The Fiction at the Bottom of Our Souls

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, March 17, 2016

  • Can we trust who we think we are?
  • Can we assume our convictions are correct?
  • Why are we so passionately convinced our version of reality is the right one?
  • Is fiction truer than memory?
  • How does fiction consumed in childhood affect the way we perceive reality?

Of your earliest memories, which do you favor: remembered events or stories? I can dredge up some exceeding vague memories from when I was three, but lately I’ve been reading about scientists studying memory that makes me doubt what I recall. I know what I think of as actual events might not be recordings of reality, but memories of memories of memories. Every time we replay an old memory, science now thinks, we record over the original memory with the impressions of remembering that memory. (Watch “Memory Hackers” on PBS NOVA or The Brain with David Eagleman.)

Treasure Island

There is nothing in my memory bank as vivid as the photo above.

Mixed in with all my memories of reality are memories of fiction. I was born in 1951, but my earliest memories of television come from 1954-55. A few years later, are memories of seeing my first movie on TV, High Barbaree. I’m sure I saw others, but its the one I remember. My late 1950s memories are filled with black-and-white science fiction films and Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan flicks.  Around 1959 I encountered Treasury Island, the first book I remember reading.

I have many memories of external reality growing up in the 1950s, but I also have more memories from television. Because I’ve seen those TV shows & old movies repeatedly over the years and decades, and often reread my favorite books, those fictional memories have gain vividness, while my real life memories fade. Is it any wonder that Turner Classic Movies has become so meaningful to the social security set?

I once returned to the house I lived in when I was four. I think of age four as the beginning of my personality.  When I stood on that sidewalk in front of that house, I felt like I was at the Big Bang beginning of my existence. From 1955 till today, I have two kinds of memory. What happened in my life and what happened in stories. In terms of deciding which programmed my soul more, I’m undecided.

Robert Silverberg has a wonderful essay, “Writing Under the Influence” in the March 2016 Asimov’s Science Fiction about how a favorite fantasy story he discovered in childhood influenced two novels he wrote as an adult (Son of Man, Lord of Darkness). The story, The Three Mulla-Mulgars, by Walter de la Mare, from 1919, is one I’ve never heard of before. Folks at GoodReads gush about how delightful this forgotten fairytale is to read. I snagged a free Kindle edition from Amazon and hope to read it soon.

I highly recommend reading Silverberg’s essay. I love people’s reading histories. Unfortunately the link to read the essay online will quit working when the next issue comes out. You can get Asimov’s at your newsstand, or from Amazon as a Kindle ebook.

dorothy-lathrop-three-royal-monkeys

Here’s one of the original Dorothy P. Lathrop illustrations from The Three Mulla-Mulgars, from a collection of them at 50 Watts.

Partly why Silverberg’s essay resonates so deeply with me is because he describes how an earlier true-life African explorer narrative, The Strange Adventures of Andrew Battell of Leigh, in Angola and the Adjoining Regions figured in The Three Mulla-Mulgars. I’m fascinated by how stories inspire stories. Or how writers are inspired by authors from earlier generations. The memories of authors are encapsulated into their stories, and we share their memories by reading, and their memories as passed on through us. And if we write stories, using older memories from those we’ve read, those memories are rerecorded for another generation, much like brain memories, and just as distorted.

High BarbareeHigh Barbaree Movie

I’ve often fantasized about writing a story based on my memory of my first encounter with fiction. My earliest memory of seeing a movie is waking up in the middle of the night, and watching the all-night movies with my dad. This was before I went to school, and I didn’t comprehend movies, acting or fiction. All I can remember is a scene of two kids who were friends being separated, when the girl and her family moved away. Even at that young age, that had already happened to me more than once, because my father was in the Air Force. It was a strong fictional emotion bonding with my own remembered emotions.

This was when I was too young to remember the title of movies. Years later I saw the movie again, and that’s when I memorized its name, High Barbaree, with Van Johnson and June Allyson. I was in the sixth grade. I used to trust my memories from that age, but I don’t anymore. I caught High Barbaree again in my twenties, after I got married. This time it occurred to me that it might be based on a book. I wasn’t able to find the book until the internet age, and AbeBooks.com. It was then I discovered the book was written the same guys who wrote Mutiny on the Bounty, Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, and they also have a fascinating history. I was also able to track down a biography of those two writers at that time too, In Search of Paradise by Paul L. Briand, Jr.

