In The Soul of the Marionette,1 his latest treatise on human folly and delusion, the British philosopher John Gray discusses among a wide variety of topics our unflagging fondness for conspiracy theory. To interpret history in terms of conspiracy, Gray observes, is to pay “a backhanded compliment to human rationality.” It is true that for worldwide plots to be successfully carried out, human beings would have to be much more cooperative, less stupid, and far less quarrelsome than they are; anyone who has served on a committee will know how difficult it is to reach and maintain consensus on the most innocent of issues. Still, millions of people firmly believe that behind the façade of a disorderly world, everything is being orchestrated in secret by all-knowing and all-powerful forces. “The belief that there is some hidden cabal directing the course of events,” Gray writes, “is a type of anthropomorphism—a way of finding agency in the entropy of history. If someone is pulling the strings behind the stage the human drama is not without meaning.”
The novel form operates according to this belief, although the seemingly living agents who inhabit a novel are for the most part unwitting conspirators, controlled and manipulated by a prime mover—that is, the novelist—who is himself only intermittently and dimly aware of the grand scheme within which his creatures have their liminal, brief lives. The machinery by which this curious arrangement works is complicated, involving many flywheels, cogs, and levers, and when inspected closely bears a strong resemblance to the contraption at the controls of which the Great Oz was discovered when naughty Toto pulled aside the green satin curtain.
Yet what can the poor novelist do but exert his rough magic? He may long to produce music that will move the stars to tears, but the mundane material he has to work with makes a very cracked melody. For us, life is sustainable only as fantasy; we create a fantasy about love, saying it will never end, about death, saying it will never come; and these are only the bigger issues. Entire mythologies, entire theogonies, have been invented to shore up our manifold illusions. Human creatures pass their days in gloriously irresponsible denial of the cold reality staring them pitilessly in the face. It is as if the citizens of Venice were to go about the business of their lives insisting to themselves and to everyone else that their city’s streets are not filled with water. So how is the novelist, whose subject is the doings of creatures who are forever lying to themselves, supposed to get at the truth? How, manipulating these models of what are already marionettes, is he to strike through to the real?
The nouveaux romanciers, along with a few lone giants such as Wallace Stevens—phenomenologists to a man and woman,…
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