"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Imagination - Why Fiction And Not Fact Provides The Answers We Are Looking For

To say that we live in an information age is an understatement.  Data not only defines our world but ourselves.  We use information to build personality, image, and worth.  We are what we know.  How we use and manipulate information qualifies our intelligence, perceptiveness, and insight; and suggests our place in society.  Those who know or want to know little – the poorly-educated, unmediated, or fundamentally religious – exist only on the margins of dense, highly-patterned, and complex informational worlds.

It was not always this way.  In earlier pre-information ages worth and status were not products of compilation but legacy.  Kings, courtiers, and aristocrats would always be defined by family, fortune, and heritage.  Peasants would always labor, serve, and produce, but there was never any question of their origins, social trajectory, promise, or opportunity.

Informational constructs are varied and personalized; regularly updated and refreshed.  The man without opinions – no particular choice of political party; no conclusions about policy or programs – is considered a cipher.  Character and personality while the product of parental genes and upbringing may be innate, are intangible without informational constructs.  A sense of humor cannot exist in and of itself, but only derived from experience – the acquisition and processing of information.

Irony, for example, is a trait of intelligence because to see the joke behind the posture takes insight into human behavior, an understanding of the context in which an event occurs, and perhaps most importantly a sense of history.  To see the irony and humor in the inflexible convictions of true believers, for example – environmentalists, pacifists, gender reform, and capitalist deniers – one must have an appreciation of the endless and perpetual cycles of war, pillage and acquisition, and the ineluctable, permanent, innate forces of human nature.

Anyone acting with absolute conviction in defiance of historical, genetic, and social realities, can only be amusing. 

So the ironist and the activist  are both creatures of information and fact.  They both build their image, character, and individuality based on those facts carefully and especially chosen to give them and their opinions weight.

Those who have little interest in defining themselves on the basis of political philosophy, history, or social commentary are equally determined by information.  There are people whose entire raison d’etre is making common, practical sense out of a complex world.  Economists and people who think like them need to parse risk, cost, and benefit for everything – the best, most efficient way to get from Point A to Point B in a congested metropolitan area; never paying more than the lowest price for a given product or service; dismissing irrational, emotional purchases; fixing instead of buying; parsimony, thrift, and judicious action.

Of course these people are using facts and information in the same way as do esoterics – to build a recognizable, familiar, comfortable, and proud image for themselves and others.  They may choose to ignore opportunity cost in favor of monetary cost because it better reflects their New England or Western values.  They may choose to dismiss a scenic, familiar route despite its advantages of predictability and pleasure because it is a waste of time, fuel, and purpose.

The IT revolution of the past few decades has demanded our attention and engagement.  Once hooked into the electronic world, there is no going back.  The more we surf, the more we discover what we don’t know.  Going down the cybernetic rabbit hole is indeed falling into a fantastic world; and it is very hard to climb out indeed.

Much has been made this election cycle of ‘fact’, lies, and untruths; and commentators have struggled to understand how so many millions of voters could have chosen Donald Trump who never apologized for his exaggerations, hyperbole, wild stories, and implausible reasoning.  These pundits, however, come from an intellectual establishment which prizes logic, objectivity, and mental discipline above all else.  There is no way that they can possibly understand how anyone could value image, meme, and emotion more than truth and reality.

The answer is not hard to find.  The easy explanation is that Trump appealed to the resentments, frustrations, and marginalization of the American white middle class.  They felt so excluded from the socio-economic, cultural, and political assumptions of the ruling coastal elites, that they deliberately and knowingly eliminated fact from consideration.  Nothing less that radical reform would do, and facts were only distracting.

The more profound explanation is that Americans are beginning to fall out of love with facts.  Virtual reality is the best expression of early 21st century zeitgeist.  Who could possibly want to be anchored – chained – to a miserable real world when the virtual one is so appealing?  When the mind-computer interface is finally complete and seamless, there will be no reason to linger in facts.  Personal fantasy will be the new reality.

More profound still is the sense that fiction is qualitatively better and more rewarding than fact.   Shakespeare’s Histories while based on historical fact are stories, tales of ambition, greed, family, and power which are dramatic depictions of human nature.

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Shakespeare understood the cyclical, repetitive nature of history very well.  As the critic Jan Kott pointed out, if one read the Histories in chronological order, the similarity among them would be striking.  Everyone from Henry II to Henry VIII pursued their powerful ambitions, fulfilled their historical legacy, and acted like kings should.  At the same time these historical characters were all different in the way they followed their similar destinies.  Drama, fiction, story-telling offers more insight into human behavior than any factual foundation,

All the great dramatists since Shakespeare’s time and before offered insights into human behavior and the human condition. From Aeschylus and Sophocles to Henry Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee, and Tennessee Williams, playwrights wrote of human essentials.  They were less interested in the factual context in which their characters lived and interacted than the emotional, personal, and psychological expressions of their individuality.  Although Blanche, Alma, and Laura, and Williams himself were conditioned by their upbringing and surroundings, these characters had a sensibility, fragility, and courage that was unique and compelling.

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Blake, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Emily Dickinson, Shelley, Keats, Byron, and Coleridge all wrote of the personal, the philosophical, and the uniquely human.  They may have reacted to the disappointments of the real world (The Hollow Men) but their observations were about human beings and their independence from it.

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Novelists of the 19th and early 20th century were social realists but romantics; and it is the romance that is most appealing and telling.  Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, DuMaurier, Trollope, the Brontes, George Eliot, Sinclair Lewis and others were less interested in the facts of existence themselves, than their influence on character; but in the end it was character itself which prevailed.  Madame Bovary was indeed a product of a patriarchal society, but she was not a nice person; and her story is less one of female liberation than one of more characteristically human greed and ambition.

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The older one gets the more that fiction appeals.  After decades of seeing, learning about, and studying the facts, few people trust them anymore to provide insights into the real truth – death, dying, and what comes after.  Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s story of that name realizes too late that his life has been crowded with facts, with unnecessary barriers, firewalls, and structures to keep order and the nasty bits out.


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