Flights of Fantasy

Other than by the default of being human I’m not sure what makes our species so interesting. We spend much of our time concerned about food, we move about in more or less set territories and even smaller circles of familiarity within them, we seek pleasure and avoid pain, we call to each other in audible sounds indicating this or that of potential interest to the other, we play sometimes and fight at other times, we have intercourse, we touch, we congregate, we defecate, we lie down to rest – not terribly unlike the vast number of other animal kingdom organisms on the planet. And if one were to only slightly adjust the above list we could shift that last clause to read “not terribly unlike every other animal kingdom organism on the planet”. When you get down to it we’re not really that special, and even the domains that we once thought were ours exclusively turn out on further inspection to either already be there or to at least potentially be there in nonhuman cases (such as recent evidence of proper name use among dolphins or sacred and ritual practices among chimpanzees). In fact it wouldn’t be a stretch, I’d say, to make the point that we don’t have anything specifically more when it comes to nonhuman animals, we have just more of everything. Very brazenly and loudly more of everything – it’s enough to give one a headache.

Why then all these stories about ourselves? Why do we insist on telling (and in many instances re-telling and re-telling) the same general plot lines, arcs, developmental schemes, and interactions? There is comfort in the known, but that can’t be it. These archetypes we so love can be tweaked though, and that might provide some stimulation; along those lines here’s a scenario for you (taken from this article titled “Truth and a Good Life” by Prof. Lloyd Reinhardt): A man lies on his deathbed, with his wife on one side of him and his best friend on the other, each holding his hand. He smiles as he passes, comforted by these two great and loyal comrades whom he so cherished during his life. After he has crossed the threshold the wife and friend look lustily at each other, push the recently deceased to the floor and energetically engage in one of the activities from our above list (you’ll know which one I’m referring to). The questions Dr. Reinhardt is concerned with are: Have they done anything wrong to the man given that he knew nothing of their affair? and Would it have been better for him to know the truth while still alive?

The truth – that’s a sticky one. There’s no truth in fiction, some say, others that only fiction has the real truths. What is truth anyway? Is there any value in it? Any pure objectivity? (I make a case here on the same great site that regarding the latter there cannot be, that a certain perspectivism is unavoidable.) Personally I’m increasingly of the opinion that pretty and livable lies are far preferable to any tyrannies of “objective truth”. And good fiction can provide comforting lies like little else. With our man above I can’t see how his knowing would have helped him, even in the “truth shall set you free” sense. There is an argument to be made from the point of view of his reputation, but that assumes that others were privy to his wife’s infidelity with his friend, and perhaps no one was. Some say – again thinking of reputations – that posthumous harm is possible, and in the hypothetical given however secretive the two lovers might have been before their hospital room tryst word surely seems likely to get out to some degree after it. Yet I remain unconvinced by such thoughts.

We’ve come back to our talking about ourselves, to our sharing, gossiping, storytelling. Maybe we can’t help it, maybe it’s just how we’re built: born narcissists. Even our mythologies, after all, have strong anthropomorphic tendencies running through them, and culture appears to make little difference there. One people’s ancient tales look a lot like another completely different people’s contemporary tales. Archetypes again. But is this a given? A necessity? If we can think our way into a creature then we can think our way into their being, and that might be wildly different than ours. There are of course limits to consider, and in some cases thinking our way in might be impossible (a la Thomas Nagel and his famous bat piece), but why not try? Oh, I’m as guilty as anyone of writing about the human, but from where I sit now I really believe there is much, much more to explore in our literary pursuits, especially when we unfetter ourselves from the cut-and-paste contours of the mainstream and the pressures of trad-concerns and trad-demands. We can go anywhere and write anything – what’s stopping us?


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