The (un)reality of fiction

This year has seen a lot of discussion of the nature of fiction within genre communities. There is a tread that has run through conversations related to what enjoyment of certain media might say about an audience’s moral character, the justification for artists to explore difficult topics and the question of what information should be made available to an audience prior to engaging with an artwork.

A lot of this discussion has largely fallen into two apparently opposed camps: on one side are those who make the argument that fiction can engender real harm and as such must be treated through a lens of moral instruction. An audience’s selection of media is a window into their soul and an author has a moral duty not to harm their audience through exposure to information hazards. Opposing this is the argument that fiction isn’t real. The events contained within a fictional work have not occurred and nobody has been harmed in creating it; an audience can just put the work down if it discomforts them.

Recently Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story came to the Confederation Center for the Arts. The show’s authors state that the musical / concert hybrid is inspired by the true story of two Jewish Romanian refugees who came to Canada in 1908. The story focuses on the chance meeting and subsequent marriage between a young man whose family was killed in a pogrom and an older woman whose husband died of disease and whose child died of malnutrition while escaping Romania for Russia during the winter. They meet at a screening point in Halifax and meet again in Montreal at which point they begin courting.

The show is narrated by Caplan’s character, “the Wanderer,” a figure who is simultaneously a nod to the anti-Semitic stereotype of the wandering Jew, a metaphor for the refugee experience and the difficulties of cultural and linguistic integration, a rabbi to Chaim and Chaya and a fourth-wall breaking interlocutor who teases and challenges the audience directly. At a point near the climax of the show, during a dramatic shift from the ribald humour that preceded it to a dark and somber reflection on mortality and trauma, the Wanderer confronts the audience and asks them if they regret coming to the show. Are they upset to learn that they were given something unexpected with this sudden shift to somber reflection? This fourth wall break is meant to cut the tension, of course, and to reassure the audience that the light-hearted musical about love and sex will come back from its dark night of the soul. But, of course, what he says is the opposite. As the Wanderer is fond of saying throughout the show, “that’s a lie.”

There’s an existentialist thread running through Old Stock. In his essay, Return to Tipasa, Camus says, “In the difficult hour we are living, what else can I desire than to exclude nothing and to learn how to braid with white thread and black thread a single cord stretched to the breaking-point.” This interpretation of amor fati informs the central theme of Old Stock that requires that the audience take the good and the bad together. You can have a song about the Talmudic “minimum intervals” that a husband must offer his wife between carnal encounters and also a tableau about his failure to save his younger brother’s life during the aftermath of the pogrom, how his father committed suicide rather than carry on in its wake, leaving him alone. Chaim’s life, and his love for Chaya comes from both – he is both – and a clear understanding of his truth isn’t possible without recognizing both the lovesick young man anxious about pleasing his more experienced wife and the haunted victim of genocide.

Old Stock is based on a true story. But is it real? Is truth more real than a lie?

Certainly if we look at the material impact of a statement, its veracity has little impact on its materiality. A politician can put forward the most ridiculous fabrications and yet people will act upon those statements, share his lies, denounce them, split hairs about whether this or that statemen is truly a lie. They might even take more concrete action – hurt someone, other a group of people, engage in genocide.

