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*