The soft prickle of Cynthia Ozick’s voice flooded my ear pods as I walked along the creek at the park’s northern end. In recent weeks, this usually unpeopled zone had come to feel like the busy courtyard of a vast urban sanitarium. But today, for no evident reason, it was quiet. A friend had recommended the podcast to me, noting the ASMRlike effect of Ozick’s voice. She was reading a story by Steven Millhauser about a master miniaturist appointed to the court of a fictional king. Each time she whispered the phrase “soo smaall,” a tiny, buzzing cloud seemed to expand upward and then dissolve in a wondrous slowness.
In the story, the Master, as the miniaturist is called, is working full time on a marvelous toy palace, which had been commissioned long ago by the king’s father. The palace has six hundred rooms and dungeons and orchards and is large enough to require a real room of its own.
One day, the Master is admiring a basket of apples he has made for one of the orchards—the bent wooden slats of the basket, the tiny wooden apples, “each no larger than the pit of a cherry,” and, especially, a miniscule copper fly resting on the stem of one of the apples, with two delicate and consummately rendered wings. Instead of feeling pleased with this work, he shudders. Why stop there?
An opera of intensification ensues. First, a much smaller version of the same basket, filled with even smaller apples. And the new fly—to the naked eye no more than a dark speck, but viewed with a magnifying lens, just as meticulously formed as the last. Those who witness this miniaturized and magnified insect are astonished, even disturbed. The Master proceeds swiftly with more difficult miniaturizations: groups of animals carved from cherry pits; a wing of the toy palace, reduced in perfect detail, that fits beneath a thimble. Each task requires more elaborate tools of magnification, more controlled environments in which to work, pushing him into greater isolation and leaving refurbishment of the old toy palace for apprentices to manage. Until at last, the yearning that has driven the Master from that first basket of apples arrives at its true object: What he desires is not a smaller world, but to create in a zone of such exquisite subtlety that the distinction between visible and invisible itself becomes too fine to hold. He sets to work on “a world so small that he could not yet imagine it,” a world that would be entirely, unmagnifiably, invisible.
At court, dissent had been brewing for some time. The more devices required to view the Master’s creations, the more his audience suspected him of playing tricks. Had he actually created a palace so small it could be viewed only with a series of optical aids? Or was it all just an elaborate illusion?
As his attentions turned from the infinitesimal to the invisible, the Master retreated almost entirely from court life. In a final scene, his former apprentices come to see him, pretending to pay their respects, asking about his mysterious new creation. The Master obliges, pointing to the work as if it stood in the manner of one of his former palace scenes, with elaborate details to be studied and admired. They murmur politely. Lonely, he longs to share, but he understands that contempt brews inside them, and that they have actually seen nothing at all. He returns to his great work, the invisible kingdom.
The reading ended. An advertisement came on for another podcast. A man’s voice, ruddy and smooth: This week on the Radio Hour … two leading writers … join us … the two great crises of our time… . The music faded in the background as an older man—leading writer number one, I presumed—began to speak at great volume, full of distress, exclaiming, Science is real! A breath later and louder, Physical reality is real! The words revealed the contours of a hidden anxiety: Was the story still going? Is that what “an invisible kingdom” meant? That you might never know for sure where it was, or wasn’t; what it was, or wasn’t? His cries were followed by a rapid, importunate slush—people … have got to … realize … just because … it doesn’t mean … our civilization … even the pandemic … what you can see … before it’s …
As I walked home, these two performances weighed on me, and gained density in my thoughts in the days that followed. Between them, a gap opened, which I tried to fill: The earnest science writer pleading for reality to be treated as real. The celebrated artist who’d given up every notion of ontological persuasion. The artist at the peak of his career, choosing to pass his prime in physical and emotional isolation, devoting himself to work in a world he would never be able to share. The science writer unprepared for his new problem: not one of distinguishing between truth and falsehood, but of refashioning a voice for the truth, moving through (not against) its evolving fictionalization. The science writer who, addressing an audience at the edge of the unseen, wound himself unwittingly around the punchline of a metadiscursive joke. The artist who turns his life into an invisible performance, who longs for connection but will not compromise.
