Study Guide

The Luminaries Truth

By Eleanor Catton

Truth

We shall therefore intervene, and render Sook Yongsheng's story in a way that is accurate to the events he wished to disclose, rather than to the style of his narration (I.9.13).

The book isn't big on promoting some rock solid, totally objective notion of truth that everyone could access and see the same way. Instead, truth is kind of a big ball of clay that the characters can mold into the shapes that please them (and which then, in turn, might get interpreted differently, depending on who's trying to make sense of that lump).

Here, the narrator is saying that Sook's story has been edited so the spirit of what he was trying to say comes through, whereas that might not have happened if the conversation had been transcribed literally. The narrator makes these kinds of interruptions/interventions quite a lot in the story.

'Take the mention of the Dunstan goldfield, for example. Francis Carver apparently mentioned the name of that field to Mr. Lauderback, who in turn narrated that encounter to Mr. Balfour, who in turn relayed that conversation to me, tonight! You will all agree that I would be a fool to take Mr. Balfour's words to be true.'

But Moody had misjudged his audience, in questioning so sensitive a subject as the truth. There was an explosion of indignation around the room (I.9.162-163).

Moody gets himself into hot water when he suggests that the truth of the stories conveyed to him in the Crown smoking room might be at the very least watered down, given that a lot of them are coming third-hand. The men seem offended by the suggestion that they hadn't accurately conveyed absolute truths in their stories.

'I contend that there are no whole truths, there are only pertinent truths—and pertinence, you must agree, is always a matter of perspective. I do not believe that any one of you has perjured himself in any way tonight. I trust that you have given me the truth, and nothing but the truth. But your perspectives are very many, and you will forgive me if I do not take your tale for something whole' (I.9.169).

Despite the fact that he's already gotten into trouble for suggesting that information might get a bit garbled third-hand, Moody sticks to his guns in suggesting that truth itself (as a concept) might be a bit more slippery than the men would like to admit. He is quick to say he doesn't think any of the men has lied…but he clarifies that he doesn't necessarily think they've told the "truth," in his sense, either.

'I contend that there are no whole truths, there are only pertinent truths—and pertinence, you must agree, is always a matter of perspective. I do not believe that any one of you has perjured himself in any way tonight. I trust that you have given me the truth, and nothing but the truth. But your perspectives are very many, and you will forgive me if I do not take your tale for something whole' (I.9.169).

Despite the fact that he's already gotten into trouble for suggesting that information might get a bit garbled third-hand, Moody sticks to his guns in suggesting that truth itself (as a concept) might be a bit more slippery than the men would like to admit. He is quick to say he doesn't think any of the men has lied…but he clarifies that he doesn't necessarily think they've told the "truth," in his sense, either.

So I am to be the unraveler, Moody thought. The detective: that is the role I am to play (I.12.41).

After everyone in the Crown smoking room has had a chance to give Moody their perspective on the mysteries that were the subject of their conference, he realizes that it's going to be his job to "unravel" the big ball of tales that just fell in his lap—and to try to get to the "truth" or truths at the bottom of it.

Moody looked embarrassed. He had faith in the analytic properties of reason: he believed in logic with the same calm conviction with which he believed in his ability to perceive it. Truth, for him, could be perfected, and a perfect truth was always utterly beautiful and entirely clear. We have mentioned already that Moody had no religion—and therefore did not perceive truth in mystery, in the inexplicable and unexplained, in those mists that clouded one's scientific perception as the material cloud now obscured the Hokitika sky (I.12.113).

Although he's just said that truth is relational, Moody believes that he can personally access some kind of "perfected" truth ("for him") using reason and analysis. However, he has also just told the men about the apparition he saw on the Godspeed—that is, the man who started bleeding profusely for no reason—which seems to defy logical explanation. So, his philosophies of truth and reason seem to have taken a hit there, and he's hard pressed to use them to explain what he saw.

But there is no truth except truth in relation, and heavenly relation is composed of wheels in motion, tilting axes, turning dials; it is a clockwork orchestration that alters every minute, never repeating, never still (II.1.2).

The narrator seems to agree with Moody that truth is always a matter of perspective, and says as much in the first chapter of the book's second part. It's a good warning to slip in there, since Catton doesn't always show us the absolute "truth" behind what happened, but instead just gives us clues.

'You are wonderfully free with one verb, I notice' the widow returned. 'What does it mean for you, Mr. Moody, to know something? I fancy you put rather a lot of stock in knowing—judging from the way you speak.'

Moody smiled. 'Why,' he said, 'I suppose that to know a thing is to see it from all sides' (II.10.244-245).

Here, Moody and Lydia Wells are sparring about what it means to know things. Moody thinks you know something if you can see it from all sides, but Lydia takes issue with that definition—since she's apparently invested in the idea that one can "know"—at least to some extent—the spiritual world. And when we say "invested," we mean that literally—she's making her living as a fortune teller, after all!

'No,' the widow agreed, 'your definition leaves much to be desired. There are so many exceptions to the rule! How could one possibly see a spirit from all sides, for example? The notion is incredible.'

Moody gave another short bow. 'You are quite right to name that as an exception, Mrs. Wells. But I am afraid I do not believe a spirit can be known at all—by anyone—and I certainly do not believe a spirit can be seen' (II.10.248-249).

Wells and Moody are still arguing about their different definitions of what it means to "know." As Moody clarifies here, his definition suits him just fine in the face of Wells's example of spirit, since he doesn't think it's possible to know a spirit at all. Obviously, Wells disagrees.

'Hi—no need for the truth at all,' said Paddy Ryan. 'Who said anything about the truth? You're a free man in this country, Walter Moody. You can tell me any old rubbish you like, and if you string it out until we reach the junction at Kumara, then I shall count it as a very fine tale' (IV.8.92).

When Moody leaves town for a dig and makes a new friend on the way, the pair agree to tell stories along the way to entertain themselves. Moody is worried about being able to tell a "true" version of his own story, whatever that means to him at this point, and Paddy says he's not really interested in the truth anyway—he just wants a good yarn. Looks like Moody has found a good listener for the story he has to tell, where the absolute truth behind certain events seems to have been hard to come by …

'Well,' said Staines, frowning slightly, 'that's very difficult to say—which to value higher. Honesty or loyalty. From a certain point of view one might say that honesty is a kind of loyalty—loyalty to the truth…though one would hardly call loyalty a kind of honesty! I suppose that when it came down to it—if I had to choose between being dishonest but loyal, or being disloyal but honest—I'd rather stand by my men, or by my country, or by my family, than by truth. So I suppose I'd say loyalty…I myself. But in others…in the case of others, I feel quite differently. I'd much prefer an honest friend to a friend who was merely loyal to me; and I'd much rather be loyal to an honest friend than to a sycophant. Let's say that my answer is conditional; in myself, I value loyalty; on others, honesty' (VI.1.14).

When Staines and Crosbie meet, Crosbie immediately asks the younger man to come out with his philosophy of truth so C knows if he can trust him. Although Emery doesn't really give him all that straight of an answer, Crosbie is pleased with his general view of when to prioritize truth over loyalty (and vice versa), so he decides to trust him.

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