Fiction

All writing is fiction.  I suppose that requires some unpacking.  One of the first things we do when we approach a piece of writing is answer the question “what kind of writing is this?”  We may not do this consciously, but we wouldn’t benefit much from reading if we didn’t.  If your significant other leaves you a note stuck to your computer monitor or the refrigerator door, you know at a glance that it likely contains pithy, factual information.  If you pick up a newspaper you know what to expect the contents to be like.  It’s quite different if you pick up The Onion.  Or a romance novel.  These categories are extremely helpful, but they can also be problematic.  Any writer knows that you write and others decide on your genre.

I read a lot of nonfiction.  It is a kind of fiction, however, since it follows a narrative and it contains mistakes, or perhaps faulty assumptions.  Moreover, nonfiction is a reflection of its own time.  Geoffrey of Monmouth’s England had giants in its past.  It simply did.  Today we question his working assumptions just as surely as future people (if we long survive) will ours.  This current generation doesn’t really excel at critical thinking.  Many academics, as critical as they are in their own fields, fall into standard assumptions once you get beyond their expertise.  They accept the fictions of their era just as readily as does everybody else.  In reality our nonfiction is not the naked fact we like to think it is—it is the narrative of one perspective.  It is perhaps the truth as it is perceived in its own time.

This may seem to be a subtle distinction, but it is an important one.  Genres are very convenient handles that we use to classify what we’re reading.  Very often they become straightjackets that constrain what writing has the potential to be.  The word “genre” is related to the concept of genus, the classification about species.  Zonkeys and other, perhaps rare, but possible cross-breedings show us that hopeful monsters of the literary world are also possible.  We would soon suffer without genres in a world as full of words as this one is.  We also suffer from simple distinctions that somehow become iron-clad over time.  Think about the narrative that comes out of the White House.  We’re accustomed to it being mostly nonfiction.  At least we were until recently.  Watergate broke our trust in that, and now we live in a world of fiction masquerading as reality.  Critical thinking is, perhaps, the only way to make sense of any of this.

Seaing 2020

It’s funny what sticks in your head.  As a ten-year-old 2020 seemed impossibly far in the future.  And it was very wet.  Not because of global warming, but because of a Saturday-morning cartoon called Sealab 2020.  Suffering from thalassophobia, the idea of living under the ocean was both intriguing and terrifying to me.  I recall that these underwater scientists had “aqua-gum” that they could chew so they’d be able to breathe and talk when not in the giant domes of the lab itself.  While checking out the series online, I was surprised to learn it only had 13 episodes and lasted but three months.  I’ve been thinking about it for over 40 years now, silently waiting to see if we would have such places as the deadline drew near.

This image is protected under copyright by the owner. It is reproduced here under the fair use doctrine, in low resolution. From Wikimedia Commons.

Instead in 2020 we have a record low of scientific projects being supported by a science-denying government.  Ironically the sea levels are rising because of global warming.  We haven’t done our homework and we’re pouting that things aren’t turning out the way we wanted them to.  Ours is no longer an evidence-based reality, but one where a tweet of “fake news” is all we need to make the truth a lie.  And as the water laps our ankles my thalassophobia starts to kick in.  The thing about Sealab is that they had kids there too.  Kid scientists.  Even more ironically, Richard Nixon was president.  His downfall was Watergate—coincidental?—and now we have a president caught red-handed (very Red-handed, even) in crimes while in office and Nixon’s beginning to look like a saint.  When did the water get up to my knees?

They wore wetsuits and swim fins quite a lot in the show.  Moving under water looked so natural—unlike my flailing when I attempted to swim.  It was all about not being able to breathe, in my case.  They showed us all kinds of strange animals under the water in Sealab 2020.  Animals that we could drive to extinction, it seems, if they got in the way of unbridled greed.  I have to admit that I’m a bit disappointed that Sealab misled me.  We were heading for an optimistic future back then, even with Nixon justifying the Vietnam War and spying on his political opponents.  People were still able to look forward four decades ago, in hopes of a better future.  For all these years I’ve been awaiting 2020 only to find the world back behind where it was in 1972.

