Boar poker, vanishing crabs and the limits of imagination

Brother Eared is a mystic. The Many Worlds have been revealed to him, and he started the tale of his revelation over the past couple of weeks. You can find the comics in sequence here, here and here.

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It’s also possible that he cheats at cards, at least according to his brother Feared.

This chapter will be the longest that we’ve posted so far at Little Grey Pages and the first step into the bigger universe we’ve created. I haven’t done any large scale worldbuilding in a while. The whiteboard above my desk is busy again.

For me, this is the difficult work. It’s why I’ve avoided writing science fiction and fantasy in recent years; it feels much more natural (comfortable?) to write in unfamiliar terms about familiar people in familiar places. When these variables are known and shared, I feel that I better focus on the writing itself earlier in the process.

It’s funny. As artists and writers and musicians, we want to emphasize that the potential of the imagination is endless, particularly to students and novices, and perhaps it is as a starting point. But as you begin to work, the possibilities narrow with each detail, and as the work nears completion, the number of available paths becomes fewer and fewer at each intersection. At the end of Going After Cacciato, Tim O’Brien presents this problem as part of a larger discussion of personal/political obligation in a surreal press conference of sorts held between two of the main characters. I’m reminded of the passage often as I write.

“Even in imagination we must obey the logic of what we starred. Even in imagination we must be true to our obligations, for, even in imagination, obligation cannot be outrun. Imagination, like reality, has its limits.”

Frankly, it sounds a bit nutty to say that we have a duty to the characters we create, that once desert is established by the imaginary actions of one of these imaginary agents, it must be resolved, as if this resolution is a thing in the world. But the debt must be paid. The obligation must be fulfilled. So it goes with melody and contrasting visual elements. When time is a factor in art – in writing, music and film, for example – the resolution can be postponed, but not for too long and not indefinitely, unless that’s the thesis – that the failure must end in failure, that the man will never change, that evil will always exist if not prevail, that contrition does not guarantee redemption, etc. Even then, even the most open-minded of us must admit to some dissatisfaction, even if this dissatisfaction is the point. Sometimes it just feels like a stunt. Art for artists. Art that makes people not “in the know” feel like the joke’s on them. John Cage comes to mind.

I tend to think of my work as a puzzle in the making. Scattered pieces that need to be cut and fashioned to fit together. It feels productive, engaged in a craft. Some are too large or too small. Some, you find, are pieces of another puzzle entirely. But even then, when 97 pieces of the 100 are placed, the last three must be shaped to conform to the arrangement of the rest or else the puzzle will never be solved if there’s a solution at all.

Catching up

It’s been a good seven months. Most of my efforts outside of work have been concentrated on two new loves in my life: the Little Grey Pages project and my son Arthur. He turned one year old on the first of July. My silence here on the blog marks the point at which he started truly interacting with his new world. He changes daily and I change along with him.

Little Grey Pages is going strong. So far this year, with the help of Crow and others, Red Panda still runs free in Washington, DC.

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Brother Weird Beard created a need no one knew they had.

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Oscar got a haircut with a mind of its own.

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Henry and Harriet have just begun to dig into the mysteries of Fretter’s Creek: fiery mountaintop rituals, ghostly pruners, haunted corn mazes and phantom fauna.

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On the Little Grey Pages blog, I started a series of posts called “From the Bookshelf”, where I dig up old readings related to the comic or story posted that week. When Heather was drawing up the “Big Haircut” storyline for The Rescue, I thought it would be fun to share Aristotle’s ideas on friendship as love of a second self.

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But most of the work I’d like to do on that front will be more obscure – clips from old storybooks mostly forgotten, hidden among the millions of scanned pages on sites like Google Books and Gutenberg.

We have lots of new material in the works. As we’ve gotten our footing with the characters and where they’re going, the story arcs will be a bit longer. For example, in the case of Fretter’s Creek, I have a few more short stories to share before the main arc begins, which will read more like a serial novel than a series of discontinuous vignettes.

