Why Reality Is Stranger Than Fiction

Critics and philosophers often argue that art estranges reality, thereby drawing attention to the way we organize our lives and perceive things. Reality, however, frequently outsmarts fiction because the human imagination struggles to come to terms with its weirdness. Living a conscious life and understanding its major issues is much harder than writing or reading literature. Reality is difficult to imagine: in its shadow we feel the scorching cold of the unknown. Meanwhile, fiction entertains us and helps us escape the inconceivable complexities of modern life. Stories and images allow existentially displaced and intellectually confused modern humans to find a comfortable home and see order in the indifferent chaos. Art has the unfortunate disadvantage of being illusory, untethered to reality. Fiction cannot solve the key dilemmas of life, unless we are ready to deceive ourselves into acting out its masterful fabrications, which may take the form, for example, of religion or political ideology. Some artists think they can provoke and disrupt our perception and cognition, but their efforts fail to illuminate the world, only scratching the surface of what is truly extraordinary about the human condition. To make sense of life, we will be better served by doing science—or, at least, by accepting that rather than estrange it, art makes the incomprehensible universe more hospitable to the feeble human mind. Fiction is familiar and soothing, a respite from the harsh prose of life, and we should not mistake it for a reliable source of true knowledge and revelatory experience. After all, reality is stranger than fiction.

In his 1917 article “Art as Device,” Viktor Shklovsky argues that writers estrange language in order to disrupt the automaticity of life and help people grasp reality. Since routine activities retreat into the subconscious, ordinary speech cannot be fully heard. We no longer pay attention to the intricacies of verbal communication because it has become a habit and thus flies beneath the radar of critical thought. This automaticity is generally characteristic of human cognition. According to Shklovsky, “this is how life becomes nothing and disappears. Automaticity eats things, clothes, furniture, your wife, and the fear of war.” Therefore artists use their skills to make life strange again:

Art exists in order to restore the sensation of life, in order to make us feel things, in order to make a stone stony. The goal of art is to create the sensation of seeing, and not merely recognizing, things; the device of art is the “estrangement” of things and the complication of the form, which increases the duration and complexity of perception, as the process of perception is, in art, an end in itself.

In this view, art is a device employed to question the opaque quotidian and open our eyes to lucid reality. For Shklovsky, artists strive to complicate the things we take for granted and engage our perception and cognition beyond automatic processing. Almost one hundred years later, in his book Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature, Alva Noë characterizes artworks as strange tools that have been stripped of their function in order to uncover the way in which we live our lives. Technology organizes us, whereas art and philosophy estrange this organization, as they are the “perversion of technology,” and therefore serve as weird implements that let us encounter ourselves. Noë believes that we are caught up in habitual practices that order our lives, and argues that art enables us to “break out of the myriad ways our movement, our thought, our conversation, our perception, our consciousness are organized or held captive.” Art estranges life and allows people to change it. This contemporary notion of art is in close agreement with century-old estrangement theory.

As I was writing about the oddness of art, I came across the news that “scientists have cured alcoholic rats by shooting lasers at their brains.” You could not make this up. Science reveals the awe-inspiring potential of reality. The estrangement theory gets it wrong—the outlandish nature of art is not unique and cannot be juxtaposed to the apathy and bleakness of the modern world, since reality is more complex and multifaceted than we imagine. Life regularly disrupts our habitual practices and reveals how little we understand it.

The world might be too complicated for humans to unravel its mysteries—science enables us to recognize this conundrum. Today, scientists are exploring the limitations of our knowledge of the universe. Huw Price and Peter Atkins argue that there may be questions that our brains are not capable of answering. They hypothesize that artificial intelligence might be better equipped to solve scientific problems. In his article “Now It’s Time to Prepare for the Machinocene,” Price writes that AI “might help us to solve many of the practical problems that defeat our own limited brains.” And Atkins, in his aptly titled essay “Why It’s Only Science That Can Answer All the Big Questions,” opines that the problem of consciousness can be tackled only by an ingenious contraption: “Maybe our comprehension of consciousness will have to be left to the artificial device that we thought was merely a machine for simulating it.” From quantum mechanics to the enigma of consciousness, reality far surpasses the strangeness of fiction. Science lets us untangle the befuddling riddles and attack the paradoxes that challenge the mind. In search of true bewilderment, we might be better advised to turn to scientific tools, which are stranger and more arduous to master than the crude instruments of art.

Scholars may say that literature is estranged from reality, but what they mean is that artists experiment with the form, not the substance of art. Such formal estrangement is entertaining, yet even here science offers more productive approaches. Scientists should be able to construct devices that can wield artistic tools without conscious regard for canonical patterns and convincingly outperform humans in formal creativity.

