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.