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definition,” the connotations of this term can already be seen within the further definition of “a person who holds outdated or disproven beliefs.” Since their beliefs are often accepted as “outdated or disproven,” being a flat-earther is often associated with a lack of intelligence since they refuse to accept modern scientific findings and refer nearly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.

Tsalal: A Beacon of Hope?

Written by: Sage Kearney, Kathleen McCarey, Marie Naudus, Kya Primm, Isaac Schiller, and Owen Vincent

Merriam-Webster defines denotation as “a direct specific meaning as distinct from an implied or associated idea.” Conversely, Merriam-Webster defines connotation as “something suggested by a word or thing or the suggesting of a meaning by a word apart from the thing it explicitly names or describes.” To better understand the difference between denotation and connotation, we can think of the common phrase, “that is just how the cookie crumbles.” Should the phrase be interpreted based on its denotation, one might expect for the ways in which a cookie falls apart to be explained. However, when interpreting this based on its connotation, the speaker is referring to an unfortunate event that there is no foreseeable solution to. To give a clear example, if you miss the RTS bus here at Geneseo, a common response by a defeated, yet resigned, student could be to say “well, that’s just how the cookie crumbles.”

The tensions between connotation and denotation in Mat Johnson’s novel, Pym, reach their climax as the reader is introduced to Thomas Karvel’s “paradise.” As Chris stumbles upon Thomas Karvel overlooking the interior of his world, Chris inquires about how Karvel views change and how he has come to create his own sanctuary. Karvel replies, “No. There is only one look. There is only one vision. Perfection isn’t about change, diversity. It’s about getting closer to that one vision” (251). The connotation revolving around this statement is that Karvel wishes to extinguish all diversity and keep his world white. He values whiteness over all else and has his world mirror this belief. If only analyzing the denotation, the reader could interpret this as an innocent if not singularly focused display of artistic vision. Karvel says. “No, what I’m still creating is the land itself” (251). In doing so, he claims that he is only designing a room to manifest his artistic vision, but, he is actually creating a world  in which there is only whiteness and, by extension of whiteness, perfection. However, an analysis of the connotations at play reveal a discriminatory message as it highlights his obsession with whiteness. This “one vision” belongs to him; he believes that all of the best things on Earth are in his dome and happen to be white. His vision, at first glance, is jumbled. However, Karvel clarifies his intentions when he states that he’ll “never leave the U.S. of A” (236). Karvel is striving to create an ideal America, while removing any non-white context from these “components.” While Karvel and Chris are defending the 3.2 Ultra BioDome, the arctic snow monkeys are rapidly approaching but Karvel doesn’t notice them: “‘I don’t see anybody. Are you sure somebody is there?’” to which Chris responds, frustrated, “‘There, right there, in front of your face’…not even aware of my tone” (263). The denotation of this is that Karvel could not distinguish a white figure against a white canvas in Antarctica. The connotation however, would be that Karvel cannot comprehend whiteness as anything impure or as a threat. The culmination of all these events cause Chris to become wary of the motives of white individuals, humans and arctic monkeys alike. 

Chris’ physical and ontological assaults from an all white world propel him to an all Black world, Tsalal. Once he discovers what he believes to be Tsalal, Chris explains the image he sees as a man “shaking his hand in the air, waving it, and we, relieved, waved ours back” (322). The novel ends with Chris stating how “on the shore all I could discern was a collection of brown people, and this, of course, is a planet on which such are the majority” (322). Chris is able to see Tsalal as a symbol of hope due to his prior experiences. In the opening scene, Chris recounts how he was fired due to his refusal to join the diversity committee and was denied tenure. Chris explains to his replacement: “‘The diversity committee has one primary purpose: so that the school can say it has a diversity committee. They need that for when students get upset about race issues or general ethnic stuff… People find that very relaxing’” (18). Chris views his role at the university as being a token, used only for his race. These experiences are not isolated in America, but can be seen in his experiences in Antarctica as well. Upon interacting with Mrs. Karvel, Chris acknowledges: “I often forget to some I actually look ‘black,’ not just ethnically but along the ‘one drop’ line…in that sense, Mrs. Karvel’s discomfort with my presence as a Negro was more comforting to me than the trepidation I often feel not knowing how I will be perceived” (239). Chris vocalizes to the reader how he is constantly in a sense of discomfort over how his race will be interpreted by others. This discomfort comes to a head when Chris realizes Thomas Karvel’s unhidden trepidation: “it was just that, clearly, the six of us were more startling to him presently than the one unfortunate Tekelian who was no doubt that moment ravaging Karvel’s stores of frozen pastry products” (273). Chris notices that Karvel is more comfortable with the presence of a seven foot snowman than he was with the other black human’s in the room, further highlighting his desire and favoritism for whiteness. All of these accumate to Chris’ worldview being one of skepticism regarding white intentions. 

These events can work to show how Chris views his arrival to Tsalal as a positive outcome. A world where he cannot see any whiteness upon his approach is a welcome change for him. This vision provides hope and the prospect of no longer having to question white intentions which have proven to stem from selfish motives. Chris views the connotations of the individuals of Tsalal waving as welcoming and can only imagine a positive outcome upon arriving to the island because it does not appear to be touched by whiteness, and thus is viewed as a place of refuge for Chris. However, there are other connotations that readers can see from this scene. The waving can come across as unwelcoming, a signal for Chris and his crew to turn around and leave. His eagerness to want to be accepted by this group can blind Chris from any danger that could actually be on the island. The individuals may not want Chris to corrupt them. We believe the waving on Tsalal and its ambiguity to be an overarching signifier to represent Western views, more specifically those that have affected Chris throughout his life in America. Chris views this final interaction as positive because he is seeing a land that has not been affected by whiteness. However, they may not accept him because of the way he has already been affected by the same system he is trying to escape. He has been so affected by American views on race that he does not recognize that there is more to acceptance in society than being judged by it.

