"Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest." ~ John Stuart Mill
The Shock (and Horror) of Reality
Last year I flew up to Kodiak, Alaska, where I work most summers. Once aloft, I pulled a book out of my bag and started reading. Having been a struggling writer for 20 years, I wanted to read about the struggles and eventual success of a fellow writer, hoping to discover a few secrets of successful writing along the way.
Stephen King writes about horror with a human twist. For millions of readers, the shock and suspense builds wonderfully, tales of evil gradually encircling people like ourselves. Powerless people. Avid fans devour his books, most of which have become movies. I turned to glance at the fellow next to me, another working class hero, and, perhaps not surprisingly, found him reading a book of short stories by King, "Skeleton Crew."
"'The Raft' is a pretty creepy story," I mentioned. A fisherman and sailor, I found that tale of doomed teenagers afloat on a lake in Maine, with no possibility of escape, unforgettable.
The young fellow next to me flipped through the paperback and spoke of King with admiration, as the master of modern literary horror. I glanced to my left, across the aisle and saw another reader immersed in Stephen King's classic, "The Stand." Next to him, the window passenger thumbed through a paperback by Dean Koontz, King emulator in the horror-thriller genre.
Pulp fiction. Literary horror. I wondered how many passengers on those doomed planes bound for the Trade Towers, that clear morning of September 11th, diverted themselves by reading King or Koontz until they vaporized, unaware they were bit players in a bigger horror novel. The ironic thought, of reading horror fiction while horror fact swept them away, unaware the smell of death surrounded them, made me realize that I too was on a doomed plane ride called life, a flight from which no one survives.
We turn the page and the shock of reality surprises us. We're shocked to realize we're mortal; shocked to suddenly realize people are corrupt or greedy; shocked when our friends desert us or when complete strangers befriend us; shocked to realize powerful people might not be the best people in the world but the worst; shocked to realize that many of us serve incompetents willingly, in order to get that paycheck.
We're shocked when we lose a good job or fail to get a better one. Shocked when life draws a bead on us and pulls the trigger. Like the shock Stephen King must have felt when suddenly struck by that van, perhaps realizing his fate was the same as many of his hapless victims. Finally stuffed inside a secret window, King became one of his fictional creations, forced to suffer a similar fate.
Or the shock of that Vietnam vet and airline pilot who realized 9-11 was an inside job and nobody believed him. Reminds me of that famous episode from the Twilight Zone, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," where a passenger sees a gremlin wrecking the engine of an airplane and no one believes him. The shock--and horror--of reality occurred once that plane landed.
The shock of reality was obvious to that Vietnam vet. He stated, "If you would have told me back in the 1970s this was going to happen to America, I would have never imagined it. It's just not the same country I grew up in as all our Constitutional freedoms are being stripped away right before our very eyes."
Or the shock of reality all those unfortunate little Harry Potter fans will feel, once they reach adulthood, when the piper must be paid for the fiction of WMDs their parents believed. No wand will wave away the woe. Yet, on the bright side, life itself is the most amazing fantasy novel, filled with horror, heroes, sinister shamans, wizards, terrified peasants and outraged villagers--us.
"We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate," observed Thoreau of his fellow villagers, "and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my own townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects."
What is shocking to realize, despite non-stop information, or because of such fodder, we are no less illiterate than the townsmen of 150 years ago. Our presidents and senators are no less crass, no less shady.
The shock and horror of reality is that no American president ever resembles any fictional Hollywood president portrayed in any movie or television show. After the World Trade Tower attack, President Bush fled to Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska from Florida. By contrast, after aliens attacked Washington DC and destroyed the White House, fictional American President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), in the movie "Independence Day," fled to Nevada where he personally led the counterattack.
Likewise, in Hollywood movies, American presidents fire those who betray the national trust--as President Whitmore did when he realized he had been lied to--and replace incompetent people with capable people. In reality, American presidents reward incompetence. Indeed, incompetents are all given medals and promotions.
The shock of reality is that life is so unreal, resembling nothing ever learned in high school Civics class or from fictional bestsellers. Pulp fiction and children's fantasy books have no relation to real life but instead resemble a six pack, or double dose of Prozac: diversion to dull the pain. Happily swallow the fiction so you don't gag on the reality.
The shock of reality is that at the age of 55, I'm a failure by every measuring stick in American society. The horror is that I should accept and believe it, more often than is healthy for me. I may console myself, as a writer, with Thoreau's self-effacing remark on the failure of his first published book, "I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself," but the consolation is short-lived. Henry went on to write grander words. How will I fare?
No, none of us are Stephen King or J,K, Rowling or even Henry David Thoreau. We're all characters in the autobiographical novel of our own short lives, both hero and villain, sometimes throughout the same day. We have to script our own words, our own actions, and that realization is overwhelming at times.
The shock--and satisfaction--of reality is that, unlike popular fiction or movies, one can affect a different ending. Or as Henry remarked--"I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite--only a sense of existence."