What are the earliest instances of metafiction, or fiction about fiction? I don’t know much about early Chinese literature, but the story I told of the invention of writing in Hunters, the First Readers to Write a Story could be called metafictional, since it is a story about the invention of writing itself.
(This post is best read with a beer and a piece of toast.)
Accountants were the first writers. Well, maybe it’s more accurate to say that merchants in ancient Sumeria developed the cuneiform script around 2500 B.C. for accounting purposes. We want to be factual. Let me remind you that this is non-fiction. (Nevermind that the date is appoximate.) But to tell you the history of writing, I need to talk about grass and how we learned to eat it, the technology that has most drastically transformed the face of the planet.
In my last post, Hunters, the First Readers to Write a Story, I suggested that the first narrative went something like this: “A young deer passed this way.” Now I offer a story of the development of stories, the story of religion. (This will be a controversial one for some of you, so feel free to include your version in the comments below.)
The technique of examining and interpreting signs, which may be called “reading,” can be traced back to hunting. Many animals track by smell, which communicates directly to the instincts. Does it smell bad? Stay away! Does it smell good? Follow it and eat it! When a wolf comes across the scent, it doesn’t wonder which direction to go, it doesn’t interpret the smell. If the wolf turns left and the yummy deer smell fades, it turns to the right where the smell is fresher.
Who told the first stories? Do animals tell stories?
Well, they certainly communicate! No one doubts what a Doberman means when it crouches and bears its teeth. Going on your guard when a dog growls may be instinctual, but there are many animal signs which we must learn to read. I remember being told, let’s say it was by my father, that the wagging of a dog’s tail meant it was happy and wanted to play, but a tail between the legs and flattened ears meant the dog was afraid or even angry and therefore dangerous. In other words, my father had to translate the language of the dog for me.
Don Quijote de la Mancha is the impossible truth: the book is a fiction, a lie, and yet it is true. Truer than a non-fiction biography of Cervantes. We would only read such a bio because we love our mad knight-errant and his earthy squire, Sancho Panza. The novel tells us much more about the real Cervantes than any bio could every do: valet, soldier, ransomed by pirates, soldier, tax collector, convict (jailed for discrepancies in the accounts while tax collector), poet, playwright, and the first modern novelist.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens is a printed text and the book frequently reminds readers of that fact, so that readers can not accept the text literally, but are goaded into carefully and skeptically examining the two narratives and the various documents central to the story.
Absolute truth: My dad wrote in response to my blog, “There are countless absolute truths. Example: Two apples added to a basket containing two apples will make a total of four apples in the basket.” I agree absolutely. I believe in baskets and apples. I believe in reality. (What a ridiculous statement!)
Subjective truth: Let me take out the “I believe–” and say, “Reality exists.” (Was I able to remove the “I believe–“? I wrote the statement “Reality exists,” so it must be what I believe. Strangely enough the existence of reality has been in question for quite some time, maybe even some of you readers doubt reality.)
I start writing this blog in my dreams, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. As I showed in The Magic Trick: Fiction is Reality, dreams are real, they happen. Every statement is a fiction, as I demonstrated in It’s All Fiction: Another Attempt to Tell the Story, yet we keep looking for truthiness. Why not abandon such a Quixotic quest? Why do we keep looking for truth?
Truth is a process not a product, an attempt, not an achievement. Truth is relative; different kinds of writing are true in different ways. Some writings may be true because the facts are very close to “reality”. Others may be true because they more accurately convey the writer’s experience of the event, the feelings, the impressions, and the personal significance. Some writings express a truth metaphorically or artistically or religiously or scientifically. All truth is partial and biased, but it is still true. In fact, it is all true in a sense. It is all true because it all exists, in coded form in books, databases and synapses in the brain, true because writing takes place as real events, events which actually happen, when the writer is writing and the reader is reading.
Now that I have ripped up the book, I hand it back to you whole. I told you all writing is fiction, now I tell you all fiction is real. A magic trick!
As all of you know, magic tricks are fake. Alas, how we regret learning that the magic trick which put us into ecstasies of delight was false. Our father teaches us the important lesson that the magician was performing tricks to entertain us. We do not believe our dad until he shows us how the trick was done, and then we realize begrudgingly that the magician was a liar. Yet we hold out the hope that the next magician will have some real power. We watch carefully trying to catch him at his tricks, but we hope, nevertheless, oh how we hope, to find one trick that cannot be figured out. We wait for the day when there will be magic, real magic! We are ready at any moment to believe.