Saturday, October 13, 2012

What's real

What a lot of fantasy there is in popular fiction!  We seem to have a taste for magic, although almost no one actually believes in magic.  We can see this very well in the Harry Potter books, which are entirely devoid of magic, their ostensible subject.  It's all special effects, like in the movies, devoid of the spiritual element that is an essential part of magical practice wherever it survives in the real world.  What we have instead of magic is a kind of magical materialism--you say the magic words and the thing is done, just like computer code.

This is all very well, and great entertainment, along with all the vampire and angel stuff that's so popular, not to mention the sword and sorcery tomes.  It's fantasy, it's fun.   But what I'm interested in is magic that's not fantasy and not fun, that's real as rocks.  Of course, the problem with this idea is that magic has been entirely cast out of the realm of the real by the operation of science.  Science makes a claim on the entirety of the real: if it can't be demonstrated according to the methods and assumptions of science it can't be classified as real.  This is why much is made of "exposing" charlatans.  Professional stage magicians like to do this--it's all a trick, and it's manifest that the stuff they do expose are tricks indeed.   But it's also obvious to me that actual magic, if it exists at all, would be perfectly invisible to the tools of science.  Science wouldn't even know it was happening.

To believe that you would have to accept that the reality science deals with is not the complete reality, that materialism, positivism, naturalism--all ways of insisting the opposite of this--are deficient descriptions: true as far as they go, but not exhaustive of the real.  Religious people, of course, do believe that there is a separate reality, and that it is able to touch them.  Materialism must therefore discount all these widely reported phenomenon,  and must regard the entire religious and spiritual history of mankind as benighted illusion, even insanity.  Someone has a religious experience?  It's some defect in their medial temporal lobe, and not only that, we can make people have such experiences by stimulating those neurons.  Therefore, the experiences are not real, just as the sun is not real because we can demonstrate nuclear fusion in a bomb.  A hundred people have a religious experience together and that is just mass hallucination, even though we don't know quite how that would work.  But it does stop up the hole in the approved reality.

One would think materialism is on firm ground, given its association with the power conferred by technology.  The iPhone works; therefore there are no spirits.  In our culture we are allowed to dismiss phenomena by calling them "mere subjectivity," but no one is allowed to say "mere objectivity."   The objective viewpoint, so-called, has an invincible seniority over the subjective view. This requires the assumption of an objective view, perfectly impersonal and hence likely to be true.  The mechanism of science, in which the views of a number of observers are compared to establish "reality"is said to account for any subjectivity that has crept into observation, except where those observations include things that can't happen, in which case they're still mere subjectivity.  Another unspoken assumption here is that human intellect is the ultimate court of reality.  If human intellect, as represented by Western science, cannot understand how a thing can be, then that thing cannot be.  The idea that there are intellects lounging in a different reality that are as much superior to us as we are superior to roundworms cannot be entertained.

What I like to do in fiction (getting around the barn to the actual subject here) is try to punch a very small hole in the fabric of objective materialism.  It has to be small.  Zombies in the streets or angelic wars or demons with yellow eyes are too easily dismissed as fantasy; which they are, of course.  If there are spiritual forces at work in the world then they are going to be totally cryptic, and this is also the conclusion of people who take such things seriously.  The corollary is that anyone who claims the manifestation of spirits is likely to be a fraud, or deluded.  On the other hand, there is no reason why a fraud should not have actual contact with a wider reality, and it makes an interesting plot.  I don't like to commit as author to any particular view of reality, although I use characters that report sensing beyond the conventional reality, and events that partake of this reality are always presented in a way that enables them to be explained conventionally: just like in real life.

My sense is that this can be far scarier than the zombies/vampires stuff.  I always mention Lord Dunsany in this context.  He was a horror writer back in the early 1900s and someone asked him what was the most horrible thing he could think of and he chose two.  One was going into an English garden on a lovely June day, and the roses start singing.  The other is waking up in the middle of the night to find someone in your room, and it's a clown.  The art then is in twisting reality just that little bit, just enough to deprive the reader of ontological security without allowing him to turn on the objectivity machine.   Hard to do, always worth it.

1 comment:

Steve Bodio said...

One reason I defend your work below as, well, art as well as genre is that you write...artful.. novels that also take both science and religion seriously, while too few modern "literary" novels take either one seriously; though to be fair some are beginning to deal a bit with science. And who does religion? Ron Hansen maybe?

(Saying religion is dumb & repressive doesn't count-- yeah, dumb like Walker Percy, or Merton, or Graham Greene, or Flannery O'Connor...) Look at the dreary list of unreadable books in the short NYRKR reviews every week. I will say the the NYRB, say, does better, though neither; NONE?-- would devote a long essay to your work...


But in "genre", as practiced by you, and such as Alan Furst (rather more predictable), Tim Powers (rather more erratic), Hilary Mantel, Patrick O'Brian at his best, William Gibson at his, Graham Greene's "entertainments" as a bridge-- we have you, for example, looking at crime and punishment and good and evil and the intimations of a world beyond; also Joan of Arc and-- I have always loved this one-- the French anthropologist who said of shamans in Siberia that he was a rational establishment (French academy) atheist who did not believe in such things but unfortunately they worked. As Paleolithic technology, and religion often do...

One more genre book as another example: Tim Powers' Declare, the best novel about the Cambridge spies EVAH, not excluding the overrated LeCarre Tinker Tailor, absolutely true to what is known, infused with supernatural evil and mystery, and terrifying the way you (MG) define it. Any supernatural element builds so slowly one suspends all disbelief, but you will never look at Kim Philby or his weirder father St John the same way again...

So I have veered to a defense of genre as lit again, and of the real and that it includes the spirit as well as science, and that genre does both better than "serious" right now. Arguments please!