Monday, May 18, 2009

Fictional input

I've stumbled across a bunch of really interesting stuff, beginning with the online blog/journal OnFiction. Not all up my alley, but...

I enjoyed the entries (1 and 2) by on dérives and psychogeography as exercises in geographic freeing-from-preconception. Or something. Still not clear what the things are for, but it feels like they relate to my earlier discussions of pilgrimage as a possible metaphor for a modern performative cartography:

However much these mechanisms may be associated with a particular way of exploring places, they are really merely the training wheels of psychogeography: tools to break the habits of everyday automatic interactions with place and perceptions of place as real and given. Disrupting such habits leaves mental resources for more exploratory stances toward the environment, in which explorers tune in to the behaviors or emotions that the situation and setting most afford.

Also enjoyed Keith Oakley's essay on art, which in turn referenced a really interesting (and obvious, in a good way) article in Greater Good magazine, on, essentially, the functional benefits of fiction. This in a way turns me back full circle to things I was reading 20 years ago about children's literature and the "uses of enchantment," to use Bruno Bettelheim's phrase. I ought to go back an read Jane Yolen's Touch Magic, Bettelheim, and some other stuff I have sitting on a shelf downstairs...

So much to learn, so little time.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Over to you

There's something enormously powerful about a performer turning "it" back to the audience. I remember being deeply impressed with Peter Gabriel's closing of the Amnesty tour in 1986, when he essentially turned the closing cries of "Biko" over to the audience, and then left the stage. Here's a video from that tour:

My brother saw the Philadelphia leg of the tour, and reports that the chanting went on for several minutes after everyone had left the stage. Somehow that image gives me chills.

I'm thinking of two other memorable theatrical instances of this. One was a performance of Shakespeare's The Tempest with Patrick Stewart. The play ends with Prospero alone on stage, addressing the audience:

Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,

Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;

But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,

Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,

Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

What I remember is how Stewart's emphasis of "you" really did transfer the power of the magical play over to us, the audience.

The other theatrical event I'm thinking of is the finale of Nicholas Nickleby, the mammoth Royal Shakespeare Company production that came to the Broadway in 1982 (?). Smike has died, and the boys who escaped from Squeers' "school" are wandering the countryside in the cold. As the cast sings a gorgeous version of "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen," with soaring counterpont of "and it's tidings of comfort and joy," Nicholas (played by Roger Rees), who is rushing across the stage, sees a shivering boy huddled at the front of the stage, dressed in rags, perhaps already dead. Nicholas stops, walks over, tenderly picks up the boy, and holds it up to the audience, looking straight at them with a look that says, "And what are you going to do?"


I still get shivers from that one, 27 years later.

And this kind of theater is what I love about Pete Seeger. Regardless of his politics (and it doesn't hurt that his politics are pretty close to mine), what I like most about him is his insistence on "over to you" as part of his performance and all of his public work. It's like what we call "empowerment" nowadays, but it's not just about power. It's also about responsibility. And when we say "power," it's a specificaly democratic sense of power: the performance consciously gathers force and focus on the stage, and then finds a way to hand that force and focus back to the audience for them to carry it out into the world. I really like that. I wish more performers and makers of things knew how to do that.

Silly Stories

From Kenneth Lillington's Josephine:

"Ah, you are thinking of Frankenstein, Miss Tugnutt. By Mary Shelley. Shelley's wife, you know. A very silly story."


"Dreadfully silly. Frankenstein's monster is eight feet tall. You'd think that would make him a bit conspicuous, wouldn't you? Not a bit of it," said Mr Cropper, chuckling. "He hides in a hut adjoining a remote cottage where he remains undetected for several months. He watches the occupants through a chink in the wall, and learns their language so well that he can speak it in a style indistinguishable from theirs. He also – still depending on the chink – learns to read. His books include Plutarch's Lives and Paradise Lost. He becomes widely informed in geography, metaphysics and natural philosophy. He achieves in a few months what it took mankind, through the more laborious process of evolution, thousands of years –"...

"How did Frankenstein make him?"

"Ah! we never know.... The author simply assures us that "the secret is too terrible to be told."

"An easy way out!"

"Yes, indeed. It is a very silly story."

"Why did anyone ever read it, Mr Cropper?"

"Because, my dear Miss Tugnutt, men have a great need for silly stories."

I do enjoy Kenneth Lillington.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

True Stories

Fictions are stories that are admittedly not accurate reportings of the real world, but which are valued because they tell general truths about the world. Non-fictions are stories that are valued as accurate reportings on the world.

So far so good. But then we get into religious stories, where we fight each other over whether the stories are true or not. Fiercely.

Why is it important to us whether these stories are fact or fiction?

There's been a similar (if more restrained) fight in the map-theory world over the "truthiness" of maps, and I think a similar question here can be raised: why is it so important that maps be seen as a reflection of the "real world"? Here, the answer is clearer: we want an accurate portrayal of the earth so we can use it as the basis of discussion of the real world. If it's not accurate, we can't use it the way we want to.

Is the same thing true of religious stories? Fundamentalist approaches to religion take this tack: "Everything in my Scripture is literally true, so I can use that as my Certainty. That's my foundation, my bedrock." But less fundamentalist points of view still need a sense of certainty in their stories... they need to look at their scriptures not as myth, but as something closer to Truth.

I think what often happens is, religious truth goes in a different compartment than everyday truth. Because what is said in religious texts is largely about extraordinariness rather than repeatable-experiment reality, we can put them into a mental space that is neither "made up" nor "verifiable", but is instead "non-verifiable but believed in." And religious texts do contain material that, like good fiction, contains general truths about the world: morals, ethics, love, justice, the very idea of truth.

The reason maps and other reference materials carry that peculiar aura about them is that they can (within limits) be relied upon. That in doing this they satisfy a need says to me there is something inherent in humans that needs this foundation. When people then ascribe to maps a level of "objectivity" or "truth" that we cartographers are aware they don't warrant, this is not an indication that people are stupid. I think it's an indication that people are people.