I often think of our brains as hypertext: certain smells, sights, bits of music, words, will trigger a cascade of memories or ideas. As I’m grubbing about doing housework or walking the dogs in temperatures hot enough to bake cookies I haul out some of these to think about. One of my favorite brain hypertext words is anamnesis.
The usual definition you find is along the lines of case histories for psychological or medical purposes (more specifically the act of recollection) but the definition that fizzled my brain some time ago was A recollection of events, especially from a supposed past existence. It’s that ‘supposed’ that gets me thinking about why we read, why we create, what we all see in a work, what we see differently, why, lalalala. Early fiction purported to be personal history, usually in the form of travel. Of course a lot of that was satire–if you called your faraway nation Brobdinag, “they” couldn’t accuse you of making fun of the crown (and you’d sound stupid in court citing ‘Brobdinag’ and the other word that sounds like a horse whinnying. Or so I imagine.) But other imaginary lands were made up for the fun of . . . making things up, and what’s more, people liked to read these. And talk about them. And find out more on the subject.
Anyway, though I enjoy a good alternate universe story, my absolute favorite is the secret history, wherein the facts are as generally known, but the explanation for how things got there isn’t. Especially the one that changes how we perceive things. I remember reading Annamaria Selinko’s Desiree when I was a teen and being absolutely thrilled to get Napoleon’s ‘secret history’. Even finding out later on how much creative license the author had taken didn’t diminish the fun because by then I’d discovered Napoleonic memoirs, and Madame Junot’s. I like secret history in fiction, I like it in reading verifiable history, I like it in a blend of the real and imaginary, because in the good ones, the resonance of verisimilitude can parallel, or even (in the emotional sense) transcend the limitation of facts. For example, Robert Harris’s Imperium made Cicero and Ancient Rome so real for me, I was inspired to read more on the subject.
A fellow writer had a dinner party a while back, someone who’s written some academic works. The person came close to a dinner table faux pas (assuming that taking a fling at the life work of your hosts is not being conducive to a convivial conversation) but stopped short of sneering at how useless fiction writing is, and when will people “grow up” and write something real. Something useful.
Useful. We all like to think that what we do is important to someone, that it contributes to the world. And those who work with facts are doing Good Work in the world; scientists and academics work hard to diminish ignorance, which is desperately needed good work.
But if that guest had been at my table, I would have pointed out that not just during childhood, but all our lives, we human beings like to learn through play.
Even when we don’t think of it as play (watching TV, going to movies, etc) or as learning (hundreds of hours of poker playing makes one into a very subtle player, years of golf makes one an expert at the swing). So . . . say that guest wrote about a new idea that five or ten thousand people read about in an academic treatise. My feeling about these things is (and this is not complacence, because we know that the road to success is so very steep and fraught with pitfalls) somewhere out there is a fifteen-year-old, or a seventy-year-old, who is going to read that idea, ponder it, and reify it in some form of art that is going to reach millions. And those millions might revisit it again and again. At that time, and not before, it will weave itself into the tapestry of civilization.