We live in a broken world. We always have. There has never been a time in human history when things just fell seamlessly into place, when everybody got along, when things were as they appeared. The victories have always been partial, the glories always dependent on where you were standing at the time. Life is full of missing pieces.
I mean, yeah, we get sold the complete edition. Believe in this ideology; say the right things. Join the right club and wear the right hat, and together we’re gonna finally fix all this. But the complete editions never seem to live up to their marketing.
This year I’ve kept coming back to the writings of Umberto Eco. In case you haven’t heard of him, he was an Italian medieval scholar and language theorist who ended up with a late career as a novelist. He wrote wonderful novels such as Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose, among others.
I first read Foucault’s Pendulum not long after it was first published in 1988, and I reread it again every few years. (As Oscar Wilde said, if a book isn’t worth rereading, it wasn’t worth reading the first time.) It’s a story about editors at a Milan vanity press who spend their days sifting and revising the self-published books of conspiracy crackpots, keeping each other amused and (somewhat) sane by sketching out their own crazy theories about UFOs, the Templars, and the like. Their mock theories begin to take on lives of their own, and soon it’s no longer clear what’s lunacy and what might actually be the truth.
The thing about Foucault’s Pendulum is that, at heart, it’s about an imperfect relationship between the story’s characters and the world around them. Nothing is quite true, nothing is quite false. I think that’s why I keep coming back to it. It’s a cautionary tale about the complete edition, and every time I read it, I get something different from it.
It’s only been in the last couple of years, though, that I’ve begun to appreciate Eco’s nonfiction and his day job as a language theorist. He devoted a lot of his life to the fragmentary relationship between the reader and the text, pointing out all the different ways that interpretation goes wrong.
As I strongly doubt that I fully understand it myself, I’m not going to try to explain Eco’s theories. I’ll just point you to two books: The Role of the Reader, and Confessions of a Young Novelist. And, of course, Foucault’s Pendulum.
One particular quote from “Confessions” jumped out at me the other day.
“Fictional characters live in an incomplete—or, to be ruder and politically incorrect—handicapped world. But when we truly understand their fate, we begin to suspect that we too, as citizens of the here and now, frequently encounter our destiny simply because we think of our world in the same way that fictional characters think of theirs. Fiction suggests that perhaps our view of the actual world is as imperfect as the view that fictional characters have of their world.”
I don’t know exactly why, but that clicked with me this time, the idea that fictional characters live in incomplete worlds, simply because they live in fictional ones.
That is true of every work of fiction ever created. Every character that has ever existed has lived in the Truman Show, a facade of reality that stops existing at the page break. In a story that takes place entirely in Los Angeles, Boston simply doesn’t exist: the characters might have heard of a place called Boston, and it might mean something to them, but it’s not an actual place. Those characters live in a world that is missing some pretty big chunks – whether they know it or not – and their relationship to that world is the poorer and more fragmented for it.
We sympathize with them because we all know that feeling.
And maybe I’m late to the literary theory party here, but I’m realizing that this is the underlying truth to all fiction: you’re wrong, about everything. Your relationship with the world around you is imperfect, incomplete, handicapped even, and you’re inevitably always going to fall through the cracks and holes in that relationship. You kinda don’t have a real choice about that. And grabbing for the complete edition just makes you wrong-er, faster.
The truths of life – and of fiction – are about how we have those imperfect relationships in common with each other, that none of us are alone in being laughably wrong about so many things.
Or, as Eco says in Pendulum:
“As the man said, for every complex problem there’s a simple solution, and it’s wrong.”