The Brutality of Reality

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An Excerpt from David, the Scribbler: A Diary of Death Drive

I spent the first weeks of the covid lockdown at home working on several article revisions, including one on “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and when I was done, I looked up from my work and saw that the world was still stopped. When I thought about what to turn to next, it seemed to make sense to continue the essay I’d started earlier, which I’d named David, the Scribbler, and I realized I couldn’t really continue without integrating covid into the work. What had started as an essay on storytelling and death, now took on a reflective tone, and turned into a diary of covid and its effects on global society. It had not been part of my original impetus, but it had permeated into its continuation, just as it had done in all corners of all of our lives, changing everything we’d planned, and making us adjust to its advent – not unlike Bartleby.

As covid ravaged the world outside our homes, I sat down to write the first sections, describing our movements throughout the world – including trips to Italy and New York – as the crisis developed. And as I sat at home, writing, I couldn’t help thinking of the moment I learned that Erich Auerbach had written his masterwork, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, while waiting out the Second World War in Istanbul. While the rest of the world was busy tearing itself apart, he sat and analyzed the Western canon, arguing that literature was a form of representing reality.

I’d always seen a measure of heroism in Auerbach’s undertaking, focusing on literary criticism at a time when most people were either killing someone or figuring out how to avoid being killed. But I had never particularly agreed with his perspective. And this was true now, too, as I sat at home writing this diary, and people throughout the world were either infecting others or figuring out how to not get infected. And as I thought about the question of representation, I was reminded of Steven Soderbergh’s film, Contagion (2011), and particularly an interview I’d read with the screenwriter, Scott Burns, while we’d been at the airport in Rome waiting for our flight to New York. In the piece, which compared the movie with the reality that was now unfolding, Burns was asked how he was able to know with such precision what would happen in such an eventuality. Burns said he was no prophet. He simply spoke to experts in the field, and they all said the same thing, that it was only a matter of time until an outbreak like this spread through the world.

That piece was published on February 4. I decided to look, however cursorily, at what scientists had indeed said about the coronavirus throughout the years. It turned out they’d first discussed the new class of virus in a 1968 article in the journal Nature, warning for decades about this kind of pandemic – repeatedly – while noting that successive outbreaks, like SARS and MERS, were not leading societies or governments to take the dangers seriously. On February 3, a day before the interview with Burns, Nature published an article, “A new coronavirus associated with human respiratory disease in China,” which hardly raised any alarms. Scientists knew that something like this would eventually happen, and when it did, they told everyone what they knew. But all their knowledge, ultimately, did little more than help to make a very precise Hollywood film about such an outbreak almost a decade before it happened in reality.

This, I thought, was the brutality of reality: the part that could not be controlled. It didn’t matter whether you had an army of scientists working on coronaviruses, they couldn’t predict when an animal might pass a new strain of the virus to humans, just like they couldn’t regulate the illegal trafficking of an animal like the pangolin – of which I’d never even heard until the outbreak – for food and medicine. And it’s not for a lack of trying! In 1938, Nature featured a news piece, “Chinese Medicine and the Pangolin,” in which the writers note: “The animal itself is eaten, but a greater danger arises from the belief that the scales have medicinal value.” They argue for regulation of the pangolin, not because they fear a viral outbreak, but because they want to protect this “primitive” mammal from extinction. And yet, had they been heeded, and had the use of pangolins in food or medicine been strictly regulated, we might not have now been facing this social and economic meltdown, not to mention a biological threat unlike any since the 1918 Flu. But scientists are not always heeded. Sometimes they’re barely heard. When we think about how ignoring these early animal activists might have led, decades later, to a viral outbreak unlike any seen in a century, we can understand how different processes are interconnected. In that sense, it’s possible to think that climate change could kill millions or billions – not through changes in temperatures, as we fear, but through viruses that may yet emerge from new ecosystems only now evolving.

This, I thought, is the flip side of Auerbach’s mimesis – not the literary representation of reality, but the reality of literary representation – literature’s power to show us our future as a direct extension of our present. Contagion didn’t “represent” reality, it used mimesis to present the reality in which we were, in a sense, already living. It was a reality that only our imagination could perceive, a reality that did not yet exist, but that was coming sooner or later.

Mimesis – not the book but the concept – is not just a representation of an existing reality, but also a mechanism for reproducing individual ingredients of reality and using them to produce a reality of its own order, which then reenters reality as a whole. It re-presents, presents again, creating a new and original presentation. It is not only how we learn about reality, but also how we participate in that reality, creating a reality with a new element. Mimesis creates a new instance of experienceability that is on the same plane as the reality that existed before it was effected. It is not a copy, but a new original. Mimesis takes reality’s ingredients and expands the boundaries of that reality, allowing us to engage it not only through what we perceive, but also through what we apprehend. Mimesis allows us not only to process reality, but also to act in reality, shaping that reality into something of our own making. It is reality-processing and reality-producing all at once. In this sense, we could call mimesis the bed of our consciousness.

Mimesis is not mimicking or copying or even representing. It’s an original action. For example, let’s say I’m a ballerina, and I’m learning how to execute a pirouette. I learn by watching someone else execute a pirouette, apprehending what I’ve seen, and then trying to repeat that motion. My pirouette might be less elegant, or it might be more elegant, but either way, it will be an original pirouette. And no matter how many times my pirouette is copied, by me or by others, no pirouette will never be that pirouette.

The real world doesn’t function according to the strict rules of mathematics. In mathematics, two identical sets are always identical. They equal each other and function in the same way no matter what’s done to them. But in reality, two objects, actions, or events that are repeated in an identical way can never be identical. In the world of science, we try to predict differences so that we can control for variability. In reality, we cannot always control for how things will differ from our expectations.

Literature reflects our understanding of reality, and so it is constructed using the mechanism of mimesis. Literature – like films and plays – is an iteration of our engagement with the world, a form of existence. It isn’t simply an imitation. It’s an admission to ourselves that the world we call real is also a little bit of an imitation.

The world is not calculable like mathematics. Reality is everything that comes crashing into our understanding of the world and reminds us of our own illusions. That’s why I like to say that reality is everything we ever wanted in the way we never expected.

This, I think, is the essence of accepting reality. It’s knowing that – without losing sight of what we want – we nevertheless have to learn to let go of our expectations.

We want mimesis to mean copying because this gives us a sense of control. But it’s yet another illusion, one that underlies science and mathematics, but that can truly never address the randomality of reality.

Mimesis helps us construct our understanding of the world. It gives our time on earth structure. Just as Mimesis, the book, gave Auerbach’s life structure when Jews like himself were being annihilated by the Nazis. Auerbach sat in Istanbul and wrote his book, giving life structure and meaning at a time when reality was seriously crashing into his – and everyone else’s – understanding of the world. As a literary person, he turned to literature – not for solace, but to understand how reality is turned into a text that can convey reality to others. Because the big question surrounding him – and anyone paying attention during the Second World War – was going to be how to represent the reality of the war to others in the future, whose imaginations will be lacking in fathoming the extent of its devastation. Because, without this, the people of the future would have no access to how the reality that they lived came into existence.

This is the essence of mimesis as a concept – and Mimesis as a book. It’s not just a question of analyzing how literary texts work on readers. It’s about trying to understand how to get across realities that are beyond our imagination, and how they make us feel, for better or for worse, that we still exist.