There is much that is mystifying in Daniel M. Harrison’s Butterflies: The Strange Metamorphosis of Fact and Fiction in Today’s World. Mystifying, but far from edifying. For instance, why is Butterflies classified under “Philosophy?” To characterize the book as such implies that thought-provoking analyses bolstered by the promise of plausibility might be contained within its pages. Not so. With its concatenation of logical fallacies, factual inaccuracies and cheap, drugstore mysticism doubling as ersatz vatic insight, Butterflies is an insult, rather than a contribution to that discipline. Moreover, it is difficult to decide which is more unsettling, that Butterflies has enjoyed commercial success or that this sham of a book was published—and not by a vanity press? Butterflies has been called “ambitious” and “challenging.” Those adjectives apply, but not on account of staggering insight, complexity, or originality—what makes the Harrison’s work challenging is its conceptual aimlessness.
The author often muddles recklessly through concepts and fields he does not fully grasp, from hard sciences to the humanities feigning a knowledge that his claims and blatant absence of legitimately cited research bely. In its prologue, Butterflies promises readers access to “hyper-reality,” defined as a “zone of hard-core truth.” This slighting treatment of a concept supposedly foundational for the narrative is symptomatic of the diseased superficiality that pervades Butterflies. Harrison’s definition of “hyper-reality,” elides the term’s place in intellectual history, overlooking how “hyper-reality” was a contested term of semiotics that surfaced most visibly in French Structuralism of the 1960s, a movement that would influence fields from musicology to history for decades to come. It still does. Harrison’s shameful oversimplification is either an intentional erasure, a sign of unpardonable ignorance, or tacit assumptions about the audience’s ignorance.
Butterflies has its virtues, however. Harrison brings 20th century geopolitics, globalization, and recent economic trends together with skill and in approachable, conversational prose. Also, the structure of Harrison’s work is creative. Each chapter oscillates, forming a braid between chapters on non-fiction and fiction. This interlacing of the two gradually becomes a chiasmus — fact comes to seem as improbable as fiction, while fiction adopts a degree of unrelenting brutality generally reserved for reality. Moreover, this structure harmonizes with a key theme in the book about the notional separation of those two categories.
Still, creative structure cannot forgive the lack of intellectual rigor, coupled with counterfeit certitude that pervades Harrison’s roughly non-fictional chapters. In one non-fiction passage, Harrison challenges the theory of relativity. Sadly, his obvious ignorance of basic physics makes his posturing as a Wunderkind- juggernaut ready to crush basic precepts of the field ridiculous. Elsewhere, Harrison alludes to historical moments and figures with varying degrees of inaccuracy, at one point presenting what is little more than a simplistic, unconvincing inversion of the Platonic Theory of Forms, as if it were a revelation. Is the author indulging in parody at his own expense or is Harrison merely delusional? The fiction chapters, which often glamorize a dissipated elite, high on ephemeral pleasures and hollow successes, are nearly unbearable. The reason for discomfort is not related to explicit sexual content, but because it is written so poorly (and exhibits a peculiar obsession with grounding description of girls [eerily] and women by their breasts, cup size, and all). Perhaps Harrison believes that what is provocative is, a posteriori, compelling. If the author had demonstrated the ability to use, rather than abuse, language (errors are not merely stylistic, but grammatical), these chapters might have been less agonizing to read. Though one might object that Harrison is transcending the conventions of the English language, that defense would only be valid if he had first demonstrated mastery of it. One press release advertised Butterflies as a “manifesto of the millennial age.” If so, Harrison’s work is little more than an inadvertent, likely unearned, condemnation of a generation and an epoch.
This reviewer fervently hopes that Harrison has not captured a new Zeitgeist–one where charlatans are sages and ‘wisdom’ is spouted by the ignorant or, worse, by those who prefer to pander to ignorance, rather than erase it. Perhaps he is merely constructing a vast cautionary tale. At least the Lost Generation, poised at the start of the 20th century, produced some writing that one hopes is as lasting as Butterflies is ephemeral.