Ancient Egyptians. They have always seemed the strangest people to me, more so than Chinese or Hindu or any other radically different culture from my own, and the reason I think is because their insides weren’t inside back then. They saw emotions as real, desires as real, suspicions as manifestly real, thereby showing the pharaoh in many inscriptions as having huge eyes or ears — not because he actually had big ears, but because they believed he could hear private thoughts of the heart. They saw it because they felt it.
What they intuitively thought was visible to all, we’ve learned we can hide. My guess is that, other than technology and modern psychology, that’s the biggest difference between us and the ancients: they didn’t know their insides weren’t visible to everybody. They thought what was obvious to them, was obvious to everyone else as well. Sim-ple. This inner/outer distinction would take at least another 1500 years to work out — and then explode in the 20th Century with Freud.
These days we could lie to the king himself and make it look like pure truth.
I saw a PBS documentary on Tibet and the British guy (Michael Wood) walked into a local family’s yurt and saw in the corner two bull’s heads, freshly severed, stacked side by side and steaming still. Expecting a more domestic family scene perhaps, he did a double-take but I thought it a flash of reality and a remarkable moment. Humans are the delusional species. We create little delusions or escapes from reality we call ‘homes’ and ‘lives’ and ‘customs’ and otherwise surround ourselves with chosen distractions and beliefs like money or god or what’s on TV, while beneath our feet and outside our bubble is a vicious war of survival and destruction and empty space. And we tell ourselves we’re masters of reality. We’re masters of nothing but the current delusion. And hardly masters of that. Kinda made me wish I had a bull’s head for the corner of my yurt.
If I were asked what was the value of reading novels or watching movies I would answer that it gives the thoughtful person the opportunity to live outside their skin and know the lives of others very different from themselves. Thoughtfully read enough novels or see enough good movies and one could enter into the lives and concerns of people of another sex, race or religion on the other side of the world, and learn something new each time, about them and yourself, and what we have in common. Learn in fact about human nature.
That’s the benefit of thoughtful reading: an immeasurably expanded personal horizon. But what if the immersion in fictional lives is not a thoughtful exercise but instead is escapism full of smoke and gunfire and signifying nothing? And what if that escapism is not one discrete work of art at a time to be pondered and understood, but endless variations, one after another in a flood, simultaneous multiple options, impossible to contemplate and blunting your sensibilities flat? Drowning you eventually in a sea of meaninglessness (and then asking you to vote).
My concern is not the evil of fiction, but rather the nature of identity. If all we have is fictional experience substituting for actual experience then we risk becoming actors, hunting for ourselves in a vast crowd scene.
In short, it seems to me that fiction can either build an imagination up, drop by drop, or drown the imagination under a tsunami. I rather think over time we’ll grow a new kind of intelligence that can swim its way through this media flood and know the crap from the occasional quality. But I think we’re going to drown a lot of people developing this new skill. That’s just a guess.
Think about those nitwit kids at Columbine shooting the place up. Imagine how a more media-savvy culture than ours might look back on any tragedy of teenagers swimming this media flood and going crazy. Those people looking back will be amused at what we can’t see. How it is we’re doing this to ourselves.
What aggravates is this pseudo-knowledge people think they have about life that comes from TV and movies. Asked what one would do if they were stranded in the winter woods with a broken leg, most people would quickly visualize themselves in exactly that situation (like in a movie) and, surveying this familiarity, they could just as quickly list out their activities and plans for escape in a MacGyver-like fashion. This supposed knowledge comes from the vividness of the situation in their minds. If they can see it so clearly, then surely they have some knowledge of the situation and could deal with it.
In fact, what they’re vividly seeing is not any consequence of actual experience which (in a real world) would suggest knowledge, but instead is merely memory of theater. What is so vivid to them are all the actors they’ve seen in movies, faking what they’d do (with the help of a writer and director) if they had a broken leg and were stuck in the woods. And what they’d do is little more than what they’ve seen other actors do in other movies. An imitation of an imitation of an imitation, it becomes a whole separate thing. Plato was the first to point this out, way back. We’re proving it every day.
