Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Myth of Humanity

*I am not actually late with this post. Okay, I am, but the reason is that, being rather sick, by nighttime I'm stumbling around in a fog, which means that I posted this not on MGC but on an OLD abandonned blog of mine on blogspot. ARGH*

Lately, partly because I’ve been trying to kick off whatever bug has got me since November – it keeps coming back – and because when I’m tired or sick I can’t read fiction, I’ve been reading books on the proto- Indo-European culture.

Now, you go back long enough and it’s like reading tea leaves. Oh, okay, not tea leaves. Horse’s teeth and grave sculptures. However, through all this, it is possible to get a picture – vague and confusing though it is – of our most distant ancestors.

I’m not going to play psychologist, but themes emerge from what we can salvage of the very oldest tales: sacrifice and loss, love – often not eros, but agape or family love – blood and death.

Pratchett in a lot of his books says if you go back far enough you find that almost all the old stories are about the blood. I’ll add to that. The oldest stories are about blood, death and rebirth.

I think this is part of the reason that vampires are so popular, but that’s a side line I cannot pursue right now.

One of the things that surprised me is how the themes that echoed through the oldest fragments of legends we can find are the same themes we find again and again in science fiction and fantasy: twins; quests; bringing something magical/healing back; finding who you are.

Part of this, I think, is that humans are not like other animals creatures that live in a certain way because of instinct. Humans are domesticated creatures, as much as our dogs or our cats, but we domesticate ourselves. We are at the same time Fluffy who wants to pee on the sofa and the human who stands over her and tells her no. Only the human is often embodied in a myth.

Of course a lot of us believers get a lot of our morality from religion. But that’s an overt morality. It declares itself. It says “this you shall do” and “this you shall not do” and “here you shall go” and “here you shall not.”

Useful, of course, but it’s rather like the choke chain or the owner literally standing over you to prevent you from going on the sofa. The other part is more important – you don’t go on the sofa because you know you shouldn’t. You know you shouldn’t, because you’ve internalized the experience.

I was thinking about this and it all got tied up with different generations of science fiction and fantasy. Our myths are very much part of what we think the world should be. And what we think the world should be is both fed by and feeds the myth in our head that keeps us acting the way we think humans should act.

As I said, you find a lot of the themes of our oldest myths in fantastic literature... Until, that is fantastic literature decided its more important part was not dreaming of the future – or fantastic lands – but the last part of its name “literature”. It decided its most important function was to astonish the world. In doing so, it lost track of that “what humanity should be” and of reaching back into the sense of what humanity – or our branch of it – was and has been since we’ve had words and long before we had writing.

And so the self sacrifice was lost, and the discovery, and the sense of wonder. Instead we got either purposeless rambles, or people telling us life was brutish and nasty and then you die.

This is I think, an attempt to “count coup”, i.e. to claim to be superior to the vast uncounted multitude of our ancestors who first clawed their way to civilization and to an idea that there might be something better hereafter. And I think in that attempt we – as writers and as a civilization – only make ourselves mental and moral midgets.

Do you ever get to the end of a short story – or worse, a novel – and go “and your point was?” Worse, do you ever get to the end of a short story – or worse a novel – and go “Uh... I followed these characters around for this long for you to either twist them beyond recognition and/or kill them? Do you ever get the impression the author veered away from the ending that could and should have been to go in search of a glitter in the weeds of disappointment and bitterness?
No, I’m not saying that happy endings or happy-go-lucky stories are the only ones worth telling. Why in heck would I? If you’ve read me, you know well that’s not my attitude. But even in the nastiest of settings it is possible to be caring, to be a hero, to fight on. Even in difficult – particularly in difficult situations – it is important to remind others of what it means to be human.
Why would a bad ending be considered more mature or deeper than a happy one, or one where the character acted honorably?

36 comments:

Darwin said...

I'm no fan of "bad endings". They often smack to me of sermonizing more than anything else and the last thing I want to do is come off as preachy.

Yes, the world sucks. Yes, in the real world bad guys win all the time or people die in pointless, violent ways. You don't need to remind me that most human beings are selfish and vicious. I've had that lesson in spades.

Why people who aspire to be witwawary write stories and novels that are depressing and pointless reflections of their own personal inanity boggles me.

