed professionally in New Haven, rose in the rankings just below but thanks to Willie Pep, and retired undefeated but little known because of his more successful mentor.  Harry was now comfortably retired in Boca Raton with his mistress.

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None of this was completely true; but there were enough bits of truth to make the exaggerated stories plausible, so no one seem to notice how the stories changed little by little over many Easters.  The stories of Uncle Harry were like children’s bedtime stories, told over and over again - new silver buckle, harvest moon, friendly dwarf, and blackbird pie added or subtracted as long as the story line of Prince Michael and his Lady in Waiting never changed. The real Harry Grillo lived a long time ago and was a distant enough relation to have any real relevance to genealogy or family history, so no one minded how the stories changed with the teller; and in fact the Grillo family  basked in the annually burnished image of their long-ago deceased relative.  At the same time no one doubted that this boulevardier, squire, and Italian-American gentleman was as impressive as told.  The essence of Sir Harry was as true as a die, and the fanciful added bits and pieces – his roseate slippers like the Pope’s for example; or the Knights of Malta deaconship – only added to his allure, family pride, and sense of togetherness.

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Looked at through today’s censorious political lens, the stories of Uncle Harry would be fake news.  When and where had he been inducted into the Knights of Malta, fought with Willie Pep, invested in the Grand Caymans with what New York investment firm? A quick Google search would expose all the dodgy bits of Harry’s past, shame his relatives for their gullibility, and insist that his statue be taken down from Aunt Cecilia’s mantelpiece.  Yet, even he had been subjected to such harsh scrutiny, no one would be willing to discredit him.  He had become such an anti-hero in the Grillo family, that he would have to be rehabilitated through new recollections.  Perhaps the Knights of Malta was an exaggeration, but the Knights of Columbus’ honor to him as an exemplary Italian-American was almost as good and certainly as telling of his character.  Perhaps it was not Willie Pep that he fought, but Angelo Ponti, his cousin and promising welterweight mentioned at least once – fact – in the Sporting News.

In other words, Uncle Harry could never be expunged from the Grillo family history, and if the past had to be somewhat reconfigured to match what everyone knew were his probable exploits, then so much the better.  Of course no sharp lens was ever focused on Harry, so the Easter dinner tales went on for years; and whether or not the Harry Grillo of the first stories in 1957 at all resembled him in 1992 when the last of the New Haven Grillo clan died, it made no difference whatsoever.

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Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book, Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, or Kurosawa’s Rashomon are perhaps the best-known stories of versions of the truth.   There is no such thing as actual fact, say these artists, only some approximation of it.  Eye-witnesses have been shown again and again to have very subjective notions of what they saw.  New research suggests that most memory is in fact ‘filled in’, elaborated subjectively from some actual event or image; but having little resemblance to the past.   Filling in was what the Grillo family had done for years.  There was an Uncle Harry – an authenticated, signed, and smiling sepia photograph was framed and hanged on Cecilia’s parlor wall – and he did box, invest, and dress well; but the rest of his persona was someone else’s imagination of what he should have been.

We Americans are  obsessed by the truth.  No matter how many politicians have been outed for their lies, misstatements, and distortions, we keep insisting that there is – there must be – an honest man somewhere; and if we are vigilant enough and insistent enough on upholding the highest standards of objectivity, even the most tricky and evasive will be held to account.  Thousands of hours are spent on investigative journalism, due diligence, and cross-referencing dates, names, and events with no significant results. We will never know for sure who spied on whom, who leaked what, who slept with whom, or who had his fingers in the cookie jar.  It is and will always be a matter of speculation.

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Yet does the truth really matter? Why is living in a world of speculative half-truths and fantasy not enough?  Are our lives really any better off for our asymptotic search for the facts?  Why is that we accept a world of invention and subjectivity when it comes to Uncle Grillo; willingly suspend disbelief in novels which, taken as a whole, are revelatory and personally meaningful; and go about our business cruising the most fantastical world of social media? We shouldn’t care so much about the truth because for most of the day we live in a world where truth is suspended and in fact doesn’t matter.

The greatest truths in the world are religious we are told.  The theologians of the Early Church – Clement, Tertullian, and Eusebius – spent their entire academic lives using logic to prove the divinity of Jesus Christ and moreover to define it.  Of course the matter has never been put to rest.  There is no proof of anything in the New Testament, no matter how rigorously argued.  There are still Gnostics and other intellectual descendants of Second Century heretics who insist on the falsity of received Christian wisdom.  The second body of truths is that of history; but any research into the past reveals a bevy of interpretations and no concurrence on any other than the rudiments – where the battle was fought, or across what borders the Crusaders marched.  Real meaning – truth – of history is as evasive as it ever has been.

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Meaning can be derived from image rather than fact; and subjectivity has as much validity.  How many people have made up their mind about Donald Trump because of his aggregate image?  Of course a player in  Las Vegas, Hollywood, and New York real estate must chase women, money, and manipulate the truth.  Why go any further?  Of course the Dalai Lama and Billy Graham are saintly men.  Their photo-op friendships with powerful men, rock stars, and footballers are only meant to publicize their message, reach the public, and touch a chord.  They are not Elmer Gantry, the fictional evangelist of self-serving ambition; nor real evangelical preachers as morally wobbly as any self-serving politician but whose message is truthful if they are not. 

We are all subjective and dismissive of anything which does not fit our personal puzzles.  We, despite our reason, objectivity, and reasonable judgment, are all Hollywood script writers of our own reality; and happy consumers of all that Hollywood has to offer when it comes time to relax.

The truth is overrated; and the search for it or an honest man while we could be otherwise engaged in very pleasant dreams, is nothing but high opportunity cost.

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