Acknowledging Reality Is an Excellent Way to Function within It

Castles in the air are not for habitation

Credit: Matt Collins
David Cronenberg captured the weirdness of this fast-forwarding in the introduction to a 2014 English translation of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis: “I woke up one morning recently to discover that I was a seventy-year-old man. Is this different from what happens to Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis? He wakes up to find that he’s become a near-human-sized beetle…. Our reactions, mine and Gregor’s, are very similar. We are confused and bemused, and think that it’s a momentary delusion…. These two scenarios, mine and Gregor’s, seem so different, one might ask why I even bother to compare them. The source of the transformations is the same, I argue: we have both awakened to a forced awareness of what we really are, and that awareness is profound and irreversible; in each case, the delusion soon proves to be a new, mandatory reality, and life does not continue as it did.”

The previous more than 300 words of throat clearing is to set up the announcement that I’m hanging up my spikes. Well, in truth I hung up the spikes a very long time ago, when other kids my age started throwing breaking pitches. So let’s say I’m hanging up my keyboard.

I’ll still be making bad puns and snide remarks, of course, and I’ll be ranting about antiscience politicians, but it’ll mostly be just for the benefit, if you can call it that, of my wife and cats. Although it’s not impossible that I may return to these pages from time to time when said wife and cats inform me that I really should share my golden nuggets of insight with a wider audience if that will get me out of the living room.

By the way, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the greatest commentary on The Metamorphosis occurs in Mel Brooks’s 1967 movie The Producers, when the title characters are looking for the worst play in the world in order to guarantee a flop so they can keep most of the million dollars they raise rather than spend it on the production. Max Bialystock, brilliantly played by Zero Mostel, opens one of the hundreds of manuscripts around him and says, “‘Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he had been transformed into a giant cockroach.’ It’s too good.” Which in fact it was.

Back to Cronenberg and his “mandatory reality.” In 2002 a White House official scoffed at journalist Ron Suskind for being in “the reality-based community.” The official explained, according to Suskind, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

I had two responses to that anecdote and attitude then that I hold to today, as the current White House’s relationship with reality seems literally psychotic. First, Scientific American is the voice of the reality-based community. Second, if you think you create your own reality, real reality will come back to bite you in the ass.

This article was originally published with the title “The Real Deal” in Scientific American 323, 6, 82 (December 2020)



Steve Mirsky

Steve Mirsky was the winner of a Twist contest in 1962, for which he received three crayons and three pieces of construction paper. It remains his most prestigious award.

Credit: Nick Higgins


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