Tag Archives: story

Links: Narrative empathy, for good or ill

For good:  This article by Amy McLay Paterson at Vox cites these articles suggesting that reading literary fiction improves readers’ ability to empathize.

For ill: “How Stories Deceive” suggests that “when we become swept up in powerful narrative, our reason often falls by the wayside,” and people can get conned.

Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University and the director of its Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, studies the power of story in our daily interactions with friends, strangers, books, television, and other media. Repeatedly, he has found that nothing makes us receptive, emotionally and behaviorally, quite like narrative flow.”

Narrative ads, like some of Budweiser’s Super Bowl ads, “work because they appeal to your emotions by drawing you into a story that you can’t help but be moved by. From that point on, you are governed by something other than reason. Emotion is the key to empathy. Arouse us emotionally and we will identify with you and your plight. Keep us cold, and empathy won’t blossom.”

Paterson gives an example of how empathizing with imaginary characters can be frustrating: “I cursed myself for wasting energy on an unworthy title, hate-reading the last 200 pages of The Rosie Effect because I’d liked The Rosie Project and wanted to make sure that everything turned out okay.”

In other recent news about narratives: “All Stories Are the Same“: This article makes a claim about the universality of this narrative:

All plunge their characters into a strange new world; all involve a quest to find a way out of it; and in whatever form they choose to take, in every story “monsters” are vanquished. All, at some level, too, have as their goal safety, security, completion, and the importance of home.

But this article oversimplifies when it claims that “all stories are forged from the same template, writers simply don’t have any choice as to the structure they use; the laws of physics, of logic, and of form dictate they must all follow the very same path.” And I don’t agree with this article’s emphasis on following the “template” — “a piano played without knowledge of time and key soon becomes wearisome to listen to”  — as if an artwork being “wearisome” were a sin.

And this:Christmas: The Greatest Story Ever Told?” at The Atlantic points out that this narrative “contained many of the time-tested elements of good storytelling.” But of course, this narrative is significantly fictionalized in its basic facts:

The beautiful Nativity story in Luke, for instance, in which a Roman census forces the Holy Family to go back to its ancestral city of Bethlehem, is an obvious invention, since there was no Empire-wide census at that moment, and no sane Roman bureaucrat would have dreamed of ordering people back to be counted in cities that their families had left hundreds of years before. The author of Luke, whoever he might have been, invented Bethlehem in order to put Jesus in David’s city.

Link: Marvel movies avoid character growth

This piece by Sady Doyle describes a problem she sees in too many Marvel films: a willingness to nearly forego characters in service of fights and set-pieces.

Character arcs aren’t negotiable. They’re not highbrow or pretentious or complicated. Character arcs are essential to the success of any story in any genre. To understand why all this matters, look at the Hulk’s arc in the first Avengers, which many people consider to be the most successful part of that movie. I would argue that it’s actually the most successful element of any Marvel movie to date. In the first Avengers, the Hulk (1) hates being the Hulk, (2) encounters a situation that can only be resolved by becoming the Hulk, and (3) embraces being the Hulk. Simple, right? Stupid simple. Yet it landed like a ton of bricks in the theater, because that’s what stories are. Stories use cause and effect to dramatize a process whereby a person is forced to change.

Hulk’s arc, simple as it might be, was a cause-and-effect process that dramatized a universal human problem: You might not always like yourself, so you can identify with someone who doesn’t like himself, and therefore,you will experience catharsis when a story gives the both of you permission to love yourselves. When he goes on that final rampage and slams Loki into the floor, that’s not just a cartoon causing some corporate-mandated violence: That’s you, loving your body despite being the “wrong” size, or making feminist points in a conversation without worrying that someone will call you a buzzkill, or being proud of your art despite the fact that it’s been rejected, or deciding that you can leave your abusive relationship because you are worthy of respect. Hulk smash inner self-loathing, and thereby becomes the most powerful force in the universe.

So finally, our hero, a suicidal man who has spent the whole movie telling himself he’s worthless and intrinsically inferior to other people, encounters Loki, an arrogant, sneering, hyper-critical, hyper-verbal character — a character who mysteriously chooses that very moment to begin a monologue about how worthless the Avengers are, and how inferior they are to him — and suddenly, Loki hits the floor. Hard. And every time Loki hits that floor, all over the world, the theater erupts with screams of joy. There is a release that goes beyond the rational or the personal, here: The noise of hundreds of strangers united for just one second in the realization that deep down, despite all the pain, despite all the shit they put themselves through, despite the endless cruelty that inner critical voice subjects them to, they don’t have to let it keep talking. Deep down, they are not ugly or stupid or unlovable or bad or worthless. Deep down, they are strong. They are heroes.

