Wednesday, December 31, 2008

From seven to one

According to Christopher Booker, the seven basic plots can, in fact, be reduced to different aspects of one story:
Each begins by showing us a hero or heroine in some way incomplete, who then encounters the dark power. Through most of the story the dark power remains dominant, casting a shadow in which all remains unresolved. But the essence of the action is that it shows us the light and dark forces in the story gradually constellating to produce a final, decisive confrontation. As a result, in any story which reaches complete resolution (and of course for reasons we will explore there are many which do not), the ending shows us how the dark power can be overthrown, with the light ending triumphant. The only question is whether the central figure is identified with the light, in which case he or she ends up liberated and whole; or whether they have fallen irrevocably into the grip of darkness, inwhich case they are destroyed. But, whatever the fate of the central figure, the real underlying purpose of the process has been to show us how, in the end, light overcomes the darkness. Such is the archetypal pattern around which our human urge to imagine stories is ultimately centred.
A couple of thoughts. First, how "light" and "darkness" are defined isn't necessarily linked to a particular morality. A friend recently wrote an essay relating to a couple of short stories, in whih the heroines found themselves "liberated" through what would be conventionally immoral behaviour. But even so, the dynamic is one of movement from darkness and confusion into light in a properly resolved narrative. (I've yet to see what he does with unresolved ones: still only at page 250 of 700 or so!) However, there is a sense of morality of some sort; Macbeth, Humbert, Bonnie and Clyde are clearly recognisable as people who have transgressed, no matter how sympathetic the reader is to them at different stages.

Next, and this is one that really interests me, is how closely this reflects a Christian perception of the world. Booker is, as far as I know, not a Christian, and refers to the evolutionary origins of such archetypes. Later in the book, he intends to develop his theory about the origin. However, it is striking that the very language he uses to describe these archetypes should have been borrowed so directly from the gospels.

As I've mentioned before, my theory is that we are designed to respond to certain forms of narrative because the designer has a particular narrative to tell that it is important to understand. This narrative is an historical one, and relates to a battle between light and darkness - and the key question is whether a person aligns themselves with light or with darkness. Interesting that such a weighty work should come to a conclusion about narrative which should be so linked.

More generally, this book is amazing, and I really don't want it to end. It is presenting a kind of "Grand Unified Theory" not only of literature but of all narrative, and making a reading list for me for the rest of my life! Peer Gynt,, The Snow Queen and Dorian Gray are all there now ... yeah, I know, should have read them already. I've had a lot on ....

Favourite albums

"This Beautiful Mess", Sixpence None The Richer
Their later albums, "Divine Discontent" and the self-titled one, were more polished, but the expressiveness of the lyrics on this one, together with Tess Wiley's harmony on Leigh Nash's lead vocal, make this my favourite, at least this week.

"Achtung Baby", U2
Chuck away the first three tracks (Zoo Station, Even Better, One) and listen to the bitterest songs the Fab Four ever strung together.

"Rainy Day Assembly", Tess Wiley
Again, Tess's other albums are good, but the strength of the writing and singing in this one make it my favourite.

"Going for the One", Yes
Particularly for "Turn of the Century", though all the songs are incredibly well crafted musically, in my opinion.

"Little Creatures", Talking Heads
The most commercially successful of their albums, and certainly one of the most accessible. "Stop Making Sense", from their concert film, is up there as well.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Ooh, this is exciting!

As we look at how each of the basic plots has developed what may be called its 'dark' and 'sentimental' versions, we see how a particular element of disintegration has crept into modern storytelling which distinguishes it from anything seen in history before. But this in turn merely reveals one of the most remarkable features of how stories take shape in human imagination; because we also see how those archetypal rules which have governed storytelling since the dawn of history have in no way changed. In fact these 'aberrant' stories not only obey the same rules; they even in themselves provide all the clues to understanding what has gone amiss, and why they cannot come to fully satisfactory endings. They thus show us just how and why in the collective psyche of our culture this element of disintegration should have arisen.
The next page (slow - I've been busy)...