Everything of this ilk is speculative bullshit (i.e. fiction) and yet the sheer tonnage of our exposure to it over TV and movies gives it a kind of validity and reality and it confuses us into thinking it our own personal experience. We imagine we know far more than we do, leading of course to arrogance.
Asked to run a kingdom on short notice, most of us believe we could step into the royal robes (or presidential mantle) and pull it off fairly well, maybe even very well. Truth? If you haven’t already run a multi-national company, or a country, or anything else of megalith size — then you probably don’t know how. Same with broken legs out in the woods.
Look at George W. Bush. A victim of TV and John Wayne movies and every other kind of bullshit possible, starting with political spin and too much money. He must’ve been the one who always believed. He didn’t know anything else. All he had was virtual experience.
“I lived in the microscopic town of Springdale, Iowa for a few years, near West Branch and approximate to Iowa City. Fifteen houses maybe and the ruins of an old store, Springdale was extremely quiet, even at high noon. The highway through town ran parallel to I-80 and was of no use to anyone unless they happened to live in Rochester and wanted to go to West Branch, in which case they had to drive through Springdale. Other than this occasional variety, the only other thing to do in town was visit the cemetery up on the hill – which I did daily. Usually twice. Once around one or two in the afternoon after I’d finished a full morning of writing, and again in the dark late at night, usually around midnight. I had no fear of the place at night. Ghosts didn’t roam there. It was a small town Iowa graveyard surrounded by corn fields, a half-dozen families taking up most of the space. I know because I read all the tombstones. Several times.
I’d walk up there feeling depressed and tired, imagining all these bodies laying below me, probably between four and seven feet deep, various wood or metal coffins dating back to the 1850s. Other than the half-dozen potentates of Springdale and their dynasties, there were also the one-offs and I spent more time than I should admit wondering how they got there.
Springdale was along the old Hoover Highway, which was built on top of the much older Mormon Trek Road, which itself followed the Oregon Trail all the way to the Pacific. Thousands came along that road and some of them died on the way, and some of those kicked the mortal coil in Springdale and ended up on the hill. Others came through on the underground railroad. John Brown had a history in the area. On the very back row, in the oldest part of the cemetery, there was one tombstone I visited more than others. Somehow it seemed the loneliest of all. Especially in the winter when snow covered the letters and winds blew hard up on that hill.
‘Here lies Richard Lewis
Slave name Uncle Tom
b. 1832 d. 1887’
Born a slave baby in 1832 meant being an adult of 28 when the Civil War started, and a much older adult of 33 by the time it ended. And then the 22 years after, ending here at age 55 on this hill in Springdale, Iowa. Did he live around here? Die on the road passing by? Might’ve died a hundred miles back and the family hauled him this far and gave up. No telling, but there he was: the only black man in an all white cemetery. These things don’t happen by accident. Or maybe that’s the only way they happen.
Smart chord changes for me have always been the essence of good songwriting, and good literature. When I listen to pop tunes on the radio, say, I don’t follow the lyrics or any particular instrument, but rather the large chordal structure of the song. This is what I find thrilling. If the tune is sharp and dynamic and alive, it’s in the chord changes first of all, and then how the musicians play them. Songs that don’t grow and structure and stand like a little house by the end, seem flat and dull to me — like a lot of jam tunes or avant garde jazz. There’s no motion in the back field.
It seems to me stories and essays work much the same way. You want to see that cogitation going on back there. I think of literary chord changes usually in plot decisions, how scenes sit side by side, how they transition, and what progressive effect they have on the development of the tale or essay. What cards are dealt in what order. Is it a growing, booming kind of structure, ricocheting like a bullet; or is it incremental and additive like a long ramp up? Or some combination? Any structure is a snapshot of the author’s mind and how he sees the world and attempts to explain it. It’s the unconscious decisions we make that say the most about us, and incremental or booming plot lines are a good example of that.
There are of course about nineteen trillion exceptions I won’t go into.
