wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: highweirdness

A note about STAR WARS and myth.

Episodes IV, V, and VI

Star Wars is a myth: ‘The Labours of Luke Skywalker.’ It accumulates story-stuff as it goes along, but the first trilogy focuses on Luke and his companions undergoing trials, separations, revelations, tests, purifications, and transformations (farmboy-to-knight, princess-to-soldier, thief-to-citizen) before the final confrontation with Evil. In the end, the knight enters the castle to slay the father-dragon and the corrupter-god, the princess and the citizen return to the primal/magic forest to do battle with great tree-sized monsters and faceless demons, and Good is restored. They gather by a fire and tell stories as night falls.

This is not news, nor is it terribly interesting on its own. Crucially, the original Star Wars films aren’t about myth — they’re ‘innocent’ in a sense, if anything is.

Myths, as I think Joseph Campbell said, are psychology misunderstood as history.

Star Wars is about the transition from childhood innocence to adult knowing and action.

Episodes I, II, and III

The prequels tell two stories: ‘The Fall of Anakin Skywalker,’ in a mythic register, and the somewhat less popular but more contemporary-conventional ‘The Fall of the Old Republic.’ The latter political story is more complicated than what made it to the screen, all but disappearing in the third film; George Lucas reconceived Revenge of the Sith in the editing suite as a tightly focused story about Anakin, further imbalancing an already clumsy prequel trilogy.

The Fall of Anakin Skywalker is an inverted messiah/saviour story. Prophesied miracle-baby is taken from his mother, comes to the castle to become a knight, meets and is turned away by his future queen, and in his arrogance struggles with whether to turn his back on his teacher. His mother is captured and killed by monsters; in his fury he bloodily murders them. In his selfishness he courts a princess and conceives a child. In hubris he duels a master knight, losing a hand. In a second duel he bests the old master, and in his weakness of character murders him. Misled by the corrupter, in his terror and arrogance — in his inability to cast aside the misprision of Self which was always the primary obstacle for him and his fellow knights — he declares himself a servant of Evil and helps wipe out the knighthood.

Finally, he duels his teacher, and in his arrogance and pride and dogmatic certainty he is wounded and left for dead. The corrupter makes him into a dragon, and the dragon flies off to burninate the countryside and burninate the peasants…

The political story is there partly to provide context for the two myths. Because we know the outcome — these are ‘prequels’ — there’s no real suspense to it, only deferral. It takes up a far amount of the prequel trilogy, and is the prequels’ most enjoyable aspect, as far as I’m concerned, though primarily in the abstract, i.e. I enjoy reading the story more than I enjoy watching the movies, which are not entirely incorrectly regarded as shit.

‘The Fall of Anakin Skywalker’ is also about the transition from childhood innocence to adult knowing and action. The political story is, in part, about myth and mythmaking. The prequels lack the laser-clarity of the original films partly because their second story-strand ‘problematizes’ the first; Anakin isn’t simply the author of his destiny, and while the tragic ‘Fall of Anakin’ story is told like an ancient myth, all archetypal locations and abstract gestures and iconic clashes, ‘The Fall of the Old Republic’ is a modern tale which fits uneasily with its parallel mythic story. When they converge — as in the magnificently pedantic wizard-duel in the Senate chamber between Sidious and Yoda, or Anakin’s quietly horrifying murder of the children at the Temple — the story seems somehow greater than itself; it all seems almost worth it.

Lucas doesn’t get enough credit for the complexity (and I’d say importance) of the task he set for himself in the prequels. He failed to bring it off, ‘as everyone knows,’ but throughout that series you can see flashes of something like a work of genius, which is to say, among other things, imaginative excess.

I say all this as prologue to a comment about The Force Awakens and millennials LOL, which I will not now write because it’s time to take my son to school.

The mystery box, again.

Attention conservation notice: 800 words on familiar themes with a familiar cast of characters, hopefully enabling me to put this stuff aside and concentrate on bigger things.

The trouble with JJ Abrams’s inexplicably beloved ‘mystery box’ story-cum-theory of storytelling is that asking lots of questions of the form ‘What’s in the box?’ doesn’t actually take imagination. None at all. The act of imagination is what comes next: building a world inside the box. Brainstorming isn’t creativity.

