In David Mitchell’s enthralling 2004 novel Cloud Atlas, the author considers how quickly “an event well known to collective history, such as the sinking of the Titanic,” can become shrouded in an impenetrable fog of mythology. The reason? “The disaster as it actually occurred descends into obscurity as its eyewitnesses die off, documents perish,” and “the wreck of the ship dissolves in its Atlantic grave.” Soon enough, Mitchell contends, all that remains is “a virtual sinking of the Titanic, created from reworked memories, papers, hearsay, fiction.” As a consequence of this evolution, history in any real sense is undiscoverable, abstruse, hovering always just beyond the reach of the present. And thus is the reader introduced to one of the central assertions of postmodernism.
Or should I say reintroduced? Dotting contemporary literature like archipelagos on a nautical chart are moments of strikingly similar reflection, all sharing the conclusion that the past’s complexity is too great for the human mind to comprehend — that it can be consumed only in small, easily digestible bites, none of which give the full flavor of the meal. For W. G. Sebald, the German master whose Austerlitz won the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, such morsels often take the form of cliché, as when epic military engagements are summed up “in the ridiculous phrase, ‘The fortunes of battle swayed this way and that.’” Sebald’s argument, which anticipates Mitchell’s, is that any attempt to “reproduce the reality” of the past inevitably runs up against our tendency to rely on “preformed images”: useful but insufficient mental snapshots (think of the beautiful but static Gettysburg Diorama) that ultimately crowd out any comprehensive understanding.
In part, our impoverished view of the past is due to nothing more complicated than the limitations of our memories, which, as Marilynne Robinson argues in Housekeeping (1980), are “by their nature fragmented, isolated, and arbitrary as glimpses one has at night through lighted windows.” Yet there is something else at work, too, in our failure. “What we . . . refer to confidently as memory,” William Maxwell writes in So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980), “is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.” As a result, Maxwell wryly suggests, “in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.”
What these and similar passages in contemporary fiction have in common is the debt that they owe to Roland Barthes, the French philosopher and critic whom English majors have been pretending to read for at least five decades. Barthes is most famous for “The Death of the Author,” of course, but far more compelling today is his 1957 essay “The Brain of Einstein,” in which Barthes asks the reader to recall the famous formula E = mc² and to consider that equation’s rendering in popular imagery. “Photographs of Einstein,” Barthes writes, “show him standing next to a blackboard covered with mathematical signs of obvious complexity; but cartoons of Einstein . . . show him chalk still in hand, and having just written on an empty blackboard, as if without preparation, the magic formula of the world.”
Why the visual shorthand? Because Einstein cartoons are mythology rather than history, and “through the mythology of Einstein,” one of the greatest intellectual feats ever undertaken by a human being can be “reduced to a formula.” Eventually, Barthes’ readers understand, that equation will be all that remains of Einstein’s three-quarters of a century on this planet. A full rendering of his life will be left to the biographers, and even they will flub it. How could they not? In the end, the past eludes us all.
That this truism contains lessons for present-day American voters is not, I like to think, a particularly outlandish assertion. What it means for us as consumers of the daily news cycle, for example, is that a great deal of humility is called for. How many of our most confident memories are flawed? Or based on unsubstantiated media assertions that were bias-driven in the first place? How much of the present do we contextualize with a poorly constructed sense of the past? Re-reading Christopher Hitchens’s contributions to The Weekly Standard last weekend (on Easter Sunday, no less), I was startled to find among his essays a full-throated defense of Tony Blair, who is now remembered, at least in this country, as the compliant lapdog of a warmongering president. Yet “so far from being an American ‘poodle,’ as his taunting and ignorant foes like to sneer,” Hitchens writes, “Blair had in fact leaned on [Bill] Clinton over Kosovo and was insisting on the importance of Iraq while George Bush was still an isolationist governor of Texas.” Is there room in the popular imagination for the mitigating facts to which Hitchens points? No, there isn’t. The damage is done, and Blair’s reputation is now preserved in amber.
If the past is ultimately unknowable, then so, too, is the hopelessly complicated present — especially in this age in which the superabundance of information at our disposal is the very enemy of clarity. As an example, readers need only consider the undying saga of the president’s behavior during the Russia probe. We, the average citizens of this nation, are separated from what actually occurred by an uncrossable divide. On one side are events as they really unfolded. On the other is the curious public, able to gaze across only by peering through a series of darkened veils. Between us and the truth lies what the participants told Robert Mueller, what Mueller wrote in his report, what the attorney general said in his summary, how the media covered both documents, and how we as individuals inevitably view that coverage through our respective partisan lenses — a game of Telephone so convoluted that no one even needed to lie to obfuscate the facts. Americans could erase a few of those layers by reading the Mueller report for themselves, of course, but how many of us will actually do so before drawing conclusions? My guess is that the number is low indeed.
What all of this points to is the incontrovertible superiority of first principles to the hourly political machinations so prized by the program directors at CNN and MSNBC. I will never know — no one can — exactly what the president did, and why, where Russia is concerned. But I can see with my own eyes that he is less likely than his opponents to rip infants from the womb, seize private wealth for fantastical ends, or persecute Christians for their sincerely held beliefs.
Those are my principles; others have their own. In the end, they may be all that we can rely upon.