Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, April 29, 2019

One Death is a Story; Three Billion is a Statistic

[This post mentions key plot points for Infinity War but spoils no surprises in Endgame.]

MrsDarwin and I made our way out to see Avengers: Endgame the other night, making it to the theater a couple days after our oldest three kids had already seen it. It's no kind of spoiler for those who saw Infinity War that this movie has to grapple with the world created by the last moments of that prior movie, in which the arch villain Thanos, having acquired a set of "infinity stones" that give him near infinite power, snaps his fingers and thus wipes out half the living population of the universe, with the dead (including half the characters of the series) drifting off into dust on the wind. I won't go into detail on how I think Endgame did with the details this portrayal, but it did strike me that they struggled to show such a world persuasively in a movie which was necessarily going to focus on other, subsequent events.

The world we're shown here has experienced an almost unimaginable tragedy: 50% of the population wiped out in an instant. Notwithstanding the clumpiness of basic probabilities (someone will have had the coil toss come up heads for the entire family and lost no one, while other entire family groups would be wiped out without exception) it's basically right to say that everyone would have been affected. Even if their own loved ones happened to survive, the sudden loss of so much population would put every government, every economy, every neighborhood into a tailspin. Every aspect of life would be changed.

It's interesting that even with this portrayal of mass tragedy in the background, the movie managed to get more emotional impact out of the depiction of a couple individual deaths during the course of the movie than it did out of the portrayal of the mass tragedy that stands in the background. And yet, I think this points to how we as humans think about stories, and how they are conveyed to us, whether through non-fiction or through fiction.

We are, at root, very concrete thinkers. The quip allegedly made by Stalin "One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic" (I haven't researched the source of this quote, but many overly memorable quotes are fake, so I use the attribution with hesitation) actually points to a very real human tendency. Tell me that a million people died, and I instinctively imagine my own loved ones dying, and many, many other people experiencing the same tremendous suffering that that would entail. I can't really think of "a million deaths". I can only think of one or three or five, and then imagine that is somehow multiplied out beyond my ability to think.

This is why the technique, which historians have seized upon, of telling "ground level history" by selecting the stories of a handful of individual people and telling their experience of some great historical tragedy as a sort of sample of the whole. We can't really process the idea of thousands of people dying in the first hours of D-Day, but tell us about the last moments of a half dozen individual men, and about the telegrams being delivered to their families, and we mentally do a sort of calculation of "this, but much more of it". We still haven't grasped the idea of thousands of deaths. But we have some hook upon which to hang the idea.

I think this is why historical fiction, done well, can be a particularly effective way of conveying a set of events too vast to really comprehend in a human fashion. A novel like Tolstoy's War & Peace -- or to take somewhat more middle-brow modern examples, José María Gironella's The Cypresses Believe in God or Herman Wouk's The Winds of War -- follows a cast of characters which is large, but still humanly comprehensible, and follows that cast through a set of events which is fundamentally beyond the ability to follow in a human sense.

We could read about Napoleon's invasion of Russia, or the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, in terms of troop movements on maps and casualty counts on paper, but it takes assigning human names and experiences to it to provide some kind of emotional understanding of the human dimension of events.

No comments: