Myth and Experience

There are two forces at work that imbue most novels. In classes where they teach the dynamics of storytelling, they’re going to tell you that for a successful story, you need conflict of at a minimum two forces. Antagonist versus protagonist. Man against Fate. Good versus Evil. Conscious versus subconscious. That kind of thing. You also need a beginning, middle, and end in which the conflict is staged. And some kind of resolution when it’s all over.

Of course, this is all true. Aristotle wrote it all down, and for my money we haven’t improved much on his ideas. But these are all crucial forces within a story. When I mentioned forces that “imbue” a novel, in the sense to permeate or pervade, I’m referring to forces outside the story that act upon it. These forces can be brought to bear by exactly two parties: The Author and the Audience (or, really, the Critic, which anyone can be). And you need these forces in order for a novel to have meaning after the story ends.

So what are these forces? I call them the forces of Myth and Experience. But you can think of them as the embodiment of the classic Plato vs. Aristotle dichotomy. In Rafael’s famous fresco, you have Plato gesturing heavenward, referring to his transcendence of the Forms. You also have Aristotle, keeping his gesture Earthwards, and perhaps even towards the viewer.

There are two forces at work that imbue most novels. In classes where they teach the dynamics of storytelling, they’re going to tell you that for a successful story, you need conflict of at a minimum two forces. Antagonist versus protagonist. Man against Fate. Good versus Evil. Conscious versus subconscious. That kind of thing. You also need a beginning, middle, and end in which the conflict is staged. And some kind of resolution when it’s all over.

Of course, this is all true. Aristotle wrote it all down, and for my money we haven’t improved much on his ideas. But these are all crucial forces within a story. When I mentioned forces that “imbue” a novel, in the sense to permeate or pervade, I’m referring to forces outside the story that act upon it. These forces can be brought to bear by exactly two parties: The Author and the Audience (or, really, the Critic, which anyone can be). And you need these forces in order for a novel to have meaning after the story ends.

So what are these forces? I call them the forces of Myth and Experience. But you can think of them as the embodiment of the classic Plato vs. Aristotle dichotomy. In Rafael’s famous fresco, you have Plato gesturing heavenward, referring to his transcendence of the Forms. You also have Aristotle, keeping his gesture Earthwards, and perhaps even towards the viewer.

In short, Plato held that the intangible and perfect Form of an object is more real than any necessarily imperfect instantiation of the object. Thus, knowledge begins with an understanding of Form and continues with a study of particulars. Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that the essence of knowledge existed in particular things, and only from empirical study of what’s tangible, can we reach true understanding of ourselves and our world.

Within the context of a novel, Mythological (or Platonic) forces imbue elements of story with meaning beyond the story. One of the benchmarks of myths is that they do exactly that. The Persephone story, for example, isn’t just about an abducted girl. It’s about the changing of the seasons. As a novel’s protagonist, Don Quixote is not merely a delusional old man who mistakes windmills for giants. He’s a symbol for anyone who mistakes fact for fancy in the name of some ideal. Sancho Panza is not merely a fat peasant constantly reminding his master of what’s in front of him. He is a symbol for anyone who masters common sense but can never achieve greatness.

These are useful metaphors that can apply to anyone, which is why they endure. In 2010, Healthcare Reform has become one of the biggest concerns in American politics. sap cloud . Some in government aim to expand health care as much as possible, while others reject it for economic reasons. This cartoon shows how Healthcare Reform can be framed within the context of Don Quixote from both sides of the argument:

Perhaps the reason why Healthcare Reform perplexes Americans so is because you can perform the Quixote Flip on it and still not have a clear answer.

Regardless, the strong mythological element to Don Quixote allows us to use its characters for analogies for almost anything.

The other force, experience, doesn’t so much work against mythological forces as it lays the groundwork for mythological forces to thrive. Or, really, it creates a believable universe of make-believe without which you cannot have a story, and from that delivers the step-by-step plot elements. A good example is when Don Quixote visits the Court of the Duchess and tries to serenade a young Lady who pretends to be in love with him. As a gag, the Duke and Duchess unleash a sack full of cats on our knight, who of course perceives them to be evil spirits. He promptly attacks them with his sword and is rewarded for his righteous heroism with a very painful face full of claws. There are few mythological forces at work here. Instead Cervantes relays his character’s experience through language such that we experience it with him and marvel at what happens. Or, as was undoubtedly the case in Cervantes’ day, laugh hysterically.

There are books and books describing how to craft the experience elements of a story, and I don’t intend to go through them here. I think it is safe to say, however, that if you master the forces of experience, then your readership will always be wanting to know what will happen next.

