Monday, April 30, 2007

Magical Thinking

Warning: philosophizing ahead

One of the things I find most exciting about the 1600s and early 1700s was the lack of understanding about what science is supposed to be, at least in the modern sense. So many things hadn't been worked out yet; the world was taxonomically flexible, cosmologically open-ended; there were whole societies of people trying all kinds of strange experiments to find out how it worked. The "scientific process" was tipped on its end: you tried a lot of stuff and then made a theory based on the results. This made for some really interesting theories, such as the idea that when something died, maggots were (magically) born of the stuff that had once been living tissue. Or that frogs were created out of damp conditions. Or that being bitten by a tarantula meant a lifelong need to dance once a month.

The era was one of discovery: people were traveling the world as they had never done before, and tales and odd artifacts were coming back from so many strange and exotic places. Wunderkammern were an expression of this fascination with the exotic and the unexplored. People collected things, out of interest and to be fashionable, and arranged them in personal taxonomies based on perceived or desired groupings. It was out of these collections that modern museums were born, with their scientific taxonomy: a parallel evolution - alchemy to science and wunderkammer to museum.

I'm reading Quicksilver right now, part of Neil Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, and it captures perfectly the sort of observation and experimentation that people like Isaac Newton were doing (and the thrashing around that lesser minds were doing in the name of discovery). Best of all it describes the complete open-mindedness of these people as they struggle to organize the Universe: Newton speaks of trying to see the order that God put into things, and the emphasis is on the beauty of Creation. I think we've lost a lot of that open-mindedness, that joy in the beauty of Creation (whatever version of it you like, it is as beautiful and complex as ever), as science has begun to believe itself more and more. Everything is worked out (except higher physics, which the average person simply can't follow), there is nothing left to discover. We are, in the postmodern sense, pushed back onto endlessly repeating ourselves.

Wouldn't it be nice to discover something new, something that changed the world as we know it, and discover we were completely wrong about everything? I think the present love of alternate realities is a human wish for the unknown to be, once again, unknown; for the Universe to stop being so infernally well-thought-out. Perhaps infernal is the perfect word; perhaps, after all, we are living in a species of Hell. From science to advertisers, they are every where, these people who want to tell us what is so. The more we know about things, the smaller our Universe gets. The only people allowed by present-day science to make new discoveries are experts in very narrow fields.

When I was a kid, I used to read the Oz books - over and over. My favorite one was Ozma of Oz, not so much because the story was so great (let's face it, the Oz books all have rather odd, meandering plots), but because there were all these amazing little details that led off in other directions - things that hinted at the other stuff happening offstage, either in history or in other parts of the strange world you were occupying momentarily. L. Frank Baum was brilliant at coming up with whole strings of wonderful ideas that captured children's imaginations, and it really didn't matter whether his books were exciting or the characters compelling: they were stimulating to the imagination. They gave kids these great, juicy hooks to hang their fantasies on. Because they were outside the box of the story, they helped you to get outside the box with your pretend-time.

To someone who writes fiction, it is interesting to look at the continuing popularity of the Oz books. What is it about these pretty weird stories which, as adults, we find less appealing? I would be willing to say it is their very hairiness, the way all those exciting loose ends stick out, all those details which don't need to be there but have been stuck in anyway and which capture us (if we're children). Children love to revisit things, worry at them, figure them out (much like the Natural Philosophers in the 1600s). I spent a lot of time thinking about that stovepipe coming out of the moon in the picture above. The story of Mr. Tinker, while extraneous to the plot, was terribly compelling to me:

"Mis-ter Tin-ker," continued Tiktok, "made a lad-der so tall that he could rest the end of it a-gainst the moon, while he stood on the high-est rung and picked the lit-tle stars to set in the points of the king's crown. But when he got to the moon Mis-ter Tin-ker found it such a love-ly place that he de-cid-ed to live there, so he pulled up the lad-der after him and we have nev-er seen him since."

Speaking of which, what about Tiktok, one of the first robots? In 1907, L. Frank Baum is imagining a clockwork man, with clockwork speech, a clockwork brain, and clockwork body - all wound separately, mind you - who is unswervingly faithful and honest, and because he is a machine he has no emotions. Hmm.

And who on earth could get excited about genetic engineering after being weaned to the concept of a lunchbox tree? Check this out:

The little girl stood on tip-toe and picked one of the nicest and biggest lunch-boxes, and then she sat down upon the ground and eagerly opened it. Inside she found, nicely wrapped in white papers, a ham sandwich, a piece of sponge-cake, a pickle, a slice of new cheese and an apple. Each thing had a separate stem, and so had to be picked off the side of the box; but Dorothy found them all to be delicious...

My dreams, during the time I was reading the Oz books, were unparalleled in my life before or since. I had a dream about skating through the telephone wires into Oz. I dreamt of a whole world I found inside a golpher hole across the street from my house. I met exotic creatures who ate glass but dreamed of water because it looked like glass but was so soft. And on and on.

