I recently spent three memorable days in the delightful Swedish town of Uppsala with more than a hundred scholars from both sides of the Atlantic gathered to explore ‘The Place of Truth’ at the biennial conference of the ISRLC, the International Society for Religion Literature and Culture.
The theme in 2018 could not have felt more relevant. There is little that is more urgent now anywhere than to turn with critical vigilance to our notions of what holds both vital potential for good and for clarity as well as what can rapidly mutate, paradoxically, into the most dubious and obscuring of currencies.
Thought-provoking keynote papers by US-based scholars in the fields of religious studies and theology, Jeffrey W. Robbins and Linn Tonstad, framed the work of the conference. For all their considerable differences, both played strikingly on the tension between private and public, theological and political ‘truths’.
My own paper focused on Dada in Berlin. The Dadaists acted with cutting wit, play and ‘bloody seriousness’ (their term) during a period of extremely precarious ‘truth’ – 1918-20. I see there many of the disorienting features of our technological and political present prefigured. Looking at the Dadaists’ extensive strategies for the subversion of visual, theological and political ‘truths’, I was encouraged by the discussion that followed, especially into the suggestive implications of that situation and the stakes for our own critical and artistic culture today.
Outside, in a leafy park, there was a gentler artwork which caused me to linger (and made me late) each morning. It was a bronze sculpture, called Child Carrying Wings by the Swedish artist and filmmaker Knutte Wester. The child is weighed down by a pair of outsize, heavy, clumsily man-made wings, which he drags behind him. They are an ill-fitting prosthetic burden on a figure of innocence, thwarting any of the lightness needed for flight. They spoke to me of human hubris, from Icarus to some of our contemporary public endeavors to all our complex yearnings for transcendence. I was also conscious of Uppsala as the hometown and as the burial place – close to this very park – of the great Swedish writer and diplomat Dag Hammerskjöld. I had his book Markings with me on my trip. It is achingly beautiful, with its own profound metaphors of flight, and of wings. These notes from a past life still astonish me with their eloquent honesty – including about what we do with truths personal and universal, hidden and revealed.
I am privileged to be a recently-appointed Visiting Scholar at Sarum College (and have just returned from teaching on its MA in Theology, Imagination and Culture programme).
The College will be holding its own investigation into truth on Monday 22 October, at 6.30pm in Salisbury’s Guildhall. The Sarum Symposium features a panel of distinguished authors discussing truth and storytelling: Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Barney Norris, Lionel Shriver and Erica Wagner, the panel chair.
I have no doubt that there too will be another trenchant discussion of what must be today our most vital and most imperiled currency: truth.
For tickets to the Sarum Symposium please email firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 01722 424800. Tickets on the door are on a first-come, first-serve basis as space is limited.
Deborah Lewer is Senior Lecturer in History of Art at the University of Glasgow and a Visiting Scholar at Sarum College.