Saturday, March 17, 2012

Why Novelists Must Be Unhappy

Echosquirrel and I were sitting around talking yesterday, reminiscing really, when I asked her where she thought she'd be right now if she had never met me.

She somewhat gruffly replied that she didn't waste her time thinking about such things. I didn't ask her why — I think I know why — it has to do with her desire to stay centered and live in the present.

I did say that I thought it was at least interesting to explore counterfactuals.


"'Factuals.' You know, ask 'What if so-and-so had done X instead of Y?' Or 'What if such-and-such had happened to A instead of what actually did? How would history have been different? (Would history have been different?)"

What if, for example, Darwin had contracted tuberculosis before his voyage on the Beagle? Could he still have produced his theory of evolution by natural selection? Would we now be talking about Wallacian, not Darwinian evolution? Would the thrust of history have remained the same, with just some of the details having changed?

Counterfactuals are not solely the realm of historians however. Novelists employ them as well, though when conjecture and imagination come into play we call the resulting fiction Alternate History (AH).

I guess Nabokov's Anti-Terra spinning somewhere outside the space and time of Terra in Ada is the best example I know: a delusion of Van's, a love song to what could never have been, a parallel world with its own distinctive morals and science, standing what we think we know on its head.

So what do counterfactuals and alternate histories have to do with novelists being unhappy? Well, if we equate happiness with enlightenment, or at least the striving for such a state, we see that being grounded in the present — not obsessing about the past or projecting too much into the future — is one of the conditions for achieving that state.

I remember once watching a Tibetan Buddhist mandala being created and destroyed at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. I wondered if any poet or novelist would do such a thing to their "work of art."

Novelist in particular (at least the ones I'm interested in) are past miners and future fellaters — our own past or future or our characters' or some weird hybrid of the two. We're always busy rewriting the past, and our selves into it, a past imperfect or a future dystopia, the present sliding forward into something we'd really rather not say.

I guess what this admittedly ragged blog post wants to propose is that in our attempt at creating or recreating a world, we are striving for a permanence that simply cannot be. We speak to our own generation, at best maybe a few generations removed.

After that, or sooner, impermanence. Get used to it. Maybe made into a movie. Coming soon to a theater near you.

No comments:

Post a Comment