Borges was the one who had the courage to breach the barrier. To have written a story, in 1939, in the form of an essay, about a second-rate writer who successfully composes all of Don Quixote, word for word, punctuation mark for punctuation mark, was courageous. In a world in which literature was sacred, in which Don Quixote was sacred, the story bordered on blasphemy. It can be compared to a devout Christian writing a story about a second-rate preacher who becomes the crucified Jesus, down to the smallest detail, such as being the son of God.
It was equally courageous just to think – forget about writing – to exercise the intellect, without paying attention to the fundamental distinction between fact and fiction. To be the first to combine the real world, which included the great Cervantes, with one’s own invented world and one’s own invented author, Pierre Menard, was to leap into a chaos.
Anyone who has written this sort of stuff knows that it starts with a sort of unhitching of the brain. It is a unique sensation; it does not happen when, for example, you sit down to write fiction limited by the intelligence and vocabulary of a narrator, or entirely in the second person, or without the letter “e”. For writers of meta-fiction it’s a pleasurable moment of free-fall before we find ourselves safely suspended and pulling out shreds of fact and fiction to make a nest. But imagine making that leap before anyone else had done it.
Once penetrated, the tangent between fact and fiction turned out to be a vast space. Striking out from the breach made by the fictional essays of Borges, explorers began to wander around. They found protagonists who had been secondary characters in other fiction; they found great writers of the canon falling in love with fictional characters; they found that strange nook where they, themselves, by name, were their fictions’ protagonists.
Today – like any exotic wonderland – this new-found world has become a tourist attraction. Every other short story or novel has a meta-fictional element in its structure. Meta-fiction is a technique that has become familiar to the reading public, who enjoy and appreciate it, but it also carries a deeper significance – just as classicism and romanticism did. It will be meta-fiction’s liberation of fiction from the constraints of only an unreal world – not the thousands of works of meta-fiction, great and crappy, that were produced in this period – which will inspire respect and admiration in the literature departments of 2115.
(As is often the case, what is allowed in art is not allowed in reality. If I wrote a short story which was a conversation between myself and Susan Sontag traveling together in a train going up the Hudson in 1987, that would be just fine, no problem. If I were to write an essay about Sontag in the New York Review of Books which drew on quotations from that conversation, that would not be fine.)
As with any literary movement, meta-fiction is a product of its time. It’s a commonplace now that we are losing our sense of what is real and what is not real. People always have gotten things wrong and believed things that turned out to be erroneous, such as Ptolemaic astronomy and the divine right of kings. What remained inviolable was the barrier between what was true (that is, what was thought of as true) and false (that is, what was thought of as false). The story of Galileo muttering “yet it moves,” after formally recanting heliocentrism before the Inquisition judges, is probably apocryphal, but illustrates the rigor with which the mind adheres to a strict distinction between the true and the false – or did back then. One might express an idea one did not believe to be true under duress (as with Galileo), or as the result of wishful thinking, or with deceitful intentions, but – until recently – one would be perfectly aware that the idea did not correspond to reality.
Stalin refused to believe the report that the Germans had crossed the border into Russia. He had such confidence in his own view of Russia’s relationship with Germany that he dismissed the first reports of the invasion as a mistake; then he assumed that it was an unintended incursion. Once he knew the truth, he did not waffle about what was real and what was not. “Lenin gave us the state and we’ve fucked it up,” he said after meeting with his generals, when the Germans took Mirsk. In the same way, Ribbentrop was not confused about what was real and what was not when, in order to justify Germany’s declaration of war, he alleged that the Soviets were planning an attack on Germany.
Seventy years later, when Cheney justified the attack on Iraq by alleging that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, he did not think of his allegation as being either true or false. Thanks to the infusion into the zeitgeist of New Age relativism, we have been given permission to create our own reality. Cheney and the neo-cons, chiding the aghast as being too attached to reality, were thinking in a strikingly avant-garde fashion. Unfortunately, since they were dealing in reality (real reality) instead of fiction, things did not turn out as anticipated. (Cheney – ever the avant-garde thinker scoffing at the hoi-polloi’s reality – still does not see it that way.)
Besides the neo-con’s alternative reality, in which a cockamamie theory can become true simply through an act of will supported by frequent iterations (remind you of someone?), there is another pseudo-reality, a sort of squishy reality, which has been around forever and to which we all subscribe. It is the reality of things we have been told, things we have heard, things we tentatively believe, things we enjoy believing, yet things we don’t know for sure. Apocryphal stories, like that of Galileo’s aside, above, or Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat bread” are part of that pseudo-real world. Statistical “facts” that draw on well-worn prejudices, such as that the French are more likely to engage in illicit sex, the Irish more likely to be drunks, and Italians more likely to fly off the handle, are also part of this shadowy true-yet-not-true reality.
We also have our own, personal squishy realities. A detective on a British police show I watched a few months ago, pontificating about the proper way to prepare tea, said that the milk should go into the cup before the tea is poured. Something about the idea appealed to me, and ever since then I have been adding my tea to milk instead of vice versa. I have no illusions about the validity of the fictional detective’s fictional advice; it isn’t even as if it appeared in the food section of The New York Times. It has become my reality – that milk-first is the better way to prepare tea – simply because I get a mild sort of pleasure out of it. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it is because I enjoy the novelty of changing a habit of fifty years, or because I like being a contrarian, or because I am over-engaged with television police procedurals – whatever.
Now that the internet is our primary source for information, our squishy realities, the things we like to think are true even though the evidence for them is scanty, have acquired more mass. They haven’t become less squishy, more valid, it is just that it possible to find more substantiation for them on the internet, even though we are aware that these substantiations are dubious. For example, I could comment on a tea preparation page in epicurus.com that it is better to pour the milk first. Of course, I wouldn’t reveal that I had learned that from a fictional character in a television show.
The prime example of the squishy nature of the internet’s reality is, of course, Wikipedia. Since 1771, there have been fifteen editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Wikipedia, on the other hand, changes so often, with constant edits, re-edits, additions, deletions, re-insertions, that I doubt even a super-computer could count the number of editions there have been of that monumental work.
(Two endnotes, just to make things clear: 1] I have not yet noticed any improvement in the taste of my morning tea by following my new milk-first regime. 2] I am deliberately avoiding going on Google and searching for something like “is it better to add tea to milk or should milk be added to tea.”)
This tedious essay of about 1,600 words is intended only as an introduction to another piece – yet to be written – which I hope to post sometime in the near future. Instead of a work of meta-fiction, it will be one of meta-fact. It will be an essay on another bit of squishy reality which tickles my fancy, although it is of dubious veracity: When Brahms was young and still relatively unknown, to help make ends meet he played piano in a brothel.