Tag Archives: God

Be skeptical of stories

This is an uncertain time, and it’s scary for that reason.

People may prefer the certainty of stories from the past over the scary uncertainty of the non-story of the present.

Traditional stories — satisfying stories — are always moral. When a bad guy wins, or when a random event happens to a main character, that’s not a traditional, satisfying story. My dad’s death wasn’t a good story at all — he died in a car accident though no fault of his own. There was no lesson for me to learn from this accident, except that sometimes in real life, people get killed and it’s not their fault. Bad things happen to good people. Real life isn’t a satisfying story.

Religious reasoning seems to fill the role of explaining the inexplicable for some people. I’m thinking here of those religious leaders who say natural disasters are caused by God’s displeasure with human behavior. That’s a cop-out, of course. Why do random and bad things, and randomly bad things, happen? Well, God’s either not all-good, or not all-powerful (which would include not existing).

These times feel uncertain. Of course, every time, every present moment, is uncertain. There’s certainty only in looking back at stories of the past. But stories can be told only about the past! We tell stories mainly to teach each other for the benefit of the future.

But stories don’t serve us well in a time where we can’t really figure out what’s going on, and where the old stories, the old expectations, don’t seem to apply. What I learned from watching the first episodes of the Vietnam War last week was that stories — the stories the U.S. war leaders told themselves — can be bullshit.

I used to think that “be skeptical of stories” was a content-belief, but last night I thought that being skeptical isn’t a content statement but a process statement.

We may not need stories. We use them to guide (in some sense) our actions, our behaviors — don’t do what bad guys do.

Being skeptical of stories is a valid process, a valid orientation to the world, a useful way to live, it seems. If you hold on too tight to any belief, you’ll be let down, led astray.

Filling in a form: Traditional stories don’t match real life

An idea I’m working through: that there is a form (not some universally existing Platonic form, but a pattern, an outline, a blank structure — even a Mad-Lib sheet, to be crude) for traditional stories, and that stories that “work” fit this form, and those that “don’t work” are those stories that try but fail to fit into this form. Of course, there are lots of fictions that don’t try to fit into this form at all, and I’m for now calling these “nontraditional stories.”

In a way, this isn’t news — I remember hearing, probably as a high school student, that there’s a certain structure to story: characters, plot, setting, rising action, climax, denouement, etc. And I know there are certain story structures that are acknowledged as formulas — certain romance fiction, three-act movies, etc. I think I accepted this idea as a shorthand, jargon-y way to talk about novels in lit classes, but I also think I resisted the idea that all stories had to have these features, or they were failures. (It has taken me a while to realize that stories don’t have to all be traditional.)

But I’m now teaching a lit class, after having taught creative writing classes for several years, and we’re reading “Of Mice and Men,” and it’s such a short, tightly written book that I’m feeling like the seams are showing — I feel like all I’m seeing here is form, is how Steinbeck put this story together in an efficient,  maybe too efficient, way. I’m looking at this story as a nearly iconic example of the fiction form — by which I mean, this story also feels mannered, empty, cold. It feels like I’m supposed to admire the architecture of the writing here. All hail Steinbeck, master of form. He’s got distinct (not complex, but distinct) characters here, bouncing off each other in a tight proximity — as if he put bees in a jar and shook the jar just to see how pissed off the bees would get. And so a woman gets killed and a mentally disabled man gets “put down” in a fashion that parallels how an old dog is “put down.” Great. Thanks, Steinbeck. Sure, his story is plausible, and I’m not saying he tells the story clinically — there’s pathos and drama there, and sadness, and etc. But it still feels so … artificed, so set-up, so much like the author is like God, pitting these characters against each other.

All this is to say that perhaps Steinbeck was a master craftsman at filling in the form, the Mad-Lib of story, and yet, this seems to bug me all the more. Because what I’m realizing is how artificial the story form is compared to how I have experienced being alive (and now I’m older than Steinbeck was when he published “Of Mice and Men” — not that Steinbeck’s wrong, but that I might be equally right).