My goal when I write is to have an adventure. It may not end in roses and wine for everyone involved, but the last thing I want to do is leave my readers feeling despair with the pointlessness of life.

So long as my works are enjoyable adventures that leave the reader feeling hopeful at the end, that's enough for me.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Are the myths of cultures that aren't cognate of the west (probably China, and almost certainly the Americas and Polynesia) significantly different?

If so, it would give us hints as to what parts of culture are inherent in the human condition / genome and what parts are specific.

Lin W said...

It's nihilsm, IMHO. "Life sucks and then you die," is the credo of the "intelligentsia. There is nothing other than what you see, right here, and what you see is awful and getting worse.

Which, also IMHO, is why science fiction is getting pretty bad (present company *completely* excepted!). It's hard to write stories about a bright and shining future when TPTB have declared there won't be one.

Lin

MataPam said...

I think we readers want a satisfactory ending.

We tend to put people into groups, and when we encounter a person in print, they get filed in the proper drawer, along with all the real people. So if the "Nasty people" in our real lives seem to be living well, we like to read about what happens to "people in the same group." Even if our Bad Guy doesn't seem to be getting his just deserts, others are, and so maybe, some time in the future...

We want to see people like our brothers or sisters or friends doing well and winning.

And stories can help us understand other people, help us figure out what to do in difficult situations. Even if we, personally, don't have a BFG 3000 to whip out and take down the Alien Creature that is probably a good buddy of your ex-wife. We can visualize that scene.

I'm quite certain my husband has been daydreaming recently about throwing his (now Ex) boss out the window. Even though he was merely cliqueish and cold-blooded, rather than a werewolf.

In our stories, we want some reassurance that there really is something like justice. And reading about someone demanding it, fighting for it, is satisfying. The Good Guys do win.


Literature, at its worst, is like an abusive spouse. It makes you believe it's all your fault, and that you deserve to be abused. It is small, it sneers. It needs to be shoved out the nearest airlock.

Chris L said...

Whoa, hang on a minute. Endings can't always be good (happy). If someone can open up a new line of thought in my shuttered little head with a subtle, unhappy twist -- more power to them.

There's nothing preachy about sad endings per se, just as there's nothing preachy about happy ones. It all comes down to the author's slant on life.

You can't talk about the loss of self-sacrifice on one hand, and the pointlessness of sad endings on the other.

I am blown away by some of the amazing achievements throughout history that are the result of single-minded determination and self-sacrifice. Guys who toiled their entire lives, building some structure or other, knowing they would never see the end product but working their fingers to the bone anyway.

It's almost impossible to write characters like that because:

a) we don't understand them, and
b) no one would believe them

But these guys existed, and they rarely had happy endings. But self-sacrifice is more than not having a happy ending. It's often about not having a happy middle and beginning as well.

Giving your live to achieve/save something is definitely a noble idea that seems to have become a fantasy.

As a reader, to me it doesn't matter if the ending is fairies and happiness, or lingering death, so long as it's satisfiying.

Jim McCoy said...

I hate the myth that "bad ending is more mature." There is nothing wrong with a bad ending in and of itself. The ending of Star Wars Episode III wasn't happy but it FIT. Part of that, of course, was because we all knew what happened next...

A story needs to end how the story needs to end and the "Has to have a bad ending or it's immature" thing is just a way to make people feel important. Those people need to get over themselves and just write what works.

Darwin said...

Nihilism. That's the word! I have no desire to wallow in nihilism, either personally or within my reading material.

Nihilist tracts, for the record, simply disgust me. Words like "shallow", "vapid", "meaningless", "trite" and descriptive phrases like "navel gazing" come to mind when I think of nihilism in fiction.

Also for the record, I said I like my stories to end with "hope". That doesn't necessarily mean brightness and sunshine and kisses. It means, "hope" as in the expectation that things will be all right, regardless of what we just went through or what we're facing.