Between the original novel, and the biography, I learned High Barbaree was about memory, and a fictionalized autobiography of sorts for James Norman Hall. Hall was writing about how our souls are formed by early memory and fiction. He was remembering the writers who influenced him. His memories became my memories, and if I could ever write a novel, their memories would get passed down, along with some of mine. I guess I am a believer in the collective unconscious.

It’s now possible to buy High Barbaree on DVD, but I’m not sure I can recommend it. It’s slight, sometimes silly, and very sentimental. The book is more serious, and fits the memories I have of seeing the story as a child. Or at least, that’s how I remember it now. I know my original impressions, however vaguely they were recorded by my brain, have been lost to rewriting by all the times I’ve recalled that memory. Each time I’ve watched that film again, dwelled on those memories, reread the book, or written about all of this, I’ve recolored those deep original memories with newer philosophical musings.

I used to believe we could discover the truth of history. I used to think memories were real and trustworthy. Now I doubt the reliability of neural recordings, and any collective knowledge we have about actual history. We constantly rewrite our own memories, and we constantly rewrite history. For example, the new book by Bart Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, has more than convinced me that it’s absolutely impossible to know anything about Jesus as a real person in history. Ehrman’s analysis of history and memory applies to recent historical figures as well, where we have solid documentation, like for Abraham Lincoln or Albert Einstein. All these revisiting and new recordings have written over any real history that happened.

rashomon

The best nonfiction is still fiction. I’ve taken classes and workshops in creative nonfiction, and I know from experience I can’t write the absolute truth.  Memories are just stories we tell ourselves about fleeting impressions of the past poorly etched in our brains. Our minds are not DVRs. And even if they were, how often have you seen a video in the news where people argue over what actually happened? Realty was never our version of events—it’s always the Rashomon effect.  Even if we average out all the eyewitnesses, we can never definitively say what happened.

All during 2016, we hear folks wanting to be president tell stories they swear are true. And we’ll vote for the candidate whose stories match our own stories the best. All of those stories were shaped by the fiction everyone encountered growing up. Remember how Ronald Reagan used to blend movie scenes into his recollections? I used to think he was a doddering old man, but now I wonder if he wasn’t wiser than he appeared. We’re all going to look like silly old fools someday, dwelling on fleeting memories of our past, poorly remembered. But that doesn’t mean the stories we tell ourselves and others don’t have a kind of elegant logic. It won’t be the truth, but if we could only get our stories to work together, it might be true enough.

My reality is colored by stories I encountered in my early years, like High Barbaree. Just like Robert Silverberg’s reality was colored by The Three Mulla-Mulgars, which he discovered when he was young. We might think the fiction at the bottom of our souls are merely stories, but I’m not so sure anymore. Those early tales had a butterfly effect on shaping who we became. We can’t understand reality in black and white certainty. But we do make sense of our external existence by storytelling, and so we need to understand the truth of that.

JWH

If The 2016 Election Was A Novel It Would Win A Pulitzer

By James Wallace Harris, March 7, 2016

If back in 2012, you read a science fiction novel about the 2016 U.S. presidential election that perfectly described what’s going on this year, would you have believed it? The primaries are proof positive that truth is stranger than fiction. What writers could have imagined such a bizarre farce? Donna Tartt, Philip Roth, Jonathan Lethem, Joyce Carol Oates,  Toni Morrison, Tom Wolfe, E. L. James, Tom Robbins, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon? Hell, I think Finnegan’s Wake would be easier to understand.

And just think, if in ten years someone does write a novel about this election, could it ever capture its weirdness?

We don’t even know how the plot unfolds, or what the ending will be. There’s plenty of time for even bigger amazements.

And what about history? Was the 1932 election this crazy? Remember Theodore H. White? He wrote a series of books called The Making of the President series (1960, 1964, 1968, 1972). I wonder if I read those books now, would this election seem less unique and strange to me?

Wikipedia has a nice summary of the 1964 election, the first I remember in any detail. The article is not too long, but hints at a rather complex race during similarly polarized time in our nation.

The one thing 2016 is teaching me is how different I am from my fellow citizens. There are millions of people wanting candidates to be president that I can’t even conceive of anyone wanting for their leaders.

