Monday, July 18, 2005

Visions of truth in Naguib Mahfouz

The word 'truth' has a meaning and a resonance for each one of us: we apply it whether we are thinking about the events of our own lives, or about history, or about a particular belief system, or even when we argue that something is untrue. Crucially, we make use of it not just with respect to facts - say, "I met A at X place on Y date" - but also with respect to interpretations of facts - for example, "B did this to C and this proves such-and-such thing about B's nature". Every interpretation, of course, can have a rival interpretation, and there has never been a time in history when the idea of the truth has not been a contentious one. In fact, we could go further and argue that societies in which the 'truth' is generally agreed upon or imposed from above and hence not open to question - for example, societies where adherence to a particular set of political or religious ideas is compulsory - are narrower, more complacent, and overall much poorer places to live in than societies in which there is a tradition of robust debate about the truth, even if that debate itself is sometimes divided along clear ideological lines that may often lead us to despair of ever finding the truth.

In our day and age the search for the truth is commonly associated with rational inquiry and empirical reasoning, but it was not always so. For the greater part of recorded history, the pursuit of truth has been connected in some way to religion and faith. Those in search of the truth held that the highest truths were those revealed in the scriptures, and immersed themselves in the study of religious texts, in pilgrimages, and in religious striving. One of the best portrayals in literature of the respective appeals of these two different conceptions of the truth - which we may term the truth of reason and the truth of religion or faith - can be found in the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz's luminous novel Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth.

Akhenaten was a pharaoh in ancient Egypt who, upon acceding to the throne, overthrew Egypt's traditional polytheism and decreed the worship of a single god, the sun god Aten. Akhenaten, then, might be said to have disallowed the coexistence of many visions of the truth prevalent in his kingdom, insisting instead that everybody follow the one truth that he had seen in a religious vision and which he considers it his duty to propagate. There is great resistance among the people to his edicts, and finally even Akhenaten's generals rebel and place him under house arrest, where he wastes away and dies. After his demise Egypt returns to its old polytheism, and Akhenaten is fixed in public memory and in history as 'the heretic king', who took his kingdom and his people to the brink of destruction.

But Akhenaten is not the novel's only protagonist. The second is a figure entirely of Mahfouz's invention: a young man called Meriamun who grows up during the years of religious strife precipitated by Akhenaten's rule. On a trip down the Nile with his father, himself a prominent personality with 'a passion for knowledge and for recording the truth', Meriamun sees the remains of the deserted capital city of Akhenaten, and he is filled with curiosity about the life of a man whom everybody now remembers as 'the heretic king'. Was Akhenaten just a madman given to hallucinations, as many believe, or was there something authentic about his religious vision and his teachings? Even though it is not long since his demise, have people forgotten everything about him except for the fact that he was an alleged heretic? The only way of knowing, Merimun decides, is by systematic investigation, by taking the testimony of every single person still alive who was close to Akhenaten, and then putting together the evidence gleaned from all these accounts. If this is done, he explains to his father: "Then I could see the many facets of truth before it perishes like this city."

'Truth' is a word of the most vital importance to both Meriamun and Akhenaten, but the most important contrast offered by the novel between their respective conceptions is this: Meriamun is a seeker of truth; Akhenaten, a self-confessed dweller in truth. One might suppose that the novel privileges the first kind of truth over the second, more personal kind, but in fact its difficult beauty lies in its refusal to set up such a hierarchy and tell us which side is 'right'. Meriamun's quest often yields up puzzles or competing claims that, instead of illuminating the life of Akhenaten, render it even more murky and enigmatic. And while several people denounce Akhenaten as a fraud, some of the dead pharaoh's followers convincingly describe the ecstasy and bliss to be found in the surrender to the divine that, if at all we admit of the authority of religion, we know as being one of the authentic experiences of faith.

Meriamun's search shows us what a rocky and difficult road is the pursuit of the truth through patient scrutiny and inquiry, which allows us to understand why people often - to allude to a recent post on India Uncut - prefer simple interpretations of reality to complex ones. One of the wonders of Mahfouz's book is its final sentence, which shows how, even when one is committed to the path of rational truth-seeking, it is still difficult to resist the seductive temptations of religious truth, with its reassuring confidence and certainty.

The historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, who made an appearance on The Middle Stage in a previous post about food, has also written a book about truth called Truth: A History. Here, in the transcript of a radio interview, he discusses four techniques of truth seeking which he believes have been used in different combinations throughout history. In this recent piece, Salman Rushdie discusses how the concepts of 'facts' and 'truth' have become embattled in our age of 'bitter disputes about reality'. And here, in his Nobel prize lecture, Mahfouz himself argues that 'Truth and Justice will remain for as long as mankind has a ruminative mind and a living conscience'.

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