The truth is, in today's prepackaged world, children's fiction must be slicked down so as to cater to the perceived need for clarity and functionality in story delivery. Extraneous details, like Mr. Tinker, are seen as unnecessary and distracting from the product being sold, ie, plot and characters. The oral history, once a messy, meandering and complicated style of delivery, has been replaced by television and movies, and people can't see or don't understand the benefit of hairy plotlines. Similarly, science eshews hairiness. Theories and proofs must be complete, self-contained packages which stand alone on their facts, adding onto the known construct of the world.

I would advocate a reality that is more flexible than that. Without descending into the arenas of either New Age Mysticism, Theosophy, Spiritualism, or the like, I'd like to propose a reality that expands further. How do we do that? I'm not certain.

Perhaps we need a different paradigm of reality. Perhaps we need to move into Magical Realism, Magical Scientism, Magical Logic. Perhaps we should allow our imaginations to run away with us, and look again into the beauty of that most complex mechanism, the invisible clockwork of the Universe.

Here are two definitions of Magical Realism, the roots of which stand in Latin American literature but which could stand for a more overarching truth:

"Magical realism turns out to be part of a twentieth-century preoccupation with how our ways of being in the world resist capture by the traditional logic of the waking mind's reason."
- Derek Walcott and Alejo Carpentier: Nature, History, and the Caribbean Writer

"realism is a kind of premeditated literature that offers too static and exclusive a vision of reality. However good or bad they may be, they are books which finish on the last page. Disproportion is part of our reality too. Our reality is in itself all out of proportion. In other words, Garcia Marquez suggests that the magic text is, paradoxically, more realistic than the realist text."
- Scott Simpkins paraphrasing Gabiel Garcia Marquez, Sources of Magic Realism/Supplements to Realism in Contemporary Latin American Literature

Perhaps, after all, imagination is the only thing lacking. Perhaps, if we can only find that door, that glimpse into how to do it, we can make the transformation, switch realities, open the world back up.

What do you think? Is the paradigm too big to shift? How do we get out of this big, reasonable, slick-sided hole? I welcome comments on this rant.

Thanks to Jon R. Neill for his inspiring illustrations and to Georges Melies, for his excellent vision of a trip to the moon, and all its wonderful details.
PS. check out the little toad in the picture above, waving the flag with the "O" on it.


Anonymous said...

Col. Hazard from the Steampunk Forum here!

I diagree with you on the fact that advances in science are making our universe smaller. In fact, the more we discover, the more questions are revealed.

Your enjoyment of these older stories of fatastic happenings likely comes from nostalgia. Older things always seem of a better quality than their modern counterparts. However, many of these works were written during times of great scientific advancement, industrial development, and times when it seemed humans could conquer anything if they set their minds to it. Often, discovery is what fuels the imagination - not remaining ignorant to the wonders of the universe.

Therefore, I argue that scientific progress has done nothing but help literature. Because even though we now understand a lot more about the natural processes occurring on our planet, if you look at things on the grand scale of the universe, we know nothing. There will always be room for creativity.

I blame the dumbing down of our culture for a decline in the quality of children's stories. They have been slicked down and details have been removed for a generation of kids with the attention span of a kitten. The problem lays mostly in the education system, where the bar is being lowered so that there will be "no child left behind". Lowering standards does not mean better results, it only means that idiots are getting a free ride to graduation while the superior minds are chained down by boring and slow-moving classes. Sure, it looks like better overall performance, but that is a superficial way of looking at it. I propose that we stop catering to the lowest common denominator, and wait for the wonderful results to show themselves.

I have been enjoying your blog quite a bit. Please keep up the good work!

Heather McDougal said...

I would be more likely to say that many of the great scientific discoveries in the last century were actually imagined by fiction writers long before scientists actually found out about them. My feeling is that a lot of creative thinking is done by non-scientists, at a time when most people have not explored the ideas that those "creative imaginings" spring from. And then this actually gives scientists something to work toward.

You do have a point, though, and I addressed that above: discovery does fuel imagination. And then imagination fuels discovery. And so on. Otherwise, the Baroque era would have been a dull, dull place!

My beef is with having my world (the world around me - geography, physics, etc.) so fully explained. Sure, there's more out there in the Universe, but my immediate surroundings are felt to be fully understood. I simply don't buy that. I think there are a lot of things that continue to be unexplained, and we are expected to believe they simply "don't exist" because science hasn't explained them yet.

Before I wander off into some great metaphysical place that I'm not intereste in exploring (!) I will sign off. Thanks for the great comment!

Honky-Tonk Dragon said...

Great Post!
I never read the Oz books as kid, was more a Narnia and the Howard Pyle Arthurian brat, but this post makes me look forward to putting these books on the bedtime story list.
Though he vehemently denied being a "magical realist," have you checked out Jorge Luis Borges? Wonderful, heady stuff. I highly recommend it. Ficciones is a good place to start.
Good luck with the Baroque Trilogy, by the way. It can be a little daunting, but I found it very rewarding. The time period and subject matter should be right up your alley, as well.
Keep up the great work on this blog!