Death Or Ice Cream

This is not a post about writing, but it is a post about reading – or a post about fiction and reality, humanity and myth.

There is a way in which fiction forms our mind.  Shakespeare has, after all, been accused of inventing modern men with modern emotions.  Then, through the immense popularity of is plays, these character types, these ways to react to things… spread.

This is possible, though I don’t think it’s true, which is good because if it were it would make a very bad case against the bard’s legacy.  it is true that before Shakespeare there were fewer plays that were coherently organized around character types and character dilemmas that made sense to the modern man.

But I grew up in Europe.  I was taken to see art from the middle ages and before before I even had an idea of art.  I remember the medieval statues, their proportions all askew.  I don’t presume that Leonardo DaVinci and Michaelangelo invented the modern body and we all grew up to conform to it, and part of the reason I don’t believe it is that the ancients pictured bodies similar to our own.

Now, as with the argument with the Venus of Dusseldorf and whether it was porn or an accurate representation of women during the ice ages, it is possible to say that with Barbarian invasions, malnutrition and colder climate during much of the middle ages, it is entirely possible bodies had a totally different shape.  One does periodically meet a person walking around who looks like one of those medieval statues, just as one does, occasionally, bump into a woman shaped like the Venus of Dusseldorf.

In the same way it is possible that during the middle ages, while trying to survive, the idea of the individual mind and emotions counting for much fell right out of the culture.  (It was never as dominant as in our era anyway.)  Survival and times of scarcity always bring about a tightening of social norms to whatever the society considers “average” or “normal” behavior, sometimes with lethal consequences for the odd.  (One of the reasons it always puzzles me why Odds – people who don’t fit in our society – admire despots and societies of enforced poverty.)

Romeo and Juliet, and certainly Hamlet are not fully comprehensible unless we realize we’re watching the struggle of the individual against the group social obligations which were considered paramount.

But enough of Shakespeare.  As you know – or possibly, fortunate people that you are, don’t – you can say the words “William Shakespeare”, start me talking, provide me with food and water at intervals, and I’ll go on under my own power, with no audience interaction, for a day or two.  (Possibly more if my voice doesn’t give out.)

However, the fact that the very notion of Shakespeare having invented the modern human exists tells you with absolute certainty how much we’re aware of having acquired our notions of how the world should work from fiction, in all its means of delivery.

Fiction serves – or can serve – great purpose.  It can show things that otherwise can’t be seen in human life except in the very slow development of a whole life, clearly and in a minute, and through emotional delivery.  Concepts like deferred gratification or limited altruism (sacrificing for one’s kids) or even the ups and downs of a long marriage.

That is the problem too – It shows us what is slow and mostly internal as immediate and external.  Where fiction gives us odd notions – oh, all but the very “literary” sort, and that, I dare say might inform the minute moments of life, but will not (from what I read) give you a general thesis of existence (unless it is “Kill yourselves, all is lost” – the slightly more elaborate form of “Fly, all is discovered”) is the climax.  (You, the lady in the back row, stop blushing.  I didn’t mean that kind of fiction.)

Terry Pratchett whose works are, in a way, a meta-critique of our fables and stories pokes fun at this in (I think) Men at Arms (I always confuse it with Guards! Guards!) when they’re on the roof top and have a bow and one arrow and are attempting to hit the dragon on the “voonerables.”  The clinching argument is “There’s a million to one chance, so it’s a sure thing.”

Fiction operates on creating cathartic release.  As such, it requires a big climax for big stakes (or arrows) and a reward immediately after.  I try my best (because I have trouble believing it otherwise) to indicate there will be a long slog to set all right after the big climax, while still making it satisfactory to people.  But it’s not easy.  

I’m not criticizing literature (or other fiction) mind.  The other times I’ve written this sort of thing people get al mad and say “what do you want then?” – but I like literature fine the way it is.  I like the big climax and the big payoff precisely because they rarely happen in life.

On the other hand, it is important for the readers to remember that fiction is a representation, not the reality.  In reality, when you take the one in a million chance, there’s a good chance you’ll fail.  And even if you succeed and the dragon is gone, you still have to deal with all the crazy people who brought the dragon over and wanted to crown him king.  (The plot of whichever of the Pratchett books is mentioned above.  The covers I have are so similar I routinely confuse them.)