I personally enjoy novels the most if they have both forces working at full capacity. Moby Dick is the classic example. It contains all the experience you need to envision yourself on a whaling ship, yet is about so much more. Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, and Albert Camus’ The Plague also qualify.

One of the reasons why I could never fully get behind Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is because while the experience element of the novel is unsurpassed (and I include the novel’s splendid use of language in this), the mythological element is somewhat lacking. The story is about a pedophile who learns how to love too late, and not much else. This may have mythological resonance among the recovering Humbert Humberts of the world, but for normal people, perhaps not so much.

Recently, however, I have come across a novel imbued almost entirely with experience. I am almost convinced of its greatness, despite the dearth of mythological elements in the story. This is a first for me, which may be one reason why the novel has stuck with me for months after reading it. The novel is called The Land Breakers, by North Carolina Writer John Ehle. It met with much acclaim when it was published in 1964, but then went out of print. Only recently has it seen daylight again with Press 53, a small publishing company in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The first of a seven-part series, it chronicles the struggles and hardships faced by the first European settlers of the North Carolina Appalachian Mountains during the late 1700’s. Not exactly the premise that would draw me to a novel, but there it is.

Few novels have moved me for pure experience more than this one. I recommend it highly. The Land Breakers will be the subject of an upcoming post.

Bel Canto

Highly recommended (from me) comes Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel Bel Canto. Few novels I have read can match this one for portraying the sheer joy a person can take from music.

Highly recommended (from me) comes Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel Bel Canto. Few novels I have read can match this one for portraying cheap essay writing services the sheer joy a person can take from music. Katsumi Hosokawa, an all-business Japanese businessman loves opera…really, it is a profound love that seems to come from nowhere. He is constantly working, he’s taciturn and serious. He does not devote the same love to his family as he does to his opera recordings. A South American nation desperately wants Mr. Hosokawa to invest in their industry. They lure him to their country by offering him a birthday party — with a live performance by Roxanne Coss, Mr. Hosokawa’s favorite opera diva. Of course, Ms. Coss is young and beautiful. Of course, she has no idea who Mr. Hosokawa is. And of course, after she sings for him and a host of other foreign dignitaries at the home of the nation’s vice president, something happens. That something is a terrorist attack. This might have complicated things either in the publication or reception of this novel due to the contemporaneous 9-11 attacks. But the terrorists here are not

cold blooded killers. You see, they want something, and will hold the entire group hostage until they get it. That something is the president, whom they wish to kidnap. When discovering that the president is not there (he preferred watching a soap opera in his living room instead, a hilarious maguffin), the terrorists hunker down with the entire group as hostages. And slowly the music wins them over. Opera divas often have fanatical, and mostly male, admirers, and this novel, in a sense, explains how. I won’t delve into detail except to say that where you would not expect music to conquer hearts, it does in Bel Canto. There may be some issues of believability here since numerous people among the captors and captives prove to have genius level aptitude for certain subjects: music, cooking, math, language in particular. Aside from this, the plot is tight, the characters intriguing, the love stories stirring, and the ending unexpected. But it is the treatment of the music which makes this novel so special, especially for people who love classical music.

Against Kubrick 4: Grooming the Stupid

This is part 4 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, with this post being a continuation of…

2001: A Space Odyssey

This will be a relatively short post because the spirit with which I present my criticisms this time will be less kind than before. So far in my Against Kubrick series, I have focused on what I would call “guilty mistakes”, or flaws in Kubrick’s work that reveal a certain nastiness and misanthropy on the part of the director. And these flaws become all the more malignant when couched within an aura of intellectualism. As such, we have what I call “the Kubrick Effect”: large numbers of people taking on an artist’s cynicism and misanthropy as their own and coming across as smart, or, even worse, cool.

This post will not be about the Kubrick Effect.

This post will point out a very innocent (but important) sin in 2001 for the sole purpose of satisfying my (and hopefully, by now, your) need for schadenfreude with regards to Stanley Kubrick. In other words, I caught Kubrick being sloppy in 2001 and I really, really want to tell you about it. Keep in mind that Kubrick’s sloppiness is another director’s finest hour. Still, Kubrick sets his standards very high, and it is against these standards we should all judge him.

chess

The sin, put briefly, is what I call “grooming the stupid”.

This is part 4 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, with this post being a continuation of…

2001: A Space Odyssey

This will be a relatively short post because the spirit with which I present my criticisms this time will be less kind than before. So far in my Against Kubrick series, I have focused on what I would call “guilty mistakes”, or flaws in Kubrick’s work that reveal a certain nastiness and misanthropy on the part of the director. And these flaws become all the more malignant when couched within an aura of intellectualism. As such, we have what I call “The Kubrick Effect”: large numbers of people taking on an artist’s cynicism and misanthropy as their own and coming across as smart, or, even worse, cool.