Let it never be said that I'm unafraid of putting my characters through hell. Not as much hell as Kate uses, but a bit of my own to be sure.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Darwin,

PRECISELY.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Ori,

You're probably correct in the sense that a lot of Japanese Sagas read "meandering and plotless" to me. But then you have to get into translation and how much of the original we're getting etc. For those civilizations descended from the Indo European culture (not races, but civilizations) and of course for Jewish stories (which have shaped and molded western civilization. I still think because the best art form for a nomadic people who can't make images was STORIES that is the great gift of Judaism to Western civ. I could, of course be wrong) there is a definite feel of when an ending is "right" and when it isn't.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Lin,

Re-read Friday. The world is neither happy nor hopeful, but the STORY is.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Matapam,

Completely agree, PARTICULARLY with your last comment.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Sorry, by that I mean last paragraph. I'm FINALLY getting better (unless this is the second wind thing) but NOT yet full well.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,

I didn't say the ending should always be happy. If you read any of my stuff (shorts in particular, though even Darkship Thieves as a sort of "negotiated happy ending") you know that's not what I'm talking about at all. The ending should be "right". I.e. what I object to are perfect setups for a happy ending veering off at the last minute into nasty terrible and futile. Does this happen in life? Sure. But in literature, I can only take a very few of these. Say, one per author. And not even that, unless exceptionally done.

To explain -- my favorite type of character is the fallen caryatid who could not possibly be expected to carry the building set on her shoulders, and who has collapsed but who is STILL gamely trying to lift the building. That's also IMHO an "uplifting" ending. You've been crushed, but by GUM you're not defeated.

This might be a personal preference, but what gets my goat is stories that PROMISE that, and then the meteor crushes the building and the caryatid, the end, "aren't I so intellectual?"

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Jim,

Yes, you're absolutely right. But then they don't get the awards... :-P

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Darwin,

Correct again. You've been eating red meat.

Chris L said...

Okay, sure. If you're talking about inappropriate endings - I agree. Cheating the reader isn't cool.

Kate Paulk said...

My view of endings is pretty simplistic, I guess. The right ending will feel as though no other ending could have been possible.

Sometimes hopeful, but not always - and sometimes the "heroic sacrifice" ending is enough to tear your heart out.

I'd prefer a hopeful ending, but I won't shy from a tragedy. One of my all-time favorite movies is Gallipolli, which is unashamedly a tragedy (it's not "art" - there is a difference).

Chris McMahon said...

I agree. I think the whole anti-hero thing is part trend following, part reactionary and part laziness. It's like how its easier to write a hit song in a minor key.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kate,

I'm not suggesting the type of silliness that gave Hamlet a happy ending. (Particularly since for me the ending was happy. I love the play, but I wanted Hamlet dead halfway through. "Now, die, die, die, die, die." (G))

I want the ending that works. Actually, I want the end that raises the stakes and sets the capstone on the whole thing and you go "Oh!"

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,

The minor key thing annoys Dan too. I don't think it's lazyness, though. It's a fashion. I just don't think it's a fashion conducive to getting and retaining readers, and since it infects our field, it affects the size of our possible readership.

Kate Paulk said...

Sarah,

Oh gawd, no. Kill Hamlet, and make sure that whiny brat is DEAD.

And yes, that's exactly what a good ending does - regardless of whether it's a happy ending or a sad one.

I honestly think that a lot of going the sad ending route is just laziness - it's easier to get the emotional hit from a reader by killing off a main character or three. Then you have the love-struck pedo Romeo and his ditzy dolly Juliet, where the futility of the feuding is hammered home by the deaths of Paris, Mercutio, Tybalt, and finally Romeo and Juliet themselves - but there Shakespeare is methodically cutting off every possibility for any other ending while keeping hope going that the sappy couple might get their happily ever after after all.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kate,

I'm not sure Romeo was pedo. I think he was just a little older. And it is, in a way, a tale of unsupervised children. Though I'm sure that's not how Elizabethans saw it.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Great post Sarah.

Really do like the analogy between our stories about ourselves and how literature is not offering us something greater to aspire to.

Kate Paulk said...

Sarah,

The impression I got was that he was mid-20s at least, where she was 14. Technically not pedo, and certainly not when Shakespeare wrote it - but if he wrote it now, it WOULD be condemned that way: hence the joke.

Stephen Simmons said...

Those endings make me swear off the author. Permanently. No parole, no redemption.

I *despised* Moby Dick, suffered through every page of it, including the frigging chapter about GOLF. (Except the couple pages with the other ship, with the drunk captain. That bit was actually fun.) And it certainly doesn't have an ending that cold remotely be classed as "happy". But it's RIGHT. As Kate put it, it leaves you feeling that Hemingway couldn't possibly have even *considered* ending it any other way, because no other ending is possible.

