Conspiracy theory & magic realist fiction – metaphor made literal

A friend whom I haven’t seen for three years (and wouldn’t know how to find if I tried to) – an environmental activist and vehement proponent of conspiracy theories – once left a wacky message on my answering machine:

‘Hi, S__, it’s John Peter Mortensen* here, I know who I am, they can’t touch me anymore, it’s all OK, don’t use the word Lilith* anymore, it’s not helping, it doesn’t mean the same thing as S__, S__ feels everything, S__ . . .’

I assumed that he was stoned and possibly intoxicated – for as long as I’d known him he’d  grown his own dope, and recently he’d hit the bottle. But his words† confirmed that I’d made the mistake (and not for the first or last time) of discussing my creative process with a non-writer; or, to be more specific, someone who takes metaphor literally. I cast my mind back. What had I told John on my last visit? That I’d been awarded two mentorships for a novel, based on a fairytale, featuring a little girl called Lilith. Possibly the institutional stamp of approval aroused John’s suspicions. I may never know what got under his skin. The next time I saw him – six years later – it seemed he’d suffered some brain damage, having been hit by a truck on a Cambodian road, and was making a pilgrimage to see if old places and faces would jog his memory; yield some pieces missing from the puzzle of his former self. He said he’d lost his sense of direction in life. He’d also become more receptive, I noticed. Yet his ‘walk-in’ claim – an ET had hijacked his body while he lay comatose – makes sense to me only when framed as a metaphor.

So, metaphorically speaking, if the psyche is a house with vacant rooms (lights on but no-one home?), they won’t stay unused for long (nature abhors a vacuum), and whether you call the squatters ‘delusions’ or ‘demons’ or ‘ETs’ isn’t what matters, though one could talk about projection . . . My friend, however, talked at length about ETs who live underground, and suss men busting into his place in the bush to search it and threatening him, and humans being (don’t laugh; this beats Darwin) a failed ET experiment – themes that often preoccupy marginal types who’ve quit the consumerist mouse wheel but, due to substance abuse, remain as emotionally shut down as the denizens of the mainstream culture they’ve renounced.

Just days before John’s surprise visit, a friend had given me (and 49 others) a copy of a DVD called Zeitgeist – a two-hour, three-part crash course in subverting the New World Order; a sort of Conspiracy Theory 101. It’s well worth watching. Part 1 examines fact-fudging in a religious context, demystifying the central myth on which Christianity hangs by comparing its key elements with those of much older, pagan religions and describing the Bible as an ‘astrotheological literary hybrid’ containing a heady brew of metaphor, mistranslation and plagiarism. In Part 2, engineering, demolitions and physics experts explain why the impact of planes alone couldn’t have brought down the World Trade Centre towers, provoking some serious questions even if the conclusion unsettles you. Part 3 spotlights the economy and the military-industrial complex, the interdependence of which eludes a distracted, divided society manipulated by media and addicted to entertainment (and shopping). In closing, the narrator appeals to our desire for truth, love and freedom, so the account of lies, wars and control bids ends on a hopeful note.‡

In his bestselling book Them: Adventures with Extremists (2001), British journo–comedian Jon Ronson follows a series of fanatics and conspiracy theorists, hoping to locate ‘the secret room’ from which the ‘tiny elite’ rules the globe. ‘Let’s face it,’ says an informant towards the end of Ronson’s report, ‘nobody controls the world any more. The markets rule the world. Maybe that’s why your conspiracy theorists make up all those crazy things. Because the truth is so much more frightening. Nobody rules the world. Nobody controls anything.’ The 328-page wild-goose chase concludes on a note of ambiguity.

For decades now, I’ve noticed how believers in conspiracy theories frequently also subscribe to new age–style magical thinking. And not only do the evil elites plotting world domination comprise a very small, inaccessible group, but the critical mass of enlightened beings required to save the world (by reversing centuries if not millennia of ignorance and disabling conditioning) is likewise very small (and exclusive). Conspiracy theory, in general, posits a world in which everything is connected, everything holds secret meaning for those who know how to read it; new-age philosophies tend to agree, though they offer a more optimistic spin. The paranoid schizophrenic, too, might perceive a web of connection, if not by choice or with the same joy as the writer, artist or musician riding the wave of a creative epiphany.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), Milan Kundera uses the technique of magic realism. Strictly speaking, it’s far from a magic realist novel. Yet more than once, a scene grows increasingly improbable as it unfolds, and only later do we understand that a character has been dreaming the action. Such sequences open a window on these characters’ existential themes; reveal the state of their psyche or soul, in contrast to their literal condition. The lightness of dream imagery offsets the weight of realism.

The wilder claims of conspiracists, as with those of new agers, yield other meanings when seen in the same light as magic realist images. (For examples of new-age fairytales see my post on The Mayan Code.) Take the idea, popularised by former British sports presenter David Icke, that humanity is prey for alien reptiles who drink blood and shape-shift: ‘reptilian’ is a synonym for ‘mean’, ‘base’ and ‘malignant’, harking back to the symbolism of the Genesis myth. So while metaphors can be used to capture an idea’s essence, evoking complex associations in the minds of literary readers, they can also be used by self-styled prophets to capture the imaginations of followers who can’t see the wood for the trees.

* Names have been changed to protect the innocent from surveillance . . . or just embarrassment, depending on your depth of analysis.

† I’m guessing that my friend’s objection to what he saw as my use of a pseudonym stems from his assumption that fiction merely obscures ‘Truth’, that principle beloved of conspiracists. And yet his truths, if partly due to the style in which they’re communicated, get labelled ‘delusions’ without sufficient scrutiny.

‡ Addictiveness, once one cuts through the rhetoric, seems to underlie the problem (religion as mass opiate, TV as surrogate baby bottle and so on). Not only has Western culture normalised some addictions, it amply rewards them; ergo, Debtors Anonymous attracts fewer members than AA does.

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