Speaking of heroes, here’s Joseph Campbell: “Atonement consists in no more than the abandonment of that self-generated double monster — the dragon thought to be God (superego) and the dragon thought to be Sin (repressed id).” When the superego’s judgment is no longer powerful enough to annihilate us (puny God) and the id is accepted by the ego without fear (I’m always angry), our wholeness is restored, our place in the cosmos is found, and we are free. It hits us so hard, all we can do is scream.

Don’t let anyone tell you that silly popcorn movies don’t matter, or that they can’t be smart or beautiful or profound. A silly popcorn movie can change your life. All it has to do is create characters with identifiable, human problems, and let them work out those problems over the course of the story. Stories are about change, and about people, because ultimately, they are about you, the person sitting in a dark theater, working out your baggage by projecting it onto CGI cartoons of overly handsome actors.

Here’s another way to put it: The extent to which a movie invests in character-based, character-driven storytelling is the extent to which it recognizes, appreciates, and honors the humanity of its audience.

So when Age of Ultron doesn’t invest — when it goes by the assumption that the formula, and the formula alone, is enough to appease the popcorn-eaters — it says something pretty bad.

And Doyle describes how short-cutting a story means the story relies on cliches and stereotypes:

But when the character-based screenwriting breaks down, so does the feminism. Black Widow is just as ill-served as every other character in that story, but because she’s a woman, it’s politically offensive as well as aesthetically offensive.

Let’s take a moment to recognize that, given the paucity of time for character work in Age of Ultron, nearly all of the character development is done with shortcuts. I’m talking real hack stuff, like “each character has a hallucination establishing his inner conflicts and backstory,” or “we know this character is old-fashioned because he doesn’t like swearing” (brought up so many times that I get the sense it was meant to pay off, in the same way the constant questions about Banner’s “secret” paid off last time — was there a climactic F-bomb from Steve that got cut for the rating?) or even “the circle of life is established by naming a baby after the dead guy.” (This, aside from giving me flashbacks to the infamously terrible ending of Harry Potter, is especially egregious because the baby’s mother never met the dead guy — and, if she ever knew that the dead guy existed, which is highly debatable, she knew him as “that guy who’s trying to murder my husband.” She names her baby after someone she never met, on the premise that her husband once slightly got along with him for about two hours. Stirring!) Jokes get underlined by characters explaining them and noting that they were humorous. Some characters just walk into a room, announce their backstory, and leave. (“How are you, Sam?” “I AM HAPPY PURSUING OUR MISSING PERSONS CASE IN DC.”) Nothing ever really gets written, or earned, just vaguely outlined. It’s a whole script made of placeholders.

But when you’re doing all your character work with shortcuts, and you have to write a shortcut for your female character, what do you come up with?She’s that one dude’s girlfriend, obviously, is a time-honored shortcut, used or teased by every Marvel writer who’s put Black Widow in a movie — as a woman, she’s an Other, and a sexual object, and therefore must be deployed as a potential or actual sexual reward for a male viewpoint character, rather than being a viewpoint herself. But that’s the same problem you find with every woman in every Marvel movie (Gamora, Agent Carter, Pepper, whatever Natalie Portman’s name is supposed to be) except for Maria Hill, who is clearly saving herself for her one true love, Exposition. If you want to deepen your female character past being a sexual object, in a movie that has no time or patience for anything resembling “depth,” what conflicts do you give her? Well, women have babies, right? Women want babies. Okay. She can’t have babies. She’s sad because she can’t have babies. There you go! Depth established!

I mean, it’s disgusting. Defining your female character’s motivation solely around the Betty Crocker axis of “wants boyfriend” and “wants babies” is 100% disgusting. But if you look around, all of this is disgusting, because all of the characters are exactly this vapid, because [“Avengers: Age of Ultron” writer and director Joss] Whedon can’t get more than five or ten minutes to establish or complicate their motivations, because Marvel is mandating that he not waste screen time on things like the characters’ motivations when he could be shooting ads for their other movies, because Marvel doesn’t care about men, women, or anything except getting you to show up in a few years for the next installment of Avengers.

I never thought I’d be the kind of person who believed that a crime against feminism was less important than a crime against storytelling, but in this case, they’re so interconnected that it’s hard to tell the difference. When you can’t write, you can’t write women.