Really looking forward to this book ...

The further my investigation proceeded, the more clearly two things emerged. The first was that there are indeed a small number of plots which are so fundamental to the way we tell stories that it is virtually impossible for any storyteller ever entirely to break away from them.

The second was that, the more familiar we become with the nature of these shaping forms and forces lying beneath the surface of stories, pushing them into patterns and directions which are beyond the storyteller's conscious control, the more we find that we are entering a realm to which recognition of the plots themselves proves only to have been the gateway. We are in fact uncovering nothing less than a kind of hidden, universal language: a nucleus of situations and figures which are the very stuff from which stories are made. And once we become acquainted with this symbolic language, and begin to catch something of its extraordinary significance, there is literally no story in the world which cannot then be seen in a new light: because we have come to the heart of what stories are about and why we tell them.

"The Seven Basic Plots", Christopher Booker p.6

Not my idea ...

In a recent post. I restated my idea that the universal hero was not somebody that we are all supposed to identify ourselves with, but is in fact a representation of somebody that we are all looking for. This is a specific case of a general idea that we are all designed to respond to narrative, because there is a great narrative that as humans we are hardwired somehow to look for aand respond to.

I was reminded today that this thesis is not in fact mine - a good thing, as I certainly don't have the knowledge to defend it. It apparently comes from an English professor from the University of Oxford, so it has fairly respetable academic standing.

The professor is C.S.Lewis. If any reader knows which (if any) of his books includes a statement of this thory, I'd love to hear from you, so that I can see what he actually does say!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The problem of miracles ...

... is one that is entirely a consequence of presuppositions.

Let's define a miracle first of all as an event which lies outside the bounds of normal cause and effect. This isn't something which is just a little improbable - somebody with cancer going into remission, for example, or somebody winning the lottery. It is something which is so improbable as to be considered impossible by any sensible person - for example, the sun standing still, or somebody who has been dead for three days coming back to life, or feeding 5000 and more people from a child's packed lunch. I think it was Arthur C. Clarke who pointed out that had the sun genuinely stopped moving in the sky, everybody on the planet would have slid across the surface for a thousand miles or so. In scientific terms, then, these miracles are preposterous.

Traditionally, alternative explanations are found, and the most hard-boiled miracles - the ones where it really becomes impossible to explain the narrative in terms of anything else - end up being discounted as myth. Why is that? Because such events lie outside our concept of how cause and effect work - we don't see how that can have been brought about. What has happened is that we have asserted, in effect, that all events must be confined to material cause and effect. Miracles don't happen, basically, because miracles don't happen.

Incidentally, a kind of reverse process happens for some aspects of myth. I remember in secondary school, some aspects of the account of Jason's travels in the Argo sound scientifically preposterous. But set against the background of the explosion of Santorini, all of a sudden some of the events become somewhat more explicable. That's another post, though ....

If you don't believe in God, or you believe in a God who is constrained to act in accordance with the laws of the universe, or you believe in a God who is detached from the universe, then it's inevitable that you will end up having to find an alternative explanation for miracles. But from a Christian point of view, there is no such problem. In Christian epistemological terms, the universe is God's universe. He created it; he has the ability to define the nature of reality. If he chooses to make the sun stand still over Gibeon - to suspend the laws of nature for some period of time, in one locality - then he can do that. The fact that there is no scientific way of explaining how it happened and no evidence for it is neither here nor there. That doesn't mean it didn't take place - simply that our scientific framework gives us no ability to determine how it took place.

