Silent in the Still Waters of Mystery
Here’s an example of the reflexivity of my own self-interested, predetermined fiction-making. Recently, I sauntered into the elevator at the end of a day at the courthouse. Like every elevator, this one has an “emergency” button. After I pushed the button to take me to the first floor, I eyed that emergency button, and I wondered silently to myself. I remember some kind of gesture of flinging by my right arm and the sound of a “ding!” Straight away I recalled what a well-behaved, rule-following person I am; my mother used to praise me any time I earned less than an “A” in behavior on my report card, so concerned was she about my ability to loosen up. Yes, I had pushed the button, but it had been an accident. I found a court security officer and apologized that it had been an accident. I had accidentally brushed my arm onto the button. It had been inadvertent.
Uncovering illusions like these, and their self-serving nature, is the great contribution of contemporary thinking that goes under a necessarily imprecise heading, be it “critical theory” or “postmodernism.” Again: “What can be thought must certainly be a fiction.” This insight is a daunting one but a valuable one, if for no other reason that nothing is to be gained from indulging human naiveté, particularly the form of human naiveté that gave us the gas chambers. Conrad again: “Absolute Truth, like Beauty itself, floats elusive, obscure, half submerged, in the silent still waters of mystery.”
This is a fact of life. Failure to admit it makes any normative claim about reality’s fiction look like just another climbing plant hanging upon the garden trellis, too naïve and afraid to grapple with the innumerable mental fictions that for all of us harden into the mirage of reality. Stories like my experience in the elevator and the Misjudgment of Tony Romo become etched in memory, which is often stronger than stone for all its malleability, into something we call “history.” I’m not a theologian, so don’t take my word for it, but this tendency may be the reason that faith cannot be summoned by the believer and instead must be given to him, because our self-justifying mental fictions are so rigid that they can be displaced only by imposition, by the gifting, of a Fiction.
This is Julian Barnes’s domain as an artist: the limits of human knowledge, the self-interested nature of our inquiries, and the ensuing humor and tragedy. Examples abound, but I think of his little story called, “The Things You Know.” Barnes relays the thoughts of two elderly ladies—Janice, a Brit, widow of Bill; and Merrill, an American, widow of Tom—sharing a breakfast table. For women who meet once a month for breakfast, Janice and Merrill don’t seem to like each other two much. Merrill faults Janice for being “dowdy” and dressing like an old maid. Janice’s critique is converse, faulting Merrill for being ostentatious and being among the women who “pretend to be what they had once been.”
Bill and Tom worked together on a college campus, but their wives never met until they passed away. It turns out that Janice has harbored a little secret about Tom, and Merrill has harbored a little secret about Bill. When Merrill makes a comment suggesting that Tom’s friends held him in higher esteem than Janice admits, Janice recalls a party in which she looked out a bathroom window to see the “famous campus groper” force a woman to do his bidding. “It was a love match,” as Merrill describes her marriage with Tom. And when Janice mentions Bill talking of “sending her a message” after he died, Merrill recalls that everyone in the university administration knew that Bill was a homosexual. “Bill never looked at another woman in thirty years,” Janice reflects dreamily.
The Necessity, and Impossibility, of Living Backwards
But between the proposition that much of what appears like reality is a hardened compendium of mental fictions, and the proposition that the innumerability of mental fictions makes it impossible to believe in a more concrete reality, is a logical jump. “The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks—and it can be reproduced an infinite number of times from these,” wrote Jean Baurillard. The undeniable trend in contemporary thinking such as this is to make the infinite possibilities of reproductions a reason for abandoning the search for that one true original.
This cannot be our final posture, because reality’s fiction leaves a trail. The fact that I am completely in the tank for Tony Romo does not mean that he did not quarterback the Cowboys to victory over the undefeated New Orleans Saints in December 2009 and that Romo’s performance was inarguably, unmistakably extraordinary. We may be wedded to our own predetermined endings, but this marriage is less the result of evolutionary change than the base imitation of reality’s fiction, into which we were created and which operates according to the same structure. The rejection of even the possibility of a real, concrete fiction—apart from being its own mental fiction—leads to the flippant treatment of the trail left by history—“for instance,” Kermode suggests, “in gas-chambers.” Ask the Jew thrust into the gas chambers his feeling on whether his sensations are but mental fictions.
Amidst the vapors of mental fictions he identifies so keenly, Barnes never loses sight of reality’s fiction. One critic was put off by The Sense of an Ending for its lack of “moral vision,” on account of the fact that Tony Webster never assesses a clear judgment on Adrian’s act of committing suicide. (Although I think Barnes’ judgment is more strongly suggested than that critic realizes, but never mind.) I’m not sure I agree with the critic’s judgment. One can imagine a literary fiction of this era in which Tony Webster searches right and left for the source of the bequest from Veronica’s mother, only to find that the connection between him, the bequest, and Adrian’s suicide is some kind of clever ruse. That is to say, one can imagine a literary fiction of this era gathering the same plot elements toward a conclusion that is flippant. Having mentioned Nabokov, it seems to me that Pale Fire, as acclaimed a novel as they come in this day, seems to indulge in the unreality of reality’s fiction. Barnes, by contrast, assumes, without giving the fact much attention, that Tony has done something wrong, that Tony’s act and Adrian’s suicide are tragic facts, and that the tragedy cannot be escaped through clever misdirection.
Barnes never loses sight of the concreteness of actual occurrences and the regrets and pain they produce. This may seem like faint praise, but to account for both mental fictions and reality’s fictions in this era when they collapse into one is an achievement. Tony reflexively seeks corroboration for his mental fiction, but then the fiction of reality, in all its concreteness and inescapability, hits him unawares: “What did I know of life,” Tony wonders, “I who had lived so carefully?” It leads him to instruct the reader to “look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking aback from that future point.”
This sounds a lot like Kierkegaard, except Kierkegaard realized we are far too bound to the middle and blind to the end for this kind of wisdom:
It is quite true what philosophy says: that life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forwards. Which principle . . . ends exactly with the thought that temporal life can never properly be understood precisely because I can at no instant find complete rest in which to adopt the position: backwards.
The result is a double-layered tragedy: blind to the future, we participate in actual occurrences that we come to regret; and blind to the past, we presume that our mental fictions correspond with reality’s fiction. But though time marches on, as they say, it cuts a path back to our regrets.