Reality

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Like many others, I am finding some time to read during our COVID-19 confinement.  I have been reading two books, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year.  (I am rather plodding through them).  Last week, on my shelves, I saw Marilynne Robinson’s collection of essays, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, and read the one titled “Facing Reality.”  It begins:

    Anyone who reads and writes history or economics or science must sometimes wonder what fiction is, where its boundaries are, if they exist at all.  The question implies certain distinctions, as between fiction and fact, or, more cautiously, between fiction and nonfiction.  I would suggest that, while such distinctions are real, they are also profoundly relative, conditional, and circumstantial.  Almost everything we have a name for exists in the universe of time and matter, and should, so it seems to me, be assumed to share certain of their essential qualities, two of these being ineluctability and profound resistance to definition.

    Yet we have put together among ourselves a rigidly simple account of life in the world, which we honor with the name Reality and which, we now assure one another, must be faced and accepted, even or especially at the cost of those very things which societies we admire are believed by us to value, our example education, the arts, a humane standard of life for the whole community.  Science fetches back from its explorations mystery upon mystery, yet somehow we feel increasingly sunk in a world of mere things, in a hard-edged Reality that disallows imagination except to exact tribute from it, in portraits which assert its own power and ferocity, or in interludes and recreations which concede by their triviality that only Reality matters.  Our present model of the world is a fiction, based on notions of objectivity and of the character and implications of science which are a hundred years out of date.  It is based on the flotsam and detritus and also the floor sweepings of all disciplines–psychology, penology, economics, history, all of them.  From them it takes its important tone, helping in magnifying any present obsession.  For many of us it is true to say, Reality marks our ballots, even rears our children.  It is such a poor contrivance that we would not believe in it for a minute if we did not want to.

And this:

    As a fiction writer, I feel smothered by this collective fiction, this Reality.  I do not admire it or enjoy it, this work of grand minor imagination which somehow or other got itself acknowledged as The Great Truth and The Voice of Our Time because of rather than despite its obvious thinness and fraudulence.  So I will give it a bad review…

There is so much more, and it is all very good.  I particularly liked her extended discussion of anxiety.

Here is a nice review of the book.

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