You’ve seen Lost, right? Started well, then started going to shit the instant its creators needed to start actually answering the Neat-O Questions their premise had raised. Abrams was only a minor force in the making of the show after its first season, as I understand it, but his influence is all over Lost, including its embarrassing finale — that arc from ‘Everything we put onscreen means something’ to ‘Something something nondenominational purgatory because the important thing is that we have shared a TV show together‘ is the most JJ Abrams-y narrative collapse I can think of. (That doesn’t let Damon Lindelof off the hook, of course, but he was awfully young after all…)

I’m not convinced that Abrams actually has an imagination. He can write snappy dialogue, he’s a skilled cinematic mimic, and like several TV directors/showrunners he seems to work well with actors. But he seems to possess no capacity for vision, none at all.

Better a clumsy visionary than a skillful nullity, I say.

That said, I’m sure he’s a nice man, professional, and I’m sure his shoots all come in on time and under budget. I bet he’s kind to children, his wife, his dog. Alas, all I get of him is his work.

What, again with The X-Files?

I’ve written a couple of times that George Lucas is the Chris Carter of film — influential, gifted creators, maybe geniuses of a sort, who nonetheless shouldn’t be allowed within typing distance of their own work. Neither can be counted on to write credible dialogue, but each found his way to making some of the definitive American entertainment of his time on the strength of a creative vision. That term comes up over and over in the superb Empire of Dreams documentary about Lucas and Star Wars — interviewees involved in the film will go on about his limitations (none more wittily than Carrie Fisher), but over and over they’ll come back to his ‘vision,’ by which they mean not only ‘intellectual property’ but something like his unique, idiosyncratic conception of their shared project.

Just go with it, is the repeated refrain, trust in George’s vision. Which is to say both that Lucas’s ability to communicate with his cast and crew was limited because he was a young nerd (‘Faster! More intense!’), and that there was something coherent and in its way beautiful that no one else in the project could quite picture, which everyone involved trusted Lucas to possess and to nurture. Once the first one made a mountain of money, it was easier to trust in Lucas — he could buy trust — which is why the original Star Wars has an infectious joy, a sensawunda, that none of the other films in the series ever duplicated. It does more than just ‘work’ because it might not have worked. When you watch Star Wars, you see hundreds of people making art without reassurance that any of it actually go off, engaged in esoteric labours surrounded by strange icons and images, directed by a dreamer rather than a studio professional.

Carter doesn’t have the same reputation, but his work follows the same pattern: the overall conception of The X-Files — not the ‘concept,’ the logline (FBI agents investigate gov’t conspiracy and Fortean weirdness) but what you might call the guiding world-principle (marginal seekers navigate the American mythosphere in the twilight of empire, dogged by apostles of order and power, searching for transcendent truth) — is Carter’s unique irreducible contribution, a way of seeing rather than a specific sight. What’s compelling about the show, after all these years, is its sense of a specific time and place, a specific ‘multi-user shared hallucination,’ filtered through a particular sensibility.

Creative ‘vision’ isn’t content, it’s understanding: a structure of knowledge, . It tends to be interested in style only provisionally, as a solution to a communicative problem. That’s why visionary art tends toward formal incoherence (genre-crossing, lapses of ‘taste,’ stylistic improprieties, ill-proportioned and anticlimactic narrative) but is often experienced as extraordinarily vivid and immersive, as ‘truer than true’ on a level beneath conscious expression. (As usual, think of Southland Tales.)

The X-Files and Star Wars don’t depict ‘worlds’ in the sense of Westeros, or Middle-Earth. They give accounts of dreams, of myth, and like those imaginative experiences they don’t concern themselves with making sense after the fact, in the critical/analytical domain — myths become mythoi, dreams become dreamworlds, and deep transformation is achieved that can’t easily be explained (which is why we go on about ‘alchemy’ and ‘the soul’ and ‘the cosmic’ and other such nonsense).

We’re sliding towards talking about psychedelia, so this is where we pull back on the reins for the time being.

Graves’s Greek myths.

Three ways into poet/novelist/crank Robert Graves’s retelling (synopsis) of the the great body of Greek myth:

  1. Naively treating the book as a neutral compendium of Greek myths (this is a recipe for madness, and will likely lead in short order to the next reading-posture)
  2. Knowingly treating the book as two — expert retellings of the myths marred by oddly deflating synoptic intrusions, plus a parallel, less compelling work of fantasy in the endnotes — and savouring the main text while dipping into the notes from time to time
  3. Knowingly treating the book as a single work of fantasy based on the Greek myths, marking the endnotes as a kind of optional countermelody

The advantage of the third approach, which I’ve tried to adopt in my own reading, is that it accommodates Graves’s deflating alternate versions and parenthetical insertions — instead of damaging a conventional narrative flow, they can be understood as a necessary feature of an alternative form.