Artworks are known entities that become meaningful in the context of culture. There are social norms and aesthetic principles that shape artistic imagination and expression. The knowledge of art can be used to interpret the bizarre reality in which we live. In a recent opinion piece for the Financial Times, Robert Cooper sketches out the state of Western politics by alluding to popular works of fiction: “Welcome to Disneyland. Leading Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg is playing Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice from Fantasia; Theresa May is the wicked witch from Snow White—though she is short on magic. Across the pond, an evil ogre known as Donald Trump is waiting to eat us all up.” Our cultural background makes it possible to imagine the surreal political landscape that Cooper wishes to explain. Thus, art domesticates the wild disarray of politics.

As the social world appears to grow more volatile, dangerous and polarized, people will turn to comedy shows that play with the incongruity between reality and imagination. The current state of global politics prompts us to flee into the realm of comic relief. Humor makes light of our fears and anxieties; it helps people reframe the social fabric and see it in a less threatening light. This coping strategy can make people feel better, but it does not necessarily empower them to grapple with their issues in earnest. Humor is a great escape from modern troubles, yet it does not offer real solutions. It trivializes the risks and repercussions of human behavior, and helps people tolerate the unbearable present and the unpredictable future.

Reeling away from alienating reality, we find ourselves at home in art. No wonder we are so susceptible to fake news and fictional narratives: they present imaginary events that confirm our entrenched beliefs and self-perpetuating prejudices. These fictions pander to conventional thought. It takes courage to exercise judgment and confront the messy world, piercing the comfortable bubbles of safe, fictional spaces. Making sense of reality is laborious and requires bravery. Immanuel Kant asserted that the Enlightenment encourages people to do just that—dare to know!

What happens in reality can be stranger than any plot imagined in a work of literature. For every extraordinary event in modern fiction, one can find dozens of freak accidents and unbelievable occurrences in the daily news. There is an online challenge game that asks people to google Florida man, followed by their birthday (e.g. Florida man 10 April), and the results are exhilarating and dumbfounding: Florida men throw alligators into drive-through windows, give inmates pot-soaked documents, lock keys in their cars to keep cops from searching them, get attacked by a neighborhood squirrel that has residents on high alert, put semen in a coworker’s water, etc. Life finds a way: it offers numerous examples of unfathomable creativity. It is weirder than literature and will not give us trigger warnings or respect our comfort zones.

The compulsion to police artistic efforts and impose moral boundaries upon imagination is not new, and underlies fiction’s tendency to become bland and familiar. Despite its claims to originality and insight, art is restrained by cultural biases. The standards and demands that streamline and discipline creative processes inevitably blind artists to aspects of reality that fail to conform and meet public expectations. As a consequence, the news from Florida has more drama and heart than a self-absorbed literary work about a lingering memory of a one-night stand.

Life is weirder than art. Fiction cannot do justice to the convoluted tapestry of reality, which confounds human imagination. Truth cannot be found in fiction: we need to rely on science and engage with reality to comprehend it. The estrangement theories of art paint a misleading and contradictory picture of creativity, for art does not estrange life, but gives us shelter from the ineffable world.

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2 comments

  1. The problem, I think, is that when reality takes on the quality of art it means that we have ourselves lost touch with reality and ourselves become artificial. Damien Hirst got into trouble for saying the 9/11 attacks had teh quality of an artwork, the Christchurch attacks were conceived and produced as such. Viewing reality as art both heightens and distances meaning. The current Smollett case is interesting – a black man fakes a racist attack on himself saying two black men were white men, and later, when it si revealed they were black, his lawyer says ‘Well, maybe they were painted white?’ We are in Debord’s spectacle – one can see how people turn to violence to reconnect them with reality – with the reality that they are physical beings and not made of words or pictures – a sort of sel-harming that cuts through the numbness. I wonder are we smart enough to devise a re-connection strategy that avoids violence…

  2. I agree per the beauty and mystery and power of science. But to leverage this against the value of art seems an odd and ill-natured choice. Art, too, has its own beauty and mystery and power to enrich lived reality. And it gains that power by specifically offering what science cannot. Science is a system that evolved to describe reality as it is. Art explores all the flights of imagination that are not reducible to reality as it is. If actuality is the scope of science, art is about all the possibilities that fall outside of that scope. And if Shopin insists upon a practical value, one might argue that science describes what is, but art and imagination allow us to envision all manner of possible futures for ourselves, and that is a faculty of no mean practical value.

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