Archive for January, 2011

I rarely ever touch poetry, but early this morning, while waiting for the coffee roaster to warm up to 400 degrees, I scribbled down a few one-offs on the back of my roast timing notes. All three are very autobiographical, posted today.

Waiting for the coffee to roast, but the green beans are still cold in the sack.
Waiting for the week to be over but it’s not yet light on a Monday.
Waiting for the girl to come home, but I haven’t bought the plane ticket.
Waiting for the kids to grow up, but some of them haven’t been born exactly.
Waiting to someday buy a nice guitar, but haven’t learned to play much.
Waiting to write my book, but I’ll never be wise enough to open my mouth,
until I drown in a river of footnotes.
And who can speak when your mouth is full of water?
Waiting for Jesus to come back, though it sure could be a while.
Sleep sounds nice, but i want to be awake for so many things.
I guess I’ll stay up and wait a bit longer.

You can’t compartmentalize life.
Notes about this and that, deep and shallow,
are written on the back of scraps.
Scraps of lists of chores and work
and groceries and meetings.
A vast pile of paper,
with the ceiling fan stirring up on occasion and causing them
to flitter around the office at intervals when your moving pen
is not holding them down to the desk.
Better write on your hand so you don’t forget.
My left is already thick with ink.
Who will write on my right?

It’s fizzy and it figures more nicely in songs and stories than in my stomach.
It’s dark and best at night with friends around a glowing table.
It’s light and fills the gap left by gold.
The gold that was replaced by meaningless paper.
The “gold” paper that was in your pocket, now in the till.
It’s amber and fills the gap for gold.
I don’t care for it near as much as I imagine.
I would if I were in those laborious adventures.
Is it that I refuse to be G.K.’s common man?
Or have I been spoiled by the wealth of the whole world at my fingers?
Gilgamesh was a king, but he didn’t have time
for his drink to sit in a sherry cask for 15 years.
He poured the same as the poor farmer from the fields.
And was the better for it.

‘Dear Sir,’ I said — ‘Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed
Dis-grace he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

This is worth reading twice here. It is the difference between a so-so novel and a great one. It is the difference between a mediocre film and a great one. It the key ingredient, actually a combination of many many things, that determines whether you actually buy into the story or not. Or if you stay, how you continue to buy into it. If you go to write fiction or make a film and are not aware of this phenomenon, your work is pretty much doomed.

Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker’s art is good enough to produce it. that state of mind has been called ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: It accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe or when trying (more of less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the world of an art that has for us failed.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

The best stories are ones you get lost in. When you have to “willingly suspend disbelief” to continue listening, then the story can continue and may still be interesting, but the magic is gone. When the filmmaker has to throw a wink to the audience and say, “OK. This doesn’t work, but just go along with it” then the effectiveness of the story-telling drops through the floor.

Last year, Avatar won the Oscar for best special effects. It’s hard to argue with that choice as it has got to be the most ambitious effects film ever. Nevertheless, I heard some keen critics argue that from a story-telling standpoint, District 9 was far superior. Why? Because the special effects were so subtle, YOU COULDN’T EVEN TELL THEY WERE EFFECTS. It looked like REAL documentary footage of aliens walking around slums in Johannesburg South Africa. There were effects shots everywhere, but they didn’t look like effects shots.

In the same way, fantasy works much better when the story-teller obeys their own rules about their Secondary World. If you say, for example, that wizards can perform magic but that mind reading is impossible and then later you introduce a character that can read minds, you’re dropping the ball. You are disenchanting your own spell.

The first Matrix movie set up a bunch of rules and stuck with them. The sequels broke rule after rule in an effort to be cooler and more extreme. Instead, it backfired and resulted in both films’ subsequent suckage.