If you haven’t read Graves, this is the sort of thing you can expect:

The Eleventh Labour: The Apples Of The Hesperides

a. HERACLES had performed these Ten Labours in the space of eight years and one month; but Eurystheus, discounting the Second and the Fifth, set him two more. The Eleventh Labour was to fetch fruit from the golden apple-tree, Mother Earth’s wedding gift to Hera, with which she had been so delighted that she planted it in her own divine garden. This garden lay on the slopes of Mount Atlas, where the panting chariot-horses of the Sun complete their journey, and where Atlas’s sheep and cattle, one thousand herds of each, wander over their undisputed pastures. When Hera found, one day, that Atlas’s daughters, the Hesperides, to whom she had entrusted the tree, were pilfering the apples, she set the ever-watchful dragon Ladon to coil around the tree as its guardian.

b. Some say that Ladon was the offspring of Typhon and Echidne; others, that he was the youngest-born of Ceto and Phorcys; others again, that he was a parthogenous son of Mother Earth. He had one hundred heads, and spoke with diverse tongues.

c. It is equally disputed whether the Hesperides lived on Mount Atlas in the Land of the Hyperboreans; or on Mount Atlas in Mauretania; or somewhere beyond the Ocean stream; or on two islands near the promontory called the Western Horn, which lies close to the Ethiopian Hesperiae, on the borders of Africa. Though the apples were Hera’s, Atlas took a gardener’s pride in them and, when Themis warned him: ‘One day long hence, Titan, your tree shall be stripped of its gold by a son of Zeus,’ Atlas, who had not then been punished with his terrible task of supporting the celestial globe upon his shoulders, built solid walls around the orchard, and expelled all strangers from his land; it may well have been he who set Ladon to guard the apples…

Graves goes on this way for several pages; his retelling of the Labours of Heracles expands zenoparadoxically into a series of digressions and clarifications and alternate visions that seems as if it may never end. But it does, and I was sorry that it did — Graves tries my patience but I love this stuff all the same. Paragraph b is typical: I can’t imagine a nonexpert caring one way or the other who exactly gave birth to a 100-headed polyglot dragon, and it matters not even a tiny bit to the flow of the story, but this is neither ‘proper’ scholarship nor pure narrative, and conventional satisfactions aren’t the point.

The function of paragraph b — assuming you think Graves has a point and isn’t simply mad — isn’t to slow the story but to broaden it: Typhon and Ceto don’t figure in this particular story, but by invoking them in this quasi-scholarly way like a Biblical scholar noting concordance between the synoptic gospels, Graves sets them to echoing in the background, as it were. Heracles’s labours matter to Graves and to the book’s metanarrative as part of a system of knowledge; on their own, as a series of well supplied violent rampages by a psychotic demigod, they’re Neat but not hardly Significant. But the mention of Typhon, with his arms 300 miles long and an ass’s head that touched the stars, deepens the colour of the story somewhat. Graves’s endnotes ground the stories in a (ridiculous) myth-history, and his cross-cutting invocations of a heavenly genealogy ultimately function as worldbuilding rather than, er, monomania and indiscipline.

If you think of stories as payloads for information, this strategy won’t make sense; there are better ways, for Christ’s sake, to establish the complexity of the Greek mythos than by dropping a steaming info-pile in the middle of the narrative pathway. But if you think of a story, like any work of art, as a machine for inducing psychotropism at a distance rather than a kind of inductive proof, then Graves’s approach has a certain imaginative logic. The mythos is a map whose territory is an entire long-dead culture’s collective imagination, and you don’t need instructions (‘plot’) to browse a map.

Which isn’t to say Graves’s individual retellings aren’t fun to read — I’ve been reading the Myths for months, a little at a time, and I’m enjoying them more now than ever — only that ‘fun’ isn’t exactly the point.

Non-Newtonian narrative

Sticking only to stories here for a second:

‘Visionary’ narrative maps an imagination — it attempts to render the encounter between a complex mind and a complex world without reducing either to the status of narrative components. Visionary art tends to be unconcerned or at least under-concerned with its own parseability. It doesn’t concede to convention, which at any rate is always a post hoc rationalization of an originating vision.

