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 doing chores that require two hands so I can’t read, or while I’m walking the dogs, 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, those in power couldn’t accuse you of making fun of them (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. Ditto books of travel, like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which purported to be a real memoir—but was actually based on a book (whether true or not, I have no idea, though many of the details feel real!) written a few years earlier by a sailor named Alexander Selkirk. The fictional version is still read today—the memoir is totally forgotten.

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 ones like Madame Junot’s, even filled with self-aggrandizement and the blithe hand-waving of age that writers of the time often did, there are so many little details that do read as true.

I enjoy secret history in fiction, I enjoy it in reading history—like, for instance, V. E. Tarrant’s The Red Orchestra,  about the soviet spy network inside Nazi Germany, something we were not taught in American history.

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; even if you don’t buy Science as a synonym for Truth, scientists work hard to diminish ignorance, which is desperately needed good work.

But here’s the thing that I believe about creative work in any medium: human beings learn through play.

Even when they 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 at least see expert swings, even if one’s body never quite learns to cooperate) etc.

So . . . say that someone writes about a new idea, piece of history, or discovery that two hundred thousand people read about in an excellent non-fiction book, like the above. This can inspire a brilliant television show like 17 Moments of Spring,  which thrilled and inspired millions.

Concurrently, there are secret histories that purport to be facts, but are fabrication, but which resonate with the real for some, and lead down some ugly paths. I don’t want to give any extra air time, but I imagine one can call some to mind, especially in the news of late.

I am exhilarated about the exchange of ideas, and verifiable facts, whether in science or history or any other field of study.

But also exhilarating, to me, is the idea that 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, and inspire, 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.




Anamnesis — 22 Comments

  1. I love cross-media inspiration especially, like discovering the biography of Alexander Hamilton that the musical Hamilton is based on. Or ballets based on Shakespeare.

    • Me too! In the case of ballets, there are no words–there is only music and dance–but the performers are trying to evoke the emotional spectrum of Shakespeare’s work.

      Come to think of it, I am fascinated by homages in general, even when I don’t get it/think they work.

  2. We hear people say all the time that The American Slave Coast has done this for them — shown them the history they didn’t know existed. We even see it in the very many amazilla reviews up there for it. That is gratifying and satisfying in the extreme, yes. Does make us feel we had labored so hard for so long for something. 🙂

    • And The American Slave Coast deserves its accolades. I hope some of its readers will put those stories into fiction, because there’s way too much Gone With the Wind in our popular perception of slavery.

      • Thank you! 🙂

        But far more to the point, all those millions who suffered all those terrible, vicious, cruelties throughout our nation’s history deserve to have their stories, as far as they can be known, told.

        I.e., it’s not about us, it’s about them.

        • One of the reasons that virulent racism still has such a hold on the US is that we have so much dishonest fiction that lies about our history. Gone With the Wind is the best known, but there were many others. Most people learn their history from those stories. I want to see them obliterated by fiction that tells something closer to the true story. Fiction may not be factual, but it can tell the deeper truth better than a list of facts. (Unfortunately, it can also perpetuate racist myths.) So I hope anyone who wants to write about that period in US history reads your book and weaves the facts about slavery into their story.

          I have the same attitude about Texas history: I want to see the Anglo myths I grew up with (“one riot, one Ranger”) wiped out by the Mexican-American stories (i.e., the hundreds of Texas Rangers that chased Gregorio Cortez all over the state).

  3. I remember hearing a story on Radiolab about Charles Bliss, a concentration camp survivor, who created an ideographic writing system not connected to any language. He was hoping it would help promote transparent communication, and, thereby, goodwill, and he sent it out to thousands of professors and heads of state, etc., and was crushed that no one was particularly interested… only to discover, years later, that it had been adopted in teaching kids with cerebral palsy, who couldn’t speak. It was pure chance–he had thought his system had failed to reach anyone, but this one teacher at the school had found his book and adopted the system. The story has a kind of a sad aspect to it, in that he ended up arguing with the school about how they were using the symbols, but I loved it for an example of how you can scatter your seeds wide, they can seem not to germinate, and then, lo and behold, it turns out that somehow, somewhere, they *have* taken root… though maybe in a way you weren’t expecting.

    That story came to mind reading this line: 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, and inspire, millions. –it’s not quite the same thing, but similar.

  4. You all might find this an interesting sidelight on the present discussion. From the UK Guardian, in a piece about the coming BBC Sherlock season:

    [ ” Moffat is also despondent about events on both sides of the Atlantic. “If fiction has a role to play in this, and I’m not such a fatuous oaf that I think it really does, I think we have to start saying what being a hero constitutes.” In the new series, Cumberbatch’s detective is less of the irritatingly smug know-it-all we saw in earlier episodes. Moffat elaborates: “Being a hero isn’t being bigger, richer, more powerful than somebody else. It’s being wiser and kinder.” He pauses and adds: “I think it’s time for the less-of-a-dick Sherlock.” ” ]

    • Well that sounds promising! I couldn’t stand him in the earlier version. But there definitely is a Sherlock industry now–he seems to have replaced vampires and elves.

