Reality is Oxygen

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

That’s the opener from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.  Stephen King calls it the best opening in horror literature, and I think he’s right.  Just three sentences, but you could write a small book about everything they accomplish — setting the scene, introducing the theme, foreshadowing the ending….

Note especially the contrast in the first two lines: “sanely” / “not sane.”  This suggests that “Hill House, not sane,” exists “under conditions of absolute reality.”  But Hill House is haunted — something walks there (though it walks alone).  Which suggests that were we not in some sense blinded by our sanity, we’d see the ghosts all around us….

Which is why I wrote “the best opening in horror literature.”  The Haunting of Hill House is a ghost story, yeah, but it’s art for all that, because it tells us something important about the human condition: “Sanity” — for lack of a better term — is a very recent, very contingent phenomenon.  Pick any random human from our species’s long, long history.  It’s ten million to one that this sample of homo sapiens takes the supernatural world for granted.  He sees the ghosts, in a way that Modern people simply can’t.  We’ve had it beaten out of us by 300 years of “the Enlightenment.”

Which means, perversely, that we’re less in tune with Reality, not more.  The Enlightened, scientific mindset seeks to reduce Reality to math.  We Moderns know incomparably more about that tiny slice of the Universe than our ancestors did, but at the cost of vast and growing ignorance of everything outside of it.  Our culture rests on a synecdoche — we cling to a tiny slice of the world, mistaking it for the whole.

This matters, because as our understanding of that tiny slice of Reality grows, we approach the dilemma of Hill House: How much of any given Reality can we handle while remaining sane?

Our ancestors’ Reality was much broader than ours.  Death, for us, is a remote, sterile thing.  It happens in hospitals, and when it’s over we reduce the dead man to a mawkish car window sticker, a Facebook page, a moment’s histrionic grief… then nothing.  Our ancestors, who knew Death intimately, had an elaborate ritual structure for dealing with grief.  The dead were gone, but never forgotten.  Death — the ultimate sanity — spawned the elaborate insanity of requiem masses, saints’ days, Heaven, Hell…

We Moderns know better.  Death is just one last chemical reaction, before all chemical reactions cease.  Consciousness can’t survive the body, because consciousness IS the body.  There is no Heaven, nor Hell.  Our threescore-and-ten is pointless agitation, because life itself is an accident, the random collision of atoms in a void.  That’s our Reality.  How sane are we?

To ask is to answer, and it’s the key to understanding the insanity of Postmodern life.  The Left, as Science’s BFFs, have committed themselves to the notion that life is colliding atoms.  It terrifies them, because it’s a psychological impossibility — it must be true, yet it can’t be true, because if it is, then what’s the point of anything?  Even Social Justice, if per impossibile it could be achieved, is meaningless.

The Universe might actually be nothing but atoms colliding in a void, but no one can live as if it is — not for one single second.  The Left know this better than anyone, because they’ve spent the most time staring into that void.  Thus the Left’s peculiar insanity, which insists that though everything is just a social construction, everyone who doesn’t move in lockstep with the social construction of the moment should be hounded out of society.

The key to deprogramming the Left, then, isn’t to get them back in touch with Reality.  They’ve seen Reality — their little slice of it, anyway, which is the only one that matters to them — and it has driven them insane.  Reality is like oxygen: Necessary in small doses; lethally corrosive in larger.  The only way to fix them is to manage their insanity, to get it more in line with ours.

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10 thoughts on “Reality is Oxygen

  1. MBlanc46

    Can we really deprogram Leftists? Is there any intersection between their perceived reality and our perceived reality that can be enlarged?

  2. ErisGuy

    One of my favorite literary quotes. Jackson wasn’t Shakespeare, but her quote neatly sums up horror fiction.

    Your last foray into 30-year old pop culture (here, sixty-year-old) produced the best comments on “Conan the Barbarian” (1980), I’d ever read. I rewatched the movie twice afterwards to weigh Whiskey Jack’s, Wright’s, and your comments. If only “Conan the Barbarian” had the visual and acting quality of GOT.

    Here I hope for the best, as I have no special insight into Jackson’s best work.

    At first I thought you’d point out that Hill House and its inhabitant don’t dream, as larks and katydids dream to escape reality. El sueño de la razón produce monstruos.

    1. ErisGuy

      “Reason may also dream without sleeping, may intoxicate itself, as it did during the French Revolution, with the daydreams of inevitable progress, of liberty, equality, and fraternity imposed by violence, of human self-sufficiency and the ending of sorrow…by political rearrangements and a better technology.“ — Aldous Huxley.

    2. Severian Post author

      Glad you enjoyed it! That’s the best part of the Internet, by far — actual diversity of opinion, carried out with mutual respect. How cool is it that we had John C. Wright in the conversation? He’s a big leaguer. He easily could’ve killed the conversation by pulling rank — a guy who wins awards, and makes a nice living, writing SF/F knows way more about it than we do, pretty much by definition. But he engaged with us — even wrote a post or two about it on his site! — and I like to think we all learned something.

      (Looking back on, I think Whiskey Jack probably had the best of it. And again, how cool is that? A nearly 40 year old movie starring a professional bodybuilder, and look at the thoughts it generated! If I ever meet Schwarzenegger or John Milius I’m going to ask them about this stuff. I’d bet good money they actually talked about it at one point).

      1. WOPR

        Sadly, Milius is dead. The man really added some depth to films where you wouldn’t expect it. For a film that is considered a praise of jingoism, Red Dawn actually is far more thoughtful than it deserves to be.

        There is a good documentary on his film career.

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