It’s self-evident that lies are very real; there is a historically visible material impact to deception. People have been killed because of untruth. The concept of the blood libel underpinned many pogroms. Jewish people were massacred because of the story that they killed children. These stories still crop up in the present day via conspiracy theories such as the pizzagate conspiracy theory or the ravings of Qanon. But these conspiracy theories and the harm they cause are separated from unambiguous fictions because their truth is disputed. Nobody believes you can date an anthropomorphized sword but there are people who sincerely believe that Democrats are secretly assaulting children in the secret basement of a Washington DC pizzeria. So this gives rise to another question: is belief a vital force? Do we make stories real in the act of believing them. Terry Pratchett confronted this question directly in Small Gods. In it the last true believer in a god (Om) carries his object of worship on a quest to revitalize his faith and, in the process, to create a new covenant with the god – one which was more in keeping with Pratchett’s humanist sensibilities than the blood and thunder of the old way. Pratchett carefully divides the trappings of religion from that of belief. Vorbis and the Quisition are quite willing to use the story of Om for their own material interests – to maintain their position of power in their society and to project force into the world. But this materialist relationship to the divine doesn’t nurture the god. There’s no vital spark to it. Brutha, on the other hand, has given himself wholly over to Om. In fact Om has difficulty persuading Brutha that he is who he says he is specifically because Brutha is so completely given over to his belief that the disparity between Om’s material condition and the god that lives in Brutha’s head is almost irreconcilable.

By undergoing a process of education Brutha and Om learn to reconcile the material conditions of the faith with the authentic interiority of the faith – that subject of the leap that Kierkegaard deemed essential to true belief – and in doing so revitalize the god. In this case we’re presented with a kind of dialectical vitalism. Reality can be granted or withdrawn from Om through the power of authentic belief assigned to him. Om is a kind of fiction. Pratchett makes the fictive nature of the gods increasingly clear in later books such as Thud! in which a mine sign is presented as being simultaneously a kind of minor god and also a word in a language. The power of the Summoning Dark is a linguistic one. It presents itself as a message and what it does to dwarfs who believe in it is as much a function of their belief that those words have power as it is any sort of supernatural activity. But for Pratchett that belief which nourishes and empowers a fiction can be withdrawn. It’s only real when it’s believed. What then if we choose to take reality as immanent?

In a way, Pratchett’s gods are immanent – they are active in the world and accessible to the people therein. Om can appear to Brutha as a tortoise, the Summoning Dark rides as a mark on Vime’s arm and as a thought within his mind. The ultimate victory of Vimes’ own Watching Dark over the Summoning Dark doesn’t withdraw the power and belief that the Summoning Dark has but rather demonstrates how Vimes too can manifest that aspect of belief, his belief in his own self-policing, in a manner that allows him power akin to that of the gods. Vimes’ fiction of the Watching Dark is no more nor less real than the Summoning Dark. That’s how they are able to contend. And yet, the material effect of this fictive struggle is visible in the story as he thrashes through the dark fighting with the dwarfs whose conspiracy he interrupted. The dialectical sense of a divide between the real and the story collapses in much the same way that Walter Benjamin described the motivations of AndrΓ© Breton to break, “with a praxis that presents the public with the literary precipitate of a certain form of existence while withholding that existence itself.” The stories are real, all of them, they broadcast their own immanent being. Or, as Garak from Star Trek Deep Space Nine might say, “They’re all true, especially the lies.”

Returning to Old Stock we can then look at the Wanderer’s frequent asides of “that’s a lie” as communicating a form of truth. He’s highlighting the contradiction between a proposed fiction and the materiality of a situation specifically to highlight the reality of the former. The lies are true and fiction is very real. But if fiction is real, and if fiction has a material impact on the world, what of the artist’s moral responsibility? Can an artist do harm to a person through their work?

The answer is both yes and no.

An oft-presented example of harmful art is The Turner Diaries. This racist novel, written by an avowed Nazi, is a favourite of notorious terrorists. It has been read, shared and used as a basis for the formation of tactics and plans by some of the most vile people in the United States during the half-century since its publication. If you consider how it might have inspired Timothy McVeigh with regard to specific tactics one could very well say that it is harmful. Except the book didn’t blow up a building – a man did who enjoyed that book. As for the idea that the book created the man the counter-question could be raised of how anybody who didn’t already have a germ of belief in the ideas within that book might be influenced by it to do harmful things. If we treat the Turner Diaries like the summoning dark, an immanent demon able to, through the manipulation of language, manipulate people into doing terrible things then we, each of us, have a Watching Dark too. We are each able to look at the contents of that book and go, “this is awful, cruel and I don’t like it,” and we can then discard of it into the trash, where it belongs. The investment of desire into the artwork allows it to channel the harm a person might do along specific paths but the desire to do harm still belongs with the person who does it. In the case of the Turner Diaries we can certainly look at the harm William Luther Pierce has wrought. He was a politically active Nazi who deliberately used his fiction to distribute thoughts on tactics and strategy to other Nazis. But this is hardly a normal case. Most artworks are not created explicitly to allow terrorists to clandestinely share tactics. And in the case of Boyfriend Dungeon that’s not the nature of the harm proposed. Rather the complaints there were that the artist had a moral duty to inform the audience about certain themes that might cause them discomfort.

