Fiction and the Contemplation of Souls


Do you spend much time pretending to be other people?

Well, I suppose that is not a very good question.  A better question would be: why do you pretend to be another person?

I don’t pretend for anyone.”  Ah, then you are more authentic than me.  Why, just two sentences ago, I pretended to be you!  My deepest apologies.  I mean no harm by it.  You see, I find it somewhat difficult to get by in this world without at least momentarily pretending to be other people.  Sometimes I quite righteously resolve to give up the habit, but it becomes troublesome every time.  For example, only yesterday the police had to remove me from the grocery store after I spent forty minutes discussing the nature of infinity with a cashier.  Everyone else in line began yelling at me, which I found odd because the subject matter was so interesting.  But everyone shows interest differently, I thought, and perhaps their aggressive screaming was a highly advanced form of irony.  Hats off to those with such a grasp of irony, I say.  The upper reaches of irony are, I fear, somewhat opaque to me, but they do look very pretty.

After I was remanded to the custody of my court-ordered psychiatrist, she yelled at me to knock it off.  Then she gently reminded me that there are people who don’t find the world as fascinating as I do.  Hearing this, I realized those shoppers were probably not ironic.  But in realizing, I had failed!  I’d pretended to be them!

Indeed, it is possible true authenticity is entirely out of my reach.  There exist a kind of neurons known as mirror neurons.  Many pop neuroscientists have written books on the importance of mirror neurons to every aspect of our function—which is another way of saying that we don’t know much about them or how they work.  When observed in monkeys, mirror neurons fire under two conditions: first, when the monkey does a thing; second, when the monkey sees another monkey do that thing.  One thing this system accomplishes is allowing the monkey to pick up skills simply by watching other monkeys.  But it also allows monkeys to recognize the actions of other monkeys.  This is particularly useful for e.g. angry facial expressions or threatening gestures, such as those directed at me by those shoppers yesterday.  (I should clarify: they were not monkeys.)

Now, we have not found any mirror neurons in humans, but we’ve found the neural activity that you’d expect if there were mirror neurons in human brains.  Researchers can be forgiven here: neurons are very tiny.  But let’s run with the assumption that we have mirror neurons.  I often think humans are basically large monkeys anyways.  If that’s the case, then when I observe a beleaguered grocery clerk’s frown, I experience corresponding neural activity in my own brain—i.e., I am pretending, in some subbasement of my mind, to be the clerk.  And this is why it’s not useful to ask how much I pretend, because neurologically speaking I am pretending all the time.

So to answer our better question: why do we pretend to be other people?  For this kind of pretending, at least, we do so in order to understand them.  And understanding is always an intimate thing—which makes it a risky thing as well.


Let us speak of fiction.  It is another one of those things that we take too much for granted, not really acknowledging how absurd it is.  If we are good materialists, you and I, we will spend our time concerned with the material—food and drink, the pleasure of good company and the satisfaction of work well done.  But pick up a book, and all that slips away.  Why, just recently I read a book about Vikings.  Imaginary Vikings, even.  What have I to do with imaginary Vikings?  These are the questions I ask myself.

We have spoken previously of a phenomenon called “transportation,” wherein someone participating in a story forgets, for a time, their physiological situation, entering the story entirely.  I suggested there that we are poor materialists indeed.  As for how transportation occurs, we might look no further than our mirror neurons, the pretending-to-be that we all seem so addicted to.  Psychological research suggests it—for example, Mar et al (2006) found that more time spent reading predicted better social ability, while Tamir et al (2016) tossed a couple people in an MRI and concluded that readers simulate the social content of the books they read.  We should feel very confident in such a conclusion, for I have been informed that MRI stands for “Magic Research Instrument,” and that it knows all things.

Now, you will notice I have done something silly here: I have posed the question why and proceeded to answer how.  But certainly you understand my temptation, for to explain how we engage a story is to suggest the reason for doing so.  If reading about imaginary Vikings requires that I pretend to be a Viking myself, then the process functions as practice or exercise—a gym of sorts for the mind.  But stories might also serve other purposes—see, for example, Hakemulder (2000), who suggests that stories also serve as “moral laboratories” in which an individual can develop their beliefs without the consequences associated with nonfictional life.  We might also look to the evolutionary psychologists, who say that stories historically served to communicate useful survival information.  They make a similar argument no matter what’s being argued, so perhaps they are on to something.

In any case, it seems quite clear that we engage in stories by pretending to be the characters.  And I have been addressing this from the perspective of a reader, but let’s not forget that someone has to write all this stuff, and they must pretend to be the characters in order to write them.  A character, then, is a bridge between author and audience, a concept designed to align the neural activity of two individuals across space and time.  An intimate thing, a risky thing—and a beautiful thing.


This is the Menagerie, so we can’t just stop at one level of meta.  Next time you read a book, instead of pretending to be the characters, try pretending to be the writer pretending to be the characters.  It is an interesting exercise because not only do you get the experience of reading, you can also see the structure of that experience.  In doing so, you’ll begin to see—maybe not in one book, but over the course of several—the contours of the author’s inner world.  The sorts of events that hold their attention; the parts of the world they find relevant enough to explain; the kinds of personalities they understand well enough to populate their worlds with.  Any reasoning you find in an author’s world is something that makes sense to them, which gives you valuable clues to the ways in which they think.  You may learn how someone acts over time, but I suspect you can’t truly know who they are until you are familiar with the stories they tell.  Every story has a piece of the author’s soul.

We can observe this particularly well in the case of a type of story called a “web serial.”  Web serials are typically published online at regular intervals (which leaves little time for editing) for free (which removes much of the pressure to do so).  Reading these stories, which often run for millions of words, can leave you with a decent sense of who the author is.

Savage Divinity, for example, seems to be written by someone with an interest in sociology and with deep insight into insecurity.  Digger is clearly the creation of an anthropologist of great wisdom.  The author of A Practical Guide to Evil has spent far too much time on TV Tropes.  But we can go deeper here, for who would write a story about villainy without once having conceived of themselves as a villain?  It seems likely that this author had a troubled childhood—but fear not, their writing is so full of joy that one can only imagine they’ve taken that pain and welded it into strength.  I worry more about wildbow, author of Worm, whose work is suffused with an air of bleak inevitability.  His psychologist characters are written with the kind of fidelity you get by going to therapy.  But his characters have such depth to them, and they are all people to him.  The world he beholds is a hard one, and his characters deal with it as best they can.  I think this is probably true of wildbow as well, an empathetic soul making his way through a difficult world.  But wildbow will be alright, I think, as long as his pain and that of others does not drive him into the slow decay of cynicism.  “What happens if it does?”  The worst.  He’ll have to live life as a cynic.

The web serial I want to talk about most particularly is called Heretical Edge, written by someone called Cerulean.  It is an interesting case because it is not very realistic.  “Like, the author didn’t do their research?”  Certainly many of the superpowers are physically impossible, but that’s not really a problem, and anyways I mean something else.  I am more referring to the fact that most of the characters are implausibly connected, and as soon as another one of these connections comes to light, the character in question is immediately and unconditionally accepted as family by the protagonist (or vice versa).  There is another issue: in the web serial, Heretics hunt non-human beings called “Strangers,” which are said to be universally evil.  But the main character figures out pretty quickly that not all Strangers are evil, and gives a speech to that effect something like twenty times over the course of the story.  Everyone who is cool and reasonable agrees with her, and the especially cool and reasonable characters have already figured it out on their own.

It is tempting to dismiss the story as escapist, wish-fulfillment fiction, to somehow dismiss the author for not writing a more “mature” story.  I would argue instead that we have been given a gift of the author’s self.  After all, what can we infer of the author from such a story?  If this is wish-fulfillment, it was written by someone who wishes for a world where everyone is potential family, where we could all agree and get along if we only just talked to each other.  What a beautiful wish!  Especially compared to my comparatively petty wish, which is a couple obligation-free days alone with my thoughts.  We can also infer that Cerulean has not achieved his wish.  I suspect he is somewhat lonely.

So to read Heretical Edge is to sit with the beauty of Cerulean’s wish and the isolation that birthed it.  That look into Cerulean’s soul is precious, oh so precious, because Cerulean himself is precious.  And if I am honest, there is something there that resonates with my own soul, something that tells me that Cerulean also deserves the regard I give myself.

Unfortunately, this is not the only way to read.

“If you’re reading it, it’s for you.”

