I’ve never been to America. And so it remains for me a fictional place. I believe it exists, but I’ve never actually been there, and so I don’t know for sure. I think you have to go somewhere to experience the reality of it. And you have to meet someone to experience the reality of them.
America is a fictional country in multiple ways. For I only know about it through fictions like Once Upon A Time In The West, or Dirty Harry, or Bullitt, or Some Like It Hot. Or TV serials like Cheers, or Friends, or Columbo. Or books like The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, or Farewell My Lovely. Or songs like Good Vibrations, or The Sound Of Music. America, for the rest of the world, is Hollywood. And Hollywood is a fictional place inhabited by fictional stars like Marilyn Monroe or Humphrey Bogart playing roles in fiction movies like Death Wish or Citizen Kane.
And right now, with its fictional president, Donald Trump – as unlikely a character as could ever be found in the most unlikely of unlikely movies – America has become more fictional than ever. And perhaps that’s why America seems to be experiencing some sort of nervous breakdown: it’s all got too fictional. Hillary was going to be the next president. Everyone knew she was. It was in the script. Instead…. the incredible happened, and a lot of people still can’t believe it, including Hillary.
I suppose that England, where I live, is also a fictional country. It’s the country of Robin Hood and Peter Pan and Alice In Wonderland and Oliver Twist and Sherlock Holmes. But because I live in the middle of it, it’s a real place: I’ve actually been to Trafalgar Square, and visited the Tower of London, and floated down the river Thames.
I’ve been thinking recently that there’s an odd dichotomy in our world, which is that while, on clear nights, we can see for millions or miles out into space, we can’t see a single yard into the Earth beneath our feet. We have maps not just of the Solar System in which our planet revolves, but also of our galaxy, and of pretty much the entire universe, but we are utterly ignorant of the Earth beneath our feet.
There’s a (probably) Hollywood movie called Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, but it’s a fiction: nobody has ever made a journey to the centre of the Earth, even though it’s nearer to all of us than any place, and we are all mysteriously drawn towards it.
So all our ideas about what’s inside the Earth are fictions. They’re sheer inventions. And my model of the interior of the Earth – a 6,371.5 kilometre long column of granite and basalt and iron, 16ºC at one end, 7000ºC at the other – is a fictional model. It’s a model of what many people imagine the interior to be like. It’s our current best guess. And all the fabled interior regions like the Core and the Mantle and the Asthenosphere and the Lithosphere are just fictions. And the current reigning orthodoxy of Plate Tectonics, in which the continents on the surface of the Earth float around like scum on the surface of boiling liquid rock (or foam on a stirred cappuccino coffee) is an absolutely wonderful fiction.
There are plenty of other places where nobody has ever been, about which we claim to know a lot. For example, the inside of atoms. Atoms are things that nobody can see, and so they’re fictional entities. Isn’t it utterly astounding that there are people – nuclear physicists – who claim to know what’s inside these fictional atoms. And they’re finding more and more things inside these atoms. It started with neutrons and protons and electrons, but now a whole galaxy of particles – mu mesons and pi mesons and quarks – have been discovered. The microcosm is starting to look like the macrocosm. Some day soon, another Columbus will probably discover America inside the atom. But all these particles are fictions: they’re what some people imagine to be inside these imaginary atoms. They are as imaginary as the imaginary physiology of imaginary angels. Science has become science fiction.
The ideas that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, or that Carbon Dioxide Causes Global Warming, are both fictions. They just happen to be fictions that a lot of people believe.
The European Union is a fiction. And so is Russia. And so is America. All these places only exist as fictional entities. If you go looking for the European Union, you’ll never find it. You won’t find the Roman Catholic Church either. Or the World Health Organisation.
I was writing recently that the Council of Nicaea called by the emperor Constantine in 325 AD was the 1997 Kyoto climate conference of its day. The matter under debate back then was the relationship between God the Father and the Son. Isn’t that just like having a conference about the relationship of Carbon Dioxide to Global Warming? We tend these days to think of God as a fiction, and Carbon Dioxide as a reality, but back in 325 AD it was the other way round.
One might say that our current political problems all grow out of some things ceasing to be real, and other things becoming real. So if you’re a globalist you’ll think that planet Earth is real, and countries like America and England and Russia are imaginary, and that the borders between them are fictional. But if you’re American or Russian or English, you’ll think that those places are real, because you live there, and see it, and experience it.
Or perhaps it’s that we always take our fictional realities far too seriously. And we take them too seriously because we have the sneaking suspicion that they might not really exist, and so feel obliged to fight to maintain them in tenuous existence. We don’t fight over simple things like apples and oranges: we fight for abstractions like King and Country and God and Global Warming. And the more abstract they are, the harder we fight. We get caught up in them like movie-watchers in a cinema, or readers in a novel. We forget that we’re just watching a movie, or just reading a book.