Conventionally satisfying linear (‘sane’) narrative does not directly map an imagination. It maps a kind of second-order reality: the narrative sequence you cocreate in your mind, Reader(s), is and must be orderly in a way reality never ever is, and the same goes for the author’s private story that the text bundles, encodes, and transmits. A story must be tellable to be told, duh, but the world isn’t. The world is the opposite of a story: it doesn’t presuppose sense and then work within it (unless of course you think the world is a story made by gods, in which case good luck with that), because the world doesn’t assume or presuppose anything. Before everything, being is. Telling comes after, because everything that dreams is needy.

My point here is that when I talk about ‘visionary’ art (which I do a hell of a lot, I know, and not only in the context of ahem psychedelic improvised rock), I mean art that doesn’t presuppose an orderly knowable ‘tellable’ world — nor a tellable mind. I’d say Graves’s own mad autodidactic myth-history falls into this category, though his close contemporary Tolkien’s mostly doesn’t: Tolkien’s legendarium is supremely orderly, which geeks like, and his brilliant long novel, though a work of actual genius, is satisfying in (among others) the totally conventional sense of putting its heroes through escalating heck and restoring them to something like sense on the other side, wrapped up in a bow. As GRR Martin points out, Aragorn is a good ruler because he’s the titular returned king, and for no other reason, really; he represents a neat’n’tidy idea, and he never attains the particularly complexities of a human being because he never actually has to rule. Frodo and Sam, meanwhile, are more richly imagined figures, their humanity tested rather than their fitness for the role of ‘plucky heroes.’ They’re the ones who grow in the telling.

I’d say that Tolkien attains a dreamlike ‘visionary’ power at points in Lord of the Rings — Shelob’s lair, Moria, Minas Morgul, the doom of the Rohirrim — but his storyworld always snaps back into place afterward. Middle-Earth isn’t elastic like Graves’s ‘encoded patriarchal overthrow of authentic Triple-Goddess worship’ frame; part of the ‘adventurous expectancy’ (HPL’s term) in Graves’s Myths comes from the feeling that he might, on page 600, just start gibbering about Celtic paganism and never stop. The basic imaginative content is the opposite of definitive, not least since you (I) have no idea which of his goddamn endnotes (which take up at least half the book) he’s just made up whole cloth. Whereas Middle-Earth is or at any rate can be written down somewhere, safe and sound. (This is no deprecation of Tolkien or his creation.)

All of which is why I don’t fault Graves’s dryly synoptic presentation. He’s not trying to tell a series of little stories, he’s trying to accurately render his felt sense of the deeply weird complexity of the whole sort of general mythos-mishmash. It is boring at times because worlds are. It contradicts itself at times because worlds do. It makes no sense because the world doesn’t, can’t, because the world isn’t made to make sense. It isn’t made. This is the great virtue of what we might call a ‘mythic outlook’: it pushes us toward an acceptance of the world of the mind (and the world itself) as it is. It is a posture of eager receptivity.

Visions come to prepared spirits. (Kekulé)

Cubes or GTFO.

My son has gotten really into playing with his 2x2x2 and 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cubes — though I’ll note that they’re not strictly Rubik’s, but rather third-party cubes designed for speed-solving. They are in every respect better, I think, than the Rubik-branded cubes, and no more expensive.

My son’s six years old. He can now solve one face more quickly than I can, though he’s not yet pushing ahead to the next level of the problem, i.e. he doesn’t yet have an orderly approach to solving and isn’t interested in solving (e.g.) a ‘layer’ instead of a face. I’m interested but disorderly, though I’m a bit further along cubewise than he is. Still, I didn’t dive into trying to figure the Cube out for myself until I’d spent some time looking at algorithms — which isn’t ‘cheating’ if you’re interested in the Cube as magic rather than as party trick —

Speed-solvers look at the cube, figure out which series of steps to implement given the pattern of colours they see, then rapidly execute a kind of ‘macro’ from memory. It’s nothing like what you or I would do; the ‘solving’ part of the term ‘speed-solving’ refers to a kind of mastery of self rather than of the mathematical puzzle of the cube. Turns out I have no interest in that — the mystery of it, the sense of enormous complexity undone stepwise by brainpower, is what draws me.

So anyway I can’t solve a Rubik’s Cube without instructions and neither can my son, not yet, and I’ve determined empirically that following a strategy guide to solve the Cube is boring after the first or second time.


