Presentation during The International Writing Program, Iowa, EEUU, 2001.
This panel is entitled “Reality and fantasy”, but I will speak about reality and fiction, because I think that the counterpart of reality for a writer –not neccesarily it´s opossite term- is in fact fiction rather than fantasy.
And as soon as I think about reality and fiction, what immediately comes to my mind are two classical ideas of Henry James in his essay “The art of fiction”. The first one is that before the indifferent chaos of reality, before the blind rushing of things and events, before the irremediable vanishing of relations, the artist still has a weapon, and that weapon is the possibility of stepping back, of reflecting and selecting what is precious from within that chaos, the possibility of extending the blurry or incomplete lines of reality to draw his own figure.
The artist, in this conception, would be searching inside the chaos of reality for some kind of order, not of course, the square order of a hotel room, or the binary logic order, but maybe, as in ancient magic, the connective order of certain hidden symphaties. In James´s creative process, reality would give him only the germ of the story and then, he had to forget completely that source to patiently let the seed grow in that other and silent inner world of fiction. Of course, many authors, specially in our days, when the word “chaos” has been fetished by postmodernism, would like to simulate to some extent the chaos and ramdomness of reality. In different ways George Perec, John Irving, Paul Auster, Philip Roth and even a strict author of tight crime novels such as Patricia Highsmith, have tried to represent the degree of chance, excess, disorder, that one can find in every fragment of reality. But of course, these simulations require as much forethought and calculations as any of the fictions that some of these authors might dismiss as traditional.
The second idea of Henry James is his famous thesis that fiction creates life, that fiction is life, and that the only important question to ask a text is whether or not it has that vital flame. How does fiction create life, how does fiction permeate reality, this is a subject that I find most interesting, and I would like to give here a small example, connected with the novel I am working on.
The example concerns religion. Borges already asked once: is there any fiction more daring, more persistent, than the idea of God? There is for me an even more audacious fiction, with long consequences up to our day. It has to do with the triumph of Peter and the Fathers of the Church over the dozens and dozens of christian sects in the time of Christ. Peter and his twelve were not, in fact, the most numerous group, were not the most advanced, were not the most influential. Which was the key element, the esential distinction, that made them strong, that unified them as they marched over all the other groups, until they annihilated all oposition? It was, as Tertuliano recognized, the somewhat macabre faith in the resurrection of the flesh, the image of Christ coming back to life in flesh and blood, announcing the resurrection of all men. That Christ, newly risen from his grave, ate a bit of grilled fish, and apparently completed only one more recorded activity during his spectacular return from death: to signal Peter as his succesor and founder of the Church. He vanished conveniently forty days later.
The authority of Peter depends intimately on this miracle of miracles and it is no wonder that the Fathers of the Church rushed to convert the resurrection into dogma, and to consider heretics those who, more timidly, were only ready to believe in a spiritual return. The idea of resurrection, that during the day would not resist the questions of a child, has for that same child during the night an undeniable power of consolation. To return with the own flesh, with the body one is accostumed to, is to return to this life, something much more tangible and concrete than the ascension of a spiritual element of dubious existence to a totally unknown heaven, of which even the best descriptions are not very convincing. This was the lesson of these men, that called themselves “pastors to the flock” to the Maquiavelos, the politicians and the publicists of the future. It is not the truth, it is not reality, it is neither reason nor arguments what really matters. It is not even that in which all of us might believe, but that in what all of us want to believe.
The most visible consequences of this old piece of fiction are of course those subterranean cities of wooden boxes underneath each city that we call cemeteries. Another implication, more recent, the one I am using in my novel, is the reluctance to donate organs in christian families.
In fact my entire novel can be seen as a reflection on fiction and reality, on how conjectures and theories can shape lives and fates of people, and how dangerous and missleading the aesthetic attraction, the appeal of some fictions can be. I am addressing theories and conjectures, even the scientific ones, as fictions, because in some way, this is what they are: fictions thrown at reality with the hope of finding a well fitting match.
In my novel there is a series of crimes, linked with a logical series of symbols. The “detective” is a mathematician, in fact a logician. His name is Arthur Seldom. Let´s say that this character is interested precisely in the aesthetic of reasonings in different disciplines. Seldom admires a famous statement by Marx: “the cat does not study the mouse in an abstract way, he studies it to catch it and eat it”. In a slight variation of this statement, he points out that the cat does not study every possible animal, he just likes mice. Similarly, he thinks that human mind does not consider every possibility in the reasonings, but only those with some aesthetic resonance. He ultimately believes that Kant´s a priori concepts for knowledge can be replaced by an aestetic criteria in each field of reasoning. This filtering, I think, also ocurrs in the different levels of reasoning during the creative process. As novelists, while writing, we do not consider all the posibilities but just those few that appear to us as shaping original connections or strong dramatic relations or whatever effect we are interested in.
I will finish with a confession and with a quote. As many of my colleagues here know, I have been going more frecuently to the Foxhead bar to play pool than to the library to search for quotes. Yes, I recognize that I have been trying to escape from wisdom. But wisdom has its strange ways. Because if you go to the Foxhead and drink some beer while playing pool, you will notice at some point that you will feel, not yet wiser, but with the need to go to the bathroom. If you happen to be a man, you will open the gentlemen´s door, and then, when you are distracted looking around, all of a sudden, on your left, on the wall, wisdom strikes again, because you will see a graffiti. The graffiti says:
How strange reality is
Why people do not go around
in continual state of amazement
is beyond me.
And yes, indeed, I have agreed my whole life with this anonymous poet of bathrooms. Reality is a perpetual amazement, and the tiny part of this amazement that we transfer to paper is what we call fiction.
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