Being Human

Apparently, years ago, without meaning to, I repeated an argument for limited government first made by James Madison (I’d originally put Thomas Jefferson, since I read both of them back to back. Thanks to Paul Howard for the correction.) It went something like this: “If we could get angels to govern us, then it would make sense to let them rule our every action. But since the people who govern us are still human and prey to the same desires, flaws and foibles as the rest of us, it is best to keep their power as small as possible.”

I’m reassured that my mind, in my early thirties, was running on the same track as James Madison. I’m also afraid that I’ve changed my mind on that. Oh, not on keeping government small and as powerless as possible. I don’t like authority – I think I’ve mentioned that – and I have no interest in making my friends and neighbors “do the right thing.” (Exceptions are made for when people wake me up at three in the morning because they’re having some awful crisis and/or for people who are my kids. Then I will make them do the right thing, so that they leave me the heck alone, which is the ultimate goal of my existence: to be left in peace, so I can write.)

However, having written Darkship Renegade, I’ve changed my mind about it being better for angels – or saints, or supermen – governing us.

Yeah, it is one of my peculiarities that I only reason by writing fiction. What I write in non-fiction has usually been worked out in fiction first. No, I have no idea why. It’s like when I’m writing a novel, I’m putting all my chess pieces in place, then playing the game to figure out which is strongest.

Anyway, having written Darkship Renegade, I can’t imagine anything more terrifying than having someone who thinks it is his duty and who was created to do the best for the mass of humanity no matter what. Because what such a creature imagines is better for everyone, might be. But he’ll know precious little about what is better for each person. (No one can.) And that’s because humans are not, nor should they be perfect. And trying to make humans perfect – or perfect anything, like perfectly happy or perfectly good – has resulted in some of the most evil regimes in history.

And before I veer off into theology, which is always a danger this early in the morning and without my coffee, let me cut that short and say this is not a post about politics. It is not even a post about humans. Though it is about both of those, tangentially, because it is about fiction and the purposes and functions of fiction. Which of course, ideally involves both humans and politics, and a lot of other things.

As most of you know – because I keep talking about it – I’ve undertaken for the last year or so, a rigorous regime of walking about an hour a day. The problem I have with exercising (or house cleaning, or most things – except weirdly furniture refinishing – that don’t involve putting words on paper – or screen) is that it’s boring. My body is doing stuff, but the mind is free. Sometimes, depending on the mood, I can write in my head while I’m walking. Unfortunately that usually results in my wanting to come home early so I can write it down, and I find my walks get progressively smaller, as I train myself to think of writing while walking. (This can be solved by having a walking buddy with fascinating repartee, but mine is not available all the time.)

So, to keep myself walking (well, down from a size 24 to a size 16, thank you so much. Four more sizes to go. Sigh.) I started listening to audio books. This led me to make several fascinating discoveries, such as that while I love reading Repairman Jack (by F. Paul Wilson) I can’t LISTEN to the books, or I’ll have nightmares all night. Also that some books that are too ‘clangy’ language wise for me to read, are perfect as audio books.

But, most of all, I’ve found myself making observations on literary theory and “why this book works” while walking and listening to the book – particularly when it’s one I’ve heard before. In this particular case, it was while binging on Pratchett, after a binge on Heinlein.

It suddenly hit me, with sudden, scouring certainty that the reason both of them appeal to me – and are immensely successful in appealing to most people. Or “were” in Heinlein’s case – is that they both write characters that are profoundly flawed.

Now, there’s a danger in this. Characters are not, nor should they be, real people. Real people are too mixed to come across clearly on the page. No, I’m not even talking about moral definition here. I’m talking about getting an entire complex personality on the page.

Coming from a literary (I’m so sorry) background, I used to think this was the goal of writing. Writing “real people.” Until, that is I – fortunately – got exposed to Marlowe (I know, and he four hundred years dead. Zombie Marlowe. Yep, yep, THAT was the flasher haunting my university gardens for about a year) and realized that he came as close to writing real people as he could. And that was what made his plays infinitely worse than Shakespeare’s who dealt in “flawed archetypes.” To put it in blunt and simplistic terms, Marlowe left us with no one to root for and no one we want to see dead.

So which one is it? The archetype or the real human? Both, of course. Most people have the defects of their virtues. The brave man is often foolhardy and the strong woman prone to flashes of anger (not that I would have dealt with this in Darkship Thieves.) The man who is controlled and careful in his life, might think everyone should be so and nip in the bud the exuberance of a younger person under his control. Etc.

