Nothing is Real

I got back from a visit to England about two weeks ago.  Throughout the trip, I thought about my friend, Robin, and her recent NEMLA panel on Post-Modern Tourism.  Ann and I visited a number of tourist sites that reminded me of Baudrillard and the hyper-real. 

The Sherlock Holmes Museum was a special treat.  It is housed at 221B Baker St in London, the home of the fictional Sherlock Holmes.  It is a three-story apartment, set up to look like the apartment described in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories.  But let me repeat: Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character.  There was no person called Sherlock Holmes.  And yet, here is his apartment.  And his belongings.  And we were greeted by Holmes’ good friend, Dr. Watson, with whom he shared the apartment.  I’m not sure you can get any more hyper-real than a museum housed in an apartment lived in by a fictional character.

Well,  perhaps a living museum on a ship might be more hyper-real.  Sir Francis Drake’s galleon sits on the banks of the Thames River in London.  Sir Francis, of course, was the English hero who was the first person to circumnavigate the world, claiming many territories in the name of the English crown.  While the English claim him as a hero, the Spaniards consider him a pirate, who attacked Spanish colonies such as Puerto Rico.  But in London, he is definitely a hero.  And so people apparently clamor aboard the recreation of his galleon.  Not the original, of course.  But a recreation.  And for those so inclined, the galleon is available for sleepovers and other “living history” experiences.  When Ann and I walked by, the galleon was awash in pirates.  Or at least there were many people dressed as pirates milling about.

There were many, many more examples of the hyper-real on this trip.  While Ann was at her conference in Oxford, I bought a copy of England, England by Julian Barnes.  This amazing work of fiction, written more than 10 years ago, tells the story of an entrepreneur who claims the Isle of Wight off the coast of England so that he can create the ultimate tourist experience, a recreation of England in miniature on the island.  So there is a mini Stonehenge and a mini Buckingham Palace and a mini Lake District.  Along with these “real” places, there are also recreations of “fictional” places, such as Sherwood Forest, complete with its own Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men, including Maid Marian, who in this version is a lesbian to explain the fact that she won’t have sex with Robin.  This is a brilliant little book that illustrates and explains Baudrillard’s idea while at the same time being prescient in its portrait of post-modern tourism.

Coincidentally, my immediate family is taking a trip to Niagra Falls in a few weeks.  I was telling my friend, Pat, about this trip and she recommended a non-fiction book called Inventing Niagra: Beauty, Power, and Lies for me to read before I leave.  I haven’t started reading the book yet but the book jacket tells me that the book “shows that the famous natural wonder is in reality a prime example of man’s manipulation of nature, constantly exploited to attract tourists.”  In other words, Niagra Falls is unsurprisingly not “real” but is instead a site created with tourists in mind.

I’m not sure yet what all of this means.  It just seems amazing to me that my entire summer has been hyper-real.  Maybe my whole life, all our lives, are hyper-real but we’re all too busy to notice.

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