For the comics themselves, I usually write up a description of each panel on each page – what happens, who says what, etc. and then draw a mock up. The last step is probably unnecessary. My sketches are so awful that I have to sit down with Heather anyway to go over what’s on the page, but she gets a kick out of my terrible drawings, which may be the main reason why I keep doing them. It’s great fun working together to see our little worlds come alive.

In the flux I’ve been working on other projects when I can, focusing more on revision and planning than actual writing. In the fall, I completed revisions on the novel I drafted last year and have written an outline for the rewrite. But I need to find the time and the “feel” again. Part of the issue is a lack of daily practice and long form writing. But it’s as much a reading problem as it is a writing problem.

So I’ve set out a stack of books on the nightstand. Some to help find that feel for writing well: short stories by Raymond Carver, Middlemarch, Notes from Underground, Death of a Salesman. And some to remind me of why I chose to be a writer in the first place: Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Out of the Silent Planet. I’ve read mostly philosophy texts over the past couple years, trying to find a bit of context for our current political and cultural climate, and while those ideas have provided new perspectives useful for fiction, I’d rather not find the tail-chasing writing quirks of philosophers cropping up in my work. I spend enough time fighting the tech writer’s tendencies.

Rain comes at sunset. The first few drops fall in the last light of day. Time to settle in again.

The orphaned moral of To Kill a Mockingbird

Years ago, a fellow writer told me that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was one of his favorite poems. As another writer who rarely reads poetry, I agreed. Beautiful and haunting. “Haunting?” he said. Sure. The narrator seems to be contemplating suicide, or perhaps fantasizing about his own end.

The writer was incredulous. He was upset. Ridiculous, he said. It’s a pastoral scene, a remark on the beauty and peace of winter and how the seasons relate to the span of our lives. I didn’t argue. Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps Frost’s sleep is a peaceful one, a completion. Perhaps the promises are immediate, a delivery to a friend or a dinner engagement with a loved one. I’m not one to trot out ultimate interpretations. But his objections seemed more like willing ignorance.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The bolded lines are, I think, what lead people like me to believe that the narrator is contemplating death, perhaps even suicide. The narrator has stopped “without a farmhouse near” on “the darkest evening of the year”; the owner of the property “will not see [him] stopping [there]”. He’s accompanied only by his horse, and is transfixed by the woods, “lovely, dark and deep”. How easily he could step off the road and disappear.

There is a reason to believe that Frost’s poem may have meaning beyond that of a rural scene, a “word painting,” a happy, harmless sentiment. How does one escape the narrator’s reluctant return to the road in the face of what he seems to desire most, the quiet oblivion of the forest?

I was reminded of this writer when I came across a listicle the other day: 5 things ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ got right 50 years ago that still ring true right now. (Only five?) The author pulls quotes from the book to confer a series of life lessons in the form of neatly rendered slogans, common stock among websites like Upworthy and Buzzfeed peddling feel-good clickbait advertisements for social media.

Four out of five of the “lessons” are innocuous, mostly apolitical. Lesson #4, however, presents a gross misrepresentation of Atticus’ closing speech; so much so, in fact, that her interpretation of the quote she pulled out of context attempts to prove a point directly opposite to that made by Atticus.

Here’s the quote she pulled from To Kill a Mockingbird:

We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe

Here’s the “lesson”:

Privilege is real. From race to baking cakes. Sometimes you’re born into it, and sometimes you’re born with it.

Here’s the quote, italicized, in context. The bolded parts are relevant to the arguments following.

Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal… There is a tendency… for certain people to use this phrase of context, to satisfy all conditions. The most ridiculous example I can think of is that people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious—because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority. We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believesome people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cake than others—some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of men.

But there is one way in this country which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man equal of an Einstein, and an ignorant man equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honourable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human constitution, but in this country our courts are the great levellers, and in our courts all men are created equal.

As a term, “privilege” is a bit of a moving target. For some, the term seems to comprehensively describe symptom, diagnoses and prognoses; for others it has a lighter meaning, a more general awareness of class and associated behaviors. Common among those who use the term is a prescription of some sort, urging or demanding acknowledgement of one’s privilege or lack thereof, and expecting appropriate behavior according to one’s place in the progressive stack. Often these are strident calls for what used to be called common decency. Sometimes they go beyond, calling for a Marxian-styled new human, properly educated, properly placed and under the eye of one or another expert, who adopts a necessary, paternal role in the process. Put more simply, the term has a complex contemporary meaning.