I think 2016 is the first time I’ve actually experienced Future Shock.

JWH

Autistic Characters in Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 3, 2016

I started reading The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion yesterday, and realized I was enjoying yet another book with an autistic first person character. This got me to thinking, just how many books have I read with an autistic character, and then wondered, just how often autistic characters show up in fiction. So far my list includes:

GoodReads lists 65 books on their Autism in Fiction list, some of which I find quite surprising, like To Kill a Mockingbird. And it turns out I have another book on my to-be-read pile, The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon that features an autistic character. It appears listing autistics in fiction is quite popular, and Wikipedia even has a list of fictional characters in books, movies, television and comics that are on the autistic spectrum. If you search Google for “autism in fiction” you’ll find a lot to read.

the-rosie-project-graeme-simsion

Most of the books have been from the last twenty-five years. Didn’t autistic people exist in the time of The Bible, Shakespeare or Charles Dickens? I do know that Confessions of a Crap Artist, written by Philip K. Dick in 1959 has a very autistic-ish narrator. And strangely, isn’t Mr. Spock from Star Trek very autistic like? There is a danger to retroactively diagnosing characters from the past with autism, just read “Sherlock does not have Asperger’s or Autism, Thanks – From 4 Psychiatrists” or “We Shouldn’t View Sherlock as an Autistic Savant.”

Many people do not consider Oskar Schell in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to be autistic, but I do, because he has some autistic like traits. And I think that’s what’s interesting about these books, they don’t all define their characters as autistic or having Asperger’s syndrome, a diagnosis that’s been replaced with the term autism spectrum disorder. That’s because it’s very difficult to pigeonhole people into precise mental categories. I’ve written about this before, “Don’t We All Have Personality Traits in the Autism Spectrum?” and “Reading Novels To View Reality From a Diversity of Mental Spectrums.”

I think is extremely fascinating we all want to clearly define people into categories, but our own unique traits are usually invisible to ourselves. Just like Don Tillman in The Rosie Project, who is unaware of his Asperger’s symptoms, we can’t see our own quirkiness. Think how often you have heard your voice on a recorder and found it shocking. Or how disturbing it can be to see photographs or videos of ourselves. Our inner self-image seldom matches outer evidence. So it’s easy to understand that other people see you far different from how you see yourself.

In the The Rosie Project, Don decides it’s time to get married and goes about finding a wife in a very systematic way. The whole time I was reading this story I couldn’t stop picturing Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. But doesn’t everyone fumble around trying to find their soul mate? And if we’re honest, aren’t we all clueless about finding compatibility?

People wonder why there’s been an explosion of autism in the general population. Some wonder if we always had autistic people and are just getting around the labeling them. Can you remember an old relative with autism spectrum traits? Others think the increase is from an environmental cause, and a few people have suggested the increase in autism comes from more super-intelligent people mating with each other. I have no idea, but I do find that characters in fiction with moderate amounts of traits from the autism spectrum appealing. (Although severe amounts are horrifying and tragic.) And I think that’s so because we can identify with their problems and admire their eccentric skills. Don’t we all have some kind of communication problem, or compulsive behavior? My friends consider me very good at communication, yet I’ve always felt a slight sense of agoraphobia when it comes to socializing. And I certainly wish I had the organizational skills of Sheldon and Don. I do know I pass all the tests for introversion with flying colors.

And how often do you feel that your friends are clueless to seeing the real you? Aren’t we all on a social awareness spectrum? If we fall into a certain range, does that put us on the autism spectrum? I have long ago given up on the idea of “normal” people. I assume we all exist on a hundred different spectrums – picture a mixing board in a sound recording studio. I doubt anyone has sliders position in the center all across the board. And I expect what we now call autism spectrum disorder will be broken up into several spectrums in the future.

Finally, I wonder if we were all characters in a book like Don Tillman, and readers got to see just how we think, wouldn’t our logic for doing things and making decisions seem peculiar to others? Aren’t we all strange little birds?