Seventies

It’s pretty rare for me to be out on a week night.  Like a kid on a “school day” I’ve got to get up early the next morning.   And yawning a lot at work is bad form, even if nobody can see you.  I risked it recently, however, to meet with some colleagues from the Moravian orbit in Bethlehem.  As we talked, current projects came up, as they’ll do when doctorate-holders get together.  Demons are a conversation stopper, but I nevertheless asserted that our modern understanding of them derives directly from The Exorcist.  The insight isn’t mine—many people more knowledgable than yours truly have noted this.  One of my colleagues pointed out the parallel with The Godfather.  Before that movie the mafia was conceived by the public as a bunch of low-life thugs.  Afterward public perception shifted to classy, well-dressed connoisseurs who happen to be engaged in the business of violence and extortion.

The insight, should I ever claim as much, was that these films were both from the early seventies.  They both had a transformative cultural impact.  Movies since the seventies have, of course, influenced lots of things but the breadth of that influence has diminished.  I noticed the same thing about scholarship.  Anyone in ancient West Asian (or “Near Eastern”) studies knows the work of William Foxwell Albright.  Yes, he had prominent students but after Albright things began to fracture and it is no longer possible for one scholar to dominate the field in the same way he did.  Albright died in the early seventies.  Just as I was getting over the bewilderment of being born into a strange world, patterns were changing.  The era of individual influence was ending.  Has there been a true Star Wars moment since the seventies?  A new Apocalypse Now?

You see, I felt like I had to make the case that The Exorcist held influence unrivaled by other demon movies.  We’re still too close to the seventies (Watergate, anyone?) to analyze them properly.  Barbara Tuchman suggested at least a quarter-century has to go by for the fog to start clearing.  Today there are famous people who have immense internet fame.  Once you talk to people—some of them my age—who don’t surf the web you’ll see that internet fame stretches only so far.  It was true even in the eighties; the ability to be the influential voice was passing away into a miasma of partial attention.  The smaller the world gets, the more circumscribed our circles of influence.  And thus it was that an evening among some Moravians brought a bit of clarity to my muddled daily thinking.

Clean Thoughts

Brainwashing, it seems, does not exist.  Many of us who remember at least bits and snatches of the Vietnam War and the subsequent fear of cults, grew up hearing the term.  Someone’s personality had changed after some kind of trauma—slow or fast didn’t matter, but it had to be slightly prolonged—so that they were no longer recognizable as their former selves.  Scholars began to work on this idea and found it lacking.  Since the 1990s, at least, we’ve known there’s no such thing as “brainwashing.”  When you get right down to it, there’s no such thing as a mind to brainwash since it’s merely an actual brain making up a story to keep itself from being lonely in this cosmic wasteland.  Anyway, there’s no such thing as forcing someone to think something weird.

Then enter Trump.  I know many intelligent, educated people who cannot see the stark, naked contradictions.  Nothing, it seems, can convince them that simply saying “no I didn’t” doesn’t make it all right (alt right?).  The fact that well over a thousand pending lawsuits stood against him before he laid his hand on that Bible and swore—let’s call it swearing—to uphold the constitution, seems not to have registered.  I’m reminded of being a kid and crossing my fingers behind my back and believing that made a temporary lie okay.  Thing is, most of us outgrew that.  As the evidence of criminal activity while in office stacks up until it teeters, the supporters shout that the truth is just a lie and Jesus love me, this I know.  Too bad brainwashing doesn’t exist anymore.  It might help to explain a thing or two.

Following the news is something for which I simply don’t have time.  Or the fortitude.  Faced with blatant criminal activity, the Republican Party launches countersuits saying that investigating a crime is itself criminal.  There’s no such thing as brainwashing, though, so you can sigh in relief.  Still, as I go through the day and headlines pop up, as they will, I pause and wonder.  Not that things were better when we believed in brainwashing—for what good does it do you to believe something that’s not true?—but I’ve become strangely nostalgic for Watergate.  I see the lawsuits piling up behind the intrepid base, unfazed by any baptism in reality, and think about the explanatory value of brainwashing.  Maybe it doesn’t exist, but it sure could explain a lot.