Australian novelist Richard Flanagan. Photograph: Joel Saget/ AFP/ Getty Images
And when I heard of Zuckerberg’s comments I was taken back to Friedrich, who in order to con and rob those around him, had always begun by first seeking to know everything about their private lives in order to gain control of them.
And something connects Friedrich’s swindles to Zuckerberg’s prescription, and Zuckerberg’s prescription with a breakdown in the idea of human beings as anything other than divisions to be
monetised- as the new word has it -or subjects to be surveilled- another new word for which the old term snooping once sufficed. Something connections the growing social inequality, the increasing powerlessness felt by so many, and this growing insignificance of individual souls.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that each of us has a public life, a private life, and a secret life.
And this private life, this secret life, seem to me are required to us as human beings. The erasure of these aspects of our spirit- our otherness- has long been the goal of totalitarian regimes.
In the past they sought to achieve it through the elimination of civil society on the one hand- the demolition of any social organisations not pressed into the service of the state- and on the other through a system of surveillance and punishment.
Social media’s methods are different.
” The days of you having a different image for your work friends or coworkers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an objective pretty quickly ,” Zuckerberg has said.” Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity .”
Like the character in Philip Roth’s Prague Orgy who writes his own reports on himself for the secret police, Zuckerberg’s method is to so completely enmesh and entrap us in the social media of public revelation that no private life is possible and, in return, expect us to be grateful to the corporations which have liberated us from our private lives and given us his gift of
And, astonishingly, most are grateful. The darkest dream of totalitarianism is now our everyday lives, carried in our handbag and pocket.
Greasing these great social changes of recent years is the cult of solipsism, a cult that results everyone on their various social media wanting to be the first person, just as John Friedrich was always the first person in his inventions.
And yet, strangely, each first person feels more than ever that nothing offers them any insight into their own mystery. Every first person feels ever more alone and lost, and prone to the great pandemics of our age: depression, sadness, emptiness.
In the world of literature these tendencies led to an explosion in the cult of literary memoir. This cult- elevated to dogma in some North American circles- starts out of a sense that invented tales can no longer do justice to our world, and that only stories rooted in demonstrable personal experience have validity, that we can only know the one identity that those around us know us as.
People younger than 30 have sometimes written three volumes of memoirs- most of which increasingly deal with “peoples lives” writing memoirs. The literary equivalent of the selfie, it is as if everyone writes memoir now, and sometimes it seems that the less you’ve lived the more valid the memoir. For all I know, as I write publishers may be signing ultrasounds for six-volume memoirs.
Scott Fitzgerald- being both Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan, as well as Daisy Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson, Dick Diver, Nicole Diver and Monroe Stahr- correctly observed that no biography could be written of a novelist as they were not one character but hundreds.
We all contain multitudes, and that is why anyone who reads a novel as a memoir is in error. And, equally, anyone who does not read a memoir as a fiction is even more mistaken. Novels remind us we are not one, but many. That is the power of novels, and it is our power to opt or relinquish.
In any case, I was a little haunted. Over hour I kept returning to what had happened to me in those six weeks in 1991, to the route that experience raised so many questions for me about truth, about our need for stories, about the evil of some stories and the necessity of others.
In his narcissism, in the power of his lies to pervert and destroy, Friedrich, with his darknes visions, seemed to me a harbinger of something strange and terrifying that had begun forming out of the darkness all around us.
And to write about these things I returned to the form of the novel to do it. Using some elements of my experience with Friedrich, I created new characters and fates for all involved.
I set aboutinventing a story about a human who devises himself while devising someone else’s memoir. Written in the first person by a reality Tv producer, First Person tells the story of how years before, as a young, penniless novelist Kif Kehlmann is asked to ghostwrite the memoir of conman-cum-corporate criminal Ziggy Heidl.
My novel utilizes a little of “whats happened to” me but, because it is a novel, at a certain point it departs radically from my experience. As the writing progresses, Heidl becomes ever more fearful he is about to be murdered, while Kehlmann is tormented whether he is writing Heidl’s story, or Heidl is writing him – their own lives, his future.
Rather than being about me, First Person is about writing novels and a defence of them- that strange battle of writing, that beautiful alchemy of read. Above all, it is about the necessity of narrative, invented narrative, that defines us as a species different than any other.
