It used to bug me when blurbs for gay-themed novels, movies, tv shows, whatever, made a point of noting the “universal themes” in play. I guess it still bugs me, though you see it less often. It does happen from time to time. You never, ever see this language used to promote works of fiction that have white, middle-class heterosexual characters at their core, though. It’s only the “others” who have ever had to justify their stories by invoking a universal standard of experience.
One time I went to a lecture given by the great photographer/writer/philosopher Duane Michals. This was in the 80s. I didn’t take notes, so I don’t remember the exact wording he used, but I do remember being very much disturbed and provoked by one of his points: that there is no universal standard of experience. “There is gay truth and there is straight truth. There is black truth and there is white truth. There is woman’s truth and there is man’s.”
I don’t necessarily agree with him. I don’t necessarily not. I don’t know. How would you know, either way? You can only want it to be one way or another. There’s no way of knowing.
Have you ever heard of Pascal’s Wager? That’s the idea that, if there is no Christian God, it doesn’t hurt you to worship him, but if there is one, you’re SOL if you don’t worship him, so the “reasonable” man would always choose to wager that there is a God. There are a lot of holes in the logic there, torn by brains far more accomplished than mine. But that’s not really the point. I bring up Pascal’s Wager because I have a similar wager of my own, regarding Universal Truth.
Either it exists or it doesn’t. Right? Those are the two possibilities.
If Universal Truth does not exist, chasing it, trying to write to that standard, is a waste of time. You will serve up empty platitudes that distract people from the meaninglessness of life (if Universal Truth does not exist, remember) with lies. So you shouldn’t chase after it at all. Doing so is ultimately unethical. You should just stick to your own truth, which is the only one you can possibly know.
If Universal Truth does exist, it is unavoidable. If you are writing the Truth, which is to say, that which is true to your own experience, you will, by extension, necessarily and automatically, be writing Universal Truth. All Truth is Universal Truth, by definition. So you don’t have to chase after anything but your own personal Truth.
Did you notice the trick? I guess it’s sort of the opposite of Pascal’s wager, because in either case, you are left with the same prescription, which also happens to be the oldest piece of advice in the book: write what you know. The rest takes care of itself.
Universal, Schmuniversal. That’s Manley’s Gambit.