For those of you interested in getting better at solving a Rubik’s Cube but uninterested in the (to me) somewhat narrow task of ‘speed-solving,’ I recommend Douglas Hofstadter’s Scientific American columns on Rubik’s Cube, reprinted in his superb collection Metamagical Themas. (Link goes to full text at archive.org.) They’re light on low-level strategy but long on inspiration and analytical cleverness — fans of Hofstadter’s singular body of work already know what I mean, those new to his writing have a treat in store.

Bombs away!

What’s troubling the villagers?

(Roll d30, season to taste)

  1. traveling circus freaks cursed by witch-child to wander forever
  2. kobolds in heat seek willing sheepdogs
  3. shapeshifting bears
  4. rogue cops seeking reputed nearby bandits (not necessarily for justice)
  5. mage-acolytes collecting material components
  6. mummified grey aliens roused by scanning signal from distant star
  7. escaped experimental subjects trying to get home, maddened and starving
  8. moth-women experimenting w/deposed wizard’s breeding-vats in nearby floating castle
  9. hallucinating archaeologists
  10. a regiment of vampire soldiers coming to aid of prophesied infant messiah
  11. acting troupe lost in time; century of origin TBD
  12. undead construction slaves seeking supplies for project 1,000 miles away
  13. mercenary company bearing pretender-prince, bivouacked in haunted castle
  14. hedge wizard’s henchmen trying to confirm success of spell
  15. ghostly rat-catcher escaped from stage play
  16. plague of mechanical locusts under control of malicious child-psychic
  17. liberated pseudodragons establishing colony in nearby wood
  18. colossal blind earthworms building bunker to escape predicted worm-holocaust
  19. alien oozes harvesting humanoid heads like coffee beans
  20. misinformed treasure hunters
  21. well informed treasure hunters
  22. ogres searching for kidnapped/stowaway ogre-youth
  23. bards
  24. a trove of buried statues coming to life seeking bloody vengeance on every living dog
  25. resumption of transmissions from a long-lost alien radio
  26. weeklong sacrificial ritual to restore dead village god
  27. druidic civil war sparked by villagers’ encroachment on ancient druidic sex-magical restoration ritual
  28. every 50yrs myconid gathering fills air w/hallucinogenic spores
  29. earthquakes caused by nearby weeklong stone-giant bacchanal
  30. cursed sentient scrying-money spent by profligate visiting noble

From the same work in progress.

Two fragments from the same project as the previous post. –wa.

A meaningless coincidence: the FX guys at Industrial Light & Magic (our best-named corporate entity) added hieroglyphs of C-3P0 and R2-D2 to the walls in the Well of Souls, site of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders. Were I some kind of dreadful nerd I’d now tell you that this establishes as ‘canon’ that Raiders and Star Wars share a narrative universe. And of course Star Wars, a fantasy with SF trappings, happened ‘a long time ago.’ It is quite literally an ‘ancient astronauts’ story, and one that insists over and over that Everything Is Connected. ‘Luminous beings are we! Not this crude matter…’

I’m trying to have it both ways with the word ‘meaningless,’ there. When I insist that I’m both an adamant materialist atheist, on one hand, and a believer not just in six-and-more senses but in varieties of transformation for which no scientist will likely ever have a convincing name, on the other, I’m not trying to be cute, nor to buy legitimacy for kookery; nor am I playing semantic games. Magic isn’t real, but it works. Since I understand art to be machinery for effecting psychotropism over great (spatial/temporal) distances, this strikes me as no contradiction at all.

After playing in the pulps, the ‘eroto-mystical Nazi lunacy’ meme first gained widespread purchase with, you guessed it, The Morning of the Magicians and The Spear of Destiny (which freaked me out as a kid) … But Spielberg/Lucas/Kasdan’s Raiders is the best-known media instance of that conceptual complex, not to mention a classic example of conpsiratorial High Weirdness in mainstream drag. Between Raiders and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade we have Nazi ice queens wielding riding crops, suited G-men stowing ancient relics in a government warehouse, Exodus as both dream-history and actual history, medieval knights Grail questing in Turkey, secret societies guarding occult treasures, treasure maps built into Borgesian library architecture, secret Luftwaffe experimental programs, and American traitors pulling a reverse Operation Paperclip to chase archaeological (rather than nuclear) supremacy. Add in the failed Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and you’ve got von Däniken-esque ancient astronauts, Commie infiltrators, and Men in Black at Area 51 to boot.

From a work in progress: Nomic and net.culture.

