Imaginary Social Worlds

In December of 1980, Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon, believing that he had some fashion of personal relationship with his victim. A few months later, in March of 1981, John Hinckely attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, in hopes of impressing his fantasy crush, Jodi Foster. Why would these two young men imagine they were emotionally involved with people they had never met?

John L. Caughey, a cultural anthropologist and American Studies professor, believed that although Chapman and Hinkley had turned to horrific violence, their fantasy lives were in fact not far from the norm of most people’s mental landscapes. Caughey had been conducting research for over a decade in Pakistan, America and Micronesia on the imaginary social worlds that ordinary people construct and maintain throughout the rounds of their daily lives.

He discovered that people often construct mental relationships with characters encountered on television, in the movies, on the sports field, and very often these imaginary relationships include “physical” encounters, involved conversations, and even possible shared futures. He also discovered that people spend a shockingly large amount of time daydreaming, often the majority of the hours we’re awake, and not only about figures in the media. Have you discovered that, while speeding along on a highway, you’re actually ten or fifteen miles from when you were last conscious of driving? You had entered into a zone of the imaginary, perhaps shaping a conversation with a parent, or a child, or a sister, or a spouse, none of whom were present in the car with you. Or perhaps you were attempting to rewrite something you had done in the recent past. Whether we’re driving, walking down a city street, or sitting on a couch in the middle of a party, we often settle into mental spaces where we construct private dramas. Sonic Youth got it right, we are indeed a Daydream Nation.

John L. Caughey summed up the research in his book Imaginary Social Worlds with this eloquent passage: “We do not live only in the objective world of external objects and activities. On the contrary, much of our experience is inner experience. Each day we pass through multiple realities—we phase in and out, back and forth, between the actual world and imaginary realms. We awake in the morning after spending six or seven hours entangled in the phantasmagorical world of dreams. During our early morning routines, we regularly drift off . . . As we dress, our attention wanders, we experience moments from the past, imaginatively engage in scenes of the day ahead, and silently converse to ourselves about these non-present worlds. At breakfast we may sleepily talk to our families but then, picking up the morning newspaper, we are off again, caught up in the political machinations of Washington and the doings of the sports worlds and comic strip characters. Driving to work, we are only partly aware of the familiar route. Much of the time we are ‘away,’ lost in anticipations of the hours or years ahead or in fantasies about how things might otherwise be . . . and so on throughout the day, hour after hour, day after day.”

Reading Caughey’s book was a revelation to me, and it affected my course as a writer, attuning me to the vast internal spaces that occupy us all (there’s no mistake why one of my story collections is titled Interior Design). It’s an ideal subject matter for a fiction writer, where the simple phrase “he thought” opens the gate to the drama of interior worlds. And for the memoirist, one’s inner life is at least as important as that life’s crucial events—the two, in fact, are bound together.

Carol-Lynn Marrazzo, in her brilliant essay “Show and Tell: There’s a Reason It’s Called Storytelling” (from the anthology What If? Exercises for Fiction Writers, edited by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter) discusses how much of modern and contemporary fiction is guided by interior reflection and tension. Taking passages from Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, James Joyce, Amy Hempel and Peter Taylor, she italicizes all the words that express thought. In each case, the majority of the words are in italics.

Taking a cue from one of Marrazzo’s examples, I’ll cut out instead of italicizing the words of inner drama. Here’s what a crucial scene from the end of the short story “The Dead,” by James Joyce now looks like:

“He is dead,” she said at length. “He died when he was only seventeen. Isn’t it a terrible thing to die so young as that?”
“What was he?” asked Gabriel,
“He was in the gasworks,” she said.

He turned his back more to the light

His voice when he spoke was humble and indifferent.

Two thirds of the scene has vanished, and along with it much of the drama of Gabriel’s shock at his wife’s hitherto unknown past, leading him to a humiliating assessment of his personality and actions. Gabriel’s epiphany simply isn’t possible without access to his interior. Young writers are often urged to “show, don’t tell,” but this is often mistaken, I think, as a call to concentrate on exterior action and details. Yet effective revelation of inner drama is a form of showing as well, and as Caughey’s research more than suggests, it’s a large subject indeed.

Two excellent examples of this in contemporary writing are Keith Lee Morris’s short story “Camel Light,” (from his most recent collection Call It What You Want), and Janet Burroway’s essay “Embalming Mom” (from her essay collection of the same name).

In Morris’s story, Rick Stueben is relaxing in the kitchen, idly looking through the newspaper, while his wife is off at a beadworking class and the two children are about their business elsewhere. As he contemplates what to do with this gift of free time on a weekend, he catches sight of a cigarette on the tiled floor beside the dishwasher. He picks it up, examines it. As far as he knows, his children don’t smoke, and he and his wife gave up the habit years ago. So where did this come from? Rick works through all the possibilities in his mind, and before long he suspects it belongs to one of his wife’s favorite clients in her psychology practice.

Before long he’s wondering if his wife is having an affair, and he thinks of all the possible times assignations might have taken place, imagines divorce, separation from his kids, the loss of his house. His wife “was setting herself free. And now that she had broken him, now that he had been broken, none of the things he had broken himself for would be there to sustain him, and his old, pre-broken self was gone, faded to a point of light he could find only in memory.” By the end of this marvelous short story–which entirely takes place at the kitchen table–Rick is on the verge of tears, and then the sound of his wife’s car, returning up the driveway, wakes him from the tale he’s been spinning.

In Janet Burroway’s essay “Embalming Mom,” Burroway tries to confront her mother, tries to finally come to terms with their strained relationship. This is a fraught conversation many of us have attempted in our lives, a clearing of the family air, yet soon Burroway alerts us to the fact that she is wearing an amber tweed trouser suit that was “stolen out of a parked station wagon in New York in 1972, but it is apparently important that I should be wearing it now, partly because it was such a bargain and partly because I designed and made it myself. I feel good in it: cordial, cool.”

Now the reader understands that this conversation is taking place in the author’s head, and she has mentally dressed herself for success in this important encounter. This long-lost suit might give her the confidence she needs to finally get through to her mother. Soon we realize that Burroway’s mother is no longer alive, and the stage of the drama shifts again. Whatever is accomplished in this imaginary conversation will not affect her relationship with her mother—that time has passed. But it will, perhaps, help her understand her mother better, she can perhaps create in her now-lost mother the ability to understand her daughter. The effort doesn’t go well. Burroway’s mother was too complex, their relationship was too complex to be easily reshaped or satisfyingly smoothed. The embalmers at the funeral home had a simpler job, and as Burroway observes, “I don’t know how they do this, but everyone says it is an art. Everybody says they have done a splendid job. They have caught her exactly, everybody says.”

Perhaps this is why writers of all sorts and everyone else imagine so frequently throughout the day, because the task before us is so immense, of pushing and pulling our desires and fears in different directions and shapes, of taking on the unpredictable morphing world before us and holding it fast, or letting it loose even further.

Photo credit: Donal McCann, in The Dead, directed by John Huston.

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June 20th, 2011 by admin