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Bird’s Nest In Your Hair

Chapter Eleven

As mentioned earlier, there are several books on religious subjects on Diana’s shelf. She tends to concentrate on non-fiction – science books, mostly biology, such as the one by Teilhard de Chardin, but also a few by Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, and others as well. She wants, after all, to get down to the truth about life, and biology, after all, is the study of life. For the most part she hasn’t thought to look for that truth in novels. There is, however, one novel that she really has enjoyed reading, called The Living.

The Living is a novel by Annie Dillard, who is also the author of a number of non-fiction books in Diana’s bookcase. The story takes place in the 19th century in the area of what is now modern day Bellingham in Washington state. The novel is filled with a number of striking characters who populate the community of Whatcom between the 1850s and the 1890s and make their living by fishing, hunting, and trading, and as certainly must have been true (because it has always been true), these people give each other a fair amount of both grief and help along the way. Clare Fishburn is inspired to live a good life by recognizing that he will certainly die one day, a knowledge that is impressed upon him with a threat from the unruly Beal Obenchain (Dillard has some pretty interesting character names). There are many secondary characters as well, and the author informs us on a prefatory page that only a half dozen of them are historical: Chowitzit, the Lummi Indian Chief, Hump Talem, the Nooksack chief, and several other community leaders in business and politics.

But it’s also possible, even probable, that some of the other characters are based on people from real life, even if it’s just a minor trait in a minor character. This only seems reasonable. A detail about someone here or there could have been picked up from reading something in the historical record consulted by Dillard as she wrote the novel. Or a part of a character’s personality may actually have been taken from someone Dillard met in life. It could be the color of someone’s hair, the tone of someone’s voice, or just the way someone listens to the surf and looks at the footprints of birds below the tide line on a beach. Or perhaps it has nothing to do with a particular individual, but in the way two individuals interact. Maybe an author doesn’t even realize what is taken from life for their work; this is simply the nature of creative writing, prefatory remarks along the lines of ‘This is a work of fiction’ notwithstanding.

It’s worth considering that of all the people designated by the title The Living, not one of them really is living. Chief Chowitzit and some of the others were alive at one time, but they aren’t now (in the biological sense of the word), and most of the other characters were never alive at all. And yet Dillard writes about all of them as if they were, and the book can be read as if they were, or even are, with the same willing spirit. It’s possible that Dillard chose the title merely to suggest that back before the turn of the century people living in the north Puget Sound region were a hardier lot and therefore more ‘alive’ than people who live there right now. An implied critique of modern society might be part of her purpose, but that probably isn’t all of it. Dillard’s own essays on fiction suggest that she’s on to something more, and one of the things she seems to be on to is a paradox that lies at the heart of all fiction.

Readers engage themselves with something they know is not true as if were true. This is old hat, really, and most everybody who has considered this paradox has heard or read about the expression suspension of disbelief, that psychological trick by which readers willingly hang up that critical ability to distinguish between what they understand to be real and not real. Of course they don’t throw out this ability altogether. It’s fun to find inconsistencies made by the makers of fiction, or such improbabilities as the tavern scene in the middle of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. Unlikely coincidences run throughout Dickens’ Great Expectations as well; better yet, in David Lean’s film of Dickens’ novel, Bernard Miles (the actor playing Joe Gargery) has fake eyebrows that sometimes look like they are about to fall off. “Even Homer nods,” and such mistakes prove their makers mortal, and perhaps also help us reconfirm the sense of reality we had formerly been so eager to give away.

We have a sense of reality and then we let it go for a while, and then we return to our workaday sense of the world, going back and forth between realities with an ease that reveals this psychological trick to be second nature. For all the ease with which we negotiate these transformations of consciousness, there remains a strong desire for one reality, once and for all, and this might be most apparent in the eternal calling of art. Certainly at one time or another most people have thought of devoting themselves to painting, or acting, or becoming a musician or a poet.