But there is more than that to being human. More than virtues and faults, balanced and presented so that we see the good character struggling with his evil tendencies, or an occasional flash of mercy in the villain, for which he feels he must atone.

To be human is to be in pain. To be ground between two states. Again, Pratchett’s metaphor serves here: falling angel meets rising ape. But it’s more than that. We’re creatures who live in the world, but who can imagine a perfect life of spirit only. Who can imagine a life without want or fear or pain, but at the same time must deal everyday with that corporeal reality that on this side even the most pampered little princess can get her finger stabbed on a rose torn.

Worse than that, it’s the … patterns that come with that corporeality and how the body influences us. I can imagine a perfect day of writing, with a break for lunch, then taking of at six pm to spend time with my family. But half the time the words won’t come till five pm and I end up writing through the evening and not spending time with the guys. And being cranky and feeling I failed them and myself, to boot.

It is that aching for perfection while enduring the slings and arrows of what, for most of us, in our time, is the piddling calls of every day corporeality, that makes us human. Being human means dealing with that, every day. It’s amazing as a species we’re not crazier than a squirrel on speed. Or maybe we are. There is such a gulf between the perfection we imagine and what we can attain, both in terms of fighting the body and fighting our own inclinations that probably come from the fact we have a body (pesky bodies) that the two can barely meet in the middle somewhere.

That is the unacknowledged ache at the heart of every human who ever lived. Unacknowledged because, well, we know it’s normal and we feel like whiners complaining about it. And that’s if we’re even aware of it, since it’s been there always and we know it always will be.

The writer who touches that, no matter how he or she does it, will be popular, because it will give us the sense we’re not alone, and it will make us, for the moment, more at peace with the odd mass of contradictions we are.

And that is (at least one of) the functions of fiction.

20 thoughts on “Being Human

  1. Sarah: Shucks, Perfection is the enemy of Good Enough! Ordinary folk, caught between the desire for Polished Perfection, and the time-crunches of Real Life(TM), finally figure out ways to consistenly-as-possible ‘do’ Good Enoughs.
    Those Artistic Folks, who try to ignore the need to keep the Pot Boiling, c/w summat toothsome inside, oft repaint the repainted, or agonize over how many adjectives and adverbs to include with a Word Picture of the rock & mud avalanche thundering down at the First Character’s vehicle….
    Writing, from this high-speed-reader’s perspective, is required to have a minimum of spelling errors (unless inserted as punnishment), Grammar Errors, and as few run-on sentences as the Writer’s dire shortage of punctuation marks allows. Grin.
    Keep Writing! Write _faster_!!

  2. Great post. One of the few things I know about writing is that the art is what you include in the description. As we live sensa assault us with irrelevancies we discard, such as the pressure of the chair against my right leg, the whir of the refrigerator motor, the whistle of air through my left nostril. Instead, we pay attention to the glyphs of a typeface and more than that the letters, the words, the ideas of your prose. That’s my stream of consciousness just now, and it’s probably boring.

    What’s art, what’s interesting is the selection of which sensa to put before the reader for her delectation. Alexander Solzhenitsyn said the line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man. We make cardboard villains by showing just the dark side, and cardboard heroes by showing just the light side. We make better characters as we show the hero with fatal flaw, and villain with redeeming quality. But not so much as to confuse the two in the reader’s perception.

    This perfection you speak of would be boring. It’d be a lousy story. I’ve found that what I want from life and from my environment is relaxed harmony, but what I want from my story is discordant tension. Thus you can love “people wake me up at three in the morning because they’re having some awful crisis,” if you remember two words: story material.

  3. I had not noticed previously how well the same argument – humans are imperfect – can lead to both centralized government and distributed government points of view. Certainly, I am not a big believer in angels in charge, but I bet my take on appropriate government is not the same as yours. One of the beauties of SF is that we get to explore the issue with technological change available to highlight the differences.

    I suspect there is also some good grist for the SF writer’s mill in the imperfect being ruled by the more-perfect. (All rulers think they are better than the ruled, I suspect, but I am referring to superiority “written in” by the author in a believable way. Genetic modification, super secret alien training, the fierce selection process of the Cosmic Camel Corps…) Most novels I read with that theme nowadays are allegorically repeating Lord Acton, but it feels like there is something more complex to be developed.