And Doyle is concerned that maybe there’s a more depressing reason for the poor character development:

There’s an alternate interpretation for that Hulk-slams-Loki scene in the first Avengers. I try, very hard, to believe it’s not the correct one. Because it’s an evil message, which cynics will tell you is at the heart of every comic book movie. It is: Punching is better than talking.

It happens in a lot of big, commercial movies, right? There’s a guy who talks a lot, thinks, plans, tries to get somewhere by thinking. In the end, that guy is evil, because thinking is bad. He has to be subdued by the heroic brute: The guy who’s just “normal,” who’s more like you, more pure, because instead of thinking and analyzing, he just feels and does. Loki thinks he can get somewhere with a monologue, but surprise! Giant biceps trump clever monologue, every time.

So there’s your other interpretation, the thing I think is at the core of Marvel’s contempt for people: Punching is better than talking. Doing is better than thinking. Instinct is better than intellect; big is better than smart. We don’t need to understand the Stormtroopers; we don’t need to talk to them. That’s thinking, which is boring. We just need to kill: They don’t have names or histories or families or feelings, and by slaughtering them, thousands of them, we prove that we can do.

The audience doesn’t need dialogue or character or psychological growth. The audience needs explosions, because they’re animals, and all they want is blood on the floor. The audience doesn’t need to be surprised or challenged with a new story. The audience wants the old story, because they’ve bought it ten times already, and at the end of the day, we just convinced these f*cking yahoos to wait three years and pay us twenty dollars so we could tell them to come back in four years and pay us $40. Now you think they want personal growth? Give me a break. They’re barely even people.

I mean: You pump this message out into the atmosphere, and then you’resurprised when the biggest fans are ready to send death threats to a director to save the Almighty Brand? Punching is better than talking, rage is better than understanding, conflicts are resolved by annihilating the other person without feeling bad about it: You just told them that. Over and over, and made them pay for the privilege of hearing it. You can’t possibly be surprised that they believe it’s true.

It kills me that I am so bothered by this. I understand that these movies are power fantasies for nine-year-olds: At the end of the day, accepting that they’re stupid is probably smarter than wishing for them to be smart. But this is the epicenter of pop culture. Everyone is expected to share power fantasies with nine-year-olds now, and worse than that, to take them seriously; to make them into a lifestyle. The Marvel virus has already overtaken movies; now, it’s infiltrated a new host, TV, and is hollowing it out from within.

The aim is not one or two bad movies a year, it’s a total lifestyle regimen of bad pop culture: In order to keep up with the Avengers, you need to keep up with Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, and in order to keep up with those, you should probably be watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which will really help you keep up with Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, andGuardians of the Galaxy, and in order to make sure you’re on top of these nine essential movie franchises and able to make sense of their plots, you’ll need to keep a constant stream of Marvel product in your life, so make sure to tune in for Agent Carter, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and, of course, the forthcoming Hulu triumphs, Ant-Man’s One Weird Friend Gary and Guy Running Away From Explosion In Panel 17.

The problems with Marvel’s storytelling will be the problems of narrative storytelling for the foreseeable future. Once this is over, we’ll be dealing with a generation raised on this stuff, who believes it’s how storytelling ought to work: Harry Potter came out when I was in high school. I’m in my thirties, and I still haven’t seen the end of the “serialized YA fantasy” onslaught. Something this big sticks around.

I love stupid popcorn movies. I do. I believe they can be emotionally resonant, mythic, that they can do the same thing all stories are meant to do — speak to the soul; challenge us to be more and better than we were — and can use big, fantastic elements to tell big, human truths. I also believe that Marvel has no investment in doing so; that, even if they manage to grab a director who is capable of doing those things, the prioritization of the brand and the formula over individual creators will ultimately sabotage the attempt.

Avengers: Age of Ultron wasn’t just bad. It was, to me, proof that Marvel movies, even at their best, can only be bad. And that they are going to get worse. The human mission has been lost: these are faceless Stormtrooper movies, unleashed in waves upon the presumed-to-be-faceless Stormtrooper audience. Stories are an affirmation of our human value; they teach us what life means, make and keep us human. Marvel, by removing the human from its storytelling, may be bringing about the end of story altogether. F*ck Ultron: Marvel Comics has built the army of machines that might really end the world.

