My maternal grandmother – Nana – became partially deaf around the age of twenty-six. It was caused, we were told, by the act of giving birth. The fact that no doctor, then or ever on the face of this earth, could find any linkage between the inner ear and the successful exercise of reproductive organs meant nothing. She was deaf.
Her whole life, Nana was shouted at by her husband and her two children (one natural; responsible for the deafness – and one adopted) and everyone else.
Then along came her grandchildren.
Amazingly, she heard us just fine. The slightest mew in the night and she was up like a shot! And she never once lost the thread in our simple little stories.
This double standard drove my mother absolutely bats, because she had to continue to bellow at the woman just to get a cup of tea. Clearly, Nana had shrewdly checked out of the Reality Hotel and found a means by which she could hear what she wanted to hear and not hear what displeased her.
In a similar vein, one of my kids refuses to watch “Behind the Scenes” or “Making Of” videos. Even from the earliest age he disliked these DVD add-ons. His favorite movie as a child was, inexplicably (yet showing terrific taste), “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” starring Errol Flynn. When I suggested there existed rare footage of the making of “Robin Hood,” he was aghast. “But I don’t want to know it’s not real!” Later, even the idea that David Suchet is an actor playing a part, as opposed to Hercules Poirot waddling around 1930’s England solving Agatha Christie mysteries, struck him as extremely unpleasant information. As Nana herself might have said, “What’s the good in knowing that?”
In Yuval Noah Harari’s excellent tome “Sapiens,” an anthropological history of our species, he makes the point that we began to truly evolve as a social species when we got into the fiction business. Crudely put (by me, not Harari), the moment we sold each other on the notion that there’s a man in the sky (or men and women, because in the good old days we were equal opportunity pantheists; only later did we exclude women from the God business) we were on our way. That was the means by which we figured out how to work together and farm, or rather, put up with the drudgery of farming for a greater good.
Certainly the day we convinced ourselves that these truths are self-evident and all men are created equal, we were on to something. The fact that it wasn’t true is beside the point; it fired our ambitions and imaginations and unleashed the better angels of our natures. Today women vote. Today blacks are nominally free. We’re getting there. Hey, it took us tens of thousands of years just to get corn right.
Just how important it is to fire up our collective imaginations came home to me last night whilst watching the seedy and greasy story of Trump and the women unfold, as well as Hillary and her turncoat speech to the Goldman Sachs crowd. I made the decision to just stop watching and go upstairs.
There are books piled everywhere in my world. It’s a problem. Last night I picked up, for absolutely no reason, Volume I of Carl Sandburg’s chronicles of Lincoln, which I have read in pieces throughout my life but had not looked at in years -- this despite buying a beautiful hardcover set of them (published circa 1939) from a neighbor here in California who told me his dad “liked these old books” but that he had no use for them. He asked for a dollar.
Let’s be clear. Gore Vidal tells us not to read Sandburg. His argument is that it offers up a Central Casting Lincoln, a cardboard cut-out as later truncated and given out (or used to be given out) in volumes such as Lincoln for Young Readers, which I loved. Vidal is right, of course. I know that I should not accept this folky, rail-splitting Lincoln any more than I should accept John Drinkwater’s invention, or Robert Sherwood’s “Abe Lincoln in Illinois.” (Sherwood, by the way, is one of American’s great and forgotten playwrights and, amazingly, an FDR speechwriter).
Despite these warnings, I read Sandburg and felt no guilt at all. How wonderful it was! This is comfy-slipper Lincoln, macaroni-and-cheese Lincoln, complete with the lovely smell of musty pages in well-made and cared for books.
I know the real man suspended habeus corpus and was a master political manipulator (“if I could free none of the slaves and preserve the union”...), but not that night. I confess there are times when I read about Jackson as well, ignoring Andrew Jackson the genocidal Indian killer, and opt for Jackson the adventuring frontiersman.
It is crucial to know the truth, but more and more I believe it is just as important that we agree on our fictions, because when we agree upon our fictions we have a tendency to achieve, because it is, literally, a form of communication and communion.
How are we doing otherwise? In the age of extreme public cynicism (everything post Watergate, let’s say) America has become more polarized than ever. The wiser and more cynical we get, the more polarized we become. We are pretty dysfunctional now. So to avoid finally just punching each other out in the parking lot over who we're going to vote for, maybe we need to turn to fundamental untruths and remind ourselves of that which binds us. Honest Abe and the rail splitter, perhaps, is more important in the long run than Abe the political prevaricator.
There are things that wed us to one another immediately, whether they're rational or not: how about the Statue of Liberty or the boy with the straw hat on the raft going down the Mississippi? How about Boo and Scout and Jem? How about the decency of the guitar-playing boy from Tupelo? Certainly we all harken to the tall man in the saddle or the marines storming up the beaches of France, MLK at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the family of Okies in the overloaded truck about to tip over, and certainly, always, Fern, who saves the runt pig and names him Wilbur.
We flew to the moon on such fictions, built a railroad, and created a Civil Rights Act.
We need to communicate, bridge divides and fix wounds -- and as a binding agent truth and cynicism don’t cut it.
Only fiction, it turns out, will do.
Only fiction, it turns out, will do.