They’re not going to vanish over night; they’ll get up to ever more interesting stuff; and killing them is just not part of the game because it creates other problems.  (We all know what happens to societies that do that.)

So killing the dragon in real life would never be the all-encompassing solution it is in the Discworld  world (though Pratchett too hints at other issues, of course.)

There is a moment when I’m very ill – I don’t know if it happens to everyone – usually in the middle of the night, when I wake for a moment, and I feel the wellness below the illness.  (Just like when I’m getting sick, I feel the sickness beneath what’s as yet health.)

It doesn’t mean I’m well.  There will be days of feeling terrible still, and impatience with weakness, and sleeping far too much.  But it means I’ve turned the corner and I’m going to get well.

In real life it is somewhat like that, and when we throw fits and demand perfect and stark choices, we’re doing it because we want life to be a fairytale.  We want someone to offer us a choice between death or a bowl of ice cream with extra marshmallows, and we’re going to hold our breath until we get every last sweet mushy marshmallow.  We earned it, we deserve it, and we’re going to enjoy it.

I think this is part of human nature and fiction merely gives us an outlet for it.  In the same way I don’t believe Shakespeare invented modern humans, I don’t believe fiction invented the big climatic choice.  It goes back through our fairytales and legends – far back indeed.

But let’s remember that’s the only place it can be achieved, shall we?  The starkest choice you’ll get in real life is between sure death and less sure death (or whatever other evil you’re trying to avoid.)

So, you can choose between death and a bowl of ice cream that might be cyanide laced.  You can choose between letting illness take its course or feeling that moment of wellness and building on it, and taking great care and eventually after a lot of work, getting well. It won’t be easy.  It won’t be fast.  Recovery is not assured.

I’m an optimist.  I’ll take the chance.  And hey, cyanide tastes like almonds.

*crossposted at Classical Values*

36 responses to “Death Or Ice Cream

  1. I don’t know about Fiction shaping our minds, but art certainly shapes our bodies. It does this by defining what parts of our bodies are to be revealed and hidden and how. There are reasons why American men seem obsessed with breasts (I can think of at least two. There – now you don’t have to say it.) and chief among those reasons is the advertising that is thrust into our faces every waking minute. (Yeah, avoiding certain puns and images is well nigh impossible.) Just so is the idea that women should be hairless (or emaciated – you can pick your peculiar cultural perversion) a social artifact. So art (in all its myriad forms) defines what we will be attracted to — at least, what we will admit being attracted to — insert sidebar discussion of Fifty Shades Of Porn.

    I am not sure whether writing/reading is as influential as performing arts. I think our shields are down for theatre (and TV and movies) in a way that they are not for the written word — although certainly a well-written book can draw you in and sell you the most improbable views of human nature.

    And certainly the stories we tell shape how we approach life. You get a very different boy if you feed him on Robert E. Howard than on H. P. Lovecraft, or on Stephen King rather than Terry Pratchett, on J. R. R. Tolkein rather than George R. R. Martin. Which is not to say any of these writers is better or worse than any other, merely that each focuses a different lens on reality and each affects your own view of reality in turn.

    • … insert sidebar discussion of Fifty Shades Of Porn.

      Not much to say about the book itself since I haven’t read it and don’t ever plan to… but congrats on giving it its correct name.

      I think our shields are down for theatre (and TV and movies) in a way that they are not for the written word …

      Most movies don’t lower my mental shields enough to get through very much, because they’re not well-written enough. Serenity (and Firefly) was/were different. The writing was good enough that when I watched Serenity, I didn’t have my mental “I’m watching a work of fiction” shields in place; they were almost entirely down. So when I saw the scene where (let me try not to spoil too much) there’s video record that ends with a woman getting attacked by one of the Reavers (and the video cuts away, but her screams can be heard for several seconds before one of the characters watching the video says “Turn it off!”)… Well, that scene got to me, because it didn’t feel like fiction; it felt like I’d really watched that happen in front of me.

      I haven’t seen Serenity a second time, and I still don’t want to, because that scene would get to me again. I usually describe it as “the best movie I never want to see again.”

      • I think the psychological tension in that movie is the best I’ve seen in ten or fifteen years. And it was a beautiful example of how effective not showing graphic gore can be.

