Article — From the January 2007 issue

Moby-Duck

Or, the synthetic wilderness of childhood

( 4 of 21 )

The loss of fantasy is the price we have paid for precision,” I read one night in an outdated Ocean Almanac while investigating the journey of the Floatees, “and today we have navigation maps based on an accurate 1:1,000,000 scale of the entire world.” Surveying the colorful, oversized landscape of my National Geographic atlas, a cartographic wonder made—its dust jacket boasted—from high-resolution satellite images and “sophisticated computer algorithms,” I was unconvinced; fantasy did not strike me as extinct, or remotely endangered. The ocean is far less fathomable to my generation of Americans than it was when Herman Melville explored that “watery wilderness” a century and a half ago. Most of us are better acquainted with cloud tops than with waves. What our migrant ancestors thought of as the winds we think of as turbulence, and fasten our seat belts when the orange light comes on. Gale force, hurricane force—encountering such terms, we comprehend only that the weather is really, really bad and in our minds replay the special-effects sequences of disaster films or news footage of palm trees blown inside out like cheap umbrellas. In growing more precise, humanity’s knowledge has also grown more specialized, and more fantastic, not less: the seas of my consciousness teem with images and symbols and half-remembered trivia as fabulous as those beasts frolicking at the edges of ancient charts. Not even satellite photographs and computer algorithms can burn away the mystifying fogs of ambient information and fantasy through which from birth I have sailed.

Not long ago on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, the novelist Julia Glass worried that her fellow Americans, “impatient with flights of fancy,” had lost the ability to be carried away by the “illusory adventure” of fiction, preferring the tabloid titillation of the “so-called truth.” Perhaps, concluded Glass, “there is a growing consensus, however sad, that the wayward realm of make-believe belongs only to our children.” By the spring of 2005, I had reached different conclusions. Hadn’t we adults, like the imaginative preschoolers Glass admires, also been “encouraged”—by our government, by advertisers, by the fabulists of the cable news—“to mingle fact with fiction”? Hadn’t millions of adults bought the illusory adventures of both Frodo Baggins and Donald Rumsfeld? Medieval Europeans divided the human lifetime into five ages, the first of which was known as the Age of Toys. It seemed to me that in twenty-first-century America, the Age of Toys never ends. Yes, stories fictional and otherwise can take us on illusory adventures, but they can also take us on disillusory ones, and it was the latter sort of adventure that I craved.

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