Rough draft, work in progress, claims nonbinding, etc.

For Hofstadter, unresolvable self-contradictions and infinite regresses aren’t failure modes for play or argument, they’re toys. And the same holds true in Nomic play — finding and exploiting a ruleset self-contradiction ‘wins the game,’ but figuring out how to keep play alive beyond that individual victory is one of the major challenges every nontrivial Nomic has solved (footnote deleted –wa.) at which point the players enter the odd state of simply living with/through paradox, in a state of exultant philosophical strangeness unlike anything else in gaming. As much as we went on about The Rules (a/k/a ‘all that’s holy, man’), our true focus was on the ever-shifting texture of experience within them, the space for improvisation and experimental sociality and playful ideation that the rules opened up.

The online world of Nomic was a corner of early cyberculture that had more in common with, say, the collaborative fictional project alt.devilbunnies or the roiling cauldron of Dobbsian lunacy that was alt.slack than with any aspect of today’s ‘games culture.’ In retrospect, it makes sense to think of net.nomics as experiments in (ahem) ‘stateless’ living, close cousins to virtual communities like LambdaMOO, miniature models of the disembodied digital utopia that John Perry Barlow imagined in his Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. [^barlowdeclaration]

The Declaration is, of course, mortifying to read today — a handy summary of everything ridiculous in early cyberculture discourse. He wrote it in Davos, for Christ’s sake. But it’s dangerous to read that document through a modern lens, when his rhetoric has been terminally co-opted by Silicon Valley execs. We now grant ourselves permission only to imagine what life online can do for our precious mind-bodies, our anxiety/productivity levels, rather than what it could and does do to nation-states; it’s hard to imagine in 2015 that Barlow’s global revolution could ever have been. But for a second there, however hackneyed the language, you could believe it. You’d telnet to lambda.moo.mud.org:8888 and give yourself another name, another body, another gender, another species. You’d type ‘say Hello’ and greet a ‘room’ full of imaginary strangers, each stranger than the last, stranger than they’d ever been. There in the aether, the absolute otherness across the Ethernet, playing freely with every idea you’d ever been, every rule of thought and deed seemed purely mutable. You could be a paradox and keep playing, iterating and experimenting and binding yourself to a self-made system of selves until your own private ruleset generated not ‘sense’ (who cared?) but play. Joy. Right there and then, for as long as you could hold your breath and float through the water, the mad idea that a nation without nations could take form in a realm beyond the senses was not just real but obvious; it was already here, I was there; I swear you could almost taste it.

Magic circles. Mundane circles.

Reminder: this is an impulsive, insomniac first draft. ‘I’ll have to think about it.’ –wa.

In game studies, the term ‘magic circle’ has been borrowed from Huizinga to mean, basically, the peculiar ritually charged piece of spacetime that gameplay occupies. It’s a temporarily transformed place and moment, within which the dream of play is not only possible but inevitable, where rules like ‘no throwing the pancake-ball if you’ve gone past the hitting-each-other line’ make perfect sense.

In an earlier post — which is, as it says on the tin, an ill-tempered outburst — I said this:

…remember that most of us now watch our movies at home — in a domestic, distraction-filled ‘curated’ environment, rather than the sense-heightening identity-submerging collective ritual strangeness of the movie theater. We’re too ‘enlightened’ to recognize the importance of the magic circle of ritual transformation which surrounds the theater, and too lazy to seek it out, at fatal cost to our imaginations.

There is no magic circle around the Web. There can’t be.

The ‘magic circle’ makes possible a total transformation of perception and action and relation and desire within gameplay. But that’s only half its purpose. It’s also there to keep the gameworld, the storyworld, the transformed magical field, from leaking out into the ‘real’ world. It’s topologically equivalent to a mundane circle around the other, largely boring things we do, and we’re quick to scold those weirdos who too eagerly violate the circle’s integrity in either direction: the fantasy football dweeb who delays the start of a work meeting by gabbing about his league, the hardcore Trekker wearing Spock ears to drop their kids off at school, the Christian fundie proselytizing at bowling night, the Deadhead blasting a 40-minute ‘Dark Star’ on the cafe stereo, the feng shui devotee rearranging his work area (and only his) in the immunology lab, even the child who passes on her imaginary friend’s messages at the dinner table.

The circle divides us from the dream — for its protection and for ours.

And so that quote about watching movies at home.

