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Beware the Savage Jaw

As Pooh says, "When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it," so I've got the need to articulate something that's sloshing around inside, and because it never crawls out of the slosh, we don't get an idea whether it's a Nessie or a log or somebody holding their arm just so for the camera.

I have ideas that have stuck in me like beliefs, but they aren't an article of faith. They are biases, assertions. I should call them axia, because they're principles I've adopted in order to establish hypothoses about reality.

Of these, some are directly related to what I'm trying to accomplish with fiction:
  1. The mind, arising from brain matter, is more malleable than common sense lets on. This is because brain matter is more malleable than we are led to believe. Consequently, man in the distant past and man in isolated cultures actually THINKS differently from the modern mind.
  2. This distance is one of habit: language, social estimation, normative emphasis, political perception, etc. All the repetitive tasks, thoughts, perceptions, dreams, etc. that go into making a mind "work", and so lay down the neural pathways that make up the persons we are.
  3. The difference between magic, rationality, and common sense is simply a matter of explanation. It's a cultural difference, not a concrete one. The radio is magic to the savage, and the spirit-walk is magic to the chartered accountant.
  4. All change is change in habit, and is therefore change in neural pathways. Things are only real because they are perceived. This is not to say that concrete reality does not go on unobserved, but that to the mind, all that is real must first be perceived, because perception is the first step to consciousness.
  5. Most actions in life require little conscious thought. e.g.: how many strokes did you use to brush your teeth this morning? (those who said "none" need to consider a better regemin of oral hygeine.)

We live in a postmodern world. Like it or not, it's a fact. The modern world, based as it is on the idea that reason can provide an all-encompassing framework, that causality and logic can enclose all of creation has been known to be bunk for a long, long, time. With no apologies to Bill Clinton, we do not actually know what "is" is.

We live in a global era. The postmodern world is a global clash of cultures. There IS a war on, and the battlefield is inside your head. The 20th century was a huge example of getting the map confused with the terrain, with the idea that you can make political change at the point of a gun. In many ways, this was fairly effectively shown, but where is Stalin now? Hitler? Pol Pot? McNamara? bin Laden? Political power may grow out of the barrel of a gun, but reality does not, and reality is entropic to political structures.

Yet at the same time, the modern viewpoint has never been stronger. Modernism, which is really just Western tradition in synthetic clothing, is being adopted worldwide, mostly through the absorption of global media, especially the Internet, into traditional societies. The argument has been made that this is the end of history, the triumph of the Western viewpoint, that, indeed, this is the pax Americana. The Internet, for example, brings this combination of rugged individualism, freedom, and public discourse that epitomizes Western Politics.

But it is, in fact, a two-way street. I read something today written by Richard Sennett in 1974 could very well be talking about the Internet, and especially the blogosphere:

Western societies are moving from something like an other-directed condition to an inner-directed condition—except that in the midst of self-absorption no one can say what is inside. As a result, confusion has arisen between public and intimate life; people are working out in terms of personal feelings public matters which properly can be dealt with only through codes of impersonal meaning.

This confusion might appear to be a peculiarly American problem. The value American society places on individual experience might seem to lead its citizens to measure all social life in terms of personal feeling. However, it is not rugged individualism which is now experienced; rather, it is anxiety about individual feeling which individuals write large in terms of the way the world works. The source of this anxiety lies in broad changes in capitalism and in religious belief. These are not narrowly national in their boundaries

Anxiety about what one feels might also be seen as the spread, and the vulgarization, of the Romantic "quest for personality." Such a quest has not been conducted in a social vacuum; it is the conditions of ordinary life which have propelled people into this Romantic search for self-realization. Further, it has been beyond the scope of literary studies of this quest to weigh up the costs to society which result and these costs are great.

—from The Fall of Public Man

It's been twenty-five years since I read Alan Watts, and what I read was twenty-five years old, so please correct me if I have this wrong, but one thing Alan Watts said about Zen Buddhism is that in the teacher-student relationship, there is a formal method of discourse. When presented with a yes-no question for which neither answer is appropriate, there is a third answer, "mu*". When the teacher uses "mu", this is to say "neither—the question is inappropriate to the answer." This is important, because in the turbocharged path to nirvana that is Zen Buddhism, liberation of the mind from the vicissitudes of reality is a complex, knotty problem, and falling into didactic statements is particularly contrary to the buddha-nature. It is a most insidious form of attachment, and leads to suffering.

And this is why I'm so excited by speculative fiction. Enough so that I'm spending my mid-life crisis diving into it, cutting back on work, and generally making an ass of myself online (QED).

Why? Because speculative fiction is the "mu" to today's yes-no questions.

Think about it:

Q: "Do you want fries with that?"
A: "I'd rather have a chilled goblet of unicorn tears, stirred by the inklings of tomorrow's regret."

Q: "Are you voting Democrat or Republican?"
A: "I'm voting for the semiconscious semiautonomous being that lives and sweats below the streets of the city, groaning into the saxophone of immortal bliss."

Q: "Where would you like to be in five years?"
A: "Drinking the blood of my enemies from the skull of the dragon-king."

Q: "gas-guzzling SUV or fuel-efficient hybrid?"
A: "Actually, I think I'll move to the mound of the termite people, and conduct my business by calling across the darkened void in a binary language of whistles and clicks."

Q: "you're either with us, or you're with the terrorists."
A: "Silence fool! I owe fealty to the Contingent of Ee, and I am proud to be counted among the Steel-shatter brigade. If you would care to take a number, your request will be served by the next Vogon constructor-ship."

On the surface, you might think that this is an endorsement of escapism. You would be wrong. It's a denial of the reality of the habit, of the mind-stuff that wires the brain to behave in a certain way, to accept the imaginings of others as facts, to project causality onto consensual reality. It's the most insidious form of nonviolent protest. It is the creation of what should be real out of the stuff of unreality. And to bring out of the cave the horror that hides behind the calm patina of accepted behaviour.

I have to credit John Romer with this insight: Rome did not fall. There is a lot of investment in the idea that Rome fell by the Church, by the political leadership that came after, but the fact is that Rome never fell. All the interesting people and all the doers and makers moved to Byzantium and Rome slowly decayed by neglect until it could not defend or sustain itself any longer. People simply ignored it for a couple of hundred years, and it disappeared like the illusion it was.

Somebody, please let Horselover out of the Black Iron Prison now.

*Which leads to the charming story that the proper answer to "does a dog have buddha-nature" is "Wu!" (barking). A sense of humour is a good indicator of an enlightened spirit, in my book, which is a dog-eared and misbound book, to be sure, but it's mine.