Degrees of Ficticity

A vendor scatters the placid wasps as he scoops candied peanuts from a black kettle, pours them into a paper cone, and hands them to the walking man in exchange for a few coins. A monkey, perched on the shoulder of a veiled woman, chatters insistently as it points toward the walking man, who now holds the cone of peanuts in his hand. The woman approaches him, her attitude of supplication accentuated by the kohl-darkened eyes. Suddenly the monkey screeches and twists its head to the right. Agitatedly it jumps up and down on the woman’s shoulder as it points away from the walking man. The woman stops a meter in front of him, then abruptly she changes direction. Popping a few of the nuts into his mouth, the walking man resumes his linear trajectory through the plaza.

This text is realistic enough, describing a sequence of interactions linked together into a dynamic scene that could conceivably happen someplace in the real world. The narrator simply recounts what he sees and hears, without interpretation. It’s an episode in a novel I wrote about ten years ago. Yesterday I read a new online essay that brought my fictional marketplace scene back to mind. In that essay David Leavens, a comparative psychologist, describes an interaction he had 25 years ago with Clint, a captive chimpanzee:

One day, I came back to Clint’s cage and saw him point with his index finger at a grape that had fallen on the floor, due to a technical problem with the automated reward-delivery system. The grape was out of his reach, and he pointed to it, making loud raspberry sounds (like a Bronx cheer), looking back-and-forth between me and the fruit. Now, you don’t need a PhD in experimental psychology to be able to interpret this signalling behaviour, right?

Leavens and a colleague devised a series of experiments to demonstrate convincingly that Clint’s pointing was in fact an intentional communicative gesture signaling his desire for the human to give him the fruit. As they were writing up their findings — this was back in 1994 — Leavens discovered that they’d been scooped in a newly published journal article by Call and Tomasello entitled “Production and Comprehension of Referential Pointing by Orangutans.” I’d been reading Tomasello’s 2003 book Constructing a Language around the time I wrote the marketplace scene in my novel, so it’s not too surprising that a pointing monkey would come riding through the imaginary scene perched on a woman’s shoulder.

But that seemingly direct transport from a psycholinguistics text into a novel loses sight of a series of transformations the pointing primate passed through in its voyage from nonfiction to fiction.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the English word “fiction” first appeared in the 15th century as ficcioun, “that which is invented or imagined in the mind,” derived from 13th century Old French ficcion, “dissimulation, ruse; invention, fabrication,” from the Latin fictionem, “a fashioning or feigning,” originally “to knead, form out of clay.”

The world humans occupy isn’t solely a matter of matter; it’s also constructed, invented, crafted in complicity with the imagination, populated by mowed and weeded lawns, automobiles and traffic lights, financiers and schoolteachers, TV programs and fast-food restaurants. In short, we’re thrown into a world where nature is fashioned by fiction.

The humans who occupy this partly fabricated world, this “ficticity” — aren’t we too partly fictional, partly products of others’ imaginations, and of our own imaginations as well? What about the pointing nonhuman primates — aren’t they too becoming partly fictional even before they show up in my story? Revisiting the transformation of Tomasello’s pointing real primates into my imaginary ones, how many degrees of separation can be traced from the natural world into the fabricated world, from facticity into ficticity?

* * *

Ficticity Degree 0.  Primates living in the wild, rarely if ever pointing as an intentional communicative gesture.

Degree 1.  One species of primate — Homo sapiens or an earlier ancestor — invents what Tomasello calls a “joint attentional frame,” in which one individual intentionally calls a second individual’s attention to an object of interest by pointing at it, while the second individual follows the trajectory of the pointing finger from the pointer’s perspective toward the object of interest. The joint attentional frame occupies physical space, but the framing context is an imaginary one, a function of intention and goal-directedness and gesture and perspective-taking — capabilities that require both participants to engage the material world in immaterial ways. Intentional finger-pointing is a key evolutionary predecessor to the acquisition of language.

Degree 2.  Members of another species of primate — chimpanzees in Leavens’s work, orangutans in Tomasello’s — are introduced to the artificial environment of a psychology research laboratory. Through exposure to humans these domesticated primates learn the pointing technique, occupying joint attentional frames with the scientists studying them.

Degree 3.  Human researchers, having observed the primates’ pointing, devise experiments to test whether the pointing gesture is an act of communicative intent. The experimental setup, apparatus, and protocol establish an artificial environment, a kind of theater in which the primates are immersed, interacting with the actors and props, watched by the researchers sitting in the audience.