– The Last Psychiatrist

The Last Psychiatrist is a true psychoanalyst—in the sense that the root word psych means “mind” and lysis means “cut.”  There is no facade or self-deception he can’t carve through.  For example, here he is mind-cutting an article by Lori Gottlieb.  (Be careful, gentle friends: he is contagious).  Responding to him is difficult because he possesses so much insight, but that insight is bound almost inseparably with anger.  Understandably so, I think, but make no mistake—it is a tragedy.  He sees too much, and has no other way of communicating it to people.  It must be extremely frustrating.  He has seen a piece of Lori Gottlieb’s soul, but he doesn’t see anything of value there.  There is no resonance telling him that here is another person deserving of regard.  I imagine all of us must look that way to him.  It should not be surprising that his screen name is “Alone.”

The problem with this, of course, is that souls are rather helpless and they have no defense against being found ugly.  The risk inherent in any intimacy is whether, having come to know you, I should also come to despise you.  And so it seems to me that if you take the forbidden step and bare someone’s soul, you should be prepared to love them.  It is not by accident that we try to understand others.  We are social creatures, and other people’s journeys through the world impact us as well as them.  We try to understand others because we are in relation with them.  And therefore we must be prepared to love those that we understand, because otherwise we might find ourselves on one end of a relationship without a person on the other end.  We will all become Alone.


If someone were to kill you, would you prefer an impersonal execution or a very personal murder?

The question occurred to me while I was reading about imaginary Vikings.  Those Vikings looked forward, not to death specifically, but to a good death.  And circumstances arose where “a good death” meant being slain by a comrade.  Can you imagine being glad that a friend is the one holding the final knife?  I can’t, as it turns out.  I must have a lot of work to do before I can truly pretend to be that sort of person.  But the alternative, to die by some bureaucrat’s hand—to become a statistic—I find equally horrible.  My death would mean very little in that case.  Better, I think, to be murdered by someone who knows me.

Or, put another way, I would like to have a relationship with my murderer.

That is not a very intuitive thought, as we typically do not want negative relationships.  But the extreme of that position is to deny that negative relationships exist, and this, I think, is a step too far.  We begin to relate, you and I, when we encounter each other.  If we relate, then we have a relationship, whatever the valence of that relationship.  Even a bitter rivalry that, unbeknownst to you, will one day end in your death.

And perhaps this idea is not really so counter-intuitive after all, since we seem to have no trouble forming relationships with fictional villains.  Think of, hm, let’s pick Hannibal Lecter.  A wonderful villain, someone who digs deep into the psyches of those around him.  And of course we hate and fear him and love to hate and fear him.  We root for his downfall, and when that downfall occurs, it is a consummation of the relationship.  However, this can occur in many ways—we might celebrate his fall because we hate him, or because we are satisfied justice has found him, or because we didn’t actually care about him and have been pretending to be his enemies the whole time.  One can imagine that any of those scenarios differ in how much we contemplated Hannibal Lecter’s soul.  But I digress; really all I wanted to say here is that you can be more or less relational even in a negative relationship.

Which brings me to this Vox piece, written by one Constance Grady.  Grady is struggling because she knows Johnny Depp to be, in her words, “a monster,” but she enjoys art that he participated in—namely, Edward Scissorhands.  The struggle takes the form of an article in which she investigates various schools of literary criticism to see if any of them will allow her to resolve the tension.  The history of criticism which she details is certainly interesting, but it does nothing to resolve her problem, and ultimately she decides not to watch Edward Scissorhands because its emotional payload is less salient than her disgust over Johnny Depp.

Now, I will grant that the article might be a contrived excuse to write about different kinds of literary criticism.  That seems like something I would do.  But supposing we take Grady at her word, it is surprising that she has taken such an unhelpful path to resolve her tension.  She has fallen into the trap from earlier, and attempted to answer a why with a how.  No doubt it is because of the same temptation we faced: it seems intuitive, in fact, to think that knowing more about the relation of artist to art will allow you to figure out your relation to the art.

But the art is not actually the problem here.  The true problem is that Grady is in the harrowing position of being in relationship with an abuser.  In fact, the relationship, mediated through Edward Scissorhands, is something that she enjoyed.  Whether you agree with her ideological stance or not, surely you must have compassion on the cognitive dissonance this would cause her to experience.  It is a lesser version, no doubt, of the confusion and doubt experienced by the friends and family of those revealed to be murderers, molesters, or habitual talkers at the theater.