Of course, this itself will rankle with people brought up on anything close to a materialistic worldview. "If we can't explain it, and there is no evidence for it, then how can we know it happened?" The thing is that materialism doesn't provide a worldview for explaining everything we see anyway. Aside from the fact that we can't really escape definitively from the solipsistic perspective that everything is in fact a dream, we then have to wrestle with the fact that materialism doesn't actually provide anything like a proper explanation of why there should be anything rather than nothing. In other words, rejecting accounts of miracles because they aren't consistent with a materialistic explanation of an event begs the issue that materialism fails to provide an adequate explanation of phenomena which are observed, and which we are unable to reject.

This is, I think, the heart of one of Berlinski's arguments against "atheism and its scientific pretentions" in "The Devil's Delusion".

Friday, December 19, 2008

A post from Madrid

I'm sitting in the breakfast room of the Auditorium hotel, near Barajas airport, which has the most impressive breakfast buffet I have ever seen - and, for that matter, is probably the biggest breakfast room I have ever seen, including the vast clinical ones at Disney. And the muzak is particularly classy.

I am writing this thanks to the free internet access the hotel provides, and my G1 phone, which isn't as good as a proper computer, but is cheaper and also allows me to make more phonecalls per month than I can conceive of being to able to use, right now. I do have a notebook with me, but wireless networking on our XP computers seems to have gone batty, and its ethernet socket has never worked properly. Shame, or I could Skype right out of my bedroom.

The breakfast ought to make up for the general frustration of being here, but to be honest I don't feel like eating much. I had about three of my five a day, in the form of fresh fruit, and a couple of coffees and a croissant. But I'm still clanked from my "easy" journey here yesterday, which was 80 minutes late, and then followed by a wait outside the terminal for 50 minutes for a shuttle bus to the hotel. It being holiday season, a selection of these buses has been cancelled, and they rather neatly coincide with the buses I would want to take. So I also have to go to work half an hour earlier than I need to, to ensure I get there in time. Oh well, not like there's much else worth doing.

The reason for this post is really to point out that I do intend to write from here, but due to the limited writing and viewing facilities, there may be more in the way of spelling and formatting errors that normal. Sorry about that.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Party at the End of Civilization - Introduction

The intention is that this will be a series of posts related to this theme. "Orgy" might have been better in the title, but the problem is that these days, this would suggest that I am only talking about sex, which I'm not. "Party" isn't really a strong enough word - the sense that I am trying to get across is of a culture that is unconsciously set on destroying itself through all sorts of excess - "entertaining itself to death" - in the widest sense of "entertaining", and with a real sense that the disintegration is already happening.

I started trying to write a poem, to try and capture some of how I felt, but I was conscious that it looked pretty derivative, and in any case, I discovered yesterday that the soundtrack to the party had already been written, and it's the album "Zooropa", by U2. The title track dismantles the excesses of commercialism; "Babyface" talks about pornography, which has only become a more universal part of the culture since the early 90's; "Daddy's gonna pay for your crashed car" is a sardonic commentary on irresponsibility; and "The Wanderer" even speaks about the compromised state of Christianity within the culture. The "ZooTV: Live from Sydney" DVD still looks bitingly relevant to where our civilization has got to - except perhaps that "reality" TV has taken the place of soap operas.

For more formal commentary, there are a couple of excellent books which analyse the disintegrating culture. One is "Amusing ourselves to Death", by Neil Postman (1987). Another, written from a Christian perspective, is "Fit Bodies, Fat Minds", by Os Guinness (1994). Neither is in print, so it's necessary to fish around a bit for copies of them. Both are very well written - not dry, but possibly even playful. I thought "The Closing of the American Mind" would do something similar, but in my opinion, Allan Bloom just sounded like a grumpy old git in it. (I should have loved it, then - hah! Got there first!)

But what I want to try and do in these posts is bring some of the themes they talked about up to date.... well, we'll see how it goes.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


... about the lack of commenting. I "upgraded" the template - a simple operation, which of course guarantees that the whole thing goes completely wrong, and needs to be stitched painstakingly back together. Isn't technology wonderful?