Degree 4.  The researchers collect and compile primate pointing data, run inferential statistics on the data, test hypotheses via statistical inference, construct an empirical mathematical model abstracted from the flow of actual entities performing actual behaviors.

Degree 5.  The researchers document their findings, the write-up is published as an article in a journal, the article is summarized in a book — abstract intentional pointing through the medium of symbolic language.

Degree 6.  Joint attentional frames are established, virtually and abstractly, between writers and readers who never occupy the same physical space and time together, focusing mentally on beings and objects and places that the readers have never actually seen with their own eyes. I’m one of those readers.

Degree 7.  Reading a text documenting primates’ intentional communicative pointing during the daytime, I go to sleep and conjure a pointing monkey in a dream.

Degree 8.  I assign the contents of my dream to a fictional character, who describes it to another fictional character in a scene I’m writing:

“It’s midafternoon. I’m riding a city bus – not this city; someplace almost familiar. I’m scheduled to meet with a man who went to college with my husband – Leth and I are still married in the dream. Somehow I fail to get off at the right stop. I hop on another bus, but quickly I realize that it’s taking me even farther from the rendezvous point. I call my husband and tell him to let his friend know that I won’t be making the meeting. Already I am way off course, and my poor sense of direction means that I probably won’t be able to find my way at all now. Eventually I get home. As I recount my navigational failures to my husband and son I start getting weepy. I try to explain. I tell them that it’s like I have a sad little monkey perched on my shoulder pointing the way to go, but he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Immediately I start feeling better, happier. I smile. Then I wake up.”

Degree 9.  The other fictional character interprets the dream, transforming it into a source of meaning that’s not intrinsic to the dream content itself:

“I like that dream,” Stephen told Mrs. Dervain as he reached for another mint. “I wish I had more dreams like that. So, you feel that you don’t know the way toward the rendezvous point – toward your destiny, your becoming-Nephilim. You give up, go home. But…in describing your lack of direction you realize something, and it makes you happy. Maybe…you don’t find your destiny by steering toward predetermined coordinates. You need to follow the sad little navigation monkey who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Walk by instinct and chance, not schedule and plan.” Stephen sank back in his chair feeling a bit more pleased with himself.

Degree 10.  The dreamstate monkey is transformed into a metaphor within the fictional dream itself:

“Yes, that would be fine,” Mrs. Dervain began. “Live in the moment, follow your passion, and so on. It would be fine if in the dream I actually had a navigation monkey perched on my shoulder pointing the way. I didn’t. It was just another little speech I was making. It was not a monkey; it was like a monkey. I fabricated a precious little comparison in my dream. Things that happen in dreams: often we interpret them metaphorically, or at least we try to. I’m interpreting my dream experiences in metaphorical terms while I’m still dreaming. It’s as if I’m still awake, watching myself dream.”

Degree 11.  The fictional dreamer’s fictional interlocutor interprets the meaning of the metaphorical dream monkey:

Stephen shrugged. “Who says what a dream is supposed to be like? This dream of yours: maybe it’s unfolding out on the very frontier you’re looking for. A dream where you interpret your own dream experiences. Not a waking dream, but dreaming wakefulness. Not a lucid dream, where you control what happens in your dream. Dreaming lucidity. And what does it mean when your dream self starts speaking metaphors? What if your dream self starts to interpret your waking life metaphorically?”

Degree 12.  In the next chapter of the fictional text I write a passage disconnected in place and time from the main narrative — a kind of mythic, fugue-like voyage in which a monkey points at a character identified only as “the walking man.” It’s not clear whether this voyage is “really” happening or if the narrative has entered into an alternate dream reality:

A vendor scatters the placid wasps as he scoops candied peanuts from a black kettle, pours them into a paper cone, and hands them to the walking man in exchange for a few coins. A monkey, perched on the shoulder of a veiled woman, chatters insistently as it points toward the walking man, who now holds the cone of peanuts in his hand. The woman approaches him, her attitude of supplication accentuated by the kohl-darkened eyes. Suddenly the monkey screeches and twists its head to the right. Agitatedly it jumps up and down on the woman’s shoulder as it points away from the walking man. The woman stops a meter in front of him, then abruptly she changes direction. Popping a few of the nuts into his mouth, the walking man resumes his linear trajectory through the plaza.

I suppose that, by embedding the pointing monkey into this structured sequence of departures from the actually existing world of primates in the wild, I’ve entered into a Degree 13 Ficticity. Degree 14 began to take shape when you started reading this post…

 

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