"Represents" is a Dirty Word
It's been on my mind to blog again for awhile now, so here we go. I've always writing stream-of-conscience style (and I ALWAYS misspell concience) I have several different ideas I want to blog about today, but none are rising to the surface right now. Wait, no, here one comes now:
I've had a notion to write a non-fiction book on Tolkien's Story Stew idea from his essay On Fairy Stories. Especially after a fun back-and-forth I had with a friend about Joseph Campbell's Hero With A Thousand Faces book. Long story short, I'm just not a fan because I don't think Mr Campbell ever really allows himself to think for a second any of the great myths and legends which have been handed down to us have actual basis in reality. I much prefer Tolkien's infamous 'History became legend, legend became myth' approach, instead.
Once, my wife Steph and I were hiking along Albuquerque's eastern edge out by Rio Rancho. There's extinct volcanoes there, along with ancient petroglyphs. The signs planted next to the more prominent designs said things like ' we think this design represents man's eternal struggle against the earth' and stuff like that. While neither of us are experts, of course, their explanations just came off as ridiculous. Like, what's going to happen a thousand years from now when they find Coca Cola murals and some first year anthropologist attempts to explain it the same way? It's the use of the word 'represents' which I think is the real problem. It's ala-Campbell.
I think when we remove the possibility of fact in fantasy that we poison our own imaginations. Stifle creativity. I mean, I'm not saying we go full-blown Ancient Aliens here or anything, but it should give us pause. And maybe even a few thoughts.
Recently, I finished watching (in one day, don't judge me) a new Netflix documentary series, Dark
Tourist. In the show, a journalist from New Zealand travels to all these off sort of tourist places, including Narco Tourism, radioactive lakes in central Asia, and torture-not-torture recreations in (was it?) Kentucky?
I was fascinated for a whole bunch or reasons, of course. However, one of the big reasons the show got me, is because at the root of self-stylized Dark Tourist, we get to see an other. The mask of 'normal' western culture slips, and we see what it's like, mostly unfiltered, from the other side of the fence, looking deeper away from our Walmarts, gas stations, and Starbucks. We see reality lived in everyday ways which boggle our home-bound minds. And maybe, if we're open and paying attention, we get a little more humanized in the process, too.
How would it feel if our own lives and experiences, along with all the meaning we pack behind it, was explained away by words like 'represents'? Taking reality away from reality is insulting, lazy, and ignorant - and ultimately futile.
In one of my favorite CS Lewis books, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there's this character named Eustace Scrubb ("and he almost deserved it" - lol). He grew up only ever reading 'represents' sort of books. Only ever dwelt in what many would call the 'rational'. Think carefully sanitized biology textbooks and the like. His mind had been molded to disbelieve. So, when he comes to Narnia, he doesn't know what to do. Completely unequipped to deal with the reality of what he had been taught was impossible, he's practically useless for most of the story. Eustace is mean, spiteful, sulky... until he himself is magically transformed into something he doesn't believe in: A Dragon.
In a beautifully poignant moment, it takes the claws and trust in Aslan himself to cut through Eustace's beastliness. Deeper than all the dragon scales, deeper than any piece of himself Eustace could ever shed on his own.
To begin to see the world as it really is: miraculous and strange, we need claws to undo us. We need the Mythic at home with the blaise. The divine alive in the average. We need new eyes to see and new hearts to feel - that's what good Story is all about, ultimately, I think.
Wonder, after all, is a hell of a drug.