I remember taking fiction-writing classes in college and finding it difficult to come up with reasonable conflicts, especially in my stories that grew out of my real-life experiences (an approach I wouldn’t now recommend to a young writer, but at the time I was obsessed with how Kerouac had turned his nonfiction experiences into fiction). Now, today, as I become aware of the traditional-story form, I’m thinking, shoot, I was going about it all wrong. Why didn’t I pick characters and conflicts from the start? Why try to be realistic and still fit into traditional form? (Here, I’m thinking of trad-form not only as what we encounter in formal fiction, but also this may include many of the daily anecdotes we tell each other. When I meet someone who seems to tell stories that have no point, or that don’t directly get to the point, I suppose I’m expecting that person’s anecdotes to conform more clearly to story form.)

But maybe if I only told stories where there were clear goals for each character, and clear obstacles/opponents, and conflicts, and these conflicts were external — well, I’d be writing action movies or other genre fiction. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with genre fiction, or traditional stories. I don’t mean to throw those out and not use them at all. But I’m starting to see their limits. And I’m starting to see that I’m much more personally interested in both reading and writing stories that don’t follow the traditional story form.

Here, I’m defining traditional story form as that narrative whose outcome/resolution can be causally explained in terms of characters and situations. In “Of Mice,” we can see why George killed Lennie, and why, even though this may have been a sad or tragic outcome, it also “makes sense” in the story logic — that is, readers likely find this ending satisfying. Also, traditional-form narratives have a purpose — a “point,” as in, what’s the point of this story? What’s the theme — and the narrative sets expectations (through mood/tone, symbolism, foreshadowing, etc.) to serve/reveal that purpose. “Of Mice and Men” has a serious tone throughout, and killing and death and Lennie’s problems are mentioned many times. We readers are surprised, but are not unprepared, when Lennie kills Curley’s wife and then when George kills Lennie.

I’m not saying that the set-up dictates the ending, necessarily, but as the story goes along, perhaps it narrows the range of likely (reasonable, satisfying) outcomes. Maybe Lennie didn’t have to die, but he wasn’t gonna marry Curley’s wife and head for Niagara Falls, either.

And had Lennie died from any cause not connected with the other characters’ intentions, it wouldn’t have been as satisfying, either.  Had Lennie been bitten by a rattlesnake as after he killed Curley’s wife, that wouldn’t be a satisfying conclusion, because that would seem too random, would be a cause that wasn’t provided for earlier in the story.

But this is the limitation of story — we expect there to be reasons. We are satisfied when there are human reasons and causes for things — that is, when the good are rewarded and the bad (or in Lennie’s case, the hapless and dangerous) are punished.

But of course, things happen all the time in real life that have no cause in human behavior. Tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes regularly kill people. Young, healthy people get brain aneurysms and die. My dad was killed when he was a passenger in a truck hit by a much bigger truck. What bugged me when this happened, a few years ago now, is that there was no story there. There was a scientific explanation for why his body ceased living, of course, but there was nothing he did, no intentional move or even mistake he made, that led to his death. (And whenever I’ve heard people say, in situations like these, something like “no one can know God’s plan,” it’s always felt like complete bullshit.) And further, this death was no satisfying ending for any overall narrative of my dad’s life; my dad had some problems he was working through, and then he got killed, and — huh.

So we can study traditional stories as the — what’s a good metaphor here — magician’s device that they may be, so long as we’re clear that traditional stories have not much to do with how one may experience real life. And yes, there will still be lots of popular books and movies and nonfiction narratives that will try to fit into the traditional story form. And I can teach my students how these work, and maybe that will spoil some of their surprise in encountering these stories, but education shouldn’t just teach kids to fill in these forms, but to also take these forms apart, see how they work, and understand that they are forms.

But I think what has become clearer for me today is that not all stories are failing stories if they don’t fit the traditional model. And maybe I prefer those stories that don’t try to fit the mold, that don’t try to end clearly and cleanly — those seem to have more legitimacy to me, at this stage in my life, in my intellectual development. Perhaps some people like the idea that life can be tidy, some people who prefer to know exactly how everything comes out.

