Actuality and fiction

The difference between actuality and fiction is primarily that in reality the storyteller does not know what is going to happen next.

In fiction the prescience of the author can be wielded with a heavy hand or a light touch, but it is always wielded. Even stream of consciousness narrative is directed; the author might claim the muse or the blindfold, but they are externalising an inner motive. Fiction without direction is not closer to reality, except by narrow definition; it is more commonly just bad fiction.

Why? Because it eschews the principal benefit of its own medium. Which is the ascription of meaning. Meaning is dense, it manifests in the present but its force lies (sometimes in the past and) always in the future. The meaning of any thing is spent when the future no longer references it. When the future is empty, nothing has meaning.

I don't always, in fact I rarely, finish pieces of writing. This is a failure of prescience. It occurs at the point where I suddenly doubt what happens next, where (sometimes) a gulf yawns between the last mark of my pen and the beacon guiding me. My words, in a way, catch up with the present tense. The present tense, what we live in, feels like nothing so much as a precipice.

But we can't live without meaning (can we?). And we know nothing of the future. It seems paradoxical, but it's just misconceived. We can imagine futures. What makes real life more interesting, always more interesting, than fiction is that we can imagine many futures. Characters in stories have only one future, and they are herded towards it, word by word by word. Our meanings are diluted by the uncertainty, the multiplicity, of our futures, but enough of them remain to subsist. It is not wholly satisfying, but that in itself is a motivation. We creatures oscillate between motive and meaning at the speed of our thoughts.


History is perhaps reality where we know what happens next, and therefore might be situated between fiction and actuality. We do not know all of what happens next -- neither necessarily do storytellers, though they establish beacons and milestones, and most importantly endings; we cannot be sure we are, or would recognise, any of these things definitively, only subjectively -- but we know more of it than history's characters did. We can become history's storytellers, merely by assuming the mantle, by telling history in the hushed ominous tones of storytellers. We create riveting stories in this way, but we stop telling the past. We've made fiction; expired events have served simply as fuel for our imagination (generally for the purpose, in fact, of our own self-validation).

To tell the past as history, to reclaim it from fiction (but I doubt restoring it to actuality, just because of the imperfection of the record and the attrition of selection), involves restoring its imagined futures. By which I mean, to understand the past even fractionally, try to perceive what its actors imagined of the future. A history of an event in the past is a history of the future(s) from that vantage-point.

Bad history is a story with the benefit of hindsight. Good history is a weave of contemporary phenomena, illuminated by the collected (and critically examined) foresights responsible for them.

(a bemused aside on the subject of prescience)

Where the wiseman of the Oriental Suburbus treads, the zealots of Science follow.

Joseph | 22 Aug 2003

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