JWH

Who are the Most Reinvented, Reinterpreted, Reincarnated Characters in Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Off the top of your head, how many different versions of Sherlock Holmes can you name? This year I bought The Complete Sherlock Holmes: The Heirloom Collection on Audible – over 58 hours of the originals stories. There’s also the PBS show Sherlock, and the CBS show, Elementary. I also saw Mr. Holmes at the theater, about Sherlock being 93 and losing his memory.  And on my local over-the-air broadcast TV channel I can often catch the old Basil Rathbone movies. But this barely scratches the surface of Holmes adaptations. If mania for Sherlock Holmes keeps progressing, soon all TV shows and films will feature a version of the famous sleuth somewhere in their casts.

Sherlock Holmes

Has Sherlock Holmes become the primary archetype for the deductive detective? Does every mystery writer hope to create a series about a brilliant mystery solving individual that will one day be reinvented, reinterpreted and reincarnated like Sherlock Holmes?

Who is the next most famous character that has gotten this kind of attention? Off the top of my head comes Ebenezer Scrooge. How many movies, television shows, books and cartoons have retold his story? But the number of movie actors who have played Ebenezer would make a large dinner party, compared to the small convention center it would take to host all the movie and television actors and actresses that have played some variation of Sherlock Holmes.

owen-scrooge

And poor Ebenezer Scrooge appeared in just one novella by Charles Dickens, whereas Holmes was featured in four novels and 56 short stories by A. Conan Doyle. And how many other writers have used Holmes for a character? The second most famous character I can think of is Tarzan, whose adventures were chronicled in twenty-five novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and countless other novels and stories written by admirers. Tarzan has had almost as many film adaptations as Sherlock. This summer, we’ll get a new film, The Legend of Tarzan. Tarzan has also appeared in a number of television series—maybe not as many as Sherlock and Watson, but quite a few. Tarzan also inspires pastiches and imitations, and when I was growing up, far more kids pretended to be Tarzan than Sherlock.

tarzan of the apes 1st edition

Haven’t Holmes, Scrooge and Tarzan become their own archetypes?

What makes my head hurt is to ask: Who is the most famous female character that readers and watchers love the most? I would pick Elizabeth Bennet, but she doesn’t even make AMC’s “50 Greatest Female Movie Characters.” Nor does she make IMDb’s “100 most iconic females characters in TV and cinema.” She’s only #53 in Buzzfeed’s “Women in Film: 70 Memorable Female Characters.” But at Ranker, Elizabeth Bennet is currently at #1, but this list is limited to literary characters. I guess my taste in fictional women is much different than other folks. However, Pride and Prejudice is often listed as one of the most popular novels ever read, and has been made into movies and television series many times. Not only that, but the novel has spawned an ever-expanding list of published sequels and an endless list of fan fiction variations. Plus, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are the archetypes that has inspired an army of romance novel writers over the last two hundred years.

Who else? I’m sure my readers can think of obvious choices I’m totally forgetting. Superman and Batman, Kirk and Spock, The Doctor—but what about more realistic people? And what about characters based on real people. How many movies, television shows and books have been based on Wyatt Earp?

And are you noticing a trend? Most of these characters aren’t very real. I’ve read articles wondering if Holmes is a psychopath or sociopath. Does it help to be inhumanly abnormal to attract so much fascination?

How many characters have appeared in all formats of fiction, including books, movies, television series, graphic novels, comics, radio shows and games? It can’t be that many, can it?

One way to quantify this thought experiment is to name a character, and then make a list of all the writers that have used that character in a book, story, screenplay, play, radio play, comic, newspaper strip, graphic novel, computer game, etc. I think Sherlock and Dracula would have very long lists. Tarzan might come in third. I still think Elizabeth Bennet might be the top female character. (But two people have left comments suggesting Jane Eyre and Jo March, which are good choices.)

 

Essay #997

Reading Novels To View Reality From a Diversity of Mental Spectrums

We all like to think we’re normal.  We tend to assume everyone else sees the same reality we do—but do they?  We only know one mental world, and it’s pretty obvious that there’s a huge diversity of mental states, including many forms of mental illness.  We now talk of spectrums rather than specific states because our minds are like a recording studio’s mixing board, with hundreds of sliders for various brain functions, and thus a infinity of different settings.  The only art form that truly explores the interior world of other people’s view of reality is the novel.  Poems and short stories are also revealing, but it’s the novel that explores the depth of dark worlds of other people’s minds.

