A world without meaning
Yesterday I wrote about a visitation from an old friend (with a line borrowed from Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence). It was one of those posts that are all fire and fury, where words cascade and you run with them. I probably wasn’t as lucid as I should have been.
I would like to take another opportunity to explain things more clearly. It all stems from one thing: my sense of inadequacy in a senseless world, of how I question myself as a writer (and a person) and why I write at all. I want to touch on how we construct our sense of reality; how this ties with the characters we create and seek to make real; and why, as writers, we can never tell the truth.
I struggle to find meaning in the world. Yesterday a gunman killed over 50 people in Las Vegas; Brexit is the joke that never delivers; Holy wars continue to wage, spilling onto our streets as vehicles plough innocent crowds; people die continually; Kim-Jong un’s flaunting his rockets like some flasher at a ballgame, while America’s puppet president gets penis envy, and threatens a nuclear orgy. The world is crazier and more of it than we think 1. In these moments I have to ask: ‘what is the point? Why am I even here’… So it goes 2.
The world is a hospital
Why do I sleep and strive, eat and breathe? Sometimes, everything loses its meaning. We stalk the hallways in search of it like some lost cat. But perhaps meaning was never here. Maybe life is an optical illusion. You stare at it for long enough and something magical and meaningful appears. But it doesn’t mean it’s real. This gulf between our mind’s need for answers and the world’s inherent silence is what Camus called the ‘absurd’.
We’re all sick of something. We’re tired and frustrated by one thing or another: our stifling job, our broken car, our marriage, our mortgage, our noisy neighbour, the racist around the corner, the way the milk carton never pours correctly. Dissatisfaction seems to be a way of life. It is our medicine and our illness.
Let’s zoom out for a minute. Let’s leave it all behind and take a trip into space. Let’s move past Earth, past the concerns, past the egos, the sickness, and disease, past the other planets in our solar system. Do you see how insignificant it all looks now?
We’re not even dots. We’re nothing. What do my concerns matter? I’m just another cell in a petri dish that revolves around a burning ball of hydrogen. And to think that all matter was created from a single point in time and space. That we are all connected through a shared cosmic genealogy. That a force so intense it burst forth and created an entire universe, and you and I in it. Isn’t that amazing? What does it matter now: the concerns of the extremist, the dictator, the civil servant, the patient, the doctor, the writer?
I feel suspicious about writers who claim to tell the whole truth about themselves, about life, or about the world. I prefer to stay with the truths I find in writers who present themselves as the most bold-faced liars.
— Italo Calvino
What do we hope to achieve by writing? To bring meaning? Camus said that the writer should not attempt to explain the world but merely describe it, for it cannot be explained. And I tend to agree. He also said that writing was a truly absurd act–for if life is a pantomime, then writing perpetuates the mime knowing nothing will last. We are creators, we are the singularity. Inside us lies an entire universe–multiverses. All those characters, all those lives we’ve never met, but are so responsible for.
Our ideas are born as sparks beneath the wheels that become the train. Our thoughts stream through the cities at night in our mind like swarms of fireflies magical and bright. It is a singularity so strong it tears our dreams apart. Inside us entire worlds are built and destroyed. We cannot stop them. But neither can we translate their entire beauty into words. And when we try, these stars and galaxies that collide and fuse become no more than crumbs upon a table.
I am a liar. I dream up worlds and try to convince you they exist. But they don’t do they? I can never capture the entire truth of anything. I cannot describe a coat abandoned in a puddle, or the scar on a man’s face in the light of a winter’s dawn in its entirety. And even if I could, it doesn’t exist–not the one I am thinking of.
Cogito ergo sum
‘I think therefore I am,’ said French philosopher René Descartes. I can be assured of my own existence because I am aware of it. But what underlies this consciousness? Is it enough to know I exist? Can I trust it?
In The Matrix Neo was assured of his own existence until he was ‘unplugged’ and the truth was revealed to him. This is the ‘brain in the vat‘ theory. That we are just a brain being fed stimuli by a mad scientist. If our experiences, our senses–our idea of consciousness–comes from the electrical stimulation of neurons and synapses, then how can we determine they are real?