Far be it from me to end this post tidily.

P.S. (Here I lose the tidy ending): I suspect, after recently talking to some family members who appreciate fiction more than I do, that at least some people who read genre fiction do so in order to get absorbed, get their attention absorbed, into the story. My wife reads historical romances, she says, so as to forget about the stresses of the workday at her law office. I get that. I also read to relax, but I tend to read news articles online or New Yorker profiles, (‘cuz that’s how I roll.) Whether we’re reading genre fiction or news articles, my wife and I are both reading things that we don’t have to think too hard about. The forms of each are familiar to us, and because these forms are familiar, we don’t have to think too much about them. We can mostly accept whatever the words are telling us.

But perhaps the forms mean different things to us individually: I get annoyed at fiction that feels fake, and my wife doesn’t want the stress of having to read about problems in the world. Maybe we have our preferences of form because we agree at a fundamental level with the assumptions and conventions of each form. I’d rather read mediocre writing about the real world because, well, it’s about the real world, and maybe my wife feels the opposite.

P.P.S.: A few minutes after posting this, I’m thinking that one could read this whole frustration with fiction as some misplaced grief I still feel over my dad’s sudden death. Could be, maybe, but I don’t think so — I was frustrated with fiction for several years before he died. But, I do recall being especially frustrated with the idea of story, and how my dad didn’t get to finish his, after his death.

P.P.P.S.: And to clarify, I don’t mean to say that all traditional-story writers have it easy. But I do want to say that I think that I’m more interested, as a writer, of realizing the limits of old forms and of trying out new forms, than I am in completing the task of trying to fill in the trad-story form.

Wisdom of the unknown, or Why doesn’t Santa bring me a Lexus?

2013_12_01_mh (8)_cropReading the previous post  a day later, I realize that I’m being intense about — I’m taking very seriously — my desire to remove magic from my life. It’s not real, so why deal with it?

But as I was emailing a friend this morning, I thought of another angle here: why is there no Santa for adults? I mean, why shouldn’t there be? And I’m not saying that there should be some group of humans who go around fulfilling adults’ wishes, leaving us new cars in our driveways (I always wonder when I see those holiday car ads  where a new Lexus, or whatever, is wrapped in a bow: who the fuck gets a NEW LUXURY CAR for Christmas? Maybe they’re not new cars — maybe they’re, per the patois, “gently used.” I guess this could happen somewhere, but not in my ZIP code.), although that actually would be pretty cool.

But it’s an interesting, if daydreamy, question to ask: Why isn’t there magic? I know some people like to describe certain things — like winning the lottery, or recovering from a serious illness — as “miraculous,” which is very similar to magic. But, as the saying goes, the Lord works in mysterious ways. But why be so mysterious, Lord? Why shouldn’t I walk outside tomorrow morning or, OK, Christmas morning (it’d be acceptable for me if God, like Santa, delivered miracles only once a year), and find a new hundred-thousand-dollar car in my driveway? Or what if God actually solved real problems, like curing addiction or preventing poverty or ending child abuse?

This brings us to the problem of evil, for which of course, there are no good answers. And one could also argue that if God, or Santa, really did things for us, we’d get lazy or something. On the other hand, we’re such dependent creatures, anyway. I mean, we can’t go more than a few minutes without needing some oxygen from the world — why should being so dependent on oxygen be well and good, but being hooked on nicotine be unhealthy?

I’m not trying to be entirely facetious here, either (a little facetious, but not entirely so). I’ve long thought that certain things are our birthright as humans: oxygen, for one, but also water and food. Of course, in a world of lots of people and limited resources, not everyone would agree that having clean water and healthy food should be human rights. We humans were born here, in a world where there exist the things we need to survive, and yet, we find ourselves at times having to face challenges to our survival, such as threats (lions, tigers, bears, the Marburg virus, etc.) and competition (from other humans).

