The Truth Through Lies
Mankind's search for truth is one of its most primal urges. The subsequent search led to mythology, religion, literature, philosophy and science, and the search continues. Eyvind Johnson's Dreams of Roses and Fire provides a methodology for the search for truth using an incident which took place in southwestern France in the seventeenth century. Johnson's fictional treatment of this historical event suggests that, paradoxically, the road to truth is paved with lies.
The title of the first chapter identifies Daniel Drouin as a minor character. Indeed, Drouin plays an insignificant role in the events leading to Urbain Grainier's persecution and execution. Drouin's one line in this melodrama, "There is a devil who is not congru!" expresses a doubt about the diabolical possession of the Ursuline nuns, and is not related to Grainier's condemnation. Nevertheless, Johnson chooses Drouin as the vehicle through which most of the story of the events in Loudun is told.
Drouin has several qualification which make him a reasonable choice as Johnson's reporter. He is well educated, having attended a Jesuit school. He became acquainted with Grainier at this school. He keeps himself informed oflocal and national current events. As a high-level official he is privy to many facts which would not be generally known. Since his religious feelings are not strong he is not prejudiced against either the Catholics or the Huguenots. His home is located on the same square as the Church of Saint-Pierre and Philippe Tranchant's residence (both before and after her marriage); Madeleine de Brone even lives on the upper floor of his home. Finally, the narrator suggests that Drouin has the intellectual temperament to be a historian: "[D]eep inside his breast there was another assessor who scrutinized, weighed and saw through things ..." (p. 12). "He has a sense for data and for judicial, clerical and historical relationships." (p. 15).
But despite these qualifications, Drouin is quickly revealed to be an unreliable narrator, especially where he is concerned. For example, Drouin introduces himself in his protocol as follows:
However, the reader has already been told that Drouin's father sent his son to school in order that he might become a successful rug merchant; the father on his deathbed begged his son not to become a government official.
Drouin is proud of his ability to quote Latin authors in appropriate situations. He also considers himself an authority on cooking and even thinks of writing a cookbook. His regular visits to The Hen for "a small glass of absinthe" become a running joke. But Madeleine de Brone expresses the prevailing opinion of the townsmen when she says Drouin "is insufferable with his cooking and his Latin and his tippling." (p. 21).
But aside from Drouin's self-delusion and his propensity to rewrite his personal history, the protocol itself presents numerous problems. Drouin states, "My diary notes should be looked upon merely as props for my memory. It is self-evident that I keep the most interesting things to myself." (p. 79).The events most mentioned in Drouin's Protocol are his wife's announcement of another pregnancy, the birth of his children and the ensuing rituals, and visits to The Hen. The matters that seem to weigh most heavily on Drouin's mind are his vineyard and the walls of the city which are being razed. Drouin also muses on his past affair with Seraphique Archer in entries written in code. On many occasions, Drouin's wife's pregnancy and a child's birth is announced on consecutive entries, with no entries during the intervening six months. Either Drouin is an extremely erratic diarist or the diary is very heavily edited; therefore, the diary's usefulness as a source of historical truth is limited.
Drouin's diary reveals much about Drouin, and when Drouin leaves out "the most secret things" he gives the reader little assistance in understanding what happened in Loudun in the early part of the seventeenth century. Much later in his protocol, Drouin states:
Drouin realizes that the deafening roar of history will obliterate his small voice. Nevertheless he must speak. Drouin's Protocol, then, is not a contribution to the historical understanding, but rather it is an expression of his ego and his desire for immortality.
An additional admission renders Drouin's Protocol almost useless as a contemporaneous source of historical truth. Drouin states: "The protocol... has been read through, examined, and revised repeatedly. The last time it was examined and put aside was in the year 1637." (p. 79). Drouin consciously and unabashedly rewrites history. Some amendments are obvious. For example, when Drouin speaks of Cardinal Richilieu's plan to raze the fortifications of Loudun, he says, "I will, as I said before, not express any opinion." (p. 93). This is the first appearance of this particular phrase which, however, appears frequently in the protocol. With the example of Grainier before him, Drouin is aware of the consequences of criticizing the Cardinal. Most of Drouin's revisions undoubtedly were made for the purpose of self-protection, and Drouin's original remarks are lost forever. Some revisions are more obvious, but the reader cannot know what parts of the protocol were written currently and what parts were rewritten. The integrity of the entire protocol is impaired.
Drouin makes another revelation about his method which makes questionable the usefulness of his protocol as a source of truth. He says:
Drouin again admits his protocol is not the entire story. Although Drouin claims to see the dark side of events, the reader is left to wonder if this is another example of Drouin's self-delusion.
Daniel Drouin's Protocol forms the superstructure of Dreams of Roses and Fire, and the text of the novel itself constitutes the Narrator's Protocol. Drouin's Protocol is limited in scope, but the Narrator's Protocol is a broader search for the truth of what happened in Loudun in the early part of the seventeenth century. All of the flaws of Drouin's Protocol, however, must still apply to the Narrator's Protocol: The Narrator's limited self-knowledge unconsciously influences his presentation; the Narrator must must select and organize his material, which requires ignoring some details that might have a critical bearing on an accurate presentation; the Narrator's interests and objectives may not coincide with the interests of the reader; the process of revision tends to create distortions; and the Narrator's acknowledged biases also create distortions. The Narrator's Protocol attempts to resolve some of these problems by supplementing Drouin's Protocol, but the Narrator only presents additional obstacles to discovery of the truth.