Chris Jaynes: the Anti-Hero of the Day

By Adelia Callear, Savannah Burley, Makayla Garrison, Marisa Greaney, Iris Kahris, Nick Parks, McKinley Skala

In Mat Johnson’s novel, Pym, denotation and connotation are used in various parts throughout the novel where interactions could be viewed in various ways. These terms are closely related, both serving each other through their own meanings. Denotation is defined as the “literal or primary meaning of a word, in contrast to the feelings or ideas that the word suggests”. It is the direct meaning(s) of a word as distinguished from ideas associated with it. For example, when one says “sick,” the denotation of this would be when one is physically ill. On the other end, connotation is an idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its literal/primary meaning, primarily an abstract/subjective meaning. Referring to the first example, “sick” depending on the tone/context it’s presented in could mean “awesome”, “cool”, “gross”, “gnarly”, “ill”, “unwell”, etc. Connotations tend to be associated as positive or negative, certain words that may have the same denotation can be described connotatively differently. Childlike would be seen with a more positive connotation whereas childish is negative, implying immaturity. Antique is more positive, portraying something rustic and serving value, whereas decrepit is negative, seen as old and holding little value. Within our reading of Pym, Johnson integrates connotations within his writing then explicitly defines or explains his references through denotations within the footnotes. On page 214, Pym describes the Tsalalians as black, which offers Johnson an opportunity to explain through footnote the different connotations associated with a white person or calling someone else black. He writes, “‘Pym said ‘black’ the way really white people do: not like they are simply naming the pigment, which those people do in one quick syllable, but in the way that made the word specific to Negroes. This black had at least two syllables and there was always enough emphasis on the second syllable to convey all of the anxiety the speaker had about my ethnic group as a whole. Ba-laaaaaaaaack.” This footnote offers insight into the way in which Pym perceives the world. In addition, this example shows the importance of tone and understanding different connotations of a word because it can imply a totally different meaning. Additionally going deeper into different characters’ characterizations, three of the crew members associate “love” with different connotations despite knowing the true denotation. Angela sees love as something flirtatious, consuming, and selfless as seen in her last act of trying to save her husband Nathaniel. Nathaniel in turn, views love as more possessive in nature and complacent, seeing Angela as “his” and expecting her to do as he wishes. Chris reprimands Nathaniel for these views over Angela, yet hypocritically thinks the same way. He feels love more selfishly and obsessively, since he’s vowed to win back Angela eventually and hasn’t rid her from his mind for almost a decade after the end of their relationship. 

As we finished Pym, the ending scene created a plethora of interpretations for the reader to reflect on. The class had a discussion about the multiple meanings behind the Tsalalians waving their hands in the air. The frantic waving could be interpreted as excitement, fear, enthusiasm, or the seeking of attention. Other interpretations were possible warning signs or motions of shooing the tiny crew away. Chris had expressed that they were “relieved” and “waved [their arms] back” at the man (322). Chris and Garth did not acknowledge the specific context of the Tsalian’s actions, yet they input their own connotations which allowed the reader to infer the original contexts to be more positive than negative, especially given the overall journey of the novel to be to land on this island and allow Chris to finally see Tsalal. He further expresses his comfortability arriving to this foreign land by stating “On the shore all I could discern was a collection of brown people, and this, of course, is a planet on which such are the majority” (page 322). Chris is accustomed to living in the minority, as the readers became aware of right from the start of the novel with Chris’ experience with his rejection of tenure and the Diversity Committee. He desired to find a place on Earth where he would be fully comfortable with those around him. Chris and his fellow companions, in a way, escaped the rest of the world by pursuing their research/work in Antarctica, only to be put right back into the minority and enslaved shortly after by an ironically white species (the snowmen). Chris’s miscalculations and ambitious nature brought the demise of the majority of the crew; his adventure leading them away from the end of the world only to have their own be crushed as well, more permanently for some than others. 

The ending of Pym also brings into question how human nature can lead to genocidal actions. Chris in particular, felt disgusted by the creatures, and felt little to no sympathy towards the life that the creatures were living. In his mind, poisoning all the creatures was acceptable, intending to kill all of them, was justifiable in order for the crew and himself to survive. The way the creatures are described by Chris portray them in a way that leads their physical attributes far away from that of a human, intending to dehumanize the creatures as much as possible. Some dehumanizing language such as calling the humanoid beings “beasts” and “sausage nose”, meant to belittle their existence (302, 305).  This is part of the reason why Chris had little remorse, similar to colonizers, as they often saw native peoples as less or nothing like humans, or what they thought as a “human”.  Furthermore in regards to human nature, we see that Chris embodies many different traits–both negative and positive–that also reside within the other characters. Nathaniel and Chris both are nearly the same person, just depicted as two different characters who despise each other for the traits they each possess. Both are selfish and possessive, especially in regards to Angela’s love, as mentioned earlier in our essay. Augustus and Chris also hold pity for one another, observing the situations the other is in–Chris’s enslavement and starvation vs Augustus’s poor living condition and isolation from his species. They additionally hold large amounts of curiosity as they each try to understand the other’s species/language (as shown with Augustus learning a few English words and Chris understanding their culture/way of life). Lastly, Chris and Pym, despite being portrayed as opposing characters, they are basically parallels of each other within different races. They both are self-serving and strive to support their race. They regard the places they found as Heaven with its inhabitants as gods or godly beings, the Tekelili to Pym as the Tsalalians are to Chris. Human nature is taken into a much wider perspective within Pym, its entire existence creating both beautiful things yet devastating endings/events for others.