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Monday, March 14, 2016

Bring Up the Bodies: How Nonfiction is Fiction and Fiction is For Handsome People

When Wyatt writes, his lines fledge feathers, and unfolding this plumage they dive below their meaning and skim above it. They tell us that the rules of power and the rules of war are the same, the art is to deceive; and you will deceive, and be deceived in your turn, whether you are an ambassador or a suitor. Now, if a man's subject is deception, you are deceived if you think you grasp his meaning. You close your hand as it flies away. A statute is written to entrap meaning, a poem to escape it. – Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies
I love Hilary Mantel, and I love her sequel to Wolf Hall (one of my favorite books I read last year) Bring Up the Bodies, but in this case I’m going to disagree with the venerable Thomas Cromwell. The statute, in trying to entrap meaning, only makes it want to escape further. The poem, by dancing around the meaning, giving glimpses of it, allows it to fully shine.

Wow, that started out a little fancy, didn’t it? Fancy as ketchup, as I like to say (never said that); fancy as the digital readout in a 1990s Subaru.

But like that readout, the more information it pretends to give, the less it does. I mean look at that beautiful nonsense.

My friend had one, when I was 17 or so, and I was very impressed. You see, the speedometer, rather than a dial, looked like a video game. The real fun was that since everything digital in a car tends to die, the speedometer was not reliable. If this seemed really cool and not at all a good way to get lots of tickets, you're actually pretty wrong. Here we had something that looked useful and gave us a new way of looking at something we understood, and I'll be darned if it didn't lie to us.

Example 2: Many days when I get to work there's a red-tailed hawk perched on the tree across from the parking lot. Here's a picture:


Not a good picture, is it? I'm not a very good photographer, and my camera isn't great.

This picture poorly represents the subject, from one angle, at a finite period of time. And yet it would hold much more weight in a court of law than W. B. Yeats' poem "The Hawk".

‘CALL down the hawk from the air;
Let him be hooded or caged
Till the yellow eye has grown mild,
For larder and spit are bare,
The old cook enraged,
The scullion gone wild.’
‘I will not be clapped in a hood,
Nor a cage, nor alight upon wrist,
Now I have learnt to be proud
Hovering over the wood
In the broken mist
Or tumbling cloud.’
‘What tumbling cloud did you cleave,
Yellow-eyed hawk of the mind,
Last evening? that I, who had sat
Dumbfounded before a knave,
Should give to my friend
A pretence of wit.’

So with this in mind, let's talk about how garbage facts are when used incorrectly, and how facts can only be used incorrectly. My bad picture at least tells us one fact. There was a red-tailed hawk on a tree branch. But actually, you'll need to take my word for even that. Do you know that the hawk is alive? Or is that even a tree? This could be a stuffed hawk on a branch that's been nailed to the side of a barn, for all you know.

Also, I just looked out the window and the hawk isn't even there anymore. Moments after the picture was taken, it didn't even define the situation captured in the photo anymore. That particular configuration of clouds, weather, and bird posture and presence will never be repeated again in the history of the world. And yet the poem is still true.

Have I talked before about why I’m hesitant to read nonfiction? I actually think it’s kind of dangerous. Right there in the genre is your first lie. Everything, once put to paper, is a kind of fiction. By reading a bad book, you're actually worse off than you were before. Whereas before you might have said you were ignorant, now you think you're informed enough to act.

Like the hawk picture, or the Subaru display, a bad book tells a fib from a place of authority. How do I know we're going 30 miles per hour? The display says so. How do I know there's currently a hawk on that tree, without even looking? Why here's photographic evidence. Why do I believe that climate change science is an immoral lie told by the liberal media? I read a book about it. Like, it had page numbers and everything.

I tried to read a book once by a talk radio show host with a high school degree. He broke every rule of scholarship I'm aware of. It was poorly researched, contradictory, and filled with fallacies. This is a book written by a professional conservative. He writes books that further his team's cause like Aaron Rodgers throws footballs to further his. He does it because if he did anything else he'd be fired. Write a book about being a radio personality, if you know how to do that. Your book is nonsense and yet there it is on the shelf next to a book written by a team of experts. Nonfiction.

