Our perception of truth is particularly fallible when it comes to other people.
By Douglas Board
I grew up with a rock-solid grasp of the difference between reality and fiction: rock-solid but wrong. Reality was stony-faced, wounding and compulsory: a cross-country run in winter rain, the humiliating impossibility of catching leather balls or mastering Mandarin pronunciation. Mostly reality went on and on, unchanging, for example the grinding calendar of scholastic production – lessons and examinations. Sometimes it was fickle. Either way, it was unyielding.
Growing up, fiction was the opposite. Whether it was Jules Verne or Hawaii Five-0, fiction was escape; temporary, of course, but any break-out from the vertical and horizontal bars of a calendar had to be that. After all, time was reality (stony-faced, wounding and compulsory).
I grew up in a modern version of Plato’s cave. We youngsters strapped lamps of reason to our foreheads as we hacked at the shadows of knowledge on the wall. Producing ragged piles of inconsequential facts determined our grades: the capital of Colombia, the square root of two and the practice of transhumance.
Fiction offered escape. I dropped the flashlight of reason to grab the lantern of dreams – the dreams of Agatha Christie, Alistair Maclean and Douglas Adams. Their lanterns bathed the cave’s walls in kaleidoscopic color. Better yet, the lanterns had wings. The joy of exiting the cave like a bat out of hell! (a late adolescent discovery: music could also be an escape. Ditto various substances.)
In fact what the cave produced was millions of knowledge-workers: smart-arses whose shiny rational prowess was soon deployed to produce not piles of facts, but money. I inhaled cave air thick with duty and self-importance. Above all, I knew the cave was real, and home. Escapist fiction was charming, but merely demonstrated the impossibility of living outside.
Discovering the many wrongs baked into this view of reality and imagination took decades: I didn’t try to write fiction seriously until I was 50. Here’s wrong number one.
The cave allegory hangs on light and seeing. However, human eyes are not pinhole cameras but reality constructors with extensive mental processing. We never ‘see’ the boundaries of our blind spots because mental processing fills the spots in with what we ‘know’ is there.
In fact, if we can’t imagine something, we probably won’t ‘see’ it even when it’s front of our nose. A famous experiment in psychology shows observers of a basketball game failing to see a gorilla walk across the court. To take another example, Einstein’s imagination had to work overtime before astronomers could ‘see’ what space-time looked like.
Audrey Niffenegger is a professor of creative writing, not physics. When she picked up her dream lantern and conceived The Time Traveler’s Wife, she flew her readers out of the cave to somewhere astonishing. Millions flexed their imaginative muscles. We left today’s shackles behind but returned able to see more than we could before. Douglas Adams did that for me, but Agatha Christie didn’t. I didn’t grasp the difference at the time.
Our perception is particularly fallible when it comes to other people. Once we have arrived at a view, often in seconds, we stop noticing attentively: we’ve decided that we ‘know’. When the other person is as polarizing as Donald Trump, the effect is multiplied. Like the basketball spectators, we can’t tear our eyes off him, but still we could easily miss gorillas.
So a contribution which fiction can offer is to introduce a character – in my novelette ‘The Rats’ someone a bit weird on the fringes of Scottish business – whose unfamiliarity makes us notice afresh. Our reactions remain subjective, but more than mindless repetition from social or news media. Then, soberly, we can compare the fictional character with the occupant of the White House.
But the cave lets us go farther. For me the deepest Trumpian riddle is: how could it conceivably make sense to vote for a fool and a charlatan, knowing him to be both? (Many Trump supporters see someone heroic; their votes pose no mystery.) ‘Conceivably’ is a clue that the first challenge is to our imagination.
My cave is a disagreeable dream. Suppose for a minute that the dream captures some truth. The process starts, as in Pink Floyd’s The Wall, with the scholastic force-feeding of rationality. Working life after school is even more stony-faced, wounding and compulsory. Each blank square between the horizontal and vertical bars of the calendar becomes another day for mining. It’s a story about imprisoning ourselves, because the cave’s only guards are the ideas in our heads.
The way this dream tells it, the role of the smart and the intellectually credentialed is key. As miners, they reap most of the rewards. As thinkers and teachers, they hammer home the imprisoning ideas (into themselves, as well as others). They lap up money and prestige but are no less trapped than those cast onto the intellectual scrapheap. As for the dreamers, they may be part of the problem – it depends what they do with their lanterns.
This is a picture of carnage. To escape, why not a leader who lifts high the lantern of his crazy dreams and pulls faces at the lights of rationality? Why not an egotistical charlatan, if your other choices are miners?
Douglas Board (@BoardWryter) is a British satirist and author of the novels ‘MBA’ and ‘Time of Lies’. His free novelette ‘The Rats – A White House Satire’ is available for reading or listening.