The biggest difference between the (movie) theater and home screen-viewing has always been TV’s domesticity. TV long favoured reassuring depictions of functional civic institutions (the city hospital, the police force) and endlessly talky domestic melodramas; in the 60s and 70s network TV assumed film’s role as consensus storytelling medium, freeing Hollywood up to enter its 70s Golden Age of subversive and oppositional storytelling and worldbuilding. Movies prefer detectives to cops, and fighting to conversation. TV comes into our living room, it talks to our kids when we’re not there. You don’t dress up for it or make an effort to attend. You just let it in through the door, into the chaos and recrimination and fatigue and mundanity of every day life.

With a number of exceptions statistically indistinguishable from zero, TV has more in common with Chap-Stik than with art.

The theater doesn’t work that way. At the theater you sit in the dark listening to strangers breathe, your body falling away, the screen so large you can’t escape it, noise coming from everywhere, to see stories which you’ve opted into — you’ve chosen to subject yourself to that ritual transformation, and so license can be taken. Something’s at stake. Before TV (have you ever thought about this?) we could only watch news footage at the movie theater — and those weekly glimpses of current events were charged with ritual energy. ‘News’ meant something very different then; it wasn’t yet ambient noise. TV domesticated audiovisual storytelling, fictional and non-.

(And if you think things are fundamentally changing — TV getting smarter, movies getting dumber — then consider taking the $15 you spent to watch Avengers: Age of Ultron and go watch a new movie with no explosions in it. They still make those! They make astonishing quantities of those movies. The real question is why nobody cares.)

The cost of TV’s domesticity, its ease of access, is banality. Here’s where we miss the magic circle. At home, watching Game of Thrones On Demand whenever we want, slurping microwave ramen in stocking feet with one eye on Facebook, there’s no magic circle at all — maybe you turn down the lights, but the ineffable quality of transformation, of journey, has been lost. You know this as well as I do. You control every aspect of the presentation. You can pause the experience to tweet about how freaked out you are by what’s happening in the story, if you want, and to be reassured that your ‘followers'(!) have had the same experience in their own time, on their own terms. And no matter how good the story is, how fine the craftsmanship, how ‘cinematic’ the ‘production values’ (ugh), the show’s there first and foremost to satisfy you. It is a home-delivered product and it is beholden to you. The real world leaks into the art, and the art’s power diffuses through the environment.

At the theater (as long as your turn off your cell phone), nothing can protect you. And that’s good for us! As Joss Whedon said in the NYT a few years ago, speaking against ‘spoilers’ (ugh) and in favour of surprise as a storytelling tool, the sense of humility and smallness that great stories give us is a holy emotion. It’s essential for our development as social beings able to imagine a universe that doesn’t revolve around us.

TV can shock us, it can dropkick our souls, it can change our lives, but it rarely inspires awe. Even now, that isn’t its purpose — and even a 48″ plasma HD screen is peanuts to the smallest theater at the Cineplex Odeon, not because the screen is smaller or the bass less deep but because our identity in the theater is so different from who we are at home. The movie screen lies inside the circle. What works on TV, in our living room, works not least because it’s in our living room, because it starts from that relationship of banality and trust and takes advantage of it. (‘It’s not TV. It’s HBO’ and all that.)

Reagan was a movie star.

Trump is a TV star.

This isn’t really about TV, of course, it’s about Donald Trump, Internet-accelerated atomization, ‘Republic 2.0,’ the way computer-mediated communication has deepened an already massive generational gap and made possible phenomena like the ‘lost generation’ of retired Fox News addicts, the destabilizing mix of postmillennial deflation and post-9/11 enervation, the invisible but crippling mental/physical health crises which our screen dependency has brought on, the 24hr ‘news’ cycle’s role in our present inability to conceive of timescales (e.g. for seismic shifts in Iraqi society) beyond the presidential-electoral, the humourlessness and irony-aversion of even the ‘intellectual’ threads of our national discourse — boring stuff, I know. And it all ties, in complex ways, to the slow-moving tectonic shift in modern cultures toward pseudosocial interaction, the pseudoagency of the consumer, an addiction to carefully filtered and ‘curated’ pseudoknowledge: a world designed for machines, for money, in which we (less and less) happily take what pleasures we can as consolation for the fact that joy, a built-in feature of most human minds, is less and less affordable, can only be experienced with a permission slip from your boss or your shrink or your political fellow-travelers.

