Nothing Is Weirder than the Truth, Part 1

One of the many reasons I prize science fiction, fantasy, and the more psychedelic aspects of other branches of fiction is the simple thrill of watching writers unfetter their imaginations on the page. Most of my favorite books take me on a trip, usually the longer the better.1 Yet for fiction to work, there are rules to follow and conventions to at least nod to. Expectations must be set up and employed, if not necessarily satisfied. There must be road signs, something like a beginning, middle, and end. We like to be surprised, but not too surprised. We like our irony, but not too tight. Fiction, in short, has to keep it between the ditches: For each reader, there is such a thing as “too much”—on one side, too much randomness or craziness, too much suspension of disbelief, and on the other, too much familiarity, predictability, inevitability.

Reality,2 however, has no such constraints. Things can just happen, seemingly unconnected to anything. In our interpretation of actual events or facts, coincidences can pile upon coincidences, or absurdities upon absurdities, that would seem altogether too forced if they appeared in a novel but delight us when they appear in nonfiction. And the natural world often seems to outstrip the human ability for invention, leaving us in awe. Really, nothing is weirder than the truth.3

My first example comes from history—specifically a book called Islands of History by anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, now a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. The book is actually a collection of essays ranging with great learning and humor across anthropology and history, but at its heart is the story of Captain James Cook’s visit to the Hawaiian Islands during his explorations of the Pacific and subsequent death there.

Sahlins’s account of the historical episode is complex and—to its credit—not easily summarized, but the bare bones are as follows. Cook and his ship, the HMS Discovery, arrived in Kealakekua Bay on January 17, 1779, which, in Sahlins’s account, happened to coincide with the Makihiki, the Hawaiians’ annual new year festival involving the celebration of Lono, “the god associated with natural growth and human reproduction who annually returns to the islands with the fertilizing rains of winter; he is also an ancient king in search of his sacred bride.”4 Interpreting Cook as Lono himself, the ten thousand Hawaiians gathered for the festival celebrated his arrival with “the most generous welcome ever accorded any European voyage of discovery in this ocean.”5 He was treated literally like a god, with worship and offerings that extended to Cook’s crew.6 But as Sahlins tells us, “this did not prevent them from killing him on 14 February, 1779.”7

On that day, storms and a misunderstanding caused Cook to come ashore again to take the Hawaiian king hostage. By then, the festival was over, and cosmologically speaking, as the god Lono, Cook was really just not supposed to be there. Thus, Cook

metamorphosed from a being of veneration to an object of hostility … in the end he was precipitated face down in the water by a chief’s weapon, an iron trade dagger, to be rushed upon by a mob exulting over him, and seeming to add to their own honors by the part they could claim in his death: “snatching the daggers from each other,” reads Mr. Burney’s8 account, “out of eagerness to have their share in killing him.”

In other words, Cook was first celebrated and then killed, according to Sahlins, because he first inadvertently took part in, and then ran afoul of, eighteenth-century Hawaiian cosmology. The irony turns so sharply that it could be a classic Twilight Zone episode, as compelling as it is suspicious, and in fact, Sahlins’s interpretation of events touched off one of anthropology’s great pissing matches between Sahlins and fellow anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere.9

But Sahlins’s story seems to have stuck, and I would argue that this is because of its built-in irony. Told as fiction—a contemporary short story in any genre—Sahlins’s story would roll some eyes. Too convenient, even corny, we might say, too unbelievable. But as an interpretation of historical events, the same irony gives it power: insulting and perhaps dangerous to some, persuasive to others. What’s important here is that both sides take it so seriously; readers seem to relish the outlandish coincidences in reality that they dismiss in fiction.

At this point, the logic of English composition suggests that I should push this tiny observation into a general argument about why we read fiction and nonfiction and why our expectations for them are so different. But I’m not that kind of guy, and in any case, it seems more like a question for all of us to talk about amongst ourselves. Meanwhile, I have some articles to dig up for Part 2.


1 Which is not the same as escapism, of course.

2 Leaving aside for now the philosophical questions of what reality is and whether we can accurately perceive it. Let’s just admit that there’s this useful concept out there called a fact, even if we don’t entirely know what a fact is; that there’s a substantive difference between fiction and nonfiction. Okay?

3 See above re: reality.

4 Marshall Sahlins, Islands of History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 105.

5 Sahlins, p. 104.

6 Surgeon’s second mate William Ellis related later that that the Hawaiian women “seemed remarkably anxious to engage themselves to our people” (Sahlins, p. 105). Sahlins’s essays contain a great deal about relations between Cook’s crew and the Hawaiian women who wanted to marry them.

7 Sahlins, p. 74.

8 James Burney was Cook’s lieutenant; here Sahlins is referring to Burney’s journal. See Sahlins, p. 74.

9 Obeyesekere attacked Sahlins in The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific (Princeton University Press, 1992). Sahlins rebutted with How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, For Example (University of Chicago Press, 1995), which Kirkus Reviews called “round two in an academic fistfight concerning interpretations of the Hawaiian perception of Captain Cook” and of “virtually no appeal to the general reader, but essential reading to anthropologists caught up in the general theoretical upheaval affecting the discipline.”

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