Departments

Fiction and thinking

The mind is a lazy mapmaker. When it receives the survey data, it does not draw a new map. Instead, it writes the new names on an old map. Sometimes, it tapes two old maps to make one new; rarely, it cuts several old maps into pieces, then pastes the pieces together tile-wise. The maps from fiction are most useful to it. They are simple, at low resolution, and have few extraneous features which it must ink over or rub out. Indeed, an analogy from philosophy, history, or science does not spread generally until it has found fictional embodiment—in fable, parable, tale, epic, or romance. Think of Plato's cave, think of Gone With the Wind, think of the spacefaring twin and the earthbound.

Analogies do not solve problems, but they are indispensable because they show the right kind of solution—whether force, persuasion, invention, discovery, endurance or sacrifice. The mind looks for what it knows in advance to look for; therefore, the more it knows to look for, the more it finds. The more it knows can happen, the less it is overwhelmed. The more it recognizes folly, the less time it wastes on it.

Film does more of this than literature, though less powerfully. The wrath of Achilles is perhaps less lethal, but is more frightening (because more grown-up), than the wrath of Rambo; neither Leviathan nor Godzilla shall be drawn out with a hook, but Leviathan would not be troubled by an oxygen destroyer. I must recover from even a weak horror story, but (as an adult) a movie has never scared me; the best the medium can do is disgust or disquiet. Film is, at best, still flat, distant, dreamy, intangible, and abstract; and though a wordless medium, it must yet tell—with dialogue, with untethered rovings of the camera, with caricature, with background music—things like weather, smells, the taste of air, everything that dream lacks, which literature can show. But film is more economical and more accessible, whereby it can give more analogies faster, and over a broader range. I do wonder how people who avow that they do not watch movies survive. I cannot believe them—I can believe that they avoid watching things through, but they must catch enough scraps to speak a sort of cultural Basic English.

Much fiction has been accused of corrupting the mind; and some minds have so fallen. The stocked imagination is like black earth: anything will grow in it. Thin soils grow a lesser harvest, but with less labor. Thick soil is hard to manage at first, when weeds take their chance; but it grows a much larger harvest. Which is to say: because it is hard to overcome bad ideas, there is something to be said for a swidden farming of the mind, which, producing few ideas, does not disturb the good-enough ideas it has received; but good ideas can be arrived at only by having many ideas, most bad—and hoeing the bad ones down.

This is clearest for people. People are each bottomlessly unique; without the analogies which fiction from folk tale to epic provides, we could get no traction at all in thinking about one another. It is fiction which allows us to know stranger from enemy.