I won’t guess as to how the author uses it precisely. But as you see, in the above quote, Atticus does acknowledge differences in opportunity, race, ability and other human attributes. We are not born equal. Individuals are different. But for him, this is supplementary, a statement of the obvious, a component of a larger argument, not a sufficient condition of injustice requiring a particular action. In fact, Atticus seems downright in opposition to efforts seeking to equalize in the fashion of some modern civil rights activists:

The most ridiculous example I can think of is that people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious — because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority.

Terrible feelings of inferiority. What animates our modern advocates for social justice more than the perceived/predicted feelings of groups for whom they often attempt to speak? Would the author of the article agree with Atticus’ argument, that efforts to democratize public education are ridiculous, that school administrators are fools for trying to spare the feelings of some children at the expense of others’ educational opportunities? Atticus turns that notion of equality on its head. He outright ridicules it.

For Atticus, the miscarriage of justice lies not in the discrepancies between the varying attributes of individuals; it lies in the discrepancy between how the law is applied to blacks and whites, in the very place where all people are supposed to be equal: before the law.

The point is obvious when the entire passage is considered, when the quote is placed properly in context. The distance between the author’s interpretation and one based on a thorough reading of Atticus’ speech (viz., not my shorthanded rebuttal written here) is the distance between the dilettante and the scholar, the sophist and the philosopher.

Rick Roderick, one of my favorite professors of philosophy, said the following regarding the presentation of precisely this sort of orphaned adage by campaigning moral instructors:

I remember studying Shakespeare, and they gave me this quote to remember from Polonius, you know – “To thine own self be true” – this could be the first line of every twelve step plan or therapy: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man”.

Of course, in the context of the play, you realize that Polonius is a bureaucrat, a politician, a windbag, a blowhard, shallow, stupid in his wisdom, is – as I said earlier – just exactly the banality of a common mind, but yet at grade school we teach this.

See how smart Shakespeare was? He was smart enough to show that that wasn’t wisdom – that kind of commonplace crap wasn’t wisdom – he was that smart, and more.

Even if there is no ultimate interpretation of a work, there are certainly shades of better and worse. The better are, at the very least, logical and obey some rule of non-contradiction. The best are comprehensive, taking for granted that every word, every phrase and every line in a work by Frost or Shakespeare or Lee has meaning and purpose, leading to or emanating from the central theme and thesis.

Soap bubbles?

It’s from a passage in John Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers:
Through the window at the opposite side of the ward he could see a bit of blue sky among white scroll-like clouds, with mauve shadows. He stared at it until the clouds, beginning to grow golden into evening, covered it. Furious, hopeless irritation consumed him. How these people enjoyed hating! At that rate it was better to be at the front. Men were more humane when they were killing each other than when they were talking about it. So was civilization nothing but a vast edifice of sham, and the war, instead of its crumbling, was its fullest and most ultimate expression. Oh, but there must be something more in the world than greed and hatred and cruelty. Were they all shams, too, these gigantic phrases that floated like gaudy kites high above mankind? Kites, that was it, contraptions of tissue paper held at the end of a string, ornaments not to be taken seriously. He thought of all the long procession of men who had been touched by the unutterable futility of the lives of men, who had tried by phrases to make things otherwise, who had taught unworldliness. Dim enigmatic figures they were–Democritus, Socrates, Epicurus, Christ; so many of them, and so vague in the silvery mist of history that he hardly knew that they were not his own imagining; Lucretius, St. Francis, Voltaire, Rousseau, and how many others, known and unknown, through the tragic centuries; they had wept, some of them, and some of them had laughed, and their phrases had risen glittering, soap bubbles to dazzle men for a moment, and had shattered. And he felt a crazy desire to join the forlorn ones, to throw himself into inevitable defeat, to live his life as he saw it in spite of everything, to proclaim once more the falseness of the gospels under the cover of which greed and fear filled with more and yet more pain the already unbearable agony of human life.