20 Unsatisfying-To-Read Stories

Many popular stories — in everything from fairy tales to Hollywood movies — depict low-probability outcomes: the hero saves the day at the last minute, the lovers overcome all obstacles to be together, and the world is a place of cosmic/karmic justice. Sure, I get that there’s something satisfying about long odds being overcome, and yet I also get a little tired of how predictable these story conclusions are. There ought to be ways of telling stories that aren’t simply about the unusual, infrequent circumstances. Below, then, is a list that is not meant to be cynical (even if  some of these scenarios may reflect real-life experiences), but is meant to demonstrate stories that are not often told (in fiction or nonfiction):

1. The better team wins, and the score’s not even close.

2. Two people meet, and are polite to each other, and that’s it.

3. Both combatants act unethically.

4. Someone dies in a car accident and it’s not his fault.

5. An attractive couple has a wonderful house, adorable children, satisfying work, and long lives.

6. A father tells his daughter to marry a man she doesn’t love because, her father says, the man will be a good provider. She marries the man and is provided for but never loves him.

7. A species goes extinct, and nobody is able to save it at the last minute.

8. The bully/criminal/abuser/harasser gets away with it.

9. Scientists warn that human activity will, in coming years, radically change conditions across much of the planet, and most of the population seems uninterested in trying to prevent it.

10. The conflict was never necessary and was joined because of a lack of imagination, wisdom, or patience on both sides.

11. Grass grows; paint dries; taxes accrue; people die.

12. The first person to die in an action story narrates the story, and stops narrating when he dies, and the story stops there.

13. Readers see a few moments of stream-of-consciousness of every person at a public event, like a concert or a football game.

14. A war is going on, but it’s meaningful only to the humans involved. Animals in the war zone go about their business, and we see the story from the animals’ P.O.V.

15. The writer stops telling the story and never finishes it.

16. The characters in a book are revealed to be merely ideas and not really relatable to real people at all.

17. The story, if indeed there is a story there, never quite gets conveyed by the words that make up the text that purports to tell the story.

18. The would-be writer stops thinking of his own life as if he were the main character of a novel.

19. The characters resist the author’s directorial control and refuse to carry out what the writer writes.

20. A reader sits in the grass and realizes that the story was all just made up B.S. anyway.

P.S.: I’ve got a theory lately that there are two kinds of stories: those that show characters getting the consequences they deserve, and those stories that are about story-form itself.

Links: TV stories replace novels, etc.

1. This post at The Dish about people having their need for stories fulfilled by watching TV rather than by reading books reminds me of a similar thing Kurt Vonnegut said about why short stories aren’t purchased by and read in magazines during the age of TV as they were before TV. (I can’t seem to find this particular quote online.)

2. But I did find these collections of wonderful KVJ quotes here and here.

3. Fiction as moral, and writing fiction as a process of inquiry. See also my recent posting on fiction-as-morality here.

4. Tolstoy on meaning and death, from a recent review excerpted here:

And by accepting existence as it was they accepted its cessation too.

5. Secular societies and spiritual experiences.

6. A sarcastic-but-excellent column about why guns don’t belong on any campus.

7. We study philosophy to have our own perspectives challenged. Some great bits in this interview with philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, starting with philosophy and kids:

How early do you think children can, or should, start learning about philosophy?

I started really early with my daughters. They said the most interesting things that if you’re trained in philosophy you realize are big philosophical statements. The wonderful thing about kids is that the normal way of thinking, the conceptual schemes we get locked up in, haven’t gelled yet with them. When my daughter was a toddler, I’d say “Danielle!” she would very assuredly, almost indignantly, say, “I’m not Danielle! I’m this!” I’d think, What is she trying to express? This is going to sound ridiculous, but she was trying to express what Immanuel Kant calls the transcendental ego. You’re not a thing in the world the way there are other things in the world, you’re the thing experiencing other things—putting it all together. This is what this toddler was trying to tell me. Or when my other daughter, six at the time, was talking with her hands and knocked over a glass of juice. She said, “Look at what my body did!” I said, “Oh, you didn’t do that?” And she said, “No! My body did that!” I thought, Oh! Cartesian dualism! She meant that she didn’t intend to do that, and she identified herself with her intentional self. It was fascinating to me.

And kids love to argue.

They could argue with me about anything. If it were a good argument I would take it seriously. See if you can change my mind. It teaches them to be self-critical, to look at their own opinions and see what the weak spots are. This is also important in getting them to defend their own positions, to take other people’s positions seriously, to be able to self-correct, to be tolerant, to be good citizens and not to be taken in by demagoguery. The other thing is to get them to think about moral views. Kids have a natural egotistical morality. Every kid by age three is saying, “That’s not fair!” Well, use that to get them to think about fairness. Yes, they feel a certain sense of entitlement, but what is special about them? What gives them such a strong sense of fairness? They’re natural philosophers. And they’re still so flexible.