So please don't try to end an argument by saying, "you should read the book I read." Look, I just wrote a book:

What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales. Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.
So Hilary Mantel, I do not agree with the assertion at the beginning of this post, and partly it's because of your book. I could read a hundred books about Thomas Cromwell, and still not know him. Alternatively, I could read two books in which the story of Thomas Cromwell is fiction where I know him well. This isn't the same Thomas Cromwell, and if I used this book as a scholarly source, it would be irresponsible. If I want to learn about humans, though, I can do much better reading this version than the historical documents. This is Thomas Cromwell as a human being.
He once thought it himself, that he might die with grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.
One is truth, and the other is Truth. It's the difference between a single still image of a red-tailed hawk and an afternoon watching one lazily catch a thermal before stooping, wings tucked, and plummeting to the ground. Watching a pair swooping in courtship. Making eye contact with one as it regards you, then poops dismissively to shed weight before taking off.

Thomas Cromwell of fiction ponders this idea of truth a lot. "We are not priests." he says. "We don’t want their sort of confession. We are lawyers. We want the truth little by little and only those parts of it we can use."

In Bring Up the Bodies, Thomas Cromwell is tasked with getting King Henry out of his marriage with Ann Boleyn. Just like he got him out of the last one to marry Ann. Henry is obsessed with an heir, and Ann is a threat to Cromwell's career, and his vision of England. There's a deeper sin committed by Boleyn and her entourage, though, and that was the deposition of his father figure the Cardinal for whom he worked. Cromwell is known for his memory, and on this thing especially he does not forget.

To Cromwell, and like many writers of both fiction and nonfiction, he wants to portray his truth. The part that furthers his cause. He doesn't even believe it himself, but knows that it will stick. Only in fiction do we know we're being tricked. Nonfiction, at its most nefarious, packages fiction in a styrofoam container of carefully selected facts. This package was so well packed, and so protected, the treasure inside must be valuable indeed. It's actually a dead hamster. But what a dead hamster. Why, this hamster must have been raised by pharoahs. It must have run in a hamster wheel made of solid gold! The calves on this hamster.

Listen, I'm not talking about history books written by trained historians. I'm not talking about science books written by trained scientists. I'm not talking about memoirs, either, which are books written by an expert too. Everyone's an expert in their own life. I'm talking about the guy who reads four internet articles and decides he's figured out the secrets to the universe; the self-help guru misunderstanding theoretical physics; the rabble-rouser on talk radio; the political comedian; the conspiracy-theorist; the presidential candidate who is actually campaigning for a job as a professional election loser/expert on TV; the manipulative, cherry-picking journalist.

Here's a good rule of thumb, if your book title fits this format, you should put it down:

"Eye-Catching Word: How the Group/Person/Business You Hate Ruined That Thing You Like."

This is food for thought while you read the excellent, wonderful, and astonishing Bring Up the Bodies. Watch as Cromwell systematically destroys the Boleyn family, weaving together rumors and truths and what people already want to believe, while protecting his friends who look just as guilty. Notice how Cromwell, the victim of many rumors himself, deftly deflects criticism. He is ruthless.
Look, he says: once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.
 Also this:
But remember this above all: defeat your instinct. Your love of glory must conquer your will to survive; or why fight at all? Why not be a smith, a brewer, a wool merchant? Why are you in the contest, if not to win, and if not to win, then to die?
When you truly believe your cause is just, it doesn't matter what you do to win. You'll publish lies, sometimes knowingly, sometimes out of ignorance, and if someone calls you on it, you just say that even if the tactic was dastardly, you're still right. I've done this. You can probably find evidence of it in this very blog. You'll never know how many points I've scrapped, however, because I couldn't find the evidence to back up my claims.

Look, I've read Thomas Cromwell's Wikipedia page. Things don't work out for him in the end. He's an interesting character, and sympathetic, but we don't want to end up like him (spoiler: no head). Hang on to that head, y'all.