The Earth is Flat and Other Conspiracy Theories

By: Lidabel Avila, Madolley Donzo, Kendall Cruise, Lauryn Bennett, Marlee Fancett, Maddie Butler

When defining a word, it’s important to remember that understandings of words go beyond the dictionary definition and have societal notions that affect them as well. A dictionary definition is known as a “denotation,” which is, defined by Google, the “literal meaning/primary meaning of a word.” Meanwhile, words also have a “connotation,” which is “an idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its literary or primary meaning.” Also according to Google’s dictionary function, a “flat-earther” can be defined denotatively as “a person who believes that the earth is flat.” Moving to the “informal definition,” the connotations of this term can already be seen within the further definition of “a person who holds outdated or disproven beliefs.” Since their beliefs are often accepted as “outdated or disproven,” being a flat-earther is often associated with a lack of intelligence since they refuse to accept modern scientific findings and refer nearly solely to the Bible in understanding the shape of the world. In order to accept this worldview of a flat land surrounded by an impassable icy rim, flat-earthers often believe in other theories that can be labeled as conspiratorial, like—but not limited to—believing that multiple governments have collaborated to craft images of Earth from outer space. Characters within Mat Johnson’s novel Pym also interact with conspiracy theories, which is  foreshadowed in the first part of the book when Chris Jaynes says, “I should say here that, in America, every black man has a conspiracy theory” (89). Some of these conspiracy theories explored through characters in this novel include Chris Jaynes’ belief that Edgar Allen Poe’s story about Arthur Gordon Pym is true as well as Garth’s belief that Thomas Karvel is hiding out in Antarctica. As Chris says, though, these theories are actually “true,” and they function to reveal much more about the selfishness of the characters and how this greed leads them to develop false perceptions of paradise (89).

The tension of the intended meaning of the waving at the ending of Pym stems from the perspectives of the narrator, Chris Jaynes, as well as others in the novel in their differentiations between perception and intention, which can be seen most clearly from the characters’ in novels perceptions of personal paradises, which double as their own personal conspiracy theories. At the end of the novel Chris Jaynes and Garth Frierson finally arrive, with a late Arthur Gordon Pym, to Tsalal, which has been Chris Jaynes’ own personal paradise, and sees a man on the island who has spotted them waving at them. The tension with the connotation and denotation of the word waving is the many intended meanings it could have based on the motives of the one waving. Chris and Garth, we can assume based on the fact that they waved back and Chris’ earlier assertion of, “That’s what waving and shaking hands are all about: showing we have no weapons to attack with” (125-126), is that this waving gesture is one that is friendly. This is a flaw of their own narcissistic perspectives of their worlds, focusing in on their own preconceived notions of the world and projecting that onto those on the island of Tsalal, where as far as we know Western/colonial hands have not touched. To the Tsalal people, this gesture of waving could have a multitude of meanings such as a sign asking for help, looking for attention, an attempt to scare away Garth and Chris, or they could be interpreting it correctly as a greeting and showing of passivity. The character’s projected views on the waving is mimicked in the projected views a variety of characters have of their own paradises. 

In terms of Garth’s perceived paradise, Karvel’s dome holds dual habitation for Chris Jaynes’s Hell. Chris Jaynes tends to be prioritizing his own paradise, and as a result leaves any other perception of paradise in the dust. His reaction to Garth’s paradise is a perfect example of this: “In my terror I realized that this was not my heaven, this was Garth’s. This was my hell. I was trapped inside a Thomas Karvel painting” (234). Chris is not focused on understanding Garth’s version of paradise, but rather is only interested in his version and sees any other version as ‘hell.’ Chris’ egocentric view is a main factor in how he interacts with and views his world. In his mind he makes the subjective objective and projects his own comfort of his false paradise onto others, refusing to accept the separate desires and enjoyments they might have. In Chris’ description of Tsalal he goes on to say, “‘Tsalal? What do you know about Tsalal?’ Even if there was no world left above us anymore, did that make this goal of discovering Eden any less lofty…Tsalal was the world my crewmates and I were destined for” (213). He not only sees Tsalal as his final destination, but the one of his crew and of Dirk Peters, who he plans to bury there despite the man having had negative feelings about the island personally when he had been alive. This goes to show that Chris has no desire to see Tsalal in any purview that does not support his deeply rooted conspiracy of Tsalal being this uncolonized, independent piece of land that would take them in and welcome him gladly. This goes to show how Chris’s connotation of the wave given to him and Garth upon their arrival to the island could not be interpreted by Chris in any other way but as a friendly gesture, in conjunction with Garth who at this point is forced to believe in Chris’ fantasy after the destruction of his own paradise. This then explains why the both of them might wave back in a kind manner to the Tsalal people regardless of the Tsalal peoples’ intentions because they have preconceived notions that taint their view of the vague denotation of the action itself.  

Similar to the obsessive nature of those convinced that the Earth’s shape is anything but spherical, the obsessions of Mat Johnson’s characters with their individual visions of paradise create lenses that impact how these people view and interpret others and their environments. These lenses, framed in personal or group conspiracies, are the root of ambiguity at the end of Pym. While Chris’s waving at the people of Tsalal can be taken at face value, we as readers are confronted by the waving’s possible connotations. Because Chris is waving back, we can infer that he understands their initial waving as a welcoming signal, but it is unclear as to whether or not it is. Both the readers and characters left at the end of the novel are left to wonder or assume all the possible states of the novel’s future. Being confronted with such an ambiguous ending, with a variety of possibilities for both the people and the world within the novel, forces readers to confront their own ‘lenses’ in which they view their worlds from. If these perspectives were to shatter, then the worlds we see them through would end as well. Chris, Garth, and the reader then must accept the world inside this apocalyptic novel does not end when Chris gets fired, or when the world at large experiences some catastrophic events, but rather the world ends at the end of novel as the false paradises of the characters within the novel are destroyed and shattered one by one. We, much like Chris and Garth at the end of Pym, are left searching for a place to go when the world we know too well comes to a jarring end. We are left to consider who will rebuild the world into something we are familiar and comfortable with, and not something we have to learn how to navigate by ourselves or from scratch. To better cope with apocalypse, one must let go of their ‘comfort conspiracies’: even if the idea of a round Earth seems terrifying.

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