There’s a peer pressure that sets in at a certain age. They so much want to be like everybody else. But what I’ve found is that if you instill this joy of thinking, the sheer intellectual fun, it will survive even the adolescent years and come back in fighting form. It’s empowering.

and on philosophical progress:

There is, among some scientists, a real anti-philosophical bias. The sense that philosophy will eventually disappear. But there’s a lot of philosophical progress, it’s just a progress that’s very hard to see. It’s very hard to see because we see with it. We incorporate philosophical progress into our own way of viewing the world. … It’s amazing how long it takes us, but we do make progress. And it’s usually philosophical arguments that first introduce the very outlandish idea that we need to extend rights. And it takes more, it takes a movement, and activism, and emotions, to affect real social change. It starts with an argument, but then it becomes obvious. The tracks of philosophy’s work are erased because it becomes intuitively obvious. The arguments against slavery, against cruel and unusual punishment, against unjust wars, against treating children cruelly—these all took arguments.

and

What was intuition two generations ago is no longer intuition; and it’s arguments that change it. We are very inertial creatures. We do not like to change our thinking, especially if it’s inconvenient for us. And certainly the people in power never want to wonder whether they should hold power. So it really takes hard, hard work to overcome that.

and on how to teach philosophy:

How do you think philosophy is best taught?

I get very upset when I’m giving a lecture and I’m not interrupted every few sentences by questions. My style is such that that happens very rarely. That’s my technique. I’m really trying to draw the students out, make them think for themselves. The more they challenge me, the more successful I feel as a teacher. It has to be very active. Plato used the metaphor that in teaching philosophy, there needs to be a fire in the teacher, and the sheer heat will help the fire grow in the student. It’s something that’s kindled because of the proximity to the heat.

and

Links: Be present grieving, diaries, story, etc.

1. What to say to those who are grieving? Maybe say nothing.

2. Bad Lip Reading in the NFL. Sounds almost like random-word poetry.

3. A history of computation.

4. Five published diaries, from which this quote: “I like them because although people can fake diaries I tend to feel that they don’t. And I like the perspective of a diary, in that people don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

5. Story rather than science, to explain lived experience.

The Old Man and ‘The Old Man and the Sea’: All stories are bullshit

The book mentioned in the title bugs me. I should probably just let it go, but for some reason it sticks in my head that I ought to write about this, and I’m paying attention to that “ought.”

So, it’s been a while since I read “The Old Man and the Sea” and I don’t really want to read it again. As far as I remember, it’s about, well, an old man and the sea. And he catches a fish, but the sharks eat it, and he returns to his life. And if I were to really do a criticism of this book, I’d have to reread it, but an in-depth criticism isn’t what I want to do, anyway. I’m not sure what I want to do, but I think I want to talk about fiction. (This is the vein of thought that seems the most compelling, anyway.)

So, yeah — the idea came to mind the other day that when we write about a work of fiction, we’re writing nonfiction. For my writing students, I define nonfiction as any writing done when the writer is writing as him/herself (when the narrator is the author), and when the writer is not lying. That’s about as good a definition as I can get.

The common cultural definition of nonfiction, at least when one looks at a typical bookstore, is that nonfiction books are the biographies, memoirs, histories, and how-to books. I guess I’d prefer to call these genres “Informational” books, and by “nonfiction,” I want to focus on a process rather than a product. When I have my creative writers do nonfiction, we start out by going out to a central hallway in our school, sitting down, recording the time, date, and location, and writing down whatever we observe and think while we’re there. Real-time writing. And the texts produced thereby may not be fancy literary stuff, but they are real — they are a record of what came to their minds at that time and place (though of course what gets onto the paper may not be exactly what went through their minds). The students have made texts, have put experiences into words, where words and ideas did not exist before.

So what does this have to do with Hemingway? I don’t know yet. Maybe something will come to me as I write — something usually does. Maybe I mean to contrast the bullshit of fiction to the humble honesty of nonfiction. But that, too, is just another distinction, an easy analysis of minor value.

But it seems weird that we can have nonfiction analyses of fictional works. Maybe this shows the commonality of (and the arbitrary distinction between) fiction and nonfiction — both are just labels on ideas. Works of fiction and nonfiction are both just made of words and ideas, which words and ideas are animated (figuratively) only by human consciousness (that is, if humans disappeared, our books and symbols become just objects and ink stains — though even applying those labels would require a conscious mind).