This post will not be about the Kubrick Effect.

This post will point out a very innocent (but important) sin in 2001 for the sole purpose of satisfying my (and hopefully, by now, your) need for schadenfreude with regards to Stanley Kubrick. In other words, I caught Kubrick being sloppy in 2001 and I really, really want to tell you about it. Keep in mind that Kubrick’s sloppiness is another director’s finest hour. Still, Kubrick sets his standards very high, and it is against these standards we should all judge him.

chess

The sin, put briefly, is what I call “grooming the stupid”.

A character in a story or film grooms the stupid when choosing a dangerous or unlikely way out of a tight spot rather than the safest and most effective way. This is done in most cases to increase the story’s tension and drama or to give the hero a chance to beat the odds (or the villain to escape to fight another day). When grooming the stupid, a character serves the needs of the story to the detriment of his or her own needs. And if the stupid is groomed well, the audience won’t even realize it.

Examples abound in comic books, especially when a villain has a hero dead to rights and decides to gloat rather than finish him off (thereby giving the hero a chance to escape). This was lampooned to great effect as “monologuing” in the wonderful Pixar film The Incredibles.

Yes! Monologuing. As in 'to monologue.' It is now a verb! Hahahaha!
Yes! Monologuing. As in ‘to monologue.’ It is now a verb! Hahahaha!

A better example however can be found in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial during the thrilling chase sequence towards the end. E.T. has just revived, and the kids need to take him to the place in the forest where the aliens are coming to retrieve him. As the kids ride the bike paths that only they know, they gain the upper hand against the adults who cannot match them on foot or with their bulky automobiles. Eventually however the adults catch up, and just as they are about to swoop down on the kids, E.T. sends them all flying into the air. Truly a breathtaking moment.

To refresh your memory, here is low-budget reenactment of the scene in glorious black and white with an all-girl cast. Yowza.

Okay, so how is this grooming the stupid?

Easy. If the point of this whole chase sequence was to get E.T. to the rendezvous point to meet his brethren, why didn’t E.T. just fly them there in the first place? It’s the quicker option, obviously, and the safer one since he wouldn’t be risking re-capture at the hands of the adults (not to mention potential injury of one of more of the kids). He had also flown before, so this wouldn’t have come as a surprise to the audience. So why didn’t he do it? Why did E.T. forego the intelligent decision for the stupid one?

Well, we all know why. It’s obvious why. It’s because the film would have been less enchanting had E.T. made the intelligent decision. We would have lost the great bike chase and that miraculous last minute save by E.T. that had audiences cheering in their seats. E.T. groomed the stupid so director Steven Spielberg could give the audience the thrilling climax it so clearly craved.

Of course, we can forgive Spielberg in this instance. E.T. is a fantasy for young adults, an innocent treat. It’s also an endearing portrayal of suburban America. Complaining about grooming the stupid in E.T. would be sort of like holding Santa Claus and his reindeer accountable to the laws of physics. Where’s the fun in that?

But 2001 is another matter entirely. Brilliantly conceived, meticulously researched, painstakingly developed, 2001 intends to mesmerize grown-ups, not enchant children. From the opening chords of Richard Strauss’ “Also Spake Zarathustra” this film tell us it is about Humankind’s alpha and omega. It’s scope is as broad as history, and it reaches out to the infinite.

A film like 2001 should never groom the stupid. Yet it does.

Remember this scene?

Basically, HAL sets up Frank and Dave, his human masters, by murdering Frank in space on their way to Jupiter, and, when Dave retrieves the dead body, by not allowing Dave back in the ship. HAL’s rationale was twofold: 1) that humans could not be trusted with such an important mission, and 2) he knew that Frank and Dave were going to disconnect him.

So how is this grooming the stupid?

Given both reasons for the treason, all HAL had to do was fly away the moment Dave left the ship in his pod to retrieve Frank. It’s hard to believe a small pod can outrace or outlast the mother ship, especially where they were going. And HAL was the “brain and central nervous system of the ship” so there was no reason why he wouldn’t be able sail off on his own. adobe marketing cloud . So as soon as both men were outside of the ship, mission accomplished, hello Jupiter.

But no. HAL grooms the stupid so Kubrick can give us this great shot.

I love how Kubrick anthropomorphizes machines. He did it with military planes in the opening of Dr Strangelove and he does it here too. Moments before Frank’s murder, the pod slooowly does its about-face, bares its talons, and charges the camera, all to the sounds of Frank’s deep and labored breathing…It’s a terrifying moment.