    I have always enjoyed Modesitt’s take on the superman, who often ends up in effective charge simply because they have the needed skills and the vision to do great things. As he has matured as an author, he has moved away from the archetypes and the supermen, and towards more conflicted, and more ordinary, characters. The writing is better, but I do wonder how he would handle Gerswin, or Jimjoy Wright were he to write them now, several dozen novels later.

  4. I have read that Jefferson was a man of mild passion and that this affected his inclination toward laissez faire governance, while John Adams, afflicted with violent passions perceived of a need for government as a restraining force. But both agreed that concentrated power and unearned authority were corrupting.

    There is considerable room for debate over what angels might be, or how they might govern. Anybody who has been reasonably conscientious about raising a child should comprehend the conundrum: do you lead, guide, push or get out of the way — and how to know which is appropriate when? The problem with being governed by others is that it stunts your own growth, teaching you to rely on outside controls rather than internal discipline. So, how would angels govern, and to what end? When the Deranged Daughter was two I often thought it easier to tie her shoes and get on with things, but I recognized the need for her to learn to tie her shoes herself. So, would angels tie our shoes for us or let us learn to do it ourselves?

    It all depends on what the goal should be, don’t it? I have often, these last few years, been struck by the irony that oftimes the end desired is contradicted by the means required to achieve them. By being the man necessary to lead the Israelites through the desert Moses became one denied the promised land. In the “war on terrorists and those who love them” the more we are perceived as willing to torture the less likely it is we would have to employ torture (who would be the more effective interrogator, Hannibal Lecter or Barney Fife?)

    So it is with governance, as well. The more we are governed the more we require governance, while the less governed we are the more we are forced to govern ourselves. It is an inherent contradiction and the core of the human condition.

  5. That is the unacknowledged ache at the heart of every human who ever lived. Unacknowledged because, well, we know it’s normal and we feel like whiners complaining about it. And that’s if we’re even aware of it, since it’s been there always and we know it always will be.

    The writer who touches that, no matter how he or she does it, will be popular, because it will give us the sense we’re not alone, and it will make us, for the moment, more at peace with the odd mass of contradictions we are.

    And that is (at least one of) the functions of fiction.

    Very well said.

    I’ve never really evaluated what I like. I know what I like. I like Pratchett. I like Heinlein. Both write characters who grab you, and drag you into the book.

    Take Captain Vimes. Here’s a man who has feet of clay all the way up to his ears when you first meet him. He still has feet of clay, but the Duke has grown, going from a drunk who spends a lot of time face down in a gutter, to the second most powerful man in the city.

    Or take Manuel Garcia “Mannie” O’Kelly-Davis from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which I think is probably Heinlein’s best novel. Another character with ‘interesting’ faults.

    Both characters are characters that you quickly come to love. And I’m sorry that I picked on the male characters. Its the same with their woman characters. Pratchett’s ‘Monstrous Regiment’ included some fantastic woman characters. You just didn’t know that they were woman…

    Thank you. I think I need to change a short story I’m getting ready for submission. The protagonist doesn’t have enough faults.


  6. Sarah,

    Your statement about how even angels ruling over us would be bad reminded me of the late Jack Williamson’s novella “With Folded Hands.” The Humanoids’ prime directive was simple: ”to serve and obey and guard men from harm” which is really a concise statement of the first two of Asimov’s “three laws of robotics”.

    The absolute and unflinching application of that prime directive did not paint a pretty picture.

  7. Strangely enough, WWII, in Great Britain, the Interrogators, in the British-run POW Camps, found that the ‘gentle’ approach got better information, faster, than did the “tough guy” way.

  8. Just a random thought here, sorta off-topic but a pet peeve of mine and only tangentially related to your point. This is a bit theological, but I can’t help myself.

    Neoplatonic anti-materialism is the root of all bad thinking about the body. It’s a disease of the Latin church.

    Tertullian and Augustine hated the body, and like the ascetics of Alexandria, denied it, tortured it. St. Basil and the eastern fathers loved the material world. It is God’s gift. It does not limit, it makes possible. The idea of a spiritual existence outside the body is a myth and always has been. The spiritual existence is only to be found in the body. The body has to be disciplined of course, but the body is the only thing that can be disciplined because it is the only thing that has needs. A spirit can not be disciplined. Hunger, pain, are gifts. Those that despise them and the body are in error.