The Narrator's Protocol beings with a series of biographies of the major characters, a group of portraits which forms a rogues gallery of liars. Pierre Barrot professes to adore his parents, but his memories of his childhood are very selective:
Sister Anne is completely deluded. She says of herself: "No one could claim that she was a habitual drunkard, but wine for many years helped her attain strength, courage and mental balance." (p. 62). All other characters, however, agree that Sister Anne is nearly crazy. Sister Jeanne delights in putting on masks in order to achieve her ambitions. She is only partially deluded: she is aware of her masks, but she is mistaken when she thinks all of them have been removed
The search for truth is an explicit theme of the Narrator's Protocol, and the Narrator shows how this search is perverted through improper methodology. Minet sincerely believes that he has discovered the truth about Grainier; he says he" can prove [his] contention with numbers and dates." (p. 211). But Grainier responds:
Grainier points out that Minet has reached his conclusion first, and now seeks only those facts which support that conclusion. Grainier also states that anything can be 'proven': "From a certain point of view, every human being is, or may become, guilty of all that is evil. It is only a question of placing oneself at the proper lookout point in order to get the desired angle." (p.215). Thus, proof is not the same as truth.
The Narrator's Protocol involves the reader in the search for truth by addressing the reader directly or having a character address the reader. Sister Jeanne says, "I cannot see myself from the outside, but can you who have lived after me and live today, see me clearly, see me from the inside?" (p.99). The Narrator raises, but does not answer, the question of whether distance, both chronological and psychological, from the events being described aids or impedes understanding. Grainier also addresses the reader:
Through Grainier, the Narrator points out that he can only present information; the reader must become an active participant in the search if the truth is to be found. Mere information is meaningless without interpretation and analysis by the reader.
With the involvement of the reader, the Narrator's Protocol leads to Johnson's Protocol. The world of the Narrator's Protocol is limited to the text of the novel, but the world of Johnson's Protocol includes the author, the reader and the text. At this level, Johnson's Protocol is a commentary on the Narrator's Protocol, and provides guidance to the reader in interpreting the text. Johnson's Protocol builds on the structure of the Narrator's Protocol and raises additional issues concerning the search for truth.
One important issue is the problem of accuracy. The names of most characters in the text are not the same as their historical counterparts: Grandier becomes Grainier, de Brou becomes de Brone, Mignon becomes Minet. The names of other characters remain the same: Richilieu, Laubardemont, d'Armagnac, Aubin. Johnson also indicates uncertainty about time: "My friend ... Daniel Drouin, who has been gone from the surface of the earth for nearly three hundred years, yes perhaps three hundred and ten or three hundred and twelve years ..." (p.18-19). Some of the Narrator's facts are contradictory: at one point the text states that Philippe is Louis Tranchant's only daughter (p. 30); elsewhere we learn that Tranchant has two daughters. Through distortion, uncertainty and inconsistency of minor facts, Johnson suggests that the accuracy of some facts may not be necessary for an understanding of the larger truths; sometimes an approximation is sufficient.
Johnson's Protocol is revealed only when the reader reads between the lines, as it were. Nothing in the text can be accepted at face value. Drouin is shown to be an unreliable reporter, and when the Narrator states that Drouin is a qualified historian, the Narrator's own reliability must be questioned. Drouin edits and revises his diary, and although the Narrator supplements Drouin's Protocol with biographical sketches, autobiographical papers, dialogues between Grainier and Minet together with other narrative materials, the Narrator must also edit and revise. What is missing may be the most interesting material.
Johnson's Protocol is embedded in the text of the Narrator's Protocol; many statements made in one context apply as well to an understanding of the novel's theme of the search for truth. For example, in the dialogue between Grainier and Minet, Grainier states:
Grainier is warning Minet that facts obscure the truth, but Johnson simultaneously makes the same warning to the reader.
Johnson's Protocol also relates to the intellectual world in which the text is set. Descartes' Discourse on Method was published in the early seventeenth century, and the primary theme of the Discourse is the search for truth. Descartes asserts that whatever is clearly and distinctly perceived is true. Many of the characters of the Narrator's Protocol clearly and distinctly perceive things the reader knows are untrue. Johnson's Protocol, then, is an anti-Cartesian meditation.
Finally, the reader must recognize that Dreams of Roses and Fire is a work of fiction, that is a collection of lies. Daniel Drouin's Protocol is written by Eyvind Johnson; Grainier's autobiographical papers are also a fabrication. Johnson attributes thoughts, desires and actions to historical characters which he cannot know. Johnson strives for verisimilitude by providing a wealth of detail, but his novel remains a simulacrum of the truth. We might compare his method to a holograph on three glass plates: when a single plate is examined, one only sees an indecipherable smear, but when three plates are combined and illuminated by the proper light source, a convincing three-dimensional image appears. It is still, however, an image, despite its startlingly life-like quality.
That the truth can be determined through a lie is demonstrated by the following: A traveler comes to an unmarked fork in the road. Two men stand there, one who always lies and one who always tells the truth. How can the traveler learn the correct road to his destination by asking only one question? He turns to either man and asks, "If I asked the other fellow which is the road to town, what would he say?" The liar, knowing the other will tell the truth, lies, and the truthful one, knowing the other will lie, truthfully relates the lie. In either case, the wrong road is identified, and the traveler simply takes the other road. The truth can be discovered if one knows what questions to ask and how to interpret the answers. Johnson's Protocol, then, provides the reader with questions to be asked on his search for truth.
Johnson explicitly asserts that humanity's ability to grasp the truth is limited:
Despite Johnson's doubts about man's capacity for knowing the truth, he does not doubt the existence of truth. He clearly believes that one should nevertheless search for truth. He presents "one of the possibilities leading to truth," and warns of the pitfalls which will face the seeker on his journey. Dreams of Roses and Fire is an invitation to begin the Reader's Protocol in which the reader builds on the three underlying protocols and makes his own search for the truth.
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Last revised: July 9, 2016.