The same thing goes for drama. When you have a character with an established history and temperament do something really irrational and out of character, it breaks the spell. Even if we can’t put our finger on it at the time, we intuitively disbelieve that said character would ever act like that. It throws up question marks in our minds. Questions that distract from the power of the story-telling. You don’t need a plot hole large enough to drive Optimus Prime through (ahem). Those are obvious and everyone can spot them. However, even the smallest inconsistency can be a miniature plot hole that breaks the spell.

When the spell is broken, we are outsiders looking down on or in at the story. We are inside the sub-creator’s world no longer and their power over us an our imaginations is minimal.

The beast-fable has, of course, a connection with fairy-stories. Beasts and birds and other creatures often talk like men in real fairy-stories. In some part (often small) this marvel derives from one of the primal ‘desires’ that lie near the heart of Faerie: the desire of men to hold communion with other living things.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

Girard would say that every desire we have comes from imitating the desire of someone else. From whence do we desire to “hold communion with other living things”? Well, we get this from God, our creator of course. This is why he made man in the first place. It’s also why man has “free will”, however you want to define it. Man is a very special creation of God, intended for communion with him. Apparently communing with stars, trees, and even angels was OK, but God wanted someone even more like himself.

In the same way, we want to commune with our own creations. I think this is behind some of our fascination with robots. Tolkien probably would have hated robots.  If a robot is simply a machine of man’s ambition, just a twisted extension of man exerting control, like Saruman and his eugenics and Orcs and bombs, then yes, they should be hated. But, on the other hand, robots need not be just extensions of man’s arm. I see in some of our creative endeavors with robotics and AI the image of God, wanting to commune with his creation. We, as sub-creators, little creators, do not have the power to instill the breath of life into our works, but that has never stopped us from trying.

The artist has often described his work with the canvas and paint in very intimate language. If you’ve ever spoken to a very enthusiastic gardener, you’ve probably heard some of the same. Lots of science fiction literature has explored this, with varying degrees of success. Asimov’s “I, Robot” and Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” are a couple of classics. Even if you don’t like science fiction (and I, admittedly don’t care for much “hard” sci-fi), it’s difficult to deny that the interaction between the android Data and his creator on Star Trek made for some really wonderful drama and storytelling. It was good not because of clever effects or good acting, but because it effectively touched some of these deep desires of mankind.

It’s doubtful whether, had he lived long enough to see the information age, Tolkien would have ever warmed up to these ideas. He loved all things green and mechanical things left a bad taste in his mouth. Nevertheless, I think building a robot and inventing a new world or language are more alike than we have often realized. The desire is the same, only the mode has changed.

The family watched The Secret of Kells a couple nights ago, by recommendation of The Mockingbird Blog. Wow. The animation was really dazzling. Interesting story too. Not the usual fare. One of the best scenes is where Aisling the forest spirit helps the cat Pangur Ban sneak into the tower and steal a key to allow our hero to escape. It turns out that Pangur Ban is the name of a real cat and a poem written by an Irish monk in the 9th century, the same time the story is set. Various people have come up with translations. Here is the one the filmmakers probably had in mind.

I and Pangur Ban my cat,
Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.

Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

Usually, when I encounter someone who is a hater of fantasy lit, they bring some real world example of a fantasy novel or two that contain some terrible things. This could be the soft-core porn of an Anne Rice vampire novel or perhaps a nasty reveling account of necromancy in some swords and sorcery paperback. On top of that, they probably know some trench-coat wearing teen with a greasy ponytail who reads this stuff by the stack and is clearly a piece of work.

Yes, yes, all true. But that doesn’t mean anything really. Humans in a fallen world can twist whatever they put their hands on. Food, drugs, cars, computers – all of them can be abused. The same with fantasy. Don’t toss a huge wealth of imagination and beauty out the door. We dream then write or film this stuff because we are part of God’s dream too.

Tolkien put it this way:

Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum. Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

It is one of the lessons fairy-stories (if we can speak of the lessons of things that do not lecture) that on callow, lumpish, and selfish youth peril, sorrow, and the shadow of death can bestow dignity, and even sometimes wisdom.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories