A Traveller in a Future Library:
Nietzsche, Truth and Metaphor
''What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors...''
- Nietzsche, '' On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense'' (1873)
What, then, is truth?
I’m an academic. I can barely utter that sentence without a million etymologies, arguments, definitions and quite odd and heavy shaped bits of baggage dropping down onto my back. I sigh from its weight. If I was some future traveller kicking around the ruins of this once great city London after the planets frozen over and thawed...and in the back corner of a second story room behind an empty window frame, I came to this once bookcase pile of boards, and picked up this book here, with its green plastic-like cover, and like a young man coming to the name for the first time read 'knee-shaw’... I would open its forgotten pages to this phrase, the only one still standing out, and I might turn the word truth over for but half a second in my mind.
What is truth?
And there would be only two possibilities after the freeze and the thaw: The word had fallen out of usage and in that then future-now it had become a bit like the word magic. Didn't people use to practice that? It's a lovely word to describe the Christmas lights in the shop windows this time of year. Truth would either be something like that and come to me instantly as that distant word from an ancient text... or it would be that other kind of familiarity that comes from everyday use and I would instantly know what it meant.
I'm an academic. I read too many damn, dusty, fading, forgotten texts. I can't lose the etymologies and definitions that pop into my head. But if I can imagine for a second what it might be like to come across that long forgotten 'knee-shaw' book fading in the future... I might say that truth is something like a wish.
I pick up the book, feel its peeling, grainy, plastic green cover in my hand, and read that familiar word. And when I came to the question mark, I might say that truth is something like a wish. The now me, sitting here in this chair late at night, I know from my etymologies, arguments and definitions that that fixed thing, truth, can never be. But the future me, digging through that ruined library in this once great city London, might say that truth is something like a wish. Like an innocent childhood wish at Christmas, that the world, could all just for once, agree on one thing.
Maybe it would be as profound as the naive idea that killing people is wrong.
Or maybe it would be as mundane as the decision that the left hand side of the road is clearly the right side to drive on.
But if the world could just agree on one thing, either mundane or profound, and then call that truth… maybe the UN could even host a summit on it. But I would know in that ruined library of future London, without even thinking twice, that truth was that innocent childlike wish and we used the word in that time as a verb:
I truth that man in Leytonstone hadn't been stabbed.
I truth world leader hopefuls wouldn't speak ill of others in order to get a vote.
I truth that everyone whose homes have flooded would have a bed to sleep in.
I truth the Paris attacks hadn't happened.
I truth that we wouldn't forget the 87 killed in Burundi because it wasn't Paris.
It would be phrases like that. And then glancing down again at the page, after that phrase inquiring after a wish, I would read the ancient philosophers announcement: ''What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors…'' And then I would think:
'' A mobile army indeed, we all wish for different things and our wishes are always changing and standing in for different things. That's why we fight. This 'knee-shaw' doesn't quite get what he's up to. He seems to have wished away wishing. Now I wonder if we could get people to stop wishing. That would be something. But I suppose we would need a mobile army for that as well.''