Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Sum Totals of Plot

To Lessons Learned, Anonymous replies:
Somebody, somewhere, 'calculated' that there are only up to 36 total story lines/basic plots to be found in any culture, any literature ever. Maybe that's all we got. Now what?
...which is a far better setup to the relevant issue than this one's aforementioned whining, or this one's list of hypothetical plots from aforementioned post. And because it's a far better setup, it segues us to where we should've been headed to begin with: faith-based belief or disbelief in creativity, and the utility thereof (I see what you did there).

Anonymous' point, "Now what?" is of the penultimate pertinence; it foregones the conclusion by assuming that there are only, oh, 36, or 5, or a hundred million, plots. And to some extent--an extent of only marginal utility--the conclusion is accurate, as a result of the versatility of language. There is, of course, only one plot: "Something happens." This plot applies 100% to all books, except for those blank books about "Sex after 40" that you buy in the airport novelty shop to give to your friend who turned 43 (you forgot about it on her fortieth birthday, when her unwrapping it would've been much funnier for party guests, oh, why couldn't you have flown to Tampa that year?), in which situations the emptiness is itself the plot. Either that, or you argue that there are two possible plots, "Something happens" and "Nothing happens."

Here is where we all groan as this one types the devil is in the details, right? In a sense, but not in the usual sense. Everything here is about what we call "details," so in the instant situation, that saying isn't a cop-out. Copper and beryllium and hydrogen are identical except they're not, because the same building blocks in different arrangements make things that demonstrate that structural detailing is a higher form of existence than mere "existence." Yes, it's a stupidly obvious point that things can be different, but they can also be the same despite an inundation of similar details, which is why retelling Shakespeare's Hamlet against a backdrop of the International Space Empire(sic)'s campaign against Rigel 23 is still just another soulless copy.

So, we're all on the same page, right? Details can both sufficiently differentiate, and merely conceal. All plots can be condensed to the same source, e.g., "Something happens," and yet, within that formula, more perceptive minds can glean value from different kinds of similar happenings.


The destruction of creativity, the industrialization of making things, is deliberate, and evil. People who use linguistic tricks to compartmentalize story--as though it is dazzlingly clever to point out that all people, no matter how different, are made of roughly identical carbon molecules and water; or, that everything on the periodic table is made up of the same electrons, et cetera--are making the argument, by implication, that life is equally worthless. If there's nothing new under the sun, that includes you, your romance, any potential accomplishments you might think you have, and the next million years of history. The only reason the argument works, ironically, is that the details of what they're talking about (make-believe v. real) make the implication "everything is standard" beguiling enough that it can slip past your bullshit detectors and work its tendrils into your sense of self. If someone told you, "Your life has no meaning," you might resist. If someone told you, "All plots have been done before," you're willing to let it slide--even though it's the same message, namely, that you are and always were an existential rerun. Your life is a plot, and you are a character (maybe not the character/plot, but a character/plot). Why live if it's already been done before, and can never be done differently? "Something happens." Why bother?

There's a sense of despair upon hearing that there are only 36 plots, or that Shakespeare or someone else has already written every possible kind of plot, because it hits your subconscious with the implication, "You are not special." Worse, if you are not special, then it means no one else is special, either, which means nothing is special, which means this is all just a giant suffering machine. The medically inclined like to call it "narcissism" when someone wants to be special. In fact, the greatest pain incumbent upon those who face a hypothetical lack of specialness is felt on behalf of everyone else: it's easy to contemplate not being special, so long as something is special, ergo you can step in front of a car to save a child, even if you know that you won't be able to feel warm feelings at the celebratory dinner later on, because you'll be dead. We may gasp and recoil more from a stabby movie than we do from an apocalyptic survival one, but the empathetic despair of all those billions of lost lives and collectively bleak futures sinks in way deeper than merely being killed by a guy in a mask. A person who'd struggle to survive a home invasion will commit suicide over War of the Worlds, because it's not actually about individual survival. We fear a nuclear war that destroys civilization, but leaves us alone with sixty years of freeze dried food and old DVDs, yet we drive across town without particularly thinking about traffic accidents that leave us brain dead.