Heidl’s great success is to create a delirium, and perhaps our world today is a similar delirium. In this strange day lies are presented to us as reality, truth is denied by other lies, and the more implausible the lie the more likely people are to believe it. And behind this shroud of delirium is the growing horror we have neither the imagination nor moral lucidity to fully grasp: growing injustice, war, exoduses of the dispossessed, ecological catastrophe.
Yet we are told to believe in this delirium as
reality, a word increasingly used to describe entertainments of television or politics. But reality is not the same thing as truth.
As Karl Rove, George W Bush’s Svengali, said in 2004:” We’re an empire now, and when we act, we make our own reality .”
This is the voice of power, and this really is power’s greatest ambition: that it- and if not we- will choose the words by which we understand our world.
Photograph: Marie Waldmann/ Photothek via Getty Images
It is often said that such
reality has outstripped fiction. This is a particularly popular refrain in the USA. But it is not so. From the weapons of mass destruction to the Brexiter’s notorious PS3 50 m EU weekly tax to the crowd sizing at the last presidential inauguration to Tony Abbott’s claim that climate change is good for humanity, it is untruth that has outstripped truth.
And when Donald Trump lies, when Vladimir Putin lies, when corporations and power lie about climate change, about refugees, about our world, it is not simply that they are lying about a particular issue. It is that they are saying
the truth is of no repercussion .
And it is this corrosion of the very idea of truth that is so terrifying.
We in the west have been led to believe, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980 s, that progress and liberty are each necessary for the other, that it is not possible to have one without the other.
But what if progress and freedom are not inevitably joined? What if truth is the precarious hinge that holds freedom and progress together?
China’s great advances are, after all, the proof that if all that matters to you is progress, you can have progress without liberty. But there will be a void, and in that void a great darkness will arise.
Truth is the only force we have, the one illumination strong enough to combat such darkness. And if we can be persuaded the truth doesn’t exist, the sunlight runs out, and we are condemned to darkness.
I don’t pretend that literature has any power to alter these things. That power, those options, will be made or not made by each of us. But in constructing those options, literature matters, and perhaps it matters more than ever.
As politics and the media collapse as spaces for debate and questioning, as the commons of the internet are rapidly enclosed by the richest for their exploitation- novels, despite reports of their imminent death, continue to grow in popularity and influence. Dismissed by mainstream media , fictions sometimes feel like the new counterculture. Could this be because we are seeking our own terms for divining our own experience?
If you think this is far-fetched, meditate the story of the American actor
Shailene Woodley, superstar of Big Little Lies . At the 2017 Emmys she was asked on the red carpet what TV proves she was watching. She replied that she didn’t have a television and preferred read books. For this innocent remark, she was immediately condemned far and wide.
This anger towards reading is new, if not surprising. After all, in a world ever more hostile to privacy, reading remains a private act- deeply private. In an ever more conformist age, when the most powerful firms in the world want such private acts ended, when they want human beings to have the integrity of one identity and one identity only, reading has become a subversive act.
Because fiction is not the
reality of Karl Rove, or of television. Nor is it a lie, but a truth, a fundamental and necessary truth, that we need as much as we need food or sex. Without fiction we poison ourselves on the lies of the first person.
And perhaps that was the anxiety I had felt with Friedrich all those years ago- the terror of becoming the first person trapped in someone else’s lies. For if story
as lies leads us to a dark place, narrative as fiction offers the possibility of transcendence and freeing, the recognition of the many things each of us are.
Why is it in every work of genius we recognise our own rejected thinks? asked Emerson. Perhaps the answer is that we each contain an facet of genius, but we are too ashamed, too embarrassed, too uncertain to give it tongue in our public life. But reading allows us to recognise our common humanity.
Near the end of writing First Person I came to think that it was about freedom, about the way we choice whether we are free or unfree, and how the choice is not simply ours to construct but ours to live.
More than ever we need fiction to understand our world afresh. For how else do we divine a
Nauru? An Aleppo or a Bataclan or a massacre in Las Vegas or a child in a street not far away attempting meaning from an Isis website video? The pandemics of sadness, of emptiness, of the forces which we feel hollowing out something central and fundamental in national societies?
My fiction has no answers.
But I hope that it does ask a few of the necessary questions.
For we need to once more start choosing
our terms for divining our experience, and not the words and images power chooses for us, just as I feared John Friedrich was choosing them for me all those years ago.
* Richard Flanagan’s volume First Person is published in Australia by Knopf ($ 39.99) and is available in the UK on 2 November( PS18. 99 )