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Saturday, 23 June 2007


SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read The Amber Spyglass or 1984, and don't want to know plot points beforehand, don't read this (I say nothing for Brave New World because I doubt that prior knowledge of the stuff I'll say on it would make the book less interesting). I use both books to illustrate ideas in ways which give away part of the ending.

L.L. Barkat has been writing about stories recently, a subject that has to be fascinating to anyone who, like me, reads Terry Pratchett as much for philosophy as for laughs.

I need books. I've been reading one book after another ever since I first learned how. I need them for emotional expression -- I tend to feel like I haven't fully understood an emotion until I've felt it through a book character as well as through myself. Somehow, reading about someone else feeling something similar is the best way to validate the feelings that shape me (though seeing it on film or in a play is a good second). Books are my release. Books challenge my assumptions. I read books written at every level of heaviness, for every age group. I couldn't live without them.

A good story will often have all sorts of small threads, any one of which could be important to a given reader, as part of a whole which has a more over-arching message. When I first read The Amber Spyglass, I took away what I think was one of the main messages, the idea that you should lead your life fully and richly. By the end of the book, the world, nay, the multiverse, has been rearranged so that everyone must do this. Why? Because when you die and go to the world of the dead, the messengers will only show you the way out (to dissolve at last in the light) if you have a true story with which to repay them for their trouble. You must have some kind of story. If you are alive, you should live. And this highlighting of the importance of richly experiencing things is central to the book's later climax.

But when I re-read the book, years later, while I was interested to realise how it had influenced my philosophy, the most important thing to me was a smaller point, a mere expression of emotion. The Amber Spyglass has the best expression I've ever seen of what it's like to fall in love deeply for the first time and then lose it before it even starts. I needed that story. It's not actually a very common one; certainly I never found a pop song which lamented my love the way I needed to grieve for it.

Similarly, it was a minor realisation from George Orwell's 1984 that was most important to me the first time I read it. While the political insight is important, and I'm glad for that reason that I had to read it for English, the most important thing for me at first was when I got to the end where the authorities finally find a way to break him. I remember letting the book fall for a moment, lying on my bed and staring at the ceiling, transfixed, thinking Everybody has a breaking point. Logically, you can only value one thing above all else and it isn't usually anything particularly brave or noble; you shouldn't expect it to be. "Everybody has a breaking point," I whispered to the ceiling . . .

. . . and forgave myself.

Speaking of dystopias, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World had a rather important effect on me. It made me distinctly uncomfortable. I didn't really want to know the things it was saying. You see, my morality has always had a distinctly utilitarian bent. But Huxley's failed utopia is one which is designed to make people happy. They are brainwashed from birth to like being the way they are. If they get unhappy, there is a nice drug with few unpleasant side effects that they can take which will remedy the situation with perfect ease.

The whole set-up is creepy. Huxley creates this effect deliberately, mind, but in my view the creepy aspects that are hardest to put down to nothing more than culture shock are those which relate most strongly to the way in which the society of the book tries (with considerable success) to eliminate unhappiness from the world. Why? Well, maybe it's because the people who live there generally have no stories. Their lives are happy, if bland, but so devoid of story that even the comprehension of exciting, interesting stories is beyond them.

So that's how a story modified my view of the 'good' that we as individuals and as a society should strive to create. Sure, we should promote people's happiness, but we should also help their stories along. It's good to have a society in which people can dream for things. It's good for people to have a few problems (maybe not too many) and it's good for those problems to be solvable. Human beings need stories in order 'to be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape', as Death says in Hogfather. Let's not forget it.


L.L. Barkat said...

I think this is what can be creepy about any organized group (secular or religious)... there is the danger of eclipsing individual story in service of the Larger Story. (the larger story in Huxley being "happiness no matter what") When the larger story is bland or false, this is even more disturbing.

On the other hand, I think that participation in a beautiful Larger Story can be invigorating when it invites individual voices... much like an opera, which depends so much on individual interpretation of roles and individual vocal expression.

spaghettipie said...

Lynet, I've been meaning to get over here and comment on this blog for a while. I totally agree that stories have an amazing way to impact us. I still remember books I read back in high school that were major influences on my life...books whose stories and meanings still come to mind as I experience life now. Words are powerful, aren't they?

I heard from a friend that Donald Miller is probably working on a book about this very topic - viewing our lives as stories and making intentional decisions about what our story is going to say when we're done writing it (and I'd suggest, how we influence other people's stories too.)

You always have such deep, thought-provoking insights. I enjoy reading your blog and your comments.

Alon Levy said...

I have a similar reaction to some books, but I've found they only comprise a small minority of what I read, to say nothing of all the books there are. Non-fiction obviously doesn't tell me stories; fiction does only if it invests in character psychology heavily and in one of a few particular ways, which even most literary fiction doesn't.

Brave New World never did that to me... I found it too setting-driven to be impressed with the characters, though I still think what you said about not having individual stories is very insightful. The Huxley book I did relate to this way is Point Counterpoint; there the characters have believable individual stories, so you get the sense that you see how social ideas interact with personality.

Anonymous said...

This post was really interesting.

Pratchett makes some very good points about the power of stories, (especially in Witches Abroad, where the three witches go to Genua and meet Granny Weatherwax's sister who holds a city under the power of narrative. Granny Weatherwax has to subvert this power to restore free will to the city. )