There’s this way people think about things that I always find surprising and more than a little pernicious.
In general it goes like this: Person A is doing something about X and actively engaged with it. Person B is not engaged with X, but thinks they know something about it because they once read an article/saw a movie/watched a youtube documentary on the subject. So while Person A has experiential, nuanced knowledge of X, Person B believes they have just as comparable and useful knowledge without really ever experiencing anything first-hand about X.
Another way of putting it is like this: when people say they know about X, what they actually know about it tends to be three pictures that they think about when they think about X.
So, for example, when I talk to most other Americans about South Korea, their knowledge of the country is pretty much the Korean War, Kim Jung Un, and kimchee; a weird incongruous mix of 1950s world events, current cable news, and a pop culture reference or two. As if at this moment I lived amid a ruined city under North Korean siege with tanks outside my window while Psy gungnam-styled all around.
But, like I said, I find this way of thinking to be pernicious, where we mistake our thin veneer of knowledge about something, for actually knowing about it. I’d rather people, myself included, admitted to ignorance and say, “I don’t know.”
More to the point, I think it gets interesting when we start to see where those pictures originated and how they got inside our heads. What purpose is served by their being there? Maybe they say more about us and our own assumptions than they do about the thing we believe we know something about. Maybe we’d be wise to learn how to discern actual knowledge from the billboards we put up to cover our ignorance.
“Fools! Fools! I thought. Love it! Love the loss as well as the gain. Go home and dig it. Nobody was killed. We saw victory and defeat, and they were both wonderful.”
– Barry Hannah, “Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet”
The Other Side of McMedieval Feudalism, or The Use of Mythic Distance in Malory’s “Le Morte D’Arthur”
So that fascinating thing I hinted at about the setting in my last post about Le Morte D’Arthur – it’s totally generic McEurope, but instead of this being a design flaw, it’s a design feature.
Actually calling it McEurope is too specific. It’s more McMedieval Feudalism seen from the top without ever looking down. It’s an aristocracy divorced from all other social classes with an endless supply of weapons and armor to fight with. You have to at least enjoy that stuff as aesthetic trappings without any attendant realism. Only once does someone go to town and see a craftsperson to get a thing fixed. That’s your realism. Peasants hardly ever appear in it, and knights apparently have nothing better to do than stand all day beside bridges challenging whomever happens to walk by. “None shall pass”, etc.
What locales there are all blend together. Bridges, cloisters, and wells with maidens (or knights) weeping beside them lend some decoration to the otherwise indistinguishable setting. There are castles, and outside every castle is a forest. Inside the forest adventures happen.
But I said this is a feature rather than a flaw. What makes it fascinating is how quickly bright sanitized McMedieval Feudalism can become weird foreboding mythic id-laden fairyland. The one rule is when you go into the forest stuff happens to you. That stuff can be the frat-house jousting (with accompanying sides of homoeroticism and misogyny), or something a lot weirder and subconsciously ripe. It’s no surprise that “the forest” gets transformed into “the wasteland” during the Grail Quest.
What to make of this? On one hand the setting is so bland and divorced from reality as to be nonsensical. On the other hand that blandness has an advantage when telling a story and playing with archetypes, especially because the bland is divided in half, a mundane world and its fantastic reflection, and the archetypes are never quite certain when the one will shift into the other. Not just this, but any deviation from the uniform setting stands out.
So it’s okay to be bland as long as it’s a conscious choice. Use it to your advantage. Dive deep and swim in the dark waters waiting beneath the bland’s placid surface. Find those pearls waiting down there along with those toothsome beasts. What you find might be wonderful or it might be ugly, but it won’t be bland. That’s for certain.
So I get these awful headaches. I don’t know what causes them. They basically creep up on me and floor me for a day or two. This weekend has been one of those instances. I slept twenty hours on Saturday and hardly moved from the bed today. My doctor (God bless him and his luchador mask) told me not to take any caffeine or alcohol when I get them, so I’ve tried to stick to that.
But, jeez, what a drag.
Anyway, enough of my whining, here’s Lewis Carroll from his pamphlet Feeding the Mind:
“To ascertain the healthiness of the mental appetite of a human animal, place in its hands a short, well-written, but not exciting treatise on some popular subject—a mental bun, in fact. If it is read with eager interest and perfect attention, and if the reader can answer questions on the subject afterwards, the mind is in first-rate working order. If it be politely laid down again, or perhaps lounged over for a few minutes, and then, ‘I can’t read this stupid book! Would you hand me the second volume of “The Mysterious Murder”?’ you may be equally sure that there is something wrong in the mental digestion.”
Back in the good old bad old days I worked with a guy who would take summers off to go work in Alaska as a hunting guide. He’d return in the fall with an assortment of wilderness stories. One of them was about when the other guides and he all got stuck for a week in the back country waiting for the plane to pick them up. They ended up having to trek miles to another pick up site and wait for the plane there. On the way one of the guys dropped his book in the river and wound up with nothing to read.
For a week they were stuck in tents waiting out the rain and waiting for this plane to show up, and the guy had nothing to read. So he started reading the ingredients listed on the soup cans. Over and over again. By the end of the week he had memorized them and could rattle them off in a litany. Chicken noodle. Minestrone. Whatever they had.
That’s how to read.
Desperately. Obsessively. Like your life depended on it.
Like most people I have folders and folders full of pictures glommed from all over the Internet. Lately I’ve been making crude collages with them on power point. The above is for a short story about a junky ghost hunter and the codependent relationship he has with his assistants. I made it after the story was written, which is a bit different than using it to brainstorm.
That’s one for a story in process. It hasn’t come together yet like the first one, but that’s likely because the story’s not done. Evocation’s my goal, and there’s a tendency to be prejudiced towards the chosen images and using them to illustrate the story, as opposed to finding the pictures that evoke the story best.
I’m putting these here so I remember them.
John Coulthart has a great post on past attempts to produce covers for M. John Harrison’s Viriconium sequence. Am I fan of Harrison? Of course I’m a fan. Coulthart then has a follow-up post on what he’d like to see in new covers. Speaking of Viriconium, over at M. John Harrison’s blog there’s a new piece of fiction set in that city.
This essay by Ursula K. LeGuin over at Book View Cafe. I can’t agree with it enough. How about these quotes:
Literature is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.
The value judgment concealed in distinguishing one novel as literature and another as genre vanishes with the distinction.
Every readable novel can give true pleasure. Every novel read by choice is read because it gives true pleasure.
And finally, a poem by Meng Jiao (a Tang Dynasty poet):
The thread in the hand of a kind mother
Is the coat on the wanderer’s back.
Before he left she stitched it close
In secret fear that he would be slow to return.
Who will say that the inch of grass in his heart
Is gratitude enough for all the sunshine of spring?