So we learn — as individuals, and as a species — ways to live in the world, ways to get what we need, and even what we want. The things we learn, we call rules, ideas, laws of science, etc., and we feel that this knowledge can tell us how to act, so that we can be not merely passive, not helpless (even if we sometimes still are powerless, as when there’s an earthquake or a tornado, and even if what we do makes things worse — global warming, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, etc.). We who live in cultures that give science and rationality the authority to determine what’s real don’t accept any explanation that requires God (or magic, or Santa, or ghosts, etc.). Relying on science discourages us from burning witches and following leaders who do what their dreams command, but it also gives us a worldview in which some things are easily knowable (for instance, acceleration due to gravity) and other things (such as why moms and dogs die) completely unknowable.

So I know why Santa won’t bring me a Lexus — science says there is no Santa, and there has to be a set of physical (and paperwork) steps for a Lexus to come to me and be my own. It’s not impossible that humans would conspire to bring about my Lexus (hint, hint?), but there’s no evidence for God or Santa there. If God and Santa work completely through the acts of others (of people or of nature), well, then we could subtract God and Santa and still have the same people and nature, without losing anything but the empty ideas of “God” and “Santa.”

Of course, I’ll grant that it can be fun to mislead children — I am a teacher, after all. But instead of asserting that people should have unjustifiable faith in the particular idea that magic, including Santa, and our humanly defined God, are real, we can instead know that there is an unknown, wherein we can be humble about, and even hopeful in, what we do not know. To assert knowledge about the limits of the possible is perhaps as faulty as asserting knowledge about the physically impossible. I don’t have to ask God to change the physical world for my betterment, and also, I don’t have to think that such change is impossible. Whether Santa brings me a Lexus, or my wife does, I still would have a Lexus. (I don’t have a Lexus.) Also, what’s more beautiful than having a Lexus is, of course, realizing that I don’t need to have a Lexus at all, that having a Lexus doesn’t make me smarter or write more goodly.

I often find a refuge in the unknown, in thinking that I don’t need to know the answers. I take as existing what seems to exist, and I generally feel pretty good in my own existence without postulating divine, magical beings. I can make and find my own meanings, without needing to get those meanings from, or ground them in, some unknowable supernatural entity.

So who am I to complain about the concept of Santa? In some ways, it’s pretty wonderful to be a child and to believe that some dude you don’t even have to thank is gonna bring you some pretty terrific loud-and-shiny stuff. Just because adults don’t get to believe that doesn’t mean that adults really know the world, either. (It’s actually kinda interesting to consider how adults made up such a as simple entity as Santa. It’s as if someone took human capabilities — generosity, material wealth, sleigh-driving — and just magnified or distorted those — giving gifts to all houses in a night, driving a flying sleigh — to create some kind of magnified super-person — a superhero, as it were. I sometimes wonder why we humans have such small-bore imaginations: instead of coming up with beings who are us, but a little bit more, why not imagine heroes who are unlike us, beings whose realms are beyond comprehension. Even when we try to describe God as being all-powerful and all-creating, we end up in logical cul-de-sacs such as this one. If instead we just say, “there are things beyond comprehension,” we at least allow ourselves to be wise in our silence.)

‘Word World’ and the problem of plurals

“It’s time to build a word. Let’s build it. Let’s build it now.”

So incant the various animals-made-of-letters-that-spell-out-the-English-word-that-names-the-animal in the PBS animated show “Word World,” and upon that incantation, familiar-looking 3-D sans serif letters morph into the new shape of the thing the letters spell. In the clip below, the letters P,I, and E form a pie.

So, OK, I can accept the operating principle of this fictional world, even if it has some metaphysical problems (see “Notes” below). What concerns and interests me philosophically is the problem of plurals.

When there is one pie, it can be accurately labeled pie. However, Pig needs multiple pies. Ant advises, “when you add the letter ‘S’ to the end of a word, it makes more than one,” which is sorta backwards as to how we use the language, but OK, I’ll play along. So Pig adds an “S”:

word world pies1And the transmogrification happens and results in this monstrosity,word world pies2which can never be. This is a lie. There is clearly one pie here, not multiple pies.