‘Simulation hypothesis‘ is a theory that we are code in a machine. Computing has advanced tremendously over the last thirty years alone. It’s almost unimaginable for us what could be achieved in the future. ‘Simulation hypothesis’ postulates the idea that a ‘posthuman’ civilisation is using technology far in advance of what we could imagine and running simulations–constructing us based on information passed down through history. They can test outcomes based on varying parameters. In our version the Nazis lost the war. But what if in ‘reality’ they had won? The simulation is making me believe that I am writing this in the year 2017 whereas it is actually many millennia in the future. Civilisation has long since disappeared, and I am not even writing this at all.
I dreamed a dream
Two nights ago our six-year-old son came into our room. He wanted to sleep in our bed. I made room for him. However in the back of my mind I had a suspicion I was dreaming. To ensure I wasn’t I got up and went to the window. I pulled back the curtains as our son climbed into the bed. I looked out at the moonlight shining through the swaying branches of the cherry trees, at the trampoline in the middle of the garden, and at the rooftops of the houses beyond. Assured I was awake, I climbed into bed and went back to sleep. When my son wasn’t there in the morning, I asked my wife where he was. She told me he hadn’t come to the bed at all.
What I had experienced was a false awakening. I had ‘woken’ from one dream into another.
The Zhuangzi is an ancient Chinese collection of stories written in the 4th century BC. One of the most famous of these is called ‘The Butterfly Dream’.
Once, Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering about, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know that he was Zhuang Zhou.
Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuang Zhou.
In a dream we can be assured that we, the dreamer, are real and the things we dream unreal. But in this scenario two things have been dreamt. Zhuang Zhou dreams of the butterfly. But the butterfly also dreams of Zhuang Zhou. So who was real?
In his story ‘The Circular Ruins’ (1940), Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges describes a man who dreams another man into existence. The dreamer is afraid the man might discover he is an illusion. But then discovers he himself has been dreamt by another man. And in ‘The Other’ (1972), Borges writes about an old man called Jorge Luis Borges who discovers he is sitting next to his younger self who has dreamt him.
The night I looked out my window everything seemed so lucid. In memory, it was as real as this moment feels now as I’m writing this. How do I know I’m awake and not woken into another dream? Or that I’m just part of a simulation? Does it matter?
All the word’s a stage
I set out at the beginning of this post to attempt to make things clearer. I’m not sure I have (or I can for I am still filled with the sense of inadequacy of not being able to communicate). But this post is primarily about writing, so I should end with a discussion on what I believe fiction means. And about its relationship with our sense of reality and consciousness.
I have only briefly touched on things here. I am no philosopher, but as you can see, the closer we examine our sense of reality, the more difficult it can be to determine its absolute truth.
But common sense tells us that something happened and then the universe was created. Something has brought us into existence–God, aliens, a mad scientist, a freak singularity, something. And in a similar way we are the creator gods our own fictitious worlds. We create our own universes. We walk its streets, touch the rain, feel the grass beneath our feet, make characters move and talk within it, but none of them know they are there. They have no real sense of ‘reality’. What is the difference between the world we seek to create as writers, and the one we find ourselves writing in? Perhaps I’m only writing this to you now because someone is writing that I am writing.
Metafiction deliberately draws attention to the artificiality of fiction, that we are just characters ourselves (‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players,’ wrote Shakespeare in As You Like It). In her novel The Comforters (1957), Muriel Spark describes a character who begins to realise she is a character in a novel. She begins to hear the sound of a typewriter coming through the walls. Her thoughts are constantly taken over by somebody else’s–the narrator/God. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), John Fowles draws attention to our sense of existential free will (or lack of) by framing the characters of a typical Victorian novel within a modern 20th century novel where the author/narrator often interjects and addresses the reader directly.
Reality has had little place in fiction for many years now. But now that we live in a post-truth society where it is difficult to believe anything, how can we believe in the illusion of fiction as history if we cannot classify our own reality? If we acknowledge the uncertainty of our consciousness, we must concede then that fiction is the greater lie–for it is a lie within a lie itself, the frame within the frame. And that as writers we should be conscious of this charade, pull down the walls, tear away the frame through which we look at the everyday, and tell this lie as truthfully as we can.
Image: Drawing Hands by M.C. Escher.