      • I loved Holmes in that series, but no matter how fine an actor, Benedict Sherlock as Aspie/borderline sociopath was too much week after week. Even brilliant Dr. Watson could not drag me back. The new one might do it.

    • That welcome “Being a hero” sentence reminds me of the Noblebright discussion a few posts back. And speaking of both that post and last week’s on recommendations, I am enjoying the recommended Noblebright collection. However, so far the story that’s really jumped out and grabbed me is ‘Pen Pal,’ one that doesn’t automatically sort into an “heroic SFF” pigeonhole. The closest analog I can come up with is Ruth Ozeki’s ‘Tale for the Time Being’ : vaguely similar physical link between the protagonists, equally complex layering, tentatively hopeful ending, (and both made my reread-sometime-soon list.) The odd thing is, I suspect that Ozeki’s version would probably be shelved in a bookstore’s literary fiction section, but that the more overtly idealistic approach in ‘Pen Pal’ could prevent reviewers from taking it as seriously. Maybe the best thing in terms of ultimate influence would be to declare it “young adult.” It deserves more exposure!

      • I have firmly believed since its publication that it deserves wider exposure. I still think it the best book I read in 2013.

  5. I agree with you that people learn through play. The process of solving a puzzle can be a lot of fun, and I think that’s what scholars apart from scientists like to do.

  6. I rather indeed hope that people will not attempt to make fiction out of what is in Slave Coast and other histories. Especially if they are not African Americans.

    Fiction ultimately is made-up. Thus it is lies, which allowed fiction to be a primary weapon in the war of ideas the former CSA began waging even before the shooting war was over, and in which they won the war of history and redeeming slavery into Jim Crow, voter suppression, incarceration etc. — all the aspects of neo-slavery.

    The Half Has Never Been Told, and never will be. Cannot be. Fiction can not ever begin to do justice to the realities that so many millions suffered. We living now simply cannot begin to imagine what they felt, thought and experienced.

    More emerges constantly — New York Times:

    Insurance Policies on Slaves: New York Life’s Complicated Past
    In its 19th-century beginnings, New York Life Insurance sold 508 policies covering slaves. Their descendants are grappling with it.

    • I think we may disagree about what fiction does. Fiction is made up, but that doesn’t mean it’s lies — not necessarily. Sometimes fiction tells a much greater truth than facts. For example, in reading some of Samuel R. Delany’s Neveryon series, I came to understand — on a gut level — why some people sought out anonymous sex. I had never understood it when reading reports about it, but the story changed my understanding and also my acceptance.

      Recent books such as Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and Nisi Shawl’s Everfair do an excellent job of taking some historical knowledge and changing the narrative. Gyasi’s story is historical fiction on the slave trade, slavery, and Jim Crow, while Shawl’s is steampunk that changes and challenges the European myths about Africa. Both stories change our underlying understanding in a way that just telling us about the horrors of the Middle Passage or the things King Leopold did do not.

      And of course, Toni Morrison’s Beloved shattered any remaining illusions that slavery wasn’t that bad.

      I don’t want fiction writers to use your book to create stories based on the histories you tell; I want them to understand that part of the past in a new way when they’re telling stories. Gone With the Wind perpetuated many myths — fiction can tell dangerously harmful stories. We need stories that puncture that myth. I don’t think anyone can read The American Slave Coast and write stories about the glorious south anymore.

  7. I know some people who will only read non-fiction or fiction that is basically a dramatization of something that did happen, or could have happened, in our world at some point in time. Personally, I’ve always had a taste for the fantastical, and I like to see ideas and human interaction explored with a good dose magic and alternate timelines (though I read other genres too). It’s sort of like edutainment, maybe? I guess it ties into the idea of books ‘holding up a mirror’ to society: every book is a different type of mirror, and some books are like those carnival funhouse mirrors. That distortion can reveal. And fun embellishments can draw the eye of the otherwise disinterested observer. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down? (The metaphor quota has been reached I think.) I wonder if there are any models of idea dissemination that include the influence of fiction versus non-fiction? The recreational aspect of novels would seem to be a major factor, in any case.

    Imo fiction definitely has the potential to do a lot of good, in a variety of ways (not only idea dissemination). Representation is probably the most topical issue, but I think public health efforts like reducing smoking also used stories (well, ads anyways) for the purpose of (for lack of a better word) ‘social engineering’. Certainly, if people are more likely to read and engage with an idea when that idea is put across via fiction, then that seems like something to be explored and harnessed.

    • I wonder if there are any models of idea dissemination that include the influence of fiction versus non-fiction? I only have experience, but a lot of that.

      I don’t know how successful the non-smoking campaigns have been, but I sometimes wonder if the campaign to get women smoking was one of the most successful ever. When tobacco companies figured out they could make twice the bucks if they could overcome the cultural bias against female smoking, and filled media with fashionable vamps in terrific clothes with their cigarette holders, well, by the fifties, when I was a kid, every single woman I knew was smoking like a chimney right alongside the men. All generations. I remember being astonished to read older kids’ books in which men had smoking rooms, and “ladies” didn’t smoke.