I don’t want to say Hemingway was doing anything better or worse than any other fiction writer, in any of his books. But why does fiction seem to bother me so? Here is my own bias; I don’t read much fiction these days. I don’t choose to get absorbed into a story. As a kid, I read a lot of fiction, but not so much since my early 20s. I feel a little guilty about this when talking to those who appreciate fiction, but not guilty enough to read it.

Maybe what bugs me is the storytelling machinery, the rules and conventions. I may just have read and watched too many stories, so that for most stories, I can anticipate what’s coming, and that bores me. I’d love to see an action movie where the hero doesn’t win, or maybe the story is told from a character who dies early on. Those aren’t as “emotionally satisfying” as the classic tale of victory and redemption (whatever that is), but I don’t find story-by-numbers very satisfying anyway.

And perhaps I don’t want to characterize — to judge simplistically — my life or the lives of my friends and family. I don’t want to see these real people as simple successes, or as simple failures. My dad died suddenly, with many aspects of his life unsettled — he didn’t get a character “arc,” and he didn’t get to complete his life’s story in a satisfying way. I prefer seeing people and lives as complex, as beyond simple description, and so fiction doesn’t often present a worldview I find useful.

But maybe my issue with fiction is a bit more basic and philosophical — I think it bugs me to have to pay attention to story at all. Stories are interpretations of what happens. Stories skip the boring parts — stories lie to us about how much of our lives should be boring. After reading Kerouac’s “On the Road,” I wanted to have my own road adventures, but I didn’t pick up a hitchhiker I saw one day — it just seemed dumb to do that. And for as much fun as he made hitchhiking seem to be, Kerouac wrote in “Big Sur” (if memory holds, and it might not) that he wouldn’t have hitchhiked at all if he could’ve afforded to take the train. So there.

I was looking today at some comic strips I had saved from a couple years ago — one was a “Peanuts” strip where I cut out the dialog balloons, and one was a “Hagar the Horrible” in which I replaced their modern English speech with Old English lines from “Beowulf.” Looking at these today, I enjoyed the ones where there was no dialogue (or where I couldn’t understand it). I was glad that my attention didn’t have to be bothered with some stupid joke. I loved the idea that there didn’t have to be an idea that I was supposed to get. Nothing had to be communicated — I could just appreciate the drawings instead of merely glancing over those to pay attention to the dialogue.

And maybe that’s what bugs me about fiction. At least nonfiction can admit it doesn’t know what’s going on. (Nonfiction that pretends to have all the answers, like histories and memoirs, also might fit my criticisms of fiction.) Maybe I really like art that doesn’t try to mean anything, that doesn’t try to teach me anything. F. Scott Fitzgerald was just 29 when he wrote “The Great Gatsby” — what the hell did he have to say, in some grand thematic way, about wealth or society? (And why should we readers look at the character Gatsby as some failure, some cautionary tale? Surely a real person who had lived a life like Gatsby wouldn’t have called himself a failure.)

Maybe I’d like “The Old Man and The Sea” better if nothing happened. If it truly WAS just the old man and the sea, and we didn’t have to bring fish and sharks into it.

I mean, I live my life without knowing what things mean most of the time. Maybe later, days or years later, I’ll have an insight into what someone meant by doing or saying X, or whatever, but even those insights I know might be superseded.  I don’t have symbols in my life whose meanings are anything but the meanings I myself have assigned them. No meaning is necessarily attached to any particular object. When I think about how I didn’t enjoy my experiences in 7th grade basketball, I don’t need to draw any bigger theme from that. And frankly, I’m talking about stuff that happened years ago, things that I remember perhaps only because they were so unpleasant.

My journal is nonfiction, and I write down everyday some of the things that happened the day before, and what I’m thinking about that morning, and I also like about blogging that I can write and publish today — nothing I’m saying needs to have any kind of permanence. Maybe that sense of telling a permanent truth is what bugs me the most about fiction. Maybe I’d like fiction more if every story was told from multiple viewpoints so that it was never clear what had actually happened — indeed, so it became clear that nobody knew what actually happened (what “Rashomon,” and that “Magnum P.I.” that stole the “Rashomon” multiple-narrators technique, did).

And since any and every story, fiction or nonfiction, is just an idea, a fabrication — not a lie, but a construction from interpreted experiences — maybe story itself just isn’t enough to hold my attention. Maybe I want reality, or at least an acknowledgment of it.

POSTSCRIPT (the next night after writing the above): I’d like to summarize the insight of the previous post as every narrator is an unreliable narrator.