    St. Simeon Stylites, who endured greater feats of asceticism than any, did not endure fasts and deprivation to deny the body. Having a body meant he was capable of fasting. Without it, fasting would be pointless! Philoponia, the love of labor, or ardor, is only possible in the body.

    To be liberated from the body is hell. To be apart from the body is death, and is described as sleep, or a deep stupor.

    How Christianity which always affirmed the body, the very resurrection, got infected by such neoplatonic pagan soft-headedness about the superiority of the spirit, I will never know.

    The Latin fathers before Aquinas should all be tossed out on their collective arses.

    1. Er… I was trying very much NOT to imply spirit only would be superior. While staying away from theology (really, you don’t want me to go into theology. My family can discuss theology for days without pausing to eat, given half a chance.) I was trying to convey that this is a widely accepted idea, but did not mean to imply that was in any way my preference.

      My body happens to be a bit of a lemon, but I understand there are no facilities for turning a body in as such,a nd going on with life, and far be it from me to critique The Plan — I can barely critique novels. So, lemon though it is (the heart break of eczema TM is only the beginning. Some day, I’ll gripe about the eleven kids I meant to have, but which thanks to the fertility of a rock are only two — though I’ll grant you the oldest is probably eleven, compressed into one.) I rather like my body. It can do all sorts of neat things, and I wouldn’t mind extending the warranty on it for double the time, or something, though that option ALSO — sigh — doesn’t seem available.

      Yeah, I gripe a lot. I figure if G-d is a novelist, I’m the comic relief…

      1. Apologies, I’m a bit of a religious crank, if that isn’t obvious.

        Honestly didn’t think you were advocating austere Neoplatonism, it’s just that the casualness with which the language of Neoplatonism has infected everyday life really chafes me.

        But I did say it was only tangentially linked to your main point, which as always, is excellent.

  9. Responding to a fragment here, before I finish reading ….
    Sarah, get an executive-style dictaphone. Or a smart phone capable of the same function. Or, if your finances suddenly become incredibly flexible, a portable device capable of running Dragon-ware. Anyway, *something* that can capture your writing-notes while you’re still out walking, to be carried back home and used.

    1. Stephen,
      The devil is in the accent. It takes on average twenty hours of training to get Dragon to work for me. And I rarely have twenty hours. Sooner or later, we all come to it, I suppose, and when arthritis bites, I’ll buckle. But not yet.

  10. Woah, i was getting that same Neoplatonic vibe. Not everyone who is a Neoplatonist is a Christian, and I was getting a pre-Christian vibe. But I didn’t want to open that can of worms. Now that it’s open, I think it unwise to kick out Augustine, even though I agree that his Neoplatonism is heretical.

    And even that’s a broad brush, the ancient Greeks held that matter, qua matter is the source of evil (weakly echoed by Leibnitz’s), and if we were just 100% spirit insteada sorta half-and-half, all would be sweetness and light (but sucrose and photons are both material).

    I recently taught a Sunday School class wherein I advanced the Hebrew notion that creation was initially “good” but corruptible, at risk of the fall– while denying the neoplatonist notion of matter being inherently evil and its source. Speaking of Sunday School, i’m late for church.

    1. Lol. Well I’m glad someone else has the same obsessions I do.

      Ok, I’m being a bit of a crank here. Don’t eject Augustine, just eject those views that don’t mesh with orthodox Christian dogma (whatever that means, I should be so sectarian.) I should have been more specific and less ornery. I love Origen for example, but he’s as bad as Augustine in places.

      And personally, my whole post was bit of a hijack. I don’t really know what Sarah means by her language, it’s just that the language of spirit and body has completed shifted to the Neoplatonic end of the spectrum so much that we take it for granted. Even people who have no dog in this fight and who have reason to believe that way speak in the terms of Plotinus and Dionysius the Areopagite.

      It’s just that the scale has been tipped so far to one side for so long and that this has been unchallenged for so long, I feel the inescapable urge to rush over and stomp on one side, just to make sure the point gets across.

      Ok, now that I’ve thoroughly outed myself as a failed seminarian I think I’ll leave.

  11. Honestly didn’t think you were advocating austere Neoplatonism, it’s just that the casualness with which the language of Neoplatonism has infected everyday life really chafes me.

    I really shouldn’t read email before I wake up. I read this, and was wondering why you were talking about ice cream.


    1. May I have mine with existential sprinkes? I’m odd that way. (Runs.) [and sigh, I’m afraid this has become a weird blog. This is the sort of pun people get executed for in sane countries, it is…]

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