A friend and I were having a heated discussion about MammothFail the other day, and toward the end of it (where we stopped because the burgers needed to come off the grill and we had to get on with the business of dinner), she pulled out what might have been meant to be a trump card in the debate, or perhaps just an attempt to validate another point of view:
It’s fiction, and therefore Wrede’s choice (to erase the Indians) is valid. It’s just a story.
And that’s where my mental machinery came to a grinding, screeching, painful halt and where I am certain that the look I gave her was of such bewildered astonishment as would have been the case had she sprouted wings and taken flight, all whilst singing the aria from Melota at the top of her lungs.
First, because the stories we choose to tell do have moral implications given that they’re being told in a social context. This I simply accept as part of our social species wiring, personally. It just seems an obvious point to me, as consequential as gravity from mass. What we say, whether it’s fiction or not, affects others.
Second, about that species wiring: we’re a storytelling species. I’m fairly certain, in my own completely unscientific arationalist way that storytelling is, in fact, what makes us people. Metaphor, analogy, causative reasoning–these are the tools we use to understand the universe on a day-to-day basis, and these are what we build stories out of. All of us tell ourselves stories about everything to explain it all, and stories are what compete for our mindspace.
Which brings us to my third point–that stories matter precisely because they compete for our mindspace (and thus who and how we are and interact with the world), and that pernicious stories shape our perceptions in ways that cause harm in the world beyond the story itself.
We don’t see the world the way it is–we see it the way we believe it to be, because of the stories we tell about it.
And all of this is so central to the way that I understand the universe–to the story I’m telling myself about the world, and my tale of myself as an artist–that having something dismissed as essentially just a story is foreign enough to me that I was rendered speechless. (I then chose to keep silent, lest my tongue get ahead of my thoughts. Now things are catching up.)
I think that the role of the artist in society is manifold, but ultimately is that of a lens: creating greater clarity or distortion, and potentially useful in setting things ablaze. To create art requires a conscious shaping of material, a telling of some kind of story. I think that is the primal human endeavor, that storytelling and that desire to shape the world.
Being a conscious act, artistic creation requires choice, and choice–once it’s escaped the locus of our selves–carries with it a moral component. Thus, while those choices are still untold, they are the burden of no one else, but when they are shared, they bear the burden of their contexts.
So telling a story where say, the Europeans are erased as to never have been doesn’t carry the same weight as one where the Indians are erased: the Europeans never suffered the kind of genocide and trauma the Native Americans did, the Europeans are not forgotten and oppressed in their homelands, the Europeans are not under constant cultural attack by an overwhelming majority that renders them absurd or invisible and poisons their communities. The Europeans have never actually been in danger of being erased from history, but the Indians have been and are. The Europeans having never been is clearly fiction; the Indians having never been is too close to reality to be a decent choice to hang a story on; at least this story, told by this writer. Such a choice participates in their erasure from the cultural narrative by playing into the false history of the emptiness of Native America, and why? So Europeans and their descendants can have imaginary guilt-free colonization, with mammoths. (Yes, I know the Africans colonize South America in the novel, but they do not figure largely in the tale at all; and we are not even addressing the disappearing of the slaves and their descendants, which has its own implications, I know.)
Does this follow?
In any event, it’s the reason why I can’t discount Wrede’s choice as part of something that’s just a story. To tell that particular story was to make a particular choice, and that choice involved perpetrating and perpetuating harm.
Now, I don’t think it was Wrede’s intent to cause harm, but yet she did cause harm regardless. That’s why it matters. Wrede making a choice is not only valid, it’s integral to her art; that it was a wrong choice is deeply regrettable, and that we have Wrede’s own words to illumine that her choice was un-thought-out and made purely out of convenience for herself is helpful in evaluating it all. I come to the conclusion that the choice Wrede made was immoral, and given my own internal story, I don’t see any way around that.
I am doing my best to take this as a lesson, and to try not to fail when my art brings me such choices. God and muse know, I’ll probably fuck up anyway, but I hope not like this.
I’m telling a story, and to do so, I make choices, and with them I’m trying to shape the world of my story, and with that, I’m trying to shape the world we live in. I would go mad, else.