The narrator of “The Iliad,” which we’re reading in another class I teach, omnisciently depicts what happens to both Hector and Achilles when they are apart, and of course, this too is bullshit. That story is from no particular person’s or character’s perspective, and so that story must be from an impossible, unreal perspective — it must be a fabrication.

Of course, someone may say that fabrication is the essence and beauty of fiction. I get that, and at times I’ve been seduced into believing that life could be as simple and profound as stories set in Troy, in Middle Earth, or in Whoville have presented it. And yet, I’ve felt misled, betrayed, by these stories. It hasn’t felt helpful to me to be presented with ideas of perfect worlds, as if life really could be that simple and powerful and meaningful and etc. For a long time, I wanted my life to seem as thrilling and meaningful as it seemed in some fictions. It took me years to wake up from that idea and learn to accept my life as I found it, in its unedited reality. Attempting to get to that reality has always seemed less depressing than believing in a world that cannot be. Maybe there’s something passive (passively accepting these fictional worlds?) about reading, too, that I had to grow out of — and of course, maybe reading fiction and then growing out of it was a developmental stage that I had to go through. Whether I had to or not, I did read fiction and now I don’t, in general. The fiction that I do read now tends to be short fiction that presents new perspectives, new forms, and new ideas — fiction that seems to be more interested in discovering than in fabricating. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far of  Lydia Davis, Donald Barthelme, and David Markson.

So I’ve created a post that followed a feeling to the discovery of an idea, a theory, and now in trying to explain why I like this theory, I’ve come back to a feeling. Perhaps people’s ideas are justified by feelings more often than we like to admit — but, not being omniscient, I don’t know about the mental habits of other people. I’m talking here just about myself, at least, as well as I understand (at this point in time) my mind and how it operates.

The Iliad, consciousness, reality: How I get tired this evening

I’m tired tonight, so I’m not sure how coherent this post will be, but I’ve been waiting for a chance to post some things, so here goes:

I’m reading selections from Homer’s Iliad (in a recent translation, though the translator’s name escapes me just now) and as we’re reading, I’m finding lots of weird and wonderful things that I point out to my students, and things I’d also love to talk to other adults about. For instance, there are moments in this serious work about war and grief that seem to me to be just plain funny, as when Hector says he will fight Achilles and kill him, or he will die an honorable death — and then when they meet, Hector turns and runs around the city of Troy, three whole laps.

It occurs to me that discussing artworks is one of the few things in life where many people can share the same experience and then discuss it. We can all read or watch the same book or movie, and then compare our experiences of reading or viewing. In much the rest of our lives, we have experiences separately (for example, even if two friends are each parents, they are parenting distinct children, in different houses, etc.), and while we can discuss our separate experiences, we cannot directly compare our experiences, the way we can when we experience artworks.

I experience subjectively — that is, even if you are standing next to me, you do not know what I experience. At best, I can communicate through words what I experience, but of course, that’s not direct experience. You can get my symbolic interpretation/representation of my experience, but you do not see through my eyes, or sense my mind.

So, when we experience, we are sensing (seeing, touching, etc.) and we are processing/interpreting what we sense. Much of what we experience, we forget. We may remember certain sights and smells, etc., but what links those senses to meaning is the stories we form from our experiences. For me, at least, much of what I know about my past is in the form of stories — that is, abstracted experiences, ideas of connected interpretations that often describe not the experience that was had but the world itself. These stories tend to compress time and ignore the moment-by-moment nature of our lived experience.

These stories may help us to structure and remember our experiences, but these stories may also be complete bullshit. Our memories are often faulty, but even if they are not, our stories edit out moments from continuous time. It’s so easy to look back at our own lives and think that all we were thinking about was the experience at hand — but I don’t seem to experience my waking moments that way; I’m often doing one thing now but also aware of what I should do, or would like to do, next.

I realize it’s sorta futile to discuss, in words and ideas, the limitations of words and ideas, and how words and ideas are always at best a kind of (what physical metaphor to use here?) layer, a kind of overlay, on top of physical reality.

Another of my classes is discussing the definition of “real,” and so far we have “something that exists or is proven to exist” and so far we’ve spend many minutes discussing what a “thing” is and what we’ve come up with is that a thing is a boundary we imagine around a piece of matter so that we can talk about the physical realm one piece at a time. We notice that a certain piece of matter, a fork, can be separated from another, a table. To simply be able to see pieces of matter as separate is an abstraction — and of course even words like “matter” and “physical realm” are abstractions.

No words exist outside human consciousness (or so it seems — it’s quite a generalization to make there). Or, perhaps some animals — like apes who use sign-language — can think symbolically. But the point remains — a fork can never declare itself to be a fork.