Anti-plot strategies are a coordinated message of hopelessness. Bad books, movies, and TV shows teach us that nothing is special or lasting, except for temporary sensation, thereby achieving a memetic victory for everdeath. After enough years of crappily strung-together vignettes called "movies," with factorized cliche characters and settings, it's worked--most westerners don't actually expect anything good, and more, they've constricted their standards even more than they have in regards to their elected representatives (sic): they have come to stop believing that anything better is possible. So they mock the idea that new things can exist; they watch more battling robots and bending bikinis, and they actively encourage themselves in the pursuit of mild variations on simple themes. Their intelligentsia discuss how there really is nothing new across the starfield, and the resulting dearth of actual news or actual entertainment becomes a self-justifying cycle of proof that it's all been done before. Blah blah, planned obsolescence, yada yada, what satire used to mean.

Rings of Adversity

How can there be new stories, or good stories, and what differentiates them, in an objective, non-emotional way, from old stories or bad stories?

Start with Lord of the Rings. Frodo faces great adversity and overcomes it. He squeals and runs away from big monsters while manly men defend him. Gondor fights orcs, man against man; Frodo fights Sauron in a metaphysical way, man against man; the fellowship argues about the use of the ring, man against man. There's a big journey and some battles and some cool stuff, but in the end, Frodo wins, the One Ring is destroyed, and Sauron loses.

The basic theme is, "If you try really hard, and don't give up even when things seem overwhelming, you can win." There are a lot of other themes in there, also, so let's get them out in the open for fun before we go on:

1) Tainted goods: if someone is established as evil by an all-powerful and benevolent force, you should not use the evil someone's methods, even in the service of good, because it will always lead back to evil.

2) Pastoral values: simple and/or weak people can accomplish tasks that great people cannot, if they try hard.

3) Playing god: building life like building a tool leads to evil, depersonalizing the life that is created with horrible results.

4) Stupid guards: faceless armies based on subservience rather than personal relationships are easy to trick.

5) Generic friendship: if you have a good buddy, you can accomplish more than you'd be able to on your own.

6) Playing god 2: treating the natural world too much like an exploitable resource results in a natural backlash.

7) Grand pattern/forgiveness: no matter how despicable the scum, it may have a purpose beyond what your interests can currently perceive.

8) Compromise: in the face of destruction, enemies must become friends in order to survive.

9) Power corrupts: people who want power are often bad.

There are hundreds, hundreds upon hundreds, of godawful fantasy novels that think they are written in the same vein as Tolkien. They have all the surface dressing, and they appear the same to plenty of simpletons. They have swords, magic, elves, trolls, lords and ladies, palaces, forbidding swamps, mountains of fire, and despair. They have power-hungry bad guys and idealistic good guys, sword battles, internal languages that bear an uncanny resemblance to Latin or Gaelic or Greek. But they trim down their themes drastically, to "pastoral values" and "power corrupts," with an occasional "generic friendship" or "compromise." It's the same to them, because they never caught much of the meaning in the first place. All they saw was swords, dresses, male bonding, and plucky princesses.

An objective quality is discernible in creations in spite of efforts to relativize them. As in lives and galaxies, things can be created and refined. The endless succession of dunces with spaceships and magic swords may throw in rough incest and live disembowelments in an attempt to capture an illusion of increased development, but the underlying thematic components remain elementary. As a result, even the simple WALL-E for kids is far more advanced than Game of Thrones for adults, even if it has far less graphic violence and no "adult" situations.

How So Quality?

How so quality? Tolkien again: the value of his work is not just in the coolness (if you care) of running around a proto-medieval wonderland casting spells, killing goblins, and waving potentially phallic symbols. That's a part of it, to be sure, like costume design in a play. Yet it is only a superficial one. On its own, it's pulp; it's necessary, but not sufficient, except at very low stages of development. What makes Tolkien far more advanced than most western narratives is its higher degree of thematic truths. Saruman, for example, is a genetic engineer. He creates the Uruk-hai (the bigger, Africanized orcs) in loveless vats in order to achieve unthinking supersoldiers. He breeds for the desired qualities of his offspring, rather than divorcing his flawed mind from the reproductive process, and even though he realizes it is "a ruined, terrible form of life," he is so caught up in his lust for power that he continues.

