This is a photo of a Feathered Kangaroo
water hopping on PEI, Canada.
A long time ago, still wrapped in the stifling chrysalis of academia, a friend of mine tried to flutter her immanent butterfly wings by making a joke at a very serious conference. She was delivering a paper on one of my favorite Spanish poets, in which she examined the sundry variants of a sonnet that the poet first wrote in 1603, then re-wrote in 1613, revised again in 1627-28, and revised a couple more times before its final revision in 1643, about two years before his death (1645).
At the end of her paper, she was caught off-balance when faced by an apparently serious question from the audience “Did the poet make any more revisions after 1645?” In an effort at humor, she replied, “Well, actually, no. But when they were carrying his body to the church for the funeral, he popped his head out of the coffin and proclaimed in a loud voice ‘Hell, no, I won’t go. I haven’t finished revising the poem yet.’”
This off-hand academic pseudo-joke was greeted with a babble of excited voices and an elderly fellow scholar clapped his hands, exclaimed “Wonderful!” and, in the ensuing silence, asked her what documentary evidence she had for this astonishing revelation, hitherto unknown to the academic world. If she was off-balance before, she was clearly reeling at this stage: a punch-drunk amateur academic swaying before the hypnotic fists of Dr. Muhamad Ali. She smiled sweetly, said she would produce the proper evidence at the appropriate time, and left the podium.
Later, sharing drinky-poos with some fellow scholars, I listened to her as she made excuses for her strange sense of humor and I smiled as explained the situation to them. They were not amused. “You, madam, are an acknowledged expert in your field,” one of them told her. “Your fellow academics trust you and believe you when you make such statements. You must be very careful about what you say.”
Feahered Kangaroo, indeed, water-hopping on PEI!
Now I must make an apology on my own behalf. Alas, if you read the blog item I posted recently, you might be puzzled by the Gazunda tree. I am forced to admit there is no such thing, to the best of my knowledge, as a Gazunda tree, not in the main square in Oaxaca, nor anywhere else in the world. Of course, when it rains people have been known to go under certain trees to use them as an umbrella and thus to take shelter from the rain, but this is the full extent of the origin of the name: the tourist or the golfer or the walker or whatever goes under (say it fast — Gazunda) the tree when it rains. There is nothing more to the Gazunda tree than that little joke.
And this brings us to a really serious series of questions: how do we know things are true? How do we establish the truth of a statement? Why do we believe some people and not others, some facts and not others? How do we choose between a series of alternate truths all of them presented as factual realities when, in actual fact, not all of them are true? This leads us on to the basic foundations on which our knowledge is built: how do we distinguish between scientifically established facts, and hearsay, and gossip if we are ignorant of basic scientific knowledge and principles?
To this we must add the triple increases that threaten us. These are (1) the increase in the availability of real scientific knowledge that bombards us every day with fresh facts and new information; (2) the increase in sources of information and the easy access to those sources; (3) the fact that many of these sources, far too many in my opinion, present us with a fictional or heavily biased version of a pseudo- or alternate truth. And yes, in light of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, we are indeed entitled to question the existence and indeed the very meaning of these words: alternate truths.
These considerations seem modern and up to date, but of course they are not. They can be found in Miguel de Cervantes’s novel, Don Quixote (Part One, 1605, and Part Two 1615). They are present throughout the meta-theater created by playwrights like Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681), who set similar dilemmas of truth and fiction in, for example, his play La Vida es Sueño (Life is a Dream) as well as in the twelve plays he wrote based on Cervantes’s masterpiece. They are also present in the writings of some of the philosophers of the day. This is exemplified in the following passage that comes, I think, from René Descartes:
“There is no earth, no heaven, no extended body, no magnitude, no place and that nonetheless I perceive these things and they seem good to me. And this is the most harrowing possibility of all, that our world is commanded by a deity who deceives humanity and we cannot avoid being misled for there may be systematic deception and then all is lost. And even the most reliable information is dubious, for we may be faced with an evil genius who is deceiving us and then there can be no reassurance in the foundations of our knowledge.”
“There can be no reassurance in the foundations of our knowledge.” These are chilling words and present us with the unfortunate fact that unless we ourselves, each one of us, to the best of our abilities search out the absolute truth about all we hear, say, and do, we are indeed lost and we must wander in the dark with no light to guide us. ‘A sad life this, when beneath the axe, we have no time to check our facts.’ So: hie thee to Wikipedia, or Google the infamous Feathered Kangaroo. Or you can take my photo and the words accompanying it for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The choice, my friends, is yours.