A Useful Lie
It seems garish to expound upon a proverb—especially one’s own. Fault me for the feat, but I’d like to unwrap these terse truisms from time to time, to more fully expose their flesh.
Let us turn now to one of my many Forgetful Proverbs:
In youth it struck my curious mind quite odd that literary labels real and unreal should be respectively termed nonfiction or fiction, not least due to its chafing against common sense. Further, why make fiction, the unreal, a basis for labelling its counterpart, the real? One should think reality ought to be our foundation, labelled fiction, and unreality its offshoot, nonfiction.
But as all students must, I have since accepted this timeless teaching never having reached a firm grasp of its foundation. Nevertheless, I have grown grateful for the enigma, for it serves well present purposes by its placing preeminence on the unreal.
Biography and autobiography are examples of nonfiction. They are real. They are true. Another example is history, a string of facts. But can’t an individual guide their behavior from the imagination? Does not the unseen elicit real responses? Cannot a historiographer reshape the past?
In terms of synonyms for fiction we can think of imaginary, contrived, made up. So what happens when what the imagined becomes real? What happens when the biography of a life reveals one guided by imaginative constructs?
When an architect conceptualizes a structure in her mind, it is unreal, a fiction. Then she sets about the process of clothing this imaginative construct in the flesh of steel and rock. It perfectly accords with the vision in her mind; it has become real.
Doubtless the learned reader will have thus far rendered this mere semantic banter, an insufficient blurring of the fiction-nonfiction distinction. What yet remains is our mightiest of denotative foes: that of the distinction between what is versus what is not. Animal Farm is not: pigs and sheep and horses do not hold court together vying for control of the farm.
But when what is not becomes what is? Was it ever really fiction?
As I hear the song, Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine says, “In Orwell’s hell / A terror era comin’ through / But there’s little brothas / Watchin’ you too.” 1984 may be the perfect example of a literary fiction turn real.
Indeed of what use is the fiction-nonfiction divide? Would it matter if a biology textbook was labelled fiction? Nay; rather, what would matter is whether it’s content proved useful.¹ Science, that tyrannical arbiter of truth, has proven untrue in innumerable instances. Historical accounts are capricious. Psychology relies on a string of labels against a useful fictitious backdrop against which they make sense: Freud’s id, ego, and superego may not wholly accord with actual the subtleties of the psyche, but their being labelled in such a fashion is useful for the identification and control of certain conscious and unconscious processes.
And what of James Frey’s so-called memoir, A Million Little Pieces? It later admitted of falsification, but did readers enjoy the story?
I might never have an answer to how the counterintuitive terms fiction and nonfiction have arisen, but here we have my own justification for their elimination. It might not be right, but I’ve at least spelled out the why.
Indeed justification ought to accompany all learning. Sadly this element is in serious want in many areas, namely the practical significance of various mathematics; ethical beliefs the unreflective possess; nonpolitical reasons for legislation; and most matters taught to youth from primary through secondary education, though these creatures themselves appear to esteem the highest that very simple yet profound question:
I have veered off course, of course. Let us settle by paying homage to the overall notion that reality ought to court the unreal—most especially in the creation of an individual life. Verily, in the delightful delusion of my reality, real and unreal, truth and fiction intermingle and coalesce to form a mosaic whose elements bleed into each other in an undifferentiated continuum.
Strictly speaking this lived experience of making the imagined real is an art [hence the subtitle of this blog].² In life, as in art, we are encouraged to color outside the lines. Yea, even those representative arts that strive so ardently to mirror nature are themselves fictions. It is inescapable.
Now drop the labels and get out there and color.
¹I am indebted to the works of William James, for his unique pragmatic approach to truth as usefulness.
²Ayn Rand defines art as the concretization of abstraction in her aesthetic work, The Romantic Manifesto.