Better than the Truth
While my adopted state of Florida has many interesting tales, perhaps the most famous is the story of Juan Ponce de León’s quest to find the fountain of youth. As the name suggests, this enchanted fountain was supposed to grant eternal life to those who drank of (or bathed in) its waters.
While the fountain of youth is regarded as a mere myth, it turns out that the story about Juan Ponce de León’s quest is also a fiction. And not just a fiction—a slander.
In 1511, or so the new history goes, Ponce was forced to resign his post as governor of Puerto Rico. King Ferdinand offered Ponce an opportunity: if he could find Bimini, it would be his. That, and not the fountain of youth, was the object of his quest. In support of this, J. Michael Francis of the University of South Florida, claims that the documents of the time make no mention of a fountain of youth. According to Francis, a fellow named Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés disliked Ponce, most likely because of the political struggle in Puerto Rico. Oviedo wrote a tale in his Historia general y natural de las Indias claiming that Ponce was tricked by the natives into searching for the fountain of youth.
This fictional “history” stuck (rather like the arrow that killed Ponce) and has become a world-wide legend. Not surprisingly, my adopted state is happy to cash in on this tale—there is even a well at St. Augustine’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park that is rather popular with tourists. There is considerable irony in the fact that a tale intended to slander Ponce as a fool has given him a form of ongoing life—his fame is due mostly to this fiction. Given the success of the story, it might be suspected that this is a case where the fiction is better than the truth. While this is but one example, it does raise a general philosophical matter regarding truth and fiction.
From a moral and historical standpoint, the easy and obvious answer to the general question of whether a good fiction is better than a truth is “no.” After all, a fiction of this sort is a lie and there are the usual stock moral arguments as to why lying is generally wrong. In this specific case, there is also the fact (if the story is true) that Oviedo slandered Ponce from malice—which certainly seems morally wrong.
In the case of history, the proper end is the truth—as Aristotle said, it is the function of the historian to relate what happened. In contrast, it is the function of the poet to relate what may happen. As such, for the moral philosopher and the honest historian, no fiction is better than the truth. But, of course, these are not the only legitimate perspectives on the matter.
Since the story of Ponce and the fountain of youth is a fiction, it is not unreasonable to also consider it in the context of aesthetics—that is, its value as a story. While Oviedo intended for his story to be taken as true, he can be considered an artist (in this case, a writer of fiction and the father of the myth). Looked at as a work of fiction, the story does relate what may happen—after all, it certainly seems possible for a person to quest for something that does not exist. To use an example from the same time, Orellana and Pizarro went searching for the legendary city of El Dorado (unless, of course, this is just another fiction).
While it might seem a bit odd to take a lie as art, the connection between the untrue and art is well-established. In the Poetics, Aristotle notes how “Homer has chiefly taught other poets the art of telling lies skillfully” and he regards such skillful lies as a legitimate part of art. Oscar Wilde, in his “New Aesthetics” presents as his fourth doctrine that “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things is the proper aim of Art.” A little reflection does show that they are correct—at least in the case of fiction. After all, fiction is untrue by definition, yet is clearly a form of art. When an actor plays Hamlet and says the lines, he pours forth lie after lie. The Chronicles of Narnia are also untrue—there is no Narnia, there is no Aslan and the characters are made up. Likewise for even mundane fiction, such as Moby Dick. As such, being untrue—or even a lie in the strict sense of the term, does not disqualify a work from being art.
Looked at as a work of art, the story of the fountain of youth certainly seems better than the truth. While the true story of Ponce is certainly not a bad tale (a journey of exploration ending in death from a wound suffered in battle), the story of a quest for the fountain of youth has certainly proven to be the better tale. This is not to say that the truth of the matter should be ignored, just that the fiction would seem to be quite acceptable as a beautiful, untrue thing.
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