      • BTW, found this at London’s Telegraph and thought it might amuse:

        It looks like E.L. James is keen to replicate her book-shifting prowess (40 million copies and counting, sold worldwide) in the fashion sphere. The west London author has negotiated three licensing deals to bring Fifty Shades of Grey themed clothes to the masses, according to TMZ .


        However as the book’s main character, Anastasia Steele, is wooed by billionaire dominant Christian Grey and subsequently spends most of the time in various states of undress, we can’t fathom what the range will be based on. Of course there’s the plum-coloured sheath dress which she borrows from her housemate for one of her first encounters with Grey, and the mention of a pale blue shirt, but the book’s descriptions of underwear: “exquisitely designed fancy European lingerie. All pale blue lace and finery” suggest that James doesn’t know her overlock from her shirring.

        The first book from the trilogy, which chronicles the complex romance between virgin Anna and S&M loving Grey has become the fast-selling paperback of all time, surpassing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with sales of 5.3 million copies. While the latter bolstered the sales of broomsticks, the “Fifty Shades effect” has so far benefited sales of whips, blindfolds and bondage ties…

      • Wayne Blackburn

        I know a lot of people think highly of Firefly and Serenity, but they never seemed especially great to me. I only watched a few Firefly episodes, so maybe I didn’t get the immersion necessary to really appreciate it, but it always seemed a little flat, to me.

      • We don’t often go to the theater to see a movie, but occasionally we do. By the time we got to the end of Blackhawk Down I was in pain all over from pressing back in my seat, and clenching every muscle I have (not just the voluntary ones) so hard from the moment the action started until the end. Between the rising anger at what should have been a predictable result the rules of engagement and the images I was exhausted mentally and emotionally.

        Now at this time I already had a great deal of knowledge about film and how it manipulates. Sometimes even that doesn’t help.

        • Blackhawk Down is a great example of suberb visual stimulation (Get your mind out of the gutter!). I still think the Jaws movies are the best I have ever seen for aural stimulation, whoever did the music for them was an artist. The way the music started and built, and built, and built, until you were on the edge of your seat waiting for the attack you KNEW was going to come was what made those movies.

          • My father, who grew up on Florida’s Gulf coast, says that when a shark swims over you, you hear a low frequency “dum DUM, dum DUM”. Something about how they move the water around the shark. Dad was snorkeling at the time he made this observation. I get the impression he set the new all-Florida speed record for getting back on dry land just a few seconds later. 🙂

            • Yup. I learned to walk on water when a 10-foot hammerhead swam across six feet in front of me. I remember somebody yelling “Mike, there’s a shark!” I covered the fifteen feet from where I was in the water to the beach between the words “Mike” and “shark”. Adrenalin – the human super-drug. Even combat wasn’t that scary.

              • I walked on water when a gigantic Moray Eel came shooting out of the coral right for my face. I do not remember going from the coral to the beach about 200 yards away. My husband said I looked up at him with a strange look on my face and booked it back to land. I don’t like the ocean not because of the water but because of what is hiding in it! But I still love to snorkel.

    • Visual stimulation does not seem to have as much effect on me as do the written word and purely spoken or sung word. Perhaps it relates to my mental wiring short, but with very few exceptions things that require imagination are much more engaging and long-lasting than are TV/movies/drama. I can look at paintings for hours, studying the details, thinking about the time and place and culture around the work, but not if the image moves on a screen.

      • Can we stipulate that most of y’all ain’t normal?

        My thesis is that normal people, when they see 5’4″ 125 lb Drew Barrymore take down a half dozen large men with her Film-fu fighting skills, they subconsciously accept that. Seeing is believing, right?

        Yes, they would do well to wonder how she could plow through the Green Bay Packers offensive line like a knife through butter but be stopped by a similarly slight female opponent. But it isn’t likely they do.

    • I am not sure whether writing/reading is as influential as performing arts. I think our shields are down for theatre (and TV and movies) in a way that they are not for the written word — although certainly a well-written book can draw you in and sell you the most improbable views of human nature.

      I agree so much that I’ve got to be contrary… I have a heck of a time accepting things I “see” in “realistic” presentations as much as what I read. Even in what I read, the more “realistic” it is the more I question it– I think I compare it against what I know, and fantasy is less likely to show me something I know. (I can’t stand listening to politicians talk, I watch hardly any TV unless I’m doing something else, etc. Even youtube videos, I’ll scold folks to present and claim their own dang argument, since what I get is ALWAYS “not what they meant.”)