Novels are the only art form that attempts to paint what the inside of the mind looks like, and the unique perspective of how different people see out.  In the 20th century, stream-of-conscious novels emerged specifically to give readers the illusion of following the thinking of the characters.  And it is the first person stream-of-conscious narrative that lets us feel the strongest we’re looking out with eyes that are not ours.  Most novels have third person narrators that see characters from the outside and from the inside, whereas in movies and television shows we’re always watching people from the outside.

in search of lost time

Novelists who write semi-autobiographical books tend to be even more believable for giving readers the feeling we’re viewing the inside of someone else’s mind, especially those by writers like Joyce, Proust, Wolfe, Woolf and Kerouac that wrote book after book chronicling their life in thinly disguised fiction.  These writers were sensitive souls that saw their own lives as the best subjects for their art.  Most novels are about made-up characters, with the best of them feeling like we’re reading about real people even when we’re not.

Autobiographical and roman à clef novels give us a tremendous boost in authenticity, even to the point that we feel more like voyeurs and less like readers.  And this is most especially true when we read about tortured souls, people living in extreme situations, and those who suffer mental illnesses.  The more inner nakedness the better, because these writers want to live on the razor’s edge between absolute honesty of life and the truth of fictional art.  These writers know they can never let us actually see from their minds, but they can give us enough concrete details that we can almost imagine being them.  Sure, like Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”  The difference between what other people see and what we think they see is tremendous, but if they give us the right words we sometimes feel we’re seeing the lightning.

the bell jar

I recently reread The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, which reminded me of how much of my knowledge of mental illness comes from novels.  Since I and my friends are getting older, we often talk about dementia and mental decay, and so mental illness seems to loom closer.  The Bell Jar is first person semi-autobiographical story of a young woman having a nervous breakdown, attempting suicide and then spending months confined to psychiatric care and getting seven shock treatments. 

I have had two girlfriends who have had shock treatments, and one buddy at work that also had them, and I have a number of family and friends that had had various kinds of mental illnesses.  My mother suffered from life-long depression, and probably was bi-polar.  As far as I know she never saw a psychiatrist, but starting in the 1970s and for the rest of her life took different kinds of anti-depressant pills that provided varying levels of relief.  The reason I read The Bell Jar the first time back in the 1970s was because of my girlfriend who had had the shock treatments and she asked me to read it to understand her and her experiences.  The novel continues to illuminate, because I know many people who suffer depression.

the-catcher-in-the-rye

In the course of my lifetime, our cultural attitudes towards mental illness have changed dramatically.  When I was in high school in 1968 my English teacher got me to read The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, which made me sensitive to the idea of “crazy” people.  Catcher came out in 1951, the year I was born, and was about a young man, Holden Caulfield, in New York City having a nervous breakdown.  For the rest of my life The Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar have been tied together like bookends, the male and female stories about young people losing their minds.  Both of these books helped change society’s attitudes towards mental illness, but they also let us empathize with the plight of fragile minds, and see a different view of reality. 

It’s very hard to describe this change in attitude toward mental illness in my lifetime.  Even as a teen in the 1960s, kids and adults, were often cruel towards people with mental problems.  There was even a comedy song about going crazy, "They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" which some radio stations banned for being insensitive to the mentally ill.  During the 1970s and 1980s as conservative policies swept the nation, we deinstitutionalized the mentally ill, with many ending up in jails or living homeless on the streets.  In many books, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists and mental facilities were extremely helpful to people, but in other stories, like On Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest they were seen as evil.  We hear less about people being committed, but a lot more about people taking drugs that work on brain functions.  As we learn more about the brain, we learn more about the chemistry of the mind.

As a kid, I grew up watching learning much about life from old movies, and the films of the 1940s and 1950s often explored psychology and psychiatry.  Nineteenth century novels seldom suggested that they knew much about the scientific workings of the mind, even though there were many novels that were very psychological, like Crime and Punishment.  It took a couple decades for Freud and Jung to come to American pop culture.  Often mental homes were seen as snake pits of fear.  The first half of the twentieth century was filled with horrible experiments on people to fix their minds.

