“The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. ... Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say “and then?” If it is in a plot we ask “why?”— E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel
In Berlin, pretty Berlin, in the spring time,
You are never not wondering how
It happened ...
— Robert Hass, “Bush’s War”
If I knew, even roughly, how Berlin died, I would lay out the facts in a chain of evidence. And if I had a theory, however tenuous, about the city’s post-mortem life, I would argue it straight up: major premise, minor premise, conclusion. As it is, even the rough arc of exposition, rising action, climax, and denouement feels a bit shaky at best. But I can tell you how it feels, in July, on a sunny day late in the month, at the end of my twelve-week stay in the world’s strangest city.
I’m in Berlin for one reason: to explore how fact and fiction might profitably be collided together. I’ve been in town since early spring, teaching a seminar on that topic at the Freie Universität, with two dozen students from all over Germany who were born knowing more about the topic than I can ever presume to teach them.
The course is an experiment, probably not a great thing to try while a guest in a foreign country. But I’ve always wanted to explore, in a classroom, how factual argument and fictive projection, set side by side, might triangulate into places that neither can reach alone. Shaw may be right that “The sign of a truly educated person is to be deeply moved by statistics.” But natural selection has shaped us to be moved mainly by things on our own private scale. Discursive argument models and projects, producing tremendous leverage, but without a hook that hits us where we live, facts rarely compel us to change our lives. Narrative imagination can twist our guts and shatter our souls, but it’s mired in local fates that must be small enough to look familiar.
Suppose, though, that you yoked the two together. Thought and feeling, argument and stories, statistical analysis and good old twists of the viscera: these two inimical modes, played off of one another, might produce a kind of deep parallax, tricking the mind’s eye into turning those two skewed planes into the illusion of three dimensions. I’ve come to Berlin to test the idea in a live clinical trial.
In class, we’ve read many strange and unclassifiable things, works that hover somewhere between factual knowledge about the world and fictional embodiment of the world’s would-be knowers. We’ve read Julian Barnes’s idiosyncratic but entirely reliable biography of Flaubert, told by a wholly unreliable fictional biographer. As Barnes’s invented mouthpiece meditates on either Emma Bovary or his own shadowy wife: “Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this.”
We’ve read Paul Broks’s chimerical excursion, Into the Silent Land, with its collage of neuroscience, clinical case histories, memoir, philosophical essay, and bare naked short story. Broks’s essays prove that there is no Self, no master narrative holding us together; but his fictive personal memoir can’t escape having one. The brain is condemned to think that it’s a soul, and to describe that impossible hybrid state, Broks says:
One has to be bilingual, switching from the language of neuroscience to the language of experience; from talk of “brain systems” and “pathology” to talk of “hope,” “dread,” “pain,” “joy,” “love,” “loss,” and all the other animals, fierce and tame, in the zoo of human consciousness.
My students have swallowed every bastard hybrid genre I’ve thrown at them. Fictocriticism, mockumentary, staged reality, Borgesian simulated lectures, psycho-journalism, unattributed sampling, hip-hop mashup, real actors playing imaginary authors making pixelated media appearances while selling brutally frank memoirs filled with the slightly altered real-life experiences of some other, dissembling author. My sales pitch has worked so well with this group that, by the end of the semester, I’m appalled at what I’ve unleashed. James Frey, J. T. LeRoy, lonelygirl15, COPS and Survivor and America’s Next Top Model: bring it all on, my German students say. The blurrier the better. They have grown up in a world that laughs at the very distinctions that I’ve come here to challenge, and in class, they regard me with affectionate pity for my quaint belief in the existence of boundaries that a writer might still hope to exploit by transgressing.
Read the rest of Richard Powers' essay
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Image by Frank Schirrmeister.