  2. Indeed: Guards, Guards! I have developed an unreasonable (for a reader of fantastic fiction) sympathy for the Goon Squads from reading the Watch arc. And rereading them.

    Real Life is a slog. Amen to that. Lord Pratchett’s meta-story fascination with the little people of the Discworld is delightful, and keeps gently reminding me – and those with eyes to read – that big things are made up of little things. The Great Heroes are fun in their own way, but especially when it comes to Real Life, they (such as we get in this benighted world, and especially these fast paced days[daze?] of frenetic madness) too only get their Fifteen Minutes before they’re swept into history. When they’ve made their splash and moved on, the rest of us still have to get on with the task of creating the world we want our progeny to inhabit. Decision by decision, we get to lay the groundwork for whichever world our children and grandchildren will call home.

    As I sit here typing this, I’m tempted to get scare, what with the current national and geopolitical scenes. I’m tempted, but I resist. I have a buddy with whom I joke that we’ve become the “RPG versions of ourselves”. The choices we’ve made have improved our stats to the point where we’ve got skill sets and attitudes that not only will help us to survive, but enable us to thrive in the midst of whatever chaos life throws at us. It’s an exciting time to be alive.

    I apologize for the disjointed nature of my ramblings: barely halfway through coffee numero uno.

  3. One of the strengths of Tolkein’s tale of the One Ring is that it does not get tied up in a pretty knot with the fall of Sauron. One of the problems with modern television is that it is very difficult to have no clocks in view while watching, thus one has an at least peripheral awareness of the fact that, five minutes before the hour’s end, the big reveal is about to occur — and that at forty minutes into the show we are not being given the answer. Imagine if publishers suddenly decided all novels must be exactly 300 pages, not one page more nor one page less.

    • Free-range Oyster

      “Imagine if publishers suddenly decided all novels must be exactly 300 pages, not one page more nor one page less.”

      Oh please, RES, don’t be giving the idjits any new ideas. /shudder

      • It got pretty close to that. The command for minimum 250k word novels (which I fortunately escaped) made many stories impossible to tell and others unreadable. (Imagine The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress swollen to 250k words. Yeah.)

      • On the contrary: give them foolish ideas, encourage them toward the madness of enforcing them, watch the edifices come tumbling down. There are too many vectors for getting story to reader that aren’t under the collective thumb of the publishing houses. The interwebs itself would have to go offline for them to be able to enforce that kind of arbitrary standard, and if that happens, writers will have too much to do simply surviving to care.

    • The lack of an “and they all lived happily ever after” at the end of LotR greatly upset me the first time I plowed through the trilogy. I read Two Towers and LotR back to back during a 18 hour plane flight and the ending was too darn realistic! That’s not what 16 year old me wanted.

      In some ways, page counts are terribly deceptive. Some of the most difficult, i.e. tightest argued or most intense, and important books I’ve read have been 150-200 pages. One of the worst books I ever slogged through (and one I happily tossed into the dumpster once the semester ended) was 800 pages of postmodern hoo-ha.

    • One charm of the original Doctor Who series was the way you got the title, and episode number, but you never got the episode count up front. True, about twenty minutes in you start to reason about whether we’re coming up to a cliff-hanger or a conclusion, but you couldn’t know until the end.

      • Wayne Blackburn

        On the other hand, he always DID seem to leave all the tedious cleaning-up details to everyone else, and move on to the next thing.

  4. … the slightly more elaborate form of “Fly, all is discovered” …

    Okay, now that’s just eerie. Just yesterday I was thinking about that line, and what a great prank it would have been a hundred years ago* to send a telegram saying “ALL IS DISCOVERED STOP FLY AT ONCE STOP” to some random victim. (And then I was thinking of ways to use that in a story, perhaps a detective story where the detective, having run out of ways to find evidence of the villain’s crimes, decides to poke the beehive with a stick to see what flies out.)

    * Why a hundred years ago? Because language has changed, and a text message saying “fly at once” would be more likely answered with a “Huh? I’m not a bird, dude” than with the sought-after reaction.

    And now Sarah posts about the same line? Did the Perseid meteor showers last Monday carry an extra-thick sheeting of idea particles into our atmosphere with them?

    • Did the Perseid meteor showers last Monday carry an extra-thick sheeting of idea particles into our atmosphere with them?