And here we return back to Pratchett’s dialectic of the Summoning Dark and the Watching Dark. Art is akin to language in that it is explicitly communicative. And language has an immanent power; there is a vitality that arises out of a person’s belief in the art. Furthermore, much like in the case of Vimes this isn’t an either / or situation. He doesn’t have to fully believe in the Summoning Dark to be influenced by it, especially when other people, the audience of the Summoning Dark believe in it. But that vitality isn’t confined only to that one mark and Vimes does not need to be beholden to an idea. He has the ability to self-police, to employ the Watching Dark to say, “this idea isn’t right for me.”

Nobody is going to force you to play Boyfriend Dungeon, to read Manhunt or to watch Old Stock. In each case you have the ability to say, “I don’t want to braid with these threads,” and to set aside the art, to go about your life. Perhaps this artwork will haunt you. Vimes doesn’t jail the Summoning Dark in his soul without challenge. But he is ultimately the captain of his own ship and able to make the choice to be affected by this word or that. If an artist has imbued their art with sufficient vitality to haunt a person this is to be lauded, not decried as a moral hazard and it is the responsibility of an audience to choose whether to engage with the artwork or to set it aside. Old Stock is an excellent musical, an excellent work of art, because it recognizes that the being of art needs to take in the good and the bad – universally cozy art is dull. Universally miserable art is, at best, off-putting. Writing a story in either of those modes is akin to painting with just one colour.

Art is very real. There is a vital materiality to art that cannot be denied because it is a part of the world, and the world is itself a material, real, place. Nietzsche councils us to be only a “yea sayer,” and this may, in fact, be the best thing he ever said in that it gives us a frame to deny nothing: neither the ability of art to affect the world nor the power of an audience to overcome the effect of an artwork within them. The duty of an artist is to create something that communicates powerfully and sometimes what is communicated will not be fully pleasant. Most good art, let alone great art, braids with white thread and black thread a single cord stretched to the breaking-point. The Wanderer in Old Stock reminds us that Chaim and Chaya’s life is made true because it isn’t just the happy bits. It isn’t the duty of the artist to warn an audience that there might be uncomfortable themes in their work any more than it’s the duty of a painter to warn an audience their painting will contain both red and yellow pigment. This doesn’t absolve an author of all moral responsibility. Clearly attempting to create a manual for white supremacist terrorists disguised as a novel is a morally repugnant act. But I think some clarity on the part of critics and audiences is necessary in recognizing that this is a rare exception and not a universal rule. Even art that takes on morally repugnant themes, such as Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card or The Horror at Red Hook by H.P. Lovecraft don’t harm the audience directly. Nobody says, “I’m going to go out and conscript child soldiers,” because they read Ender’s Game, and it’s likely only a bigot would look at a Lovecraft work and see permission for their bigotry. What many of these controversies about the moral duty of the author are, in fact, doing is attempting to absolve the audience of their moral responsibility. These claims on the duty of the author want the work to be like the conception of the Summoning Dark as this all-powerful linguistic demon that bends minds to its will but, as Pratchett makes clear, this isn’t all. The power of communication exists between parties and each audience member has their own Watching Dark. The moral duty of an audience to be alert to the effect of fiction upon them cannot be withdrawn.