I shuffled through these slides faithlessly, attempting for obscure reasons to weigh the two characters equally, unable to shake the feeling that they were not equal, that the miniaturist knew something the climate writer did not. But what?
He knows that indexical gestures are inadequate to the task of conveying what is real. He knows you cannot just point at something and expect people to see what you see.
He knows that earnestness is dangerous. Maybe that’s what court life teaches, life in the uneven currents of power and favor, skill and envy. In an epistemic crisis, it’s the first thing they use against you.
And I thought something else—
Would the miniaturist even be on the science writer’s side? He left the microscope behind, after all. But not for the same reason as others at court, who suspected it of working dubious tricks. For him, the reality of the microscope was not dubious enough. He wanted to work with what was truly ambiguous. If contingency means a thing could have been otherwise, ambiguity means it may be otherwise right now.
He knows, then, that the line between the real and unreal cannot be established securely. He knows what is called unreal is never inactive. He knows its activity cannot be discovered by showing or telling. It is known by making, by attempting to make. Making reveals something that being told or shown does not.
Arriving home on a day far enough into quarantine that notions of “after” and “before” appear equally hypothetical, I wonder if the stakes of this ambiguity have simply become more apparent. How often does it happen, in less strung out times: We draw a particular boundary between reality and unreality, paying as little attention as possible to the feeling that it might just as well be drawn another way, or perhaps not at all. Once a day? Once a minute?
Listening to our media work out a way to talk about evidence right now—what we know and what we don’t; what it means to know and not to know those things—feels a bit like watching someone extemporaneously translate Proust into a language with no grammatical tense. They relay the words the scientists offer up, but the sentences don’t do the work we want them to. I think of the Master’s silence, how Millhauser made it feel loud. And I wonder: why should a fictional artist, making worlds no one admits as real, have a better grasp of how power communicates than a public intellectual?
The question the science writer did not ask is what it takes for something to feel real. He attempts to show us that science is real, but what he wants is for us to treat it as real. He does not consider that these may be different tasks. And why should he? Speaking from a global pandemic, nestled in a culture war unfolding on a rapidly warming planet, who has time to worry about metaphysical questions like whether the quality of realness depends not only on facts but also on the work of a certain kind of atmosphere?
I do, it seems. This spring, as my institution transitioned to online instruction, I had been teaching a new graduate seminar, The Surreal. It primed me to notice how deeply the concept of surreality is woven into our experiences of this moment. The world outside looks like the dystopian dramas we’ve been watching for decades. The Rector of St. John’s watches on from a Fox News TV studio as the President visits his church, where peaceful protesters have just been cleared out with tear gas and rubber pellets, so that the President can pose for a photo-op with the Bible. A Brazilian doctor struggles to cope as her neighbors engage in rapturous coronavirus-themed dance parties while her patients lack the sedatives necessary to be unconscious for their own intubation. When the term “surreal” is invoked in such cases, what it tracks is the uneasy proximity between present reality and what we expect to be a representative distortion. “Surreal” names a mode of life in which reality and representation relate in more complex ways than realist modes tend to allow for. The artisans of reality itself, we are learning, are not always realists.
We want a just world; we expect a just world to feel like a natural one, as though unforced. We seek to transform society consciously; we despair of feeling that reality is orchestrated. Given all the inconceivable things human beings seem able to live with, our feelings about reality itself appear curiously brittle. Why has no one taught us to explore what truth feels like in a climate of heterogenous, unequal orchestration? The Master, of course, teaches no one. But he correctly assesses the barriers to persuasion. And Steven Millhauser creates an atmosphere in which it is possible to feel the power of that character’s silence.
Perhaps I should not be expecting to encounter oracular poetry around every sonic bend. My friend describes this hope as a ringing in her ear. The dull itch of the present as it scrambles over itself, trying to catch up to futures that still have yet to arrive.