Blurring the boundaries

LIFE has been rather surreal these past two years. Sometimes it feels as if a whole year has disappeared – you seem to remember an event as being “last year” when in fact it was 2020 or even 2019. Time has both stood still and kaleidoscoped.

Inevitably, this pandemic has invited comparisons with previous centuries when infection and disease have affected life across countries and even continents. Frequently, pandemics are also accompanied by a rise in fear-driven superstitions and conspiracy theories.

The “calamitous 14th century”, described by the great American historian Barbara Tuchman in her book A Distant Mirror, saw the arrival of the Black Death, which, in Europe alone, killed an estimated 25 million people, almost a third of the population. It is not hard to understand the fear and paranoia that gripped people who could not understand the causes of the disease and how it could spread so fast.

It is less easy, in a time of mass education, rapid dissemination of news and information, and widespread (if variable) health care, to understand the spread of conspiracy theories which lead apparently reasonable people to prefer “my truth” to tested scientific facts, to claim that Covid is a hoax, a way for “them” to seize more power or wealth, and even to swallow the preposterous and macabre ravings of groups such as Q-Anon in the US.

We watched the new film Don’t Look Up the other night. With a stellar cast, including Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Leonardo di Caprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Mark Rylance, Ariana Grande and Timothee Chalamet, it is the story of two astronomers who discover that a large comet is heading straight for Earth. Without giving any spoilers, it is both a serious warning about climate change and a coruscating satire on political ignorance and vanity, the self-serving triviality of the American media and the over-reaching ego of a multi-billionaire tech entrepreneur.

Rather like in the late 16th century, another time of exploration, discovery and creativity, we live in a period when rampant superstition runs parallel with a rapid expansion of knowledge and technology. The multi-media universe is full of infectious mistrust of anything new or unknown, fear of “the other” and a readiness to believe claims and ideas that have no basis in reality – the results are climate, Covid and science denial, with threats of death or violence against scientists and independent experts.

We are also watching Outlander, the drama series based on the series of historical novels by Diana Gabaldon. Their starting point is the idea of time travel – a young woman, Claire Randall, who has been a combat nurse in the Second World War, visits a mysterious stone circle in the Scottish highlands and finds herself transported back to the 1740s where she falls in love with and marries a dashing Highlander, Jamie Fraser. You don’t have to know much history to realise that she will find herself embroiled in the Jacobite Rebellion, which led to the tragedy of Culloden and the devastation of the Highland Clearances.

She knows what will happen. She knows what war does to men, both physically and psychologically. She knows that the lives of people she has come to understand and love will be destroyed or, at best, irrevocably changed. And there is nothing she can do. But she also realises that the lives of people in “the future” – from which she has come – may be altered, or may even not happen. It is a brilliant premise, brought to the screen with charismatic actors, stunning scenery and remarkable attention to historical detail. Louise de Rohan, with whom Claire Fraser becomes friends in Paris in 1744, was a real person, who did have an affair with Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie). The Paris scenes subtly but clearly highlight the wealth and decadence of the French court and the poverty and misery of the ordinary people. Claire knows the Revolution is a few short decades away.

Terrifying scenes in which Claire and another woman are accused of witchcraft and dragged to the town square to be burned are also grounded in history, and reflect the superstitions of the time. The last execution for witchcraft in Scotland was in 1727 but hellfire preachers and deep-rooted fears kept the threat of accusations alive for many more years.

Yet this was also the period of the Scottish Enlightenment, the era of David Hume, Adam Smith, Robert Burns and many other philosophers, writers, thinkers, poets and what we now call scientists.

You could call Outlander fantasy and you can dismiss Don’t Look Up as over-egged sci-fi … or you can look at the facts on which they are constructed – historical, mathematical, scientific – and reflect on the ways that stories do not so much blur the boundaries between fiction and fact as illuminate reality.

The novelist and script-writer Neil Gaiman describes the “giant contradiction” implicit in storytelling: “Human beings are storytelling creatures. Stories are vital … the important thing to understand is that stories are part of us … we convey truth with stories.”

Fanny Charles