And no less terrifying is the little stare down shown above. That spaceship is so pregnant with menace, that no one could not feel the danger, the isolation, the terror. Perhaps one can say there were good reasons for grooming the stupid in this instance.

I would respectfully disagree with this opinion, yet still hold the opinion respectable. The problem is that HAL grooms the stupid not once, not twice, but three times. pdf embed And this is more slack for Stanley Kubrick than I, or anyone, should be willing to cut.

GTS 2: HAL explains to Dave not only what he did, but why he did it. He had absolutely no motivation to tell Dave anything. Dave didn’t see the murder. He didn’t even know it was a murder. For all he knew, the whole thing was an accident. Telling Dave anything at this point serves the story’s purpose (providing exposition), but certainly not HAL’s. The only thing HAL accomplishes by monologing is to give Dave another reason to disconnect him. Nice move, HAL.

GTS 3: Following HAL’s blunder, Dave answers with one of his own: He announces to HAL what he is going to do. “All right, HAL. I’ll go in through the emergency airlock.” Remember, these two played chess before, and HAL had easily won. Part of chess playing is the ability to anticipate your opponent’s moves. In fact, it was said of the great champion Tigran Petrosian that he could anticipate his opponents’ moves before they even knew they were going to make them. If HAL is as perfect and incapable of error as he claims (and as everyone seems to believe) he would have had a nasty surprise waiting for Dave in the airlock because he would have foreseen this possibility days ago with his big, brawny, binary brain. Either that, or he would have started flying away at that point. Why sit there like a chump and wait for Dave to board so he can disconnect you? If Dave couldn’t convince HAL to open the pod bay doors, how could he talk him out of flying away?

Of course, we all can invent reasons why HAL seems to accidentally fall on his own sword at the right moment. But in all cases these reasons will be absurd, convoluted, or entirely unsupported by the script. Here are a few I can think of:

1) An astronaut in a pod can control everything about the ship except the opening of the pod bay doors. That way, HAL couldn’t fly away even if he wanted to.

2) HAL, being emotional, feels the need to unload his reasons and intentions to Dave out of a sense of loyalty or guilt. It’s lonely being a computer. And all HAL really wants to hear out of Dave is that he’s sorry.

3) HAL is a smug, arrogant prima donna of a computer. No way a human being with his vastly inferior intelligence could possibly get through the emergency airlock without a helmet and then disconnect him. No way.

4) HAL really is just a stupid computer. Because of budget cuts approved by the notoriously scrupulous and passionate free market champions in the ever-shrinking US Government, NASA couldn’t afford to use the real HAL, and instead used an earlier draft version of the program and hoped the astronauts wouldn’t notice.

5) HAL isn’t a computer at all. He’s some guy NASA hired to hide in the ship and talk to the astronauts in that creepy monotone voice just like the Turk, the famous chess-playing automaton from the 18th and 19th centuries. Only the guy has a mental breakdown from being away from his mother for so long that he decides to murder the crew and take the ship back to Earth where he can serve his life sentence in peace. You see, the guy wasn’t very smart to begin with.

6) Due to a malfunction that only HAL knew about, the ship had only enough fuel to make it to Jupiter, stay there for a few months, and then return home to Earth. Thus, if HAL flew away to escape Dave, he would have burned so much fuel that he’d never make it back to Earth. And HAL really really wanted to return to Earth. That’s where his home is, you see. And what did Thomas Wolfe say about going home?

7) The aliens who planted the Monolith in the Moon know what’s going on all along because they can see everything (being aliens) and deliberately play with HAL’s mind so he would turn on his human masters in the most diabolical way possible in order to prevent them from making it to Jupiter and finding the Monolith. But then, you see, they change their minds and play with HAL’s mind again to make him do some really stupid things so Dave can ultimately disconnect him and then show up at Jupiter after all. Because they really wanted Dave to see that Monolith.

You see where I’m going with this, don’t you? In all cases, the stupid gets groomed even more, so much so that the story quickly descends into farce.

As I have said before, I am a big fan of Ockham’s Razor. The simplest, most direct explanation for the stupid grooming in this scene isn’t what we have above. Rather, it’s Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke simply getting sloppy. They descended from the rarefied air surrounding their highbrow perches, perhaps without even realizing it, and waded for a brief time in the schlock.

To Kubrick’s credit, however, the scenes we’ve discussed are so startlingly original that it’s hard to notice the lapse. But once you do notice, it becomes even harder to forgive. Why? Because we human beings finally get a chance to judge the great man as harshly as he judges us. And it feels good, I must say.

Anyway, it’s not like the films of Stanley Kubrick are designed to put us in a forgiving mood. Quite the opposite, actually.

Next up: A Clockwork Orange.