How ideas sit together and sequence seems half the art. It’s the structure erected over a story that makes a larger sense of things. I find it helpful sometimes to look at my stories solely in terms of chord changes. What am I juxtaposing and what does it say about my thinking and the story? What does my structure look like without the meaning of the story to explain it? Is it smart, or stupid? Is there a better way?
Nabokov is another example of masterful chordal structure. His scenes don’t reshuffle, probably because he shuffled them to death already. All that incidental posturing is there for a reason.
It occurs to me that I’ve met both a saint and a serial killer and that neither one of them was as impressive as a person might expect. Not that I had any expectations at the time I met either one as I didn’t know who they were, but still disappointing in retrospect. Both meetings were random events. I met my saint while I was backpacking across Asia and a guide in Calcutta led me to the compound of the Sisters of Mercy and Mother Teresa. Six months later in Oklahoma I would be in a truck with Henry Lee Lucas headed out into the country, just the two of us. Henry at that point had probably killed a dozen people, and claimed to kill hundreds more.
What is interesting to me is how famous people look if you don’t know they’re famous. In the case of Mother Teresa she was a tiny woman in a nun’s habit and sandals with a serious case of wrinkles who had the uncanny ability to both look up at you, and down at you at the same time. Something of a short drill sergeant’s demeanor. Her and her good work were certainly well known in India but outside the country she was as obscure as any other nun anywhere. Six months later all that would change when she won the Nobel prize, but at the time I was reluctant to meet her and had to be talked into it by my guide. I’d already refused his suggestion twice. It was a brief meeting. She met me when I entered the compound and sent me with a young nun on a tour of the place, then Mother Teresa and I chatted a few minutes afterward. She did all the talking actually, telling me of all the good work they did, all while side-stepping me across the courtyard until we were up against a wall where she delivered her appeal for money and gestured to the contribution box on the wall next to me. It was a practiced performance and I’m sure she forgot about me the moment I was gone (as I did her) but it was interesting for two reasons: one, I thought she was a pushy little nun who made me grateful I didn’t go to parochial school, and two, she most definitely did not look famous. She looked like a little nun with wrinkles from hell. The tropics did not agree with her. Six months later she was on the cover of Time, looking very famous. Iconic even.
Same with my serial killer. I met Henry just as casually and the event was about as memorable as meeting Mother Teresa — which is to say, not much. I’d gotten back from my world travels and returned to my summer job at the ice plant where I was manning the front counter one day when two disheveled miscreants walked in looking for work. I gave each a job application to fill out and even helped Henry with one of the questions. His buddy, an arsonist (they frequently killed together) was the more functional of the two and the likelier to get hired I thought. Henry, besides having a lopsided face and too few teeth, a crooked eye and a whipped dog demeanor, was a little guy (a bit taller than MT) and somewhat bent over. He looked tough as nails but had so many bent and curved spots on him I didn’t expect Steve the boss to hire him. Which turned out to be the case. They left and I filed their applications in the scrap paper bin and the story would be over but that later that day I was driving a large truck full of block ice to a nearby town and was 20 miles out when I saw Henry walking alone alongside the road, thumbing a ride.
I stopped of course and picked him up, unaware that it was by hitchhiking he found his victims — and if you’d popped up outside my window and told me, I wouldn’t have believed you either. For one thing I was 22 and handled block ice all day. Bullets bounced off me, or would if one came along. I could smash beer cans with either hand and could snap Henry’s neck with no more effort than it took to rattle a tambourine. He would’ve been a fool to mess with me: twice my age and scrawny to boot, and he wasn’t that big a fool. Instead he stayed half-curled-up in the seat and refused to answer my questions for another 20 miles. Young and dumb as I was, this guy looked hurt. He looked like he’d been raised in a cage and fed scraps and I kinda felt sorry for him. That was my honest response, before I knew he was famous and had his picture in a hundred post offices and at least 50 sheriffs from across the country wish they were sitting where I was right then. All that I would discover years later as I was visiting my mother and sitting on her sofa reading a Life magazine and came across Henry’s picture. He’d been arrested and confessed to over 200 murders. His was not a face I could forget.