As readers shock treatments (electroconvulsive therapy) were often seen as barbaric torture and other times as transformative cures.   After Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar gets her second shock treatments she become better, and we know Sylvia Plath lived another ten years after her own treatments, writing many poems that would earn her a Pulitzer after her death, a novel, getting married and having two children.  Do shock treatments help people or not is hard to say, but the point of fiction is to see another view on reality.  Sometimes it takes many views to add up to wisdom.  We as readers get to experience shock treatments twice in The Bell Jar – once as a horror, and once in a positive light, and see how Esther’s mind turns around for the better.   How intense we see Plath’s reality depends on how closely we read and decode her words.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s it was very trendy for intellectuals to brag about their psychiatrists.  They proudly talked about Freudian vs. Jungian analysis, and it was generally believed with the right psychic guru we could fix our heads.  Sometime between then and now people for the most part gave up on talking cures and switched to chemical solutions.  My childhood would have probably been far more pleasant and stable if my parents had had access to modern pills for fixing their chaotic minds instead of self-medicating with alcohol.

When I read The Catcher in the Rye I think of my parents, because Salinger’s 1919 birth was right between the years my parents came into being, 1916 and 1920.  Plath, was born much later, in 1932, but her book also helped me understand my mother.  However, in the 1970s, I was much too selfish as a young twenty-something to really empathize and sympathize with her mental states.  Rereading both books now later in life, after I’ve gotten older, and past the age of my parents were when they were raising me, I began to understand these novels better, and my parents.

Neither my father or mother were very good at communicating their inner thoughts to me or my sister.  What I had to do was read books by people that were like them, and hope these literary people were better at expressing life with their demons.  I have always felt Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) was a great analog for my dad (1920-1970).  Both committed slow suicide by alcoholism, and died in their late forties.  Holden Caulfield was a bit younger than my dad, but I saw a lot of my dad in him.   Esther Greenwood was much younger than my mother, and very much different, but I can still find descriptions of mental states in The Bell Jar that makes me wonder if my mother had felt such feelings too.

For some reason I was different.  I’ve always been fairly stable despite the fact of having two alcoholic parents  that should have made my life miserable as a kid.  My intense selfishness was a kind of shell that protected me.  As a rebellious teen I avoided alcohol because I figured that’s what screwed up my parents and took drugs instead.  I remember the first time I got passing-out drunk how I wondered why my folks loved to drink.  But I realized alcohol was a drug that shut you off, and that’s what they needed.  When I tried psychedelic drugs, I realized this must be like to be mentally ill.  My occasional trips would last eight or ten hours, where I visited a world where my mind felt like a category five hurricane was blowing inside my head.  It was these experiences where I felt like I was close to understanding mental illness.  One of the reasons I stopped taking drugs was I was afraid I’d permanently screw up my mind.  Knowing how the mind works when it’s broken provides wonderful incentive to avoid mental illness.

Big-Sur-500

I think the best novel to help me understand my Dad is Big Sur by Jack Kerouac.  The details of their lives were much different, but the giving up, the drinking, the acceptance of suicide by alcohol was the same.  Both had a romantic conservative side, and a rebellious adventurous side.  Neither could connect with other people and settle down.  My dad was saved by the Air Force.  It gave his life structure that he couldn’t maintain after his medical discharge.  I think both Kerouac and my father shared the same failure to connect with women and children.

zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance

Of course, this begs the question of what novel best represents our own view of reality.  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is published as nonfiction but has the structure of an autobiographical novel.  Pirsig is philosophical in ways that are similar to my ways of being philosophical.  If I was to write a novel about myself it would be about relating experience to ethics, aesthetics, science and technology.  If I was to point to a book that revealed what my view of reality looked like, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance might be it.  I need to reread it for a third time to answer for sure.  I’m overly analytical.  I never suffered the breakdown like Pirsig did, but I’ve always wanted to seek perfect insight through philosophical analysis. 

What novel would you pick to give to friends to reveal your inner workings?

My awareness of gender views on reality that aren’t like mine, from women, gays, transgender, alpha males, etc. come from reading novels.  This is true for all the kinds of people I could never be, like musicians, artists, explorers, adventurers, businessmen, etc.  The concept of understanding the unlimited number of mental states that aren’t like mine through fiction is much too large of an idea to explore in one blog post.

