Fiction and the Eternal Now
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of re-edited and rereleased essays. The essay is about the need to imagine beyond our current circumstances, to see beyond. It was first published March 27 2020.
I have always lived in London. I have always lived in this flat. I have always enjoyed this view over leafy Chiswick with its church spire and English-town illusion. Just like, when I lived in Tanygrisiau, I had always done so. Had always resided in that slate building. Had always enjoyed that austere, grey mountainous landscape. And before, Birmingham. And before, Swindon. Each present an unchangeable certainty. Likewise for routines — my current one of waking, journalling, making coffee — because surely there was never a time when I struggled to sustain a journal, or loathed the flavour of coffee.
Soon, it will be as if I had always lived under the shadow of COVID-19. The unique blend of fear, informational overload and isolation that defines this crisis. I already feel it coming. Each day, the facts, even the most horrific — expecting deaths, expecting social ruin, expecting a new piece of tyranny — become predictably dull. And then, I will get used to the post corona era, when doubtless the new authoritarian measures will shape into something definite, and the far right will be preying on peoples’ vulnerabilities to their sick advantage.
We all-too-easily find that we need the present to exercise a hold over the possible because we cannot face it in daily life. inevitability, certainty, also means acceptance, endurance; it means being able to continue no matter the reality we face. In the interim between one period of normality and another, there is a crisis, a vacuum when everything is possible, including everything bad. Compared to this abyss, the new normal, no matter how bad, can be an anchor. And after encountering such an abyss, we therefore forget it exists, which we can only do by forgetting — not intellectually, but in our waking, day-to-day existences — that life was ever otherwise.
For those of us who cannot easily forget, or elect not to, there is a horror in this human capacity. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is a lot about this aspect of being human. As is, albeit more historically grounded in the author’s own life, J. G. Ballard’s Empire and the Sun. The horror of the normal is intimately tied to the domestic horror of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ or Tracy Fahey’s The Unheimlich Manoeuvre too, which are about the suffocating claustrophobia of a too narrow symbolic order, an order imposed against horror but that becomes, itself, horrifying.
This dialectic of horror is simple: confronted by the fact of contingency, we enforce domesticity, which then encloses too greatly on human flourishing. We do this because we need to make of any circumstances, however horrendous, something survivable and tolerable. The normal Ballard describes is seen, then, in our very capacity to always survive, to always treat any circumstances as ordinary: ‘He resented Jim for revealing an obvious truth about the war,’ writes Ballard, ‘that people were only too able to adapt to it.’
The horror of domesticity is, then, the price we gladly pay to avoid a seemingly deeper horror. Because the abyss is still there, is always there. And now we, especially those of us in the richer parts of the world, are beginning to live with it more proximately than we were used to. We know the horror of living in a world without hope — without history, a stagnant postmodernity that believes in its own false and sterile eternity — but we do not know how to live in the abyss itself, which this postmodernity was meant to permanently suspend. And the danger of this moment is that we will simply, collectively, refuse. That we will embrace the trap of domesticity in a new form, however claustrophobic it might be, however many we have to betray. That is, the incestuous, monstrous domesticity offered by the far right.
The truth that fiction tells — at least, good fiction — is the truth of the abyss. I am not one to believe in a universal literature. I would even proffer that the literature we call universal is so either because the period in which it was written express concerns that we have yet to overcome (this is quite clearly true of early modern writers such as William Shakespeare or Thomas More) or because we simply project our present on a past literature (see Gilgamesh, as beautifully demonstrated by Michael Schmidt’s excellent study The Life of a Poem). Nonetheless, if there is a universal function of stories, of literature of every type, it’s in confronting us with the abyss of historical — or even just personal — contingency.
We exist in contingent moments, and this contingency is, individually and collectively, difficult; that insight is what unites Shakespeare and More with the anonymous composers of Gilgamesh and with Ballard, Gilman, Dick, and Fahey. Any literature that doesn’t confront contingency on some level (that rather disguises the interim) is more agitprop than art. Good fiction, again, makes the crisis apparent, but in a way that we can still cope with as human beings. And it exposes contingency not as something without limits — not as the solipsistic void of whimsy — but as a set of concrete but imponderably numerous choices.
Good fiction is, then, a reminder that I have not always lived in London. I have not always lived in this flat. I have not always enjoyed this view over leafy Chiswick with its church spire and English-town illusion. It is a reminder that there was indeed a time when I struggled to sustain a journal, and really, truly did loathe the flavour of coffee. It is only a reminder — what we do with that is so beyond the scope of the stories that we tell — but it is such an important thing nonetheless. More important now, because of the temptation to domesticity, because it can remind us that this is always a lie, and a bad one too.
Human beings have a capacity to adapt that defies comprehension, as Ballard observed first hand and then made a key component of his fiction. I am at one with the later insights of the radical Marxist psychology of Lev Vygotsky on this: we are a socio-biological species capable of incredible self-transformations through new social modes. The horizons of the people who first enjoyed Gilgamesh are not my horizons. And while there is a great overlap, nor are the horizons of Shakespeare’s first audiences.
But what causes this historical gap remains true of all humanity. Everything can change. What is the case need not necessarily be so. In his book Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher wrote that in the present, ‘Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable.’ But if capitalism means this current crisis and so many others (including that of global warming, a crisis that posits our species’ possible destruction), we need to overcome that limit. We need to imagine a world where international social solidarity is the only possible response to something such as COVID-19.
We need to imagine, more than ever, a future when climate refugees will be welcomed to safe havens wherever those might be, a world where work is an expression of humanity and not the drudgery of the exploited, a society of the free association of free producers. And fiction can still remind us that, however much we are tempted to cling to some horrific new normality to evade the more horrific possibilities that will always assail us, things have been different, can be different, and will be different, whatever lies we tell.
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