Now, it is a great lesson to learn that, "If you don't give up, you can achieve positive results against overwhelming odds." It's not that most western creators are saying nothing of value. Rather, they are saying something that is of value to five-year-olds. And they are saying that, and only that, to western adults, who are so stunted that they feel they've learned what there is to know. A little kid can read about Frodo and be inspired to not give up hope even in the toxic valley below the boiling pyramid upon which rests the Eye of Yellen. So too with plenty of dreck about fighting ogres.

What has Tolkien done with his special black orcs? He's levied a strong criticism at the inbred British nobility; he's damned the English for their calculated marriages and deliberate, impartial, unnatural reproduction arrangements. He's criticized the western habit of scientifically breeding dogs, horses, livestock, and crops, and shown how the desire to control the creation of life by limiting change leads to ugly, diseased specimens that ultimately harm us. Decades ahead of his time, he's condemned the scientific future of precognitive eugenics, where we build our own tall, strong, obedient Uruk-hai--and he hid it all within a pretty droll description of elvish history.

That portion of the theme is a timeless wisdom. Someday many years from now, humans may learn that attempting to assemble artificial stellar nurseries results in similar consequences to their long-abandoned program of handpicking baby's appearance. They'll discover that trying to rush the process of matter compression leads to unstable blue or indigo stars that produce unreliable energy streams, then supernova in mere millions of years. The wise among them may use something like Tolkien to advise others of the folly of interfering in such reality-integral natural processes; they'll point out that building a house is one thing, building a living star another. The distinction between forging swords and forging Uruk-hai affirms the results of not properly resolving the unprovable differentiation between matter in possession of different stages of consciousness. (Much more simply put, that can be taken as meaning that our failure to identify what has a soul and what doesn't, and our willingness to try to create souls the way we create swords, leads to disaster.)

This kind of thing is what makes Tolkien's work more intelligent, useful, and valuable than other stories about swords and sorcery. He isn't just using his societies as parables for personal economic vendettas, but rather conveying a timeless moral that goes to the heart of the relationship between humans and creation: our direct limitation of potential during the process of life-creation leads to disaster. That can be applied in any time or culture, from 5,000 B.C. tribal chiefs killing defiant oxen while forcing docile oxen to breed, to 5,000 C.E. space admirals grafting orphans' souls into the endogenic dynamic-response systems on their prize battlecruisers. In either case, the situation turns out steadily worse for all involved, and in either case, the application of the timeless principle could have saved the day.

(What makes Tolkien's fractal analogy "art," rather than "philosophical thought experiment," is that the Uruk-hai experimentation derives from the independent agency of Saruman. Saruman's behavior is perfectly internally consistent within the boundaries of his pseudo-heavenly, pseudo-medieval life experience. He is not, for example (like the antagonists of so many argumentative social-engineering psy-ops "novels"), a cheap Communist transplanted into medieval Europe to prove the modern-day follies of western social services. His behavior is, instead, truly sourced. He doesn't dramatically torture side characters, speak Russian, carry around a copy of the elvish version of Mein Kampf, or even give a long speech at the end where he oversells the benefits of privatizing the genome. Instead, he's realistic, just like an evil wizard building upgraded orcs in that world would be. In the movies, he's given some face time to "tell" his story to the audience, providing an information shortcut, whereas in the books, it's just part of his back story: he wanted dumb, strong soldiers, so he had them magically bred. That internal consistency is what gives him utility to a timeless reader; what makes it extrapolable to the behavior of those evil wizards who actually do want to exert willpower over the bodies in which the next generation is allowed to live life.)