Such a desire for one reality once and for all is also an important aspect of religion. What kind of connection is there between stories that are clearly fiction (as described above) and stories we need to be true so as to remain bound together as a coherent people? When is this ‘transformation of consciousness’ welcome, and when is it a problem? In addition to whatever help or hindrance it is for society, this transformation seems to be an important part any our longing for the hereafter. Whatever failures we may experience in life, there remains hope that in the afterlife we may find our different understandings of reality merged in a way we’ve never recognized before. G.K. Chesterton (Diana has one of his books on religion, Orthodoxy, even though she hasn’t read it) seems to have had something like this in mind at the end of his biography of Dickens when he wrote the following:

The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters: and when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world.

It probably wouldn’t be so bad meeting Nicholas Nickleby or Mr. Pickwick in any of his different guises, but the prospect of spending eternity with Fagin or Skimpole or even Titus Barnacle of the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit is a little daunting, to say the least. Most people would probably prefer to have a little say in the matter of who they spend time with in the hereafter, and for that reason it’s worth considering whether Chesterton’s wish is all that desirable. Since death itself is compulsory, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that anything or anyone connected with the afterlife will be compulsory as well. There’s also something vaguely disconcerting about this vision of the hereafter, in that we actually seem to lose that critical ability to distinguish between fiction and what isn’t fiction. Not only is the idea of eternity with Fagin objectionable, but the next world seems like something less than this world if we must lose the ability to understand the categorical difference between Charles Dickens and Mr. Pickwick and all the others. It would be nice to retain our knowledge of the difference between characters from novels and characters from our workaday reality. Of course we naturally suspend our disbelief while engaged with even the most clichéd fictions, so to some extent the hereafter according to Chesterton (or this paragraph of Chesterton) seems a real possibility. And those great flagons can’t really help our lot. After stumbling pie-eyed around a creaky, 19th century inn filled with imaginary characters, even Dickens’ characters, it’s probably time to call for a ride home.

All that aside, the dilemma posed by the paradox of fiction runs deeper than the divide explored thus far, if indeed it is possible for anything to run deeper than our notions about the hereafter. What is paradoxical about fiction seems in fact true about language generally and therefore about any understanding we may reach about the world. The word ‘tree’ and the idea this word generates is not the same thing as an actual tree. And it’s true not just of language, but of any way we choose to represent anything. Consider Magritte’s painting of a pipe, Trahison des Images, in which he conscientiously and rather playfully includes in the picture the words, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe). It’s an interesting gag that reverses the logic of another one of his paintings, entitled La Condition Humaine. In it, there is a painting within the painting, placed on an easel in front of a window in such a way that the field that is the subject of the painting blends perfectly with the landscape visible through the window behind it. Both paintings play on our ability to confuse reality with our representation of it, and for that reason they seem both humorous and a little mad.

There are similar paradoxes that don’t involve pictures. The statement ‘All Cretans are liars; I am a Cretan’ and its variations present us with a logical problem we can go round and around with forever. What is interesting is that from this logic problem a great number of ideas and solutions can be generated. But because we will always work with the world through the mediation of language or some other system of signs and symbolic forms, the world will always be more complicated than our ability to judge it with complete precision. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know. By these criteria we must always speak in terms that are incomplete at best and perhaps even dead wrong. This doesn’t mean that truth doesn’t exist (the existence of a falsehood is logically dependant upon truth), but it does indicate our inability to express the truth in words with anything approaching total comprehension. Perhaps all this has some bearing on the fall of Adam, since he was the first one to use words. Maybe he was fine as long as believed in the unity of things with the names he had given to them, but when he and Eve were forced by the serpent to recognize the arbitrary nature of the signs they were using, they felt an abyss open up between the world and their conception of it. Eve gave Adam an apple to prove this, showing him that it was something more than just the sign he had given to it. But Adam had already begun naming the things of the world, and by then there was no turning back.

Perhaps we are saved from the chaos of that abyss by the possibility that words can still point towards a truth that we do not yet fully recognize. In the hereafter perhaps we ourselves may then be called The Living and granted that recognition.


  1. These bits don't irritate (although I don't like discussion of language much) or sit uneasily, but I find them a bit difficult, especially in my present mood.

    And, whose was the porn film in the last chapter. I've forgotten.

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