HouseRules

My views on autism have been dramatically enhanced by the books I’ve read.  Is autism a mental illness or a mind tuned to looking at reality very different from how we look at reality.  We like to assume average is the healthy normal state, but is that true?  When I read House Rules by Jodi Picoult I felt like I was in an alien mind, but to wish for the character Jacob Hunt to be normal would be to wish for a very unique person not to exist.  Picoult is obviously not an adolescent boy with high functioning autism, yet her carefully crafted novel feels like I’m looking at reality with an autistic mind while reading the novel.   This is also true of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.  Both of these well researched novels about autistic children help me understand my autistic niece better, and maybe get a slight glimmer of what she sees, because these writers researched the science behind the mental state of autism.  

I have also read Temple Grandin and Oliver Sacks on extreme mental states, and their nonfiction books are extremely educational, however, it’s the great novels that get us closer to looking out another person’s window on reality.  Actually, with me, I tend to become obsessed with the novels and the novelist.  I’ve written about that before in “The Ghosts That Haunt Me.”  After reading The Bell Jar again I’m tempted to start reading biographies of Plath, and her poetry.  I know if I do, Plath will become another ghost that haunts me.

JWH – 8/11/14

The Secularization of the Undead

If you only know vampires, werewolves and zombies from modern fiction you won’t understand what I am about to say.  If you haven’t read Dracula by Bram Stoker this essay won’t mean much.  The origins of all the famous species of undead in fiction are shadowed in long forgotten myths.  They come from a time in human history were good and evil meant something very different than what it does today.  Primitive people saw reality created by two forces – the divine and evil.  The phrase the Devil made me do it wasn’t just some cop-out excuse for shirking responsibility.  People were either filled by the spirit of God or possessed by Satan.  To modern believers, God or Devil, at best influence people.  They bargain.  Even the most ardent feel they have free will to choose.  In the past that wasn’t always so.

dracula

As an atheist I don’t believe in the supernatural, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see it everywhere in people’s minds.  In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, vampires were pure evil, to be avoided at all costs – even to the point of committing suicide.  Whereas modern vampires are sex objects, and even the worse of them aren’t evil in the old sense.  As society moves away from religious beliefs, it is transforming its ancient symbols and myths.  This can be seen clearly by reading books about vampires in the 19th century, and then watching how the role of the vampire has changed through the 20th century and into the 21st.

A distinction we should make is between morality and ethics—the two main systems of determining right and wrong.  Legal systems are a strange hybrid of the two.  For most of history morality was defined by God and people were expect to follow his rules.  That’s the original definition of morality   As society became more secular people became philosophic, and right and wrong was hammered out with logic and rhetoric to eventually become ethics.  Ethics is the system by which humans decide what is right and wrong.  Many secular people still use the word morality, so it’s also being transformed.  There are even scientists who seek to find moral origins in biology and animal behavior.  But I’ll use morality in its original intent, as rules handed down by a divine being.

Vampires were immoral immortal creatures.  They were agents of Satan, and represented the flow of evil forces permeating the world.  Evil is seen as an absence of divine force, and its actions are in opposition to moral laws.  Modern vampires have become secularized so they are no longer evil or agents of evil, but they can be unethical.  We have also secularized the words good and evil.  Good used to mean the divine, and evil the lack of God, or the force of Satan.  Now good means many things, but it’s taken on a political correctness to mean what is socially acceptable.  Bad and evil, mean something different too.  Evil has taken on the connotation of something extremely bad, or extremely unethical.  Hitler was evil.  By the old definition of evil, that would have meant Hitler was an agent of Satan, working for the forces of evil.  By modern standards he was a psychopath that killed millions of people through his own intent and not the Devil’s.

There are philosophical problems here.  If God is all powerful, how can evil exist?  Does God allow Satan his domain in reality, or does Satan have his own power that God can not touch?  In Bram Stoker’s Dracula evil is darkness, without any goodness, that does have its own power.  Characters in the story protect themselves from evil by embracing God.  Thus the defensive power of the cross and holy water.

The undercurrent of Stoker’s Dracula is sex.  His Victorian novel was not allowed to be explicit, but it was obvious enough.  Evil conquers the virtuous through sex.  In modern stories, sex is still the major theme, but it’s been converted.  Sex is no longer evil, and neither is sex with a vampire.

