Dancing Fingertips Over A Skull
You know, it wasn’t that long ago that any number of educated people thought you could determine a person’s intellectual capacity and moral stature by a fingertip examination of the skull.
Phrenology, this process was called, and it was preached liked Gospel all up and down the USA in the 1800s. And not as mere fortune telling, either; this was science.
Writing in The Skeptical Inquirer, Geoffrey Dean noted that phrenology “was influential because of its attractive philosophy and because practitioners and clients saw it worked.” And how could they not? There were anatomical charts and everything!
In The Broken Country, I envisioned a 19th-century world where the frontier had been abandoned and the wagon trains have turned back to the East as people flee the Harrows. (My contribution to the naming of the apocalypse.) It struck me that the perfect science for such an age would be phrenology. When the world is collapsing around your ears, you are only going to believe what you can see and touch. The practitioner of this pseudoscience in my novel, the bounty hunter Hal, believes that phrenology is a system of a divinely ordered and beneficent world, despite all evidence to the contrary. Indeed, Hal considers himself the mortal enemy of that other great 19th-century scientific enthusiasm: Darwinism. God did not order the world by chance, Hal reasons; so while the hellbound heretic Darwin may be spreading godlessness, the bounty hunter will ascend to heaven on the wings of phrenology.
This is the chart I used when writing The Broken Country.
Far-fetched reasoning, you might suppose; and yet a goodly number of highly-educated 19th century souls once thought that phrenology held the key to understanding the human psyche. Look at the proof, I can hear them saying. It’s right there! We’re all suckers for something to believe in, and in bad, bad times, like those of The Broken Country, that very human need is all the more dire.
Nowadays, of course, we put our faith in neuroscience if we are concerned with humanity as a whole, or perhaps productive therapy sessions if we are concerned about ourselves. (Sometimes, for some reason, we also believe in economists.) In general we tend to default to “The science says …”, ellipses to be filled in by the theory du jour. Out with phrenology, in with economics!
So am I suggesting that there might be a lesson in The Broken Country’s treatment of this interesting archaic pseudoscience? Hell no! As far as I’m concerned, fiction’s meant as entertainment, not edification. Any novel that takes a pedantic turn and tries to turn what ought to be entertainment into a lesson plan gives me the opportunity to exercise my anterior deltoid muscles by hurling it across the room. (Another reason to prefer paper to ebooks.)
Now I’m not saying you can’t learn something from good works of fiction. But such learning ought to be an epiphenomenon, the froth on the beer, a nonessential byproduct of well-ordered sentences and paragraphs and chapters doing the work of easing the burdens of reality. If I want to learn things, I’ll walk outside my door. Talk with some folks with dirt under their fingernails. Try to make some money in some viciously competitive marketplace. I learn plenty that way, believe me, and I’m sure I’m not alone. No need to look to literature for life lessons. No, sir. That’d be sort of like believing you can judge the content of someone’s character by dancing your fingertips over her skull.
Meanwhile, a thousand years from now, when the internet has been implanted directly into our cerebellums and we are folding space to cross the galaxy, some author will compose an essay with mind bullets about how primitive we once were, believing in “neuroscience” and “therapy” and “economics.”
But my educated guess is that a thousand years hence we’ll still be telling stories. There will still be busybodies trying to distill lessons from them, I suppose, but the stories will go on being told and re-told regardless. Phrenology and the like, they come and go. Stories last.