The anguish the four hobbits feel as Frodo acknowledges his injuries and boards the ship at the Grey Havens is not "happy", but it is *hopeful*. It FITS. Ditto Michael Valentine Smith's death. On the other hand, we all would have felt inexcusably betrayed had Vader NOT redeemed himself in Episode VI.

Rowling says she wrote the final showdown between harry and Voldemort before she wrote anything else, and that everything she wrote throughout all seven books was focused on supporting that ending. Sounds about right, to me.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kate,

I SUSPECT all I know is from a bio of Shakespeare I read. (At least I HOPE it's from a bio of Shakespeare. It's bad when I dream up this stuff.) In it it said something about a fourteen year old Juliet waiting for her nineteen year old husband. Which in our time qualified him as statutory-rapist, but in that time? Nah. I got the joke, it's just it doesn't have that feel to me.
And speaking of that the nurse character was supposed to be "a bad example" -- in our day we think she's cute. Eh.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Stephen

Er... you conflated Mobby Dick and The Old Man And The Sea. This is only funny because I do it too, all the time. :) Great minds think alike.
I also totally get your point about the ending fitting, even if one doesn't like them. That is my issue with a lot of, oh, post-60s SF. Even if you're not a plotter (I am, but) you get to a point you KNOW the ending. It screams itself at you. And the reader KNOWS it too.
This is why I used the metaphor of going and looking for a sparkle on the weeds by the side of the road (while there's this great big diamond on the road that you're ignoring.)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Rowena,

Thank you.

Mike said...

Odd thought -- ever since... was it Carrie? The horror movie? where she's dead and buried, but then... a hand comes out of the ground? Anyway, there's this running thing of giving the horrors another chance. But the good guys? Nah, they're out of the running... maybe they should get the same break that the bad guys do?

Lucius said...

;) Actually, the word should be "catharsis".

I don't like stories that don't end appropriately, whether the end is happy, sad or bittersweet.
(Although I do have a soft spot for a good tragic ending. Endings are powerful things when done well. I rather intensely disliked the re-imagining of "The Prisoner", right up until the denouement redeemed it in my eyes.)

But I've noticed a lot more inappropriate happy endings than inappropriate downer endings.
A great example: Elizabeth Moon's "Speed of Dark". It's a great book, with a pitch-perfect bittersweet ending.
But she doesn't leave it there, and tacks on a more upbeat epilogue for a character that we no longer know nor sympathize with. I found it extremely aggravating.

Mike said...

Pondering on a Friday afternoon...Another odd thought -- perhaps people are trying to avoid the stigma of "romance" (get that happily ever after out of here!) or "Disney" (what do you mean, you've got a happy ending? I don't want a comic book!)? Of course, if the whole story has led up to it, I really don't understand why someone would think just having Godzilla stomp Bambi would work -- any way you look at it, it's deus ex machina, the writer turning the story into a handpuppet, and the reader walking away angry.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Mike,

You are correct.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Lucius

I iz a writer. I can't zpells. Actually I'm in the final throes of a novel, so I not only can't spell, I spend hours going "That thing, wassname... oh, yeah, hand. On wassname... oh, yeah, keyboard." really, it's not pretty. I had the same issue with Waiting for the Mahdi. whosever wrote it? ( I thought Sharon Shinn, but weirdly I just looked it up and it's like the book never existed. Uh.) Interesting book, but the afterword killed it.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Mike,

Under "that's just WRONG" I don't think there is enough mercy in the universe to excuse what Disney did to The Little Mermaid. But yeah, you're still correct.

Lucius said...

Just to clarify...

I was taking a playful poke at the "nihilism" thing, not referencing spelling.
(Especially when I'm looking back at my own post and wincing at grammatical errors. How the heck did I put in a double negative and not notice until after I'd hit post?)

But I do have a tidbit of advice on the spelling front. (I'm horrible at it myself.) The Firefox browser has a built-in spell-checker that puts a red line under words it doesn't recognize. Highlight the word, right-click, and it gives a menu of suggestions to replace it with. It seems to have a much better vocabulary and suggestion process than my Word Processor. I love it to pieces.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Lucius, I've been ill (and yes, the dog ate my homework too... ;) ) so I haven't been as good about this as I normally am. Normally I write everything in my word processor then cut and paste here. Yeah, I'm that compulsive.