Fiction and Thinking

The mind is a lazy mapmaker. When it receives the survey data for a new place, it does not draw a new map. Instead, it writes the new names on an old map. Sometimes, it tapes two old maps together to make a new one; 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 identifying features to ink over or rub out. An analogy from philosophy, history, or science does not spread generally until it has found fictional embodiment – in parable, fable, romance, epic, or tale. Think of Plato’s cave, think of the spacefaring twin and the earthbound.

Analogies do not solve problems by themselves, but they are indispensable because they show the right kind of solution – whether force, persuasion, invention, discovery, endurance, or sacrifice. What we look for is what we know in advance to look for; the more we know to look for, the more we find. The more we know can happen, the less we are overwhelmed. The more we recognize folly, the less time we waste on it.

Film does more of this than literature, though less powerfully. The wrath of Achilles is perhaps less lethal, but more frightening, 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, flat, distant, dreamy, intangible, and abstract; and though a wordless medium, it must still tell – with dialogue, with rovings of the camera, with caricature, with background music – things like weather, smells, the taste of air, everything that dreams lack, but writing can show. But film is more efficient and more accessible. It can give more analogies faster, and over a broader range.

A multitude of analogies leads to a multitude of ideas – some of them bad ideas. The stocked imagination is like black earth: anything will grow in it. Thin soils grow less, but can absorb 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 slash-and-burn 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.

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