If you are a facebook friend, and wish to comment, you could do so on my wall or on the "Notes" section of my profile. In the meantime, perhaps when I get a few spare hours (next April) I'll reinstate the comments. Or more likely, the old template.

A hundred million bottles washed up on the shore

... but it didn't help much, because all the people sending their SOSs to the world were still on their own.

This is something I've been struggling with, in the last few weeks. A lot of it has to do with my job. I work shifts, so I don't have many weekends off. This limits my contact with my church family, the community outside my family with whom I am most comfortable. I get more time off than average, but a lot of it (five sevenths!) is during the week. Particularly in term time, I end up spending most of the day on my own, with only my own mind for company, except morning and evening when domesticity requires frenetic activity and coaxing children into getting done what needs to be done. By the time adult conversation becomes a realistic possibility, we're generally thinking of bed ourselves, ready for the next day's onslaught!

At work, I'm rarely with the same people two days running, so don't form close working relationships. Largely, the job is goal-oriented, rather than person-oriented. Non-work related conversation generally doesn't go much beyond the three or so questions I have been asking for the last 16 years - "Do you live nearby? How long have you been doing this? What did you do before this?" Unsurprisingly, it's hard to maintain much interest in these questions having asked and answered them literally thousands of times. My employer is quite multi-cultural - which is great, from the point of view of the colour of the company, but it makes forming connections even harder. And for the most part, I seem to have very little shared ground in terms of values, experiences and ideas. Which, being simply translated, means I don't read the Daily Mail or Hello magazine or watch reality TV or things like X-Factor. Occasionally, you do get into a good chat with somebody - but then you don't see them for the next six months .... And people live over a wide area, so socialising outside work isn't easy.

Sometimes I have to stay away from home, in a hotel. The hotels are nice enough, if you were staying in them with people you cared about and doing interesting stuff. But to be honest, when you are forced to stay there, probably with nobody who you particularly know, they are sensory deprivation chambers - most particularly in the respect of human company - voices, thoughts, presence. I understand that quite a bit of immoral behaviour takes place in hotels - not that I've seen it, though I'm aware of gossip, of what's on the Pay TV channels, and how "discretion is assured" on your bills. It doesn't come as a great surprise - a hotel from work is a pretty lonely place. I wrote a poem about it once ...

So the thought of doing this for another 20-25 years is currently filling me with - well, I don't know - a kind of resigned dread.

From time to time, you meet somebody and there is a genuine engagement with their mind - something happens that is beyond the everyday, something that feels like real knowledge, real communion, real intercourse. I think that, although a lot of people today never bother with this - probably don't even know it exists - scratching unawarely at the itch instead by substituting a cheap version of sex, it is something that thoughtful non-Christians are better at than many Christians - perhaps we are generally too scared of the intensity of emotions that it can create, and how closely linked they are to the depth of feeling that is part of a marriage relationship. Yes, a marriage relationship should be off-limits to everyone else, from a Christian point of view; yes, there should be no areas that a husband and wife can't talk about together: but it's almost inevitable that there will be some areas in which even the most deeply absorbed husband and wife will not necessarily find the same interest, and as long as the boundaries of that relationship are protected, I can't see that it is harmful for those things to be shared with somebody else. To take an obvious example, except where a husband and wife are working together, this is likely to be an area in which they simply keep their own space.

But in a sense, that idea of a close communion of minds is extreme. You can't say if that's going to happen - it just does, from time to time, and it changes your perspective on life, opening up completely new ways of seeing things and knowing things. More realistically, you hope that at some stage, somebody will at least say, "Yeah, that's how I feel about it - that book, that idea, that picture - too. There is somebody else out there like me."

So that's partly why I blog - to get some of the stuff out of my mind, in the hope that someone, somewhere will read it and be engaged by it. This is my message in a bottle - and usually, the real message isn't what you read in the post.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

It runs deep

The Bible, that is ...

