It was around the time I was reading the first or second of a series of translations of Beowulf and I mentioned it in passing in an email. My correspondent replied that they thought they should probably read more fiction, but it was hard to find the time. This response surprised, not because I thought my correspondent had more time, but because I had not thought of Beowulf as fiction. It is poetry, which seems to me a category of writing so tenuously connected with the idea of fact that it feels odd to think of it in terms of fiction or non-fiction at all: it is simply poetry – a made thing in which there is more or less truth as the making of the thing requires.
This sprang to mind because I happened to be reading J.B. Rhine’s New Frontiers of the Mind about the experiments of the parapsychology lab at Duke (1930–1965), and encountered a similar type of ambiguity in terms of fact and fiction. Psychical research and the paranormal are not of particular interest to me, but I find the scientific apparatus that built up around them somewhat more intriguing – in much the same way I find any history of any intellectual process diverting. Indeed, I only began to grasp that sincere psychical research was a ‘thing’ (as opposed to something completely made up for Ghostbusters or plain quackery) when browsing through the amusing and earnest volume of William James’s Essays in Psychical Research.
So I’ve found myself – I’m not wholly certain how – reading New Frontiers of the Mind and trying to shape my opinion about it. What I noticed (and what spurred this attempt to articulate anything on the matter) was that I could not read the book with the type of attention I would give to a work of scholarship or non-fiction for a general audience, but rather was forced – by its tone, by its subject matter – into a regard between what I would give to something I recognized as truth (including the truths expressed by fiction or poetry) and something wholly made up. Rhine’s descriptions of the experiments felt more like lengthy and not particularly imaginative attempts at world building rather than activities involving research subjects with names and identities (of course carefully sealed to ensure privacy). It left an impression similar to the use of religion in politics; to argue that the interpretation of a text or phenomenon is dubious is to accept the premise that it is worth considering in that particular context in the first place – and where there is room for credulity, there is still room to doubt.