It Was Like Being at a Show
When any of the staggering man-made or natural disasters a person witnesses in her lifetime unfolds before her eyes — a gruesome car wreck, a tornado ripping through a town, 9/11 — invariably someone at some point says, “It was like a movie,” and everyone nods.
You’d think then that this sensation is a contemporary phenomenon, existing only as long as special effects have been providing audiences with points of reference via the silver screen. But then you’d come across this passage from Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, published in 1869, and realize that no, there is something else at work; When events happen that are more fantastic than our eyes are conditioned to interpret as reality, we relate them to fictional events as a way to reconcile them with our current understanding of our physical surroundings. If it’s too overwhelming to be real, our brain tells us it isn’t:
The drums were beating for the charge. Sharp cries, hurrahs of triumph, rose into the air. The crowd swayed backwards and forwards in one continuous movement. Frederic, caught between two thick masses of people, did not move, indeed he was fascinated and enjoying himself enormously. The wounded who fell, the dead lying on the ground, did not seem like real wounded or real dead. It was like being at a show.