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The International Writers Magazine: Ideas

Dean Borok

Sometimes the visionary can overcome the boundaries of concrete reality, where most of us are more or less condemned to dwell, and fly to the moon.

More than one high flyer has said, "If you can conceive something, then you can achieve it." Was he just talking about shrinking a submarine full of scientists to the size of an atom and sending it through a person's blood stream, as in Fantastic Voyage, or perhaps something a little more mundane, like defining reality in America?

In the initial euphoria of the Iraq war where, instead of reporting the facts, CNN was pasting the heads of American heroes on a Wall of Honor, Judith Miller was breathlessly reporting in The New York Times the latest White House info on WMDs, and embedded journalists (and I use the word loosely) were happily transported as guests of the Army, a Bush spokesman grandly put it this way, "We're an empire. We define reality." This unfortunate hyperbole, having been put through the stress test of physical concreteness, has fallen short of the truth. Wishful thinking has rarely been so successful a technique for achieving policy goals as managing hard facts.

A graphic way of imagining our brief transit through the world is a personal corridor that opens to each person when he is born. It is a narrow passage lined with an infinite number of doors, which are our options. You can step through any of these doors into a room, but the only way out of the room is back into the same corridor. A gifted person like Casanova or Beaumarchais could step into a room and perform a set piece of exquisite significance, but ultimately even he must step back into the corridor of his life.

In the modern world there are infinite diversions, from air travel to Nintendo. Writing words on a page can transport some people better than opium. But we are subject to the corporeal limitations of physics and market forces, though even those are not immutable, as Einstein and Ken Lay have demonstrated.

Though, as Fidel Castro proved, large realities can be achieved in small spaces, a large physical stage is conducive to the vast sagas that make Americans happy. That is why the stereotypical Texan, waving his cigar across a vast expanse and shouting "Everything's big in Texas," has such resonance. The transformative experience of Rene-Robert de la Salle, almost mystical in his travails, who trekked countless times across seventeenth century New France with a canoe strapped to his back, fighting Indians, black flies and freezing winters, sailing the oceans to France and Quebec, Hispaniola and Louisiana before being assassinated in a mutiny on the plains of Texas in a drama seemingly lifted from Puccini's Manon Lescaut, and the stories from Louis L'Amour's frontier, where bad people and good spearheaded the European conquest of the Great Plains, require an epic panoramic tableau of magisterial expanse to please a people for whom once is never enough and the cameo lives of the lesser peoples of the world have no significance.

The other large national entities of the world are also living their passions, the Brazilians and Chinese with their space programs, the French ever-determined to reassert world dominance, the Russians who are our mirror image — all are bursting at the seams with national growth hormone. The emergence of Islam as a transnational entity with a huge territorial expanse, population and resources suggests yet another polarity. As these material and psychic spheres of influence expand and crash into each other like blobs in a lava lamp, merging and separating to remold in another configuration, what will be the impact on an American psychology which centuries of isolation have conditioned to an attitude of exclusivity, as though the lessons of past human experience are not relevant in our circumstances. Will we reject the lessons of history, incomplete as they are, and through childlike petulance and willfulness allow ourselves to get bumped from the top spot, where intelligent analysis and skillful strategic action might have kept us?

The controversy here is not willingness or unwillingness to use military force to achieve what intellectually and diplomatically seems to be beyond our reach, as might the skillful managing of resources to achieve rational and realistic objectives. The doctrine of American exclusivity, while it may have had some useful purpose in past ages, is not advancing our interests as well as rational analysis and management of resources, but, like many other critical cultural issues, rethinking of it is not even on the cultural agenda.

If reality can come to seem an elastic concept to one whose immediate needs are satisfied, so is the rationalism to discern and negotiate the material world. This lack of immediacy is the defining factor that characterizes our ruling class, which is centuries removed from the means of production (now that the Chinese are manufacturing all of our goods, nobody seems worried that soon we as a country won't know how to do any more with our hands than type at a keyboard or push a broom, our hands to eventually atrophy and fall off like redundant appendages). Lacking consequences, all decisions become academic, except where the real world so rudely intrudes, as George Bush's face on 9/11 so poignantly expressed when told that an eventuality he had previously dismissed as fanciful had erupted with traumatic consequences.

It's useful to have grandiose dreams. As the Roman Empire demonstrated, imagination and audacity can produce overwhelming success. An elastic concept of reality is fundamental to the arts and is essential for conceiving real-world solutions. The talent for knowing the distinction between what is real and what is not real can be the key for devising imaginative solutions for a lovelier life.

Dean Borok Feb 2008

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