Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The conspiratorial urge

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Donald Sutherland and Kevin Costner in JFK

Like Kevin Costner in Bull Durham, I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, but this wasn’t always the case. There was a period of a year or so in my early teens when I must have read a dozen books, in their entirety or in part, on the Kennedy assassination, ranging from the Warren Commission Report itself to works on a sliding scale of lunacy ranging from Case Closed to Appointment in Dallas. This was mostly thanks to Oliver Stone’s JFK, a film that strikes me now as a maddeningly skillful, highly irresponsible work of fiction, as well as, inconveniently, one of the greatest of all American movies. When I first saw it, though, I was prepared to take much of it at face value, partially because I encountered it during a golden age for conspiracy fiction: Foucault’s Pendulum had been released a few years earlier, and The X-Files had premiered that fall. As a result, I was primed to soak up reams of conspiracy literature, and not just on the assassination but on all aspects of history and culture: Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince’s books on the Shroud of Turin—which in my weaker moments I still find oddly persuasive—and endless works on the secrets of the Bible, the Masons, and even, yes, the Rosicrucians, spiraling out into the larger subjects of the paranormal and occult. (There comes a point in every kid’s life when he tries to move a salt shaker with his mind, and in some ways, I’ve never entirely left it, although I’d like to think I’ve channeled those energies into more constructive pursuits.)

This was also the year in which I wrote my first novel, typing up three hundred pages of science fiction using WordStar at my parents’ office, and when I look back at it now, I can see how closely those two impulses were entwined. It’s possible that puberty leads to a surge in an obsessive kind of creativity, the kind that results in drawing endless pages of comics or picking up the guitar, and to the extent that I was drawn to conspiracies, both real and imaginary, it wasn’t because I distrusted the government or the official version of history, but because I fell in love with a creative act. Writing a novel and constructing a conspiracy theory seemed like similar pursuits: they both involved sustained intellectual effort, wide reading, and a considerable amount of ingenuity. In retrospect, I wasn’t entirely wrong, at least not at the time. I happened to come of age at an era when conspiracy theories still involved weeks of sleuthing in libraries and piecing together fragments of information from many scattered sources, none of which were easily accessible. It may seem strange to wax nostalgic about an age of paranoia, but I miss the old days. Conspiracy theories have always been weirdly distorted versions of conventional scholarship, both in their methods and in the kinds of personalities they attract, and just as the ease of searching texts leads to a loss in serious academic work—you no longer need to read all the books on a library shelf to get the references you need—even contemporary conspiracy theories are looking a little thin.

The umbrella man's umbrella

Yet even in their modern, increasingly hysterical form, conspiracy theories can best be understood as a literary impulse. An even better analogy might be that of the collage: you’re assembling information into a larger, surprising pattern, and much of the power of the result comes from its resonance with its original form. We remember Picasso welding a bicycle seat and handlebars together to create the head of a bull because it forces us to see its constituent parts in a new light, and we’re drawn to conspiracies about the life of Jesus, say, because of the way it combines familiar elements—the wedding at Cana, the last supper—into something novel. The “best” conspiracy theories are the ones that seem to invent the least: they’re about juxtapositions and recombinations, or laying a new scrim on the lens to bring out unexpected details. That’s why a subject like the Kennedy assassination has turned out to be so fruitful. There’s an overwhelming amount of material available, some of it contradictory and enigmatic, so it feels like a bin of mosaic pieces that can be set together in countless ways. To add yet another analogy to the mix, it’s like a magnet that draws certain personalities who are unconsciously in search of a subject. A writer can weigh and discard various ideas for a long time before finding the one that magically clicks, and I have a feeling that a lot of conspiracy theorists were born looking for an event that would allow them to indulge their existing hunger for interpretation. The urge to create comes first, and its darker companions, like paranoia, emerge as a way of justifying the work itself.

But a line needs to be drawn here. History isn’t fiction; real life isn’t a novel; and while the creative urge in storytelling often leads the author to discover more about himself and how the world works, conspiracies encourage emotional retreat and alienation. When I read Foucault’s Pendulum for the first time, I was seduced by its inventiveness and erudition, and I totally missed its larger point about the pathology of paranoia, or how our urge to connect everything to everything else can distort reality’s irreducible mysteries. In my own fiction, I’ve taken pains, almost to a fault, to have it both ways: The Icon Thief and City of Exiles both end on the revelation that the historical conspiracies they describe are something other than what they seemed. Part of this is my desire to show some residual respect for the real people and events I use—Duchamp wasn’t a Rosicrucian, and I didn’t feel comfortable writing a novel that made that point in earnest, however ingenious the argument might have been. But it had even more to do with a shift in my own priorities. For all the cleverness involved in the construction of a good conspiracy, it pales compared to the intellectual effort required to see the world as a whole, with all its contradictions, its dead ends, and its combination of unfathomable complexity and frustrating simplicity. That’s the real challenge, and it’s work enough for a lifetime. And in the end, we’re all acting alone.

Written by nevalalee

November 21, 2013 at 9:20 am

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