But to see how arbitrary the label of fork is, is also to see how hard it is to keep talking about the physical realm without the help of differentiating labels. We revert to “object” and “thing” and “this thing” and “that thing.”

So maybe we can’t escape words, but we can, through the ongoing process of thinking, become aware how loosely our ideas about the world are connected to the world itself (even such a loose term as “the world” starts to feel like bullshit and the word wilts, somehow — “wilting” is a pretty good metaphor).

And I asked my students how we can talk about things we don’t have labels for, and they suggested we talk about relative terms, and that we make comparisons — a platypus has a beak like a duck’s, but a body like a beaver’s, for example. So our ideas connect one to another, from these we can build whole systems of ideas, and yet, …

And yet, it seems to me lately that whole systems of ideas — Hegel’s metaphysics, histories of World War II, mathematics — start to seem deflated, as if they were held up by hot air that, once it escapes, leaves the idea-systems flat on the ground, unimpressive, step-on-able.

Taking a bit of a leap here, but it makes sense in my head to do this (and what are all writings, all texts, if not signs that there was a consciousness that produced them?), to say that fiction works and nonfiction works have in common that they are both ideas. Sure, nonfiction purports to be about the real world, but if the “real world” is itself an idea, a construct … and further, there are no facts in nature — there is no tree or rock on which facts are discovered. Facts are made by people, in the form of words, ideas, symbols, and these are what we are comparing nonfiction or fiction to.

But we have a notion of what the real world looks like. As my class has read The Iliad, I’ve become aware of how careful the story is to make most of the human-god interactions believably subjective, so that the story could be read in two different ways: as a fantasy-tale featuring personified gods who intervene directly in human activities, or as a realistic tale of human-only activities (and where the gods speak to only one person at a time, or in the guise of a human, so that the gods could be said to be the product of a particular person’s subjective experience).

That The Iliad can be approached in two ways, or as two distinct stories, seems very subtle, very wise, and it suggests that we can approach any text and decide whether it’s fiction or not based on what the text contains. I mean, if there is no truth “out there” — and where, exactly, would that be if there were? — but all ideas are products of human minds, then what exactly are we asking for in a distinction between fiction and nonfiction (or in any distinction, really — guilty/not guilty, here/there, up/down, etc.)

I’m not quite sure what I’m getting at, which to me is the beauty of the writing process — if I knew what I was saying, I wouldn’t need to say it. Sometimes I have ideas, and they seem cool, and I start to think I should write them up — but then I think that maybe they are just so much inert deflated ideas (as described above). But then I think, eh, what I write is just the byproduct of my mind’s ongoing function, and perhaps somebody else will have some of their own ideas provoked by something here.

One of the earlier discussions my class of sophomores had before we started The Iliad was about where the world began, where everything came from. I gave the case from science, that there was a Big Bang from which all matter and energy and life descend, and we also discussed the Bible’s Creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, in which God creates the world. But science can’t know what came before the Big Bang (because how could there ever be evidence before there could have been evidence?), and Judaism and Christianity can’t explain how God came to exist, and so both the religion and science accounts are just stories, are sets of ideas. Yes, the science account has more physical evidence to explain the physical realm, and religion can go beyond what has evidence, but both science, in its generalizations called facts and theories, and religion, in its formal structure of creeds and theology, have little to say to inform my personal, particular, subjective experiences.

After all, my mind contains ideas from many external sources, but whatever it is that gives rise to my mind, to my thoughts, my words, my experiences — whatever it is that is me feels like its beyond explanation, beyond theory, beyond labeling. I am complete in every moment, in every thought, continuously the same through the years I’ve been alive but I experience my consciousness discontinuously, leaping from crystallized thought to the next crystallized thought, each thought whole-born. I exist only and wholly now. And now. And now again. (And even talking about “now” or “the present moment” feels inadequately abstract.)

But in my thinking, I’m attracted to discovering the limits of ideas, the boundaries of what can be known. I’m not sure why this feels more important and interesting to me than other sorts of thinking. This, too, is part of the mystery of where ideas come from. (See here for related post.)

And now, I really am getting tired, and I’m feeling that in my attempt to distance myself from abstraction, I’ve gotten quite abstract. Ah, well. Such is a mind and its chatter. The ideas come and go but the thinking goes on.  Living is more than merely figuring stuff out abstractly, of course. Living is also falling asleep in my comfy bed.

So this post may not satisfy — but writing it felt good.