You wonder sometimes what the 21st century is living on, if not the soma Aldous Huxley invents as food in the novel Brave New World, with "all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects." Science has pretty well done away with the certainties on which the last five or six centuries depended -- a geocentric universe, the transcendent authority of Christian scripture, the absolute condition of time and space, the perfectibility of human nature. Each of these pillars of reality has collapsed into rubble, and with the help of some extremist groups in the Middle East, the past itself is ceasing to exist as bombs rain down on our ancient monuments. We're like the polar bears that swim in a melted sea where islands of pack ice once served as their hunting grounds. The news that my father read with great care and believed was truthful has also crumbled into rumors, fake stories, partisan bickering and exaggeration. The air we breathe and the seas we thought were nearly inexhaustible proved vulnerable to human recklessness. Now fracking the oil from shale has begun to pollute the ground water on which cities depend for their drinking water; huge sinkholes are opening up in places like Louisiana and Florida from over-drilling. In states as rock solid as Oklahoma, the ground shakes and dishes fall from the shelves from frequent earthquakes, another result of fracking.
Textbooks thought to be the distillation of immutable historic truths are now rewritten with a free hand by nations wanting to erase embarrassing episodes in their past, like Japan and its murderous invasion of Manchuria, the girls kidnapped from villages in the Philippines during World War II and deployed as "comfort women" for its troops, the murder and mayhem carried out by an imperial country that never questioned its right to destroy other nations. Or the strangely contorted versions of Texas' past whipped up for contemporary high school students who might not know how brutal slavery was on the plantations, or the depredations committed by Texas Rangers against Mexicans all through the 19th and 20th centuries. It's only words after all, and words can be made to tell as many different narratives as you like -- without having to go to court or face some tribunal of scholars who know better.
The 21st century has inherited a void it can fill with as many deceptions as it wishes. When reality won't quite do in making a film, computer animation comes to the rescue by concocting imaginary worlds. The pixel is the equivalent of a rootless word -- it has no etymology, no link to an actual past. It floats in cyber space and is free of experience, therefore can serve any purpose a programmer wishes to concoct with it.
We have entered a new age that is feverishly expanding freedom to include fantasy, propaganda, and deception as substitutes for facts. And because memory and attention spans are growing shorter, hardly anyone is eager to check the flow of faux information pouring from the vents of some mysterious volcano powered by the media and the engines of the state. "Disinformation," a term Americans appropriated from the Russian KGB, is meant to distinguish misinformaiton, unintended distortion, from willful and crafted deception. It was coined in the Vietnam era to suggest how one might conceal a failing war behind a wall of lies. It was the beginning of the end of what earlier centuries called the truth. Stephen Colbert caught the tenor of the times when he coined the term "truthiness" to describe how news is now manipulated. Anything that seems like it might be true becomes true by the power of the media.
It is painful to think that fake news could suddenly become an extension of truth in this age. Its use provoked an enraged moralist to fire an assault rifle into the ceiling of Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in Washington, D.C., after reading a fake news story about a child-trafficking sex ring run by John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign manager. Hillary Clinton was herself implicated in the story, as was the band "Heavy Breathing," which canceled its Twitter and Facebook accounts to avoid death threats. It may have tilted a number of voters to vote for Trump. Russia's hacks into the Democratic National Committee computers allowed it to fabricate stories of its own and to pass them through Wikileaks into the mainstream as revelations of liberal malfeasance. By a curious twist of contemporary logic, the actual revelations of Trump's genital grabbing and kissing of models were dismissed as "locker-room talk" without any basis in reality. But what is reality in this situation? Which reality are you referring to to "test" the validity of a narrative? Perhaps only the one you wish to believe, since reality is now so malleable and without moorings you have the right to choose what you wish to believe and act accordingly.
It isn't as if writers were not aware that reality was breaking down. The poet Edward Lear compiled several whimsical "nonsense" books about improbable events, which were amusing because the real "truth" was an uncontested constant against them. But Lewis Carroll's "Alice" books were more sinister and suggested one could enter into strange illogical worlds almost at will and thereby "experience" the unlikely, the upside-down, the inverted logic that lay through a looking glass, i.e., a reflection of the self capable of believing such things. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) imagines a London set in 2540 in which political authority holds complete power over the meaning of truth; and George Orwell comes to the same conclusion in 1948 with the novel, 1984. Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902) depicts Mr. Kurtz, the supreme child of the Enlightenment, giving in to the irrationality lying at the heart of Africa; Kafka's The Trial (1925) imagines a world in which one is found guilty of an unknowable crime you cannot contest in court. Joseph Heller's Catch 22 (1961) seizes upon the terrible trap of wanting to quit flying bombing missions only to discover that to object is to admit you are sane enough to continue flying. Beckett's plays all depict a world of wanting to know something whose truth you cannot demonstrate.
What fiction portrayed leapt off the page and into real life during the Vietnam War, when deception and Pentagon gobbledygook combined to obscure the failing fortunes of the war, even while the young marched in every city in the country against what they saw as a catastrophe of American aggression. We have only moved deeper into confusion with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the spread of war into Afghanistan, and now Syria. Where we are headed is anyone's guess. But with all 17 intelligence agencies now being dismissed as having no real evidence on Russian hacking, according to Donald Trump, we may be lowering into the rabbit hole where anything we hear or read is deemed true.
Antonioni's film Blow Up (1966) comes to mind as the quintessential depiction of our state of mind, where a photographer who has taken photographs in the park after suspecting a murder was committed, can make out the dim outlines of the victim's body which, when enlarged many times, begins to disintegrate. Someone steals the negatives from his studio and the photographer, a staunch disciple of the empirical validity of photography, can only succumb to the playful delusions of a troupe of mimes who pretend to play tennis with an imaginary tennis ball. When the troupe looks on at a ball that was hit over the fence, he picks it up and throws it back into the court and walks off, a man without a world to depict with any certainty that it exists. He anticipates the freedom we now face with our ability to grasp nothing and call it whatever we wish.