My husband gave me a precious complement the other day after listening to me read a new poem. The poem was extrapolated from two incidents related by a friend. I was pondering the ethics of using some one else’s life stories as the raw material for one’s own art work. He called me a “fair witness.” The Fair Witness was a profession created years ago by Robert Heinlein when he wrote Stranger in a Strange Land. Stranger was one of those life-changing books for me. Heinlein had been reading my mind and heart, plumbed my deepest longings for friendship and community and created a people, time, and place just for me. it was like coming home to read that book and feel my myself feeding on new ideas and concepts that would continue to nourish and enhance my wisdom.
The Fair Witness was a profession aligned with a legal institution whose highly vetted, trained and bonded members used eidetic memory to observe events and record exactly what they saw and/or heard making no extrapolations, assumptions or conclusions. They could not be bribed or suborned in any way.
Of course as a poet I extrapolate and draw conclusions all the time- its my job. I don’t qualify for the title at all. But what John meant by his compliment was that I pay attention, observe and take note with as little judgement as possible.
It was the absence of judgement on the part of the Fair Witness in Heinlein’s story that spoke most clearly to me- that’s the part I took away with me. “Fair” was the operative word for me, it became a watchword and standard. Somewhere inside I still long to wear those white robes and give witness.
I think Heinlein’s underlying assumption was that “truth” could be arrived at by being able to state what actually happened. There’s a lot of research on perception available nowadays that indicates people rarely if ever remember or see whatever happens, especially if it happens to them. (Check out Chabris’ and Simons’ book The Invisible Gorilla). Cutting away all the extraneous bits layered around the actual event by assumptions, associations and extrapolations can help keep us grounded in reality. So witnesses, even flawed ones, are important to our lives.
All creatures crave recognition. All sentient beings, and for all I know that includes everything, want to be seen or at least glimpsed from time to time. I think part of being a poet is to stand witness; to see and record. By doing that we fill a great hunger, which exists not just in an individual, but in humanity as a whole. The particular occurences in our life’s reflect the experiences of others, reading about them is like looking in a mirror- we see ourselves and we are not alone.
(I’m not alone in feeling the impact of Heinlein’s ideas. If you google Fair Winess you’ll find 772,000 results! If you’d like to read more about how the witness relates to Mary Magdalene go to http://christineirving.wordpress.com/ and click on Witness in the sidebar.)