Many behind the banner of #MeToo argue that we should cut all ties with e.g. abusers.  It’s entirely possible that this is an implicit premise of the Grady piece.  In that light, we could see her discussion of New Criticism (which held that art and artist were entirely distinct) as a hope of salvaging her love for the movie and dispensing with the guilt of Depp’s presence there.  But again, the true problem is an existential and relational one, and the academic question of how to criticize art can’t solve that problem.  I would submit that, in fact, it is more properly put to academic art criticism.  To her credit, Grady acknowledges that ultimately the academic diversion has not actually advanced her struggle.  She has found wisdom in her journey, I think.  Struggle occurs in the soul, not the mind.

I wish Grady the best through these murky waters, but I do not think she will be able to cut ties as easily as some think.  Relationality is founded on encounter, and it is because of her encounter with Depp’s monstrous side that she is cutting ties.  She would not be eliminating the relationship, only selecting a kind among kinds of relationship.  Depp-as-human-being will leave her circle of concern, and what remains will be the mournful constructs of Depp-as-symbol-of-oppression, Depp-as-monster in her head.  Edward Scissorhands thereby comes full circle, he who went from monster to person and back again to monster!  Gentle friends, I take no sides here.  It is a tragedy, as with Alone.  It is tragic that Depp should have abused anyone, and also tragic that others would cut ties with him because of what he has done.  Relationships were broken in both cases.  In a less tragic world, there would be no broken relationships—but then again, I suppose we are living in the world that gave Cerulean his wish.


Even so.  Even as I hope for Depp’s repentance and redemption, even as I hope for Amber Heard to be healed, I can’t help but wonder about Alone.  His perspective is so solid, you see.  His insight must truly be a curse.  It makes me wonder if we are not already on the road to his hell.

I am thinking here of a Christian saying: “Love your enemy.”  It is delightfully counterintuitive.  Enemies are for destroying, not loving—everyone knows that!  But consider that friends yesterday may be enemies today, and friends again tomorrow.  I am my wife’s enemy whenever I analyze the philosophical necessity of doing laundry instead of doing the laundry.  If we are to destroy our enemies, should this not put me at her mercy?  But because of her exceeding graciousness, she puts the relationship above whatever valence it possesses in the moment.  “Love your enemies” indeed.  I am not strong enough, I think, to carry such a burden as far as it is meant to be carried.  But sometimes I wonder how the world would look to me if I did.  What would you see, do you think, if you gazed with infinite grace upon the soul of an enemy?  A fellow-traveler in life, perhaps?  Someone to be pitied, or to be forgiven?  Or perhaps—and this is my increasing suspicion—you would no longer recognize anyone as your enemy.

How strange that would be!  And of course I think it strange because I can call someone a monster and find it understandable, even normal.  It is far easier to call for justice on a monster than a fellow-traveler in life.  But when I make someone a monster, I do as Alone does, looking uncharitably upon their inner workings and rejecting them.  I surround myself with yet one more empty relationship, another monstrous ghost in my head.  It isn’t safe to do that too many times, I fear.  I worry sometimes that I have exceeded the safe quota already.  It is a rather self-interested charity which compels me to ask: can I afford to call Johnny Depp a monster?  Can I afford to dismiss Grady’s struggle, or Cerulean’s wish, or even Alone?

This, I think, is what makes forgiveness necessary.  When there is conflict, I can only restore relationality with Johnny Depp when I forgive him and dispel the monstrous ghost of him in my head.  Even if his offense was too great, and we must go our separate ways after that, better that our relationship is not a stone around either of our necks.  But what forgiveness can there be when we turn our backs on our enemies?  If we make such a reaction the default response in our society, even the morally obligated response, what happens to our communities?  To our souls?

I confess: I know so very little about all of this.  I am not very good at pretending to be other people.  But I suspect there will be one very insidious consequence.  If we decide, as a society, that we will only be relational when the relationship has a positive valence, then we will have taught ourselves that relationships do not hold value—only positive valence does.  And the children of that teaching will be so afraid.  They will learn to cloak their imperfections in shame, and they will be insecure in every relationship they manage to win.  How can you trust a relationship that could sour tomorrow and never be mended?  They will become attuned to the minds of others, not for relationship, but to avoid judgement.  But that judgement, running as it will on their mirror neurons, will shape their own thoughts as well.  They will be so alone.  And then, oblivious to the poison, we will diagnose them with anxiety disorders.

But what if we could love our enemies?

Well—I suspect that we could save the world.

I value this time with you, my friends.  May your eventual assassin be a relational one.


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