I think that I’m mourning something called ‘magic.’ I think we’re scared of it, but we weren’t always.


renaissance ‘world of knowledge’ texts took poetic form for a variety of reasons, some terrible (e.g., all good things echo God’s plan so all disciplines are linked).

but the ultimate reason is good and simple: engaging the imagination and emotions strengthens your teaching.

you listen harder to story

Smart people who ‘believe in “synchronicity.”‘

(Wrote this three weeks ago, never got around to revising it. I’m of two minds about the book under consideration, because it’s really two books, only one of which seems to me to be of lasting value — and unfortunately, the other book takes over toward the end, leaving a sour aftertaste. This is, as you can see, a first impression rather than a proper review. –wa.)

Having recently read and enjoyed Jeffrey Kripal’s (mostly very valuable) Mutants & Mystics, I’m again left wondering about the attraction of ideas like ‘synchronicity’ and alien visitation. To me, ‘skepticism’ means not dismissal of possibility but a tendency to favour parsimony, systemicity, provability in explanation — e.g. the idea that extraterrestrials exist and regularly visit earth rests on a number of physically impossible premises, massive coincidence, and conspiracy in order to be true, so I am ‘skeptical’ of same. There are better explanations for the alien-visitation phenomenon available, which I favour but not exclusively.

This isn’t ‘materialism’ except coincidentally; I’m starting with an epistemological position and from there working my way to an assumption about visitors from other planets.

Kripal’s book deals with a number of mid-20C writers and artists, and he’s generally quite good about rendering their experiences in a balanced way — what happened in Philip K Dick’s head in 1974, say, is less important to us readers than what he made of it in his art, so Kripal spends most of his time talking about the art. That’s good; his handling of Dick’s story is sensitive and insightful. But then there’s stuff like this:

A neuroscientist may want to invoke something like temporal lobe seizures, and Windsor-Smith himself may or may not find these sorts of descriptions appropriate as neuroscientific labels of what his brain was doing at the time. But again, what do such “explanations” really mean? Is the filter really the filtered? And how do such easy labels explain the objective fact that the artist saw, in precise detail, two events in 1970 that did not occur until three years later in 1973? Just how much of [Windsor-Smith and Philip K Dick’s] courage and honesty do we need to savage … in order to protect our little materialist worlds? …

The easy explanation is that Barry Windsor-Smith didn’t actually experience precognition, only believed he had and acted accordingly, and that Philip K Dick’s VALIS experience was as accurate an account of reality as, say, Saul’s seizure-induced conversion on the road to Damascus — i.e. whatever those great writers claim they ‘saw,’ it didn’t mean anything until they started fictionalizing around it. Kripal goes further than this, though: he seems to want to claim that Windsor-Smith and Dick experienced a kind of higher or deeper reality, caught a glimpse of a secret of the universe. (Victoria Nelson’s superb Secret Life of Puppets, which I’m very profitably reading right now and which (if I remember right) Kripal approvingly cites, tends strongly in the same direction.)

The problem is that he’s cagey about his subject. He starts the book with a coincidence — he finds a cross-shaped piece of jewelry or something on the ground in a parking lot, thinks it’s the X in X-Men, and is startled into writing this long book about comics — and the closer he gets to talking about the experience, the more he favours ‘magical’ explanation. It’s not enough that this random occurrence had personal meaning for him; something else, something Significant, had to’ve been going on. But since that idea is ‘problematic’ in Kripal’s field of religious studies, something he talks charmingly about in the book and in interviews, Mutants & Mystics gets vague and handwavey at the precise point when it should be…skeptical, in the sense of ‘precise and limited in its determination, expansively agnostic in its inquiry.’ The book is admirable and excellent on that second point, but wishy-washy on the first.

Kripal can point to something like Whitley Streiber’s ‘visitor corpus’ and talk for dozens of pages about how strangely wise and beautiful it is without ever asking whether the whole thing isn’t a record of, in a word that’s nastier in its connotations than I mean it to be, delusion — a record of a state of alternate consciousness which Streiber, living as he does within his own perceptions, will fictionalize around in order to keep from experiencing a debilitating break with reality. (The alternative explanation, that it’s all a cynical fiction, is unappealing — I’ll take Kripal’s word for it that Streiber’s a decent man with no intent to deceive.) I don’t require a purely ‘materialist’ explanation, e.g. hallucinations, but I do ask that critics not throw out the scientific method in order to make the reasonably correct but arguably trivial claim that Life Is Special and Interesting and We Are Capable of So Much More If We Just Awake to the Beautiful Dream.