      They must have. I’ve jotted down eleven book ideas in the last week. Two of those are sequels to books I’ve already written, but the rest are all new ideas. I’m beginning to be a little whelmed.

  5. So that weird dream last night was your fault? What a relief. I thought I was going to have to stop eating Taco Bell salads. I mean, trite gothic romances shouldn’t cross lines with “dreams are real” cyberpunk. But maybe the guacamole would explain why they all turned into goldfish halfway through.

  6. I like fiction precisely because it’s an escape from reality. Reality can blow sometimes. 😛

  7. In Guards, Guards Carrot’s argument the shot was ‘a million to one chance, but it just might work!’ was quiet logical given the actions leading up the action on the roof and given the particular story form Pratchett was referencing. Even more Pratchett was the question that followed as the dragon came barreling down upon the men on the roof, ‘Did your old grandad ever say what a voonerable spot looks like?’

  8. I agree on two things from the comments (well everything, but these two resonate). 1. Real life isn’t wrapped up in so many words in a perfect, or imperfect ending. 2. Reading is an escape from reality. (It is also an escape from boredom, bill paying, dealing with bratty kids, and avoiding housework.)

    I don’t think a lot about why I read, I only know since I first read Jack Jump Over the Candlestick, I have loved words that make my imagination take flight. When I read, if the book is well written, I am THERE, in whatever world the book creates. If a book is REALLY good, like Michener’s The Source, I am so deep into the history and characters that I think about them all the time I am reading, or re-reading the book.

    When I was a kid, oh about seven or so, I had been reading for nearly four years and was way above my reading level according to the school. I got punished for reading at school when I finished my work. Smacked right on the head with the book I was lost in while waiting for everyone else to get done. I hated that teacher from then on, because anyone who doesn’t like kids reading is a witch that eats kids for dessert.

    One of my mother’s favorite stories is how she always had to call me to do my chores. She would call my first name, then she would call my first and middle names, then she would use my entire name at the top of her lungs to get me back from where ever my books took me. True story. I’m still that way, my kids and husband used to always have to work to get my attention. Can’t help it. I get lost in the books.

    Life is messy. It only ends on this plane when we die. There is no nice neat ending wrapped in a bow. But books, lead us to an ending, or to the next book in a series. And they make me dream of wonderful possibilities.

  9. I really, truly believe that eventually, everything works out.

    I am totally aware that GETTING THERE can be a stone cold blank.

    It’s more of a “Never give up– if you keep going, it will get better” thing.

    I love fiction because it has that– but faster.

  10. When I was a kid one of the hardest things for me to comprehend was the fact that the ‘bad guys’ actually can get away with a whole lot in real life. I learned to deal, well enough, with the fact that life isn’t black and white, and the ‘bad guys’ can also be pretty good sometimes, and the good ones can do rotten things. But the idea that at times people can do something wrong, even so that everyone can see, and can still get away with it was really hard for me even if I knew that it happened often enough in real life, and had known from a rather early age.

    And the reverse too – that sometimes people who do what is justified, or even just plain good by almost any standards can end up being punished for that.

    Reading was one of the ways to compensate for that, and one of the reasons why I have mostly stayed with genre stories, it’s less likely you’ll ran into the (realistic enough, but I don’t read because I want something that’s just like real life, I read because I want something I’d like real life to be like more often – it’s therapy which helps to deal with the frustrations of real life) endings where the baddie gets away with it all in them. I’m fine with that ending only when we are talking about serials, and I can be fairly sure he will get his punishment, and the good guy at least some sort of reward, in the last story (and that there will be that last story, nothing is more frustrating than the neverending series where status quo is always established by the end, with the baddies on the loose again and the good guys running after them again/waiting for them to attack again/whatever).

    But admittedly the desire for a rewarding story narrative can be a problem if you try to fit it to real life stories, especially if we are talking about something you just see in the news.

    By the way, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is that Shakespeare play I rather dislike, mostly because I get this urge to start hitting the teens over the head with something. Did have that reaction even when I was a teen myself. One problem being I never could buy that their love was more than just a crush. Yes, it makes a lot of sense if you think of it as a teen rebellion which happens to take the form of falling for a member of the enemy clan, but I’m still unable to like a story – at least a serious one, can work in a comedy – when I think that two of the main characters are idiots. :p