There's the story of the Samaritan woman, in John 4. In this, various things happen - Jesus demonstrates, counter to the prevailing orthodoxy, that the message about the arrival of the Messiah is for women, sinners and cultural outsiders. He shows supernatural knowledge of the woman's circumstances. And just for good measure, he throws in a powerful image of how desirable and fulfilling following him ought to be, in contrast perhaps to the unsatisfying experience the woman had had in her life to that point, plus the stuff about worshipping in spirit and truth.

But there's more to it than that.

The woman is a Samaritan - one of the people who had once been part of the nation of Israel, but were now separate from it. What did they believe? Apparently, it is still possible to find some people who believe the same things - there are several hundreds, still living in the same sort of area. Basically, they have as their scriptures the Pentateuch - the first five books of the Bible - with some modification from the orthodox Jewish/Christian versions (for example, the tenth commandment relates to Mount Gerizim, the Samaritan holy place).

One of the big issues that Jesus faced in his ministry was the weight of Messianic expectation upon him in Israel. The Son of David was viewed as being a warrior king from God, who would kick out the Roman invaders and restore the royal line in Jerusalem (think Prince Caspian). There were times when the people around Jesus threatened to make him king by force, because it was so obvious that he was "the one". And at times, the people were more concerned about whether Jesus could supply them with bread than what he had to say.

But in Samaria, it would have been different. That the Messiah should have been the Son of David would not have been so obvious to the Samaritans, because their scriptures only ran to the end of Deuteronomy. Likewise, they would know little for themselves about the Messiah's role of suffering for others (Isaiah 53, Psalm 22), or as the Son of God (Psalm 2, for example). What were their Messianic expectations? Likely not many, really - but one that they would have had would have been that there would come a prophet like Moses:
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. For this is what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, "Let us not hear the voice of the LORD our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die."
The LORD said to me: "What they say is good. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. (Deuteronomy 18:15-18)
They would also have known that no such prophet had yet arisen:
Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face ... no-one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of Israel. (Deuteronomy 34:10-12)
Now, how much more significance does this give to the seemingly casual remark from the woman to Jesus:
Sir, I can see that you are a prophet. (John 4:19)
her puzzlement at what he says, which leads her to add:
I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.
and the way in which she then reacts about him to the people she knows:
Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?
John's gospel was written for a readership from a Greek culture - hence the persistent conversion of "Messiah" to "Christ" in the text - and such people would probably have not been that interested in the finer points of a minor religious group. And yet, when we add into the mix what we can deduce about that group, even from evidence that is available today, we find that the text is more authentic than we could possibly have expected. The account is effective as it stands, but it is startling when you begin to unpack more of the detail.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Poem for Sunday

Natural things
And spiritual, - who separates those two
In art, in morals, or the social drift,
Tears up the bond of nature and brings death,
Paints futile pictures, writes unreal verse,
Leads vulgar days, deals ignorantly with men,
Is wrong, in short, at all points....

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "Aurora Leigh"

Referred to in "Reel Spirituality", Robert K. Johnston, which in turn is included in Google Books.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

From "Out of the Silent Planet"

"A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing.... What you call remembering is the last part of the pleasure.... When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it. But still we know very little about it. What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days till then - that is the real meeting. The other is only the beginning of it. You say you have poets in your world. Do they not teach you this?" C.S.Lewis

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Nouns that became verbs


Not a new trend, particularly - how about "hoovering"? Though the rate has probably increased in the last few years, given the dynamicisation of the English language.

Er, how about verbing? As in, to make a noun into a verb ....

Anybody else got any favourites/bugbears?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Quoted in "Standard Operating Procedure"

Happy are those who died without ever having had to ask themselves: "If they tear out my fingernails, will I talk?" But even happier are others, barely out of their childhood, who have not had to ask themselves that other question: "If my friends, fellow soldiers, and leaders tear out an enemy's fingernails in my presence, what will I do?"

Jean-Paul Sartre
... though it would be interesting to know upon what basis Sartre would deem such an action morally unacceptable.