Here’s the thing: any plural is an abstraction. It is a grouping together of things that of the same category. Declaring a plural is drawing an invisible tether around several things and labeling that grouping.

For example, on a bookshelf, there are many elements of the set named “books.” But each physical book may have different title and text and size, etc. And even if there are two copies of the same title, these are unique, particular entities: one book may have underlining or tears that the other doesn’t. So we can call all these objects together “books” only by ignoring their particularities.

And this is what we do when we label 20 students in a classroom “a class.” There is no class, I tell my students. There are 20 individual people, each with their own minds and concepts, and I can teach them all as a class by, more or less, ignoring their individual differences and teaching to what I imagine as some abstract “average student” — or teaching to particular students in class and hoping that if they understand, others do, too.  Of course, we teachers are often told to “differentiate instruction” to every particular student, a lovely idea but a practical impossibility in a classroom setting.

(Of course, there’s a further issue with identifying and labeling any given entity by comparing the given particular thing against one’s abstract concepts, and so there may not be any particular necessary term for anything: For instance, what is a chair? How define it? At the edges of the definition, we will likely be judging, essentially arbitrarily, what is and what isn’t a chair.)

And perhaps this is the biggest misconception we teachers see in the entire endeavor of having a common curriculum and standardized testing. We work with individual students as best we can, and we see the frustration of asking every student to be able to do the same exact skills as every other student. We know that not all students have the same interests, abilities, motivations, etc. It may be admirable to suggest that every student can achieve great things, but surely not every high school senior needs to write narratives with “multiple plot lines, to develop experiences.”

(There are those who have said that the standards movement should have been implemented as individual goals set for each particular student rather than universal dictates for all, but there was never enough time to make the former happen, and the latter is way too convenient to those who wish to make all the students standardized so the entire function of education can be quantified. This urge to quantify, and teach only what can be quantified, is a problem, as Stanley Fish recently pointed out.)

By the way, after Pig makes the singularity of the “pies” pie, the instability of the situation leads to a modest explosion into individual pies

word world pies3and we viewers are left to group each individual pie into “pies” — which is what we abstract thinkers do to our physical reality all the time.

Notes on metaphysical ambiguities of “Word World”:

There would seem to be three categories of physical reality in “Word World.” One, there are characters and objects made of letters that approximate the shape of the entity named. The character Pig has ears and a snouted face sticking out of a puffily drawn “P,” and the “I” and “G” follow as the thorax and hindquarters, respectively.  But these letters spell “PIG” only if Pig is viewed from its left side — from the right, it’s one letter short of playing for Notre Dame.

Two, there are three-dimensional letters, such as “S” in the video clip and image above, which can transform into something that absorbs the qualities of the word it spells. (And in some other episodes, the objects will break apart, returning the letters to initial sans-serif form, and the object’s physical properties (like the ability of Duck’s “BAT” to confer momentum on a ball) are gone. Thus, somehow the complete spelling of a word makes the letters more than just letters, more than the sum of their parts, like adding the magician’s hat to Frosty turns him alive. In this way, correct spelling is a way of conjuring, or perhaps even giving life. One wonders what would happen to the physical incarnation of things spelled incorrectly — would terrible things be given existence — as when Bart Simpson created the creature who said his every moment of existence is torture (here)?

Third, not all objects are made from letters. In the video above, the window frame isn’t made out of “window frame,” nor is glass “glass,” nor is the table “table.” This suggests some kind of horrifying arbitrariness to the whole physical realm. Are only important things spelled out, so that if I awoke in that realm and found out that I was not spelled out, I would know that I was not a Main Character, not one of the Chosen Ones?  Such a world would make the picking of leaders laughably easy, but then such a world would imply the existence of an involved, caretaking Creator, no? And so the characters in “Word World” turn out to not have free will — as we who are aware of the show AS a show know that they do not? Thus, it’s perhaps not possible to watch “Word World” as a show, but only as a meta-show?

So perhaps an animated, metaphysically ornate show about spelling reveals something foundational about the nature of representation?

UPDATE: See also this post.