Modern vampires can be good, and even seek to regain their souls, but this isn’t because divine forces won the war with the undead.  As women were emancipated in the 20th century and gained both political and sexual freedom, they no longer needed the protection of males, and they escaped the prison of being the icons of virtue.  Women writers refashioned vampires and the other undead minions for their own purposes.  Women writers have decided the undead are hot, and they have cleaned them up ethically, and made them into objects of sexual desire.  Stoker believed Victorian women should be protected from vampires.  Modern writers have made vampires into the ultimate bad boys of desire, very fuck-worthy, and perfectly suited to become Mr. Right.

Strangely, most modern male readers and writers would prefer that vampires stay ethically bad or even evil so it’s socially acceptable to kill as many as possible with no guilt.  We still like the Victorian attitude of the only good vampire is a staked vampire.  Action fiction demands a bad guy to be killed, so the soulless undead make great targets for first person shooters.  But even here, the undead have been secularized.  They are no longer agents of Satan, but just plain vanilla bad guys.  If the story was a morality tale it would require that the protagonists be moral, and the theme of the story would be morality, and that’s disappeared too.

Vampires were the first to become love objects, but slowly all the undead, even the gruesome looking zombie, are being transformed into protagonists of romantic interest.  It appears the whole pantheon of the undead have become symbolic figures in stories of teenage angst over sex and violence.  Any psychoanalysis of this fictional evolution would take book length studies requiring years of research.   For instance, one aspect to explore is immortality.  In the old days of God, immortality was conferred by the divine.  I doubt many believe in real vampires, but they do reflect a desire for another path to long life.  One where you keep your body and live a very long life on Earth.  Earthly life has become a secular heaven.

These stories have been further secularized by writers coming up with pseudo-scientific reasons to explain the undead and their powers.  But if we were a completely scientific society vampires, werewolves and zombies wouldn’t exist at all, even in fiction.  As an atheist I have little interest in the undead other than to see them as literary symbols.  It means as long as we have stories about the undead, then we have audiences and readers desiring aspects of the supernatural for some psychological reason or another.  We like to think it’s all childlike fun for goose-bumpy making tales but I worry that they are a kind of Freudian desire for things we can’t have.

JWH

What it Takes Personally to Write My Novel

I woke up early this morning and started fantasizing scenes from the story I hope to make into a novel.  I’ve been writing novels in my head for most of my life, but except for when I’m taking writing courses (with deadlines), I just don’t write fiction.  I should be honest with myself and admit I’m never going to write that novel.

But I can’t.

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All my work life I dreamed of having time to work on my novel, and now that I’m retired and have that time, I don’t.  That should emphatically tell me something too.

But I’m not listening.  I keep thinking I’ll change.  And herein lies the rub.  I need to change!  But can I change?  It will require a metamorphosis not as extreme as Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, but pretty close.  I don’t need to become a six foot bug, but I do need to become something that’s not like me at all.

And the willpower for this change will be greater than even losing the weight to have a healthy body mass index – and I’ve never been able to lose weight either.

I know, I’ve whined about this many times before.  I’m sure I’m boring what few regular readers I have for this blog.  But I keep thinking, this time will be different.  This time I can write something that will convince myself to change.

Do you believe me?  I wouldn’t either.  But should I give up?

After breakfast I sat on my couch and thought about this.  What would it take for me to change?  Without being drastic, without going overboard, I figured all I need to do is alter some of my habits but keep most of them so I won’t freak out.   Currently, I like to write a blog post every morning, and that averages about a 1,000 words.  I’m usually through by noon.

Step one.  From now on I can only write fiction before noon.  I can do anything I want after noon, even write blogs, but before noon, I can only write fiction.  That should give me plenty of time to pursue all my favorite time-wasting activities, so I won’t feel deprived, but enough time to get some novel writing done.

Step two.  I spend most of my reading time reading off the web with Zite, News360 and Flipboard, or reading nonfiction books, or nonfiction from magazines.  All of this nonfiction inspires me to write nonfiction blogs.  I need to read more short stories and novels.  I don’t think I can kick this nonfiction reading habit, but I’ll try to never read nonfiction before 3pm, and spend time after lunch reading and studying fiction.

Step three.  I should only read fiction that I wished I had written.  I need both inspiration and models.  I need to study what I like and figure out how it works.

Step four.  Let’s see if I can stick to these three baby steps until June 1st and see what happens.

p.s.  This means I might be posting fewer blogs.

JWH – 4/26/14