- Politics and Social Issues
Reshelving the Books: Dangerous Fictions
I can get lost for hours in a bookstore, and the only reason I don't just move in a really good bookstore, preferably a used bookstore with its comforting smell of dust and gently decaying leather covers and cardboard, is my wife will not let me. She insists on going home, eventually, and maybe getting something to eat. My wife, you see, is very practical.
I have been shopping the end of year sale at amazon.com of late, and wandering through the categories, writing down books I might be willing to buy, has brought up one of my secret temptations in bookstores. I rearrange their shelves when no one is looking. It is not so much a book out of place, misplaced in the alphabet or wandering out of the Civil War into World War II, as it is the confusion of non-fiction and fiction, usually with fiction claiming a place in history, that disturbs me and that I feel compelled to correct. When this happens, I feel the bookstore has failed me, and, more importantly, failed its customers who do not know better, who might confuse the ramblings of some conspiracy theorist with a beef against the Jesuits, the Jews, the Freemasons, or who knows what other group of the would-be world government, with a verifiable, historical (or current) phenomenon of some concern or interest.
Umberto Eco, discussing the genesis and production of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion , from its roots in an anti-revolutionary pamphlet produced at the time of the French Revolution, through its many reappearances in Europe under different guises with different key personnel, and into Russia and its finalized version in the Okhrana, and the resistance of those who believe in the Protocols , or other similar world conspiracy theories, to the evidence presented to them, writes: "evidence is not enough for those who want to live in a horror novel". Conspiracy theories survive, despite the evidence against them, because they form a powerful, coherent narrative out of incoherent facts; they succeed not because they are a good analysis of the real world, but because they are a good story out of which a coherent world may be constructed. The power of fiction, in other words, conquers reality, for reality is complex, and all too infrequently coherent.
The horror novel of the conspiratorial world accepts that (a) the enemy is so ultra-competent that unlike any government, cabal, or secrets agency in history, they are actually able to keep a secret over hundreds to thousands of years, and (b) once having determined on an object, they are devoted to it through all changes in the world around them and in personnel. In the face of such dread competence, how do their mere mortal, fallible, uncoordnated enemies, the normal people of the world, stand a chance? The more evidence of the non-existence of the conspiracy, the more real it becomes to its believers, and the more competence and skill is attributed to the invisible members of the conspiracy: The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was proving to the world that he did not exist.
For some reason, the more popular a conspiracy is, the more books on the subject appear in the history section, when truly they belong in the fiction section, maybe in a special category all their own--dangerous fictions. For a while, Dan Brown devotees assured a place for Templar-Masonic conspiracy in the history section, sharing space with histories of the real Templar knights, their role in the medieval economy and cultural contacts in the Middle East, and their destruction by the monarchies of Europe, especially that of France. One book in the genre assured me that the final Templar castle-temple lay in Rhode Island, so if you are looking for the grail, go check out Providence. The history of The Protocols is sufficiently well-known, I believe, and its honored place in the anti-Semitic encyclopedia of justificatory texts. It does not matter, in the end, that The Protocols are false, and have been known to be false for a very long time: it matters that people believe they are true, and behave as if they are. The false text creates reality, and the reality it creates must be dealt with. The Templar loonies are less dangerous, for they are seeking in the past for what they can find neither there nor in the present: for immortality, for concrete, physical proof of Christ's miraculous nature, for the hard evidence of faith. But their narrative is as false as that of the Protocols , and it certainly has no place in history.
Now is the season for all true believers to speed read their way through the prophecies of doom attributed to the Mayans and set for realization this year. Cue the Armageddon symphony. Their time to study up for the final event is running short, so they best get to it. It is the rapture set to a pagan beat, but nonetheless the rapture. I am not a big fan of the Rapture, of Armageddon, of the Doom scenarios that periodically arise, fail to reach fruition, and are put off for another day, another calendar. In my opinion, they distract us too much from the this-worldness of our problems, leading us to think instead of what our place will be after the judgment of God or to have a last party of thorough self-destruction in the expectation that will be no hangover. I would rather we focused our attentions on this world, this earth, which, science assures me, condemned to survive a rather long time, with us or without us. I would rather not celebrate my son's death; rather, I focus on contributing to his future on this earth, with his fellow humans, with all the problems and troubles that are sure to arise.
Armageddon is such an easy escape, but a false one. The only Armageddon in which I ever had any faith was that of MAD's failure. I even had to write an essay on where I wanted to be when the bomb fell. I was in sixth grade: I voted for directly below it. That nuclear armageddon I did believe possible, for it relied on the incoherence of human action, on the presence of a single madman, a single mistake, and the limits we had imposed on the range of our reactions to specific challenges and occurrences. It was a fear, I think, most people shared at the time, from generals and politicians to sixth graders and scientists. The realities of the world, of technology and hostility, of the fragmented polities of earth and the ever-growing nuclear stockpiles of the Eastern bloc and the West, made it a real threat, tracked by a clock of symbolic time. Now, of course, the world is different, and our nuclear fears have shifted from the world-annihilating scale of my childhood, to the local bombing with worldwide repercussions we have experienced outside of war in the nuclear disasters of Chernobyl and, most recently, Japan.
I suspect that those who embrace a world conspiracy are more comfortable, more at ease with their individual predictive capacities, with the level of understanding they have, than I am with mine. The world is always surprising me, and I often find myself without a ready answer. Strangely, then, this lack of answers may be a sign of health: I know there is no single, provided answer to every problem. I know that I do not know. That is one step on the way to wisdom.
And it guarantees that I continue to look for solutions, that I do not await the End of All Things, but remain attached to the present, to the future, to mankind in all its confusion, horror, and brilliance.
So, if I organized the bookshelves, or online categories, there would be a place for dangerous fictions: The Protocols , falsifications of history like the Templar-Mason-Jesuit-Jewish-attach-your-least-favorite-people-here conspiracies, promises of Armageddon/Last Days based on prophecy, racialist doctrines and racist anthropology, the promises of eugenics that do not mention the perils of eugenics, and natural remedies that promise to cure my diabetes (Type I) without the bother of injections or my mother's cancer without chemicals. Then, at least, though the believers might complain, the public would be warned: these are constructions, buyer beware.
* The Eco quote is from Eco, Umberto. Six Walks in the Fictional Woods . Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994, and is found on page 137.