Western Europe created smallpox, and so many other great plagues, because it spent so many years interbreeding the dumbest, fattest, most compliant ungulates, then sleeping near them for warmth and building cuisines designed around a failed set of interbred hormones; east Asia and aboriginal America didn't create those great plagues, because they were feeding off a diverse body of actual living creatures, and being less obsessed with the fucking habits of their livestock. Western Europe built a society around individual possession of wheat, skimming short-term profits off the dying topsoil by raping the Earth with plows and poisons, while east Asia and aboriginal America communally cultivated rotating cycles of a broader variety of crops.

Ten thousand years later, its genomic history backup disc failing to load, the god-players may discover that they have irrevocably divorced themselves from cyclical reproduction. There is neither home nor joy left for the Maiar once they have turned their elves into orcs.


That argument--don't try to build souls or you'll cause great destruction--is an unpleasant one for scientism, so most people prefer not to see it. They just want to see the swords ringing and the Lady Feistalya's breasts made bare, ergo Earth 2014. Yet there, in a seemingly innocuous tale about swords, is the decisive critique of one of the many Great Tragedies. That is why critical thinking, deep reading, and complex narratives are being stifled. If you're stunted, you can own a collection of Peter Jackson DVDs, and just think, "Oooh, adventure and monsters." Or, "Oooh, adventure and monsters, and also perseverance and love and statues."

The thematic elements underlying who does what are what makes there be an infinite number of plots. Any number of heroes may battle monsters, and a few, even, "unnatural monsters," but the fall of Saruman into tube-breeding Uruk-hai is a universal principle that turns Frodo's walk through Mordor into a minor aside (since, if we're learning properly, we've long ago learned the lesson that those who seek to accumulate excessive power end up living in a hellish wasteland surrounded by stupid, vindictive security services). The character of the story line--heroes triumph over evil--changes. From that branch of plot appear two new shoots: (A)(1) heroes face an evil that adopts the power of creation, and (A)(2) heroes face an evil that has not adopted the power of creation. And that splitting, that evolution, makes each new twig, and each new flower, completely different from its predecessor. Perspective changes, verse expands, and the narrative becomes not only more detailed, internally consistent, and enjoyable, but also more useful. So, a 10-year-old reads a Dungeons & Dragons-licensed spinoff work, and learns, "By trying really hard, you can win, even against big monsters," and a teenager reads Tolkien and, hopefully, learns something more.

The malignant nature of limited-plot arguments, though, means that nothing moves beyond that level. If we allow the superficial similarity of "it has spaceships" or "it has people who work in this one place" to lure us into believing it's all the same, then nothing new is ever painted, because color is color. Entertainment corresponds, becoming increasingly simplified in line with the socially acceptable claim that nothing is new, so why bother trying?

No amount of clever verbiage can instill, in Shakespeare, any level of meaning greater than prepubescent lessons, nor make it meaningful as anything more than rambling introductory drivel. "When I'm unhappy, should I quit?" "If people don't like what I like, should I let them control my feelings?" Harry Potter has little to teach except, "blood will out," so it's an objectively terrible piece of somnatic propaganda. Yet because the preschool descriptions of being nice to your friends and working your hardest are included in the theme, it's viewed as positive. Generations of stunted adults see it as a pinnacle, like a bunch of patients in an insane asylum congratulating each other for completing a crayon-by-numbers. By all means, color in that page, but if you find Angels and Demons somewhere other than the "Young Young Adult" section, it's indicative of a major problem. And no, throwing in a few death scenes, sailor talk, or wet vaginas does not automatically turn preschool into doctoral, so put the Hustler away and start figuring out how to color inside the lines.

Ignorant innocents and savvy viles argue that there is nothing new under the sun, and that endlessly recycling primitive lessons about "trying hard" and "being nice" are the ultimate expressions that art can make, but this one knows better. The details of how that is taught--about how we're able to learn to think more deeply about what we're facing here--are built upon foundations of simplicity, but require much more than simplicity itself can offer.

More later.


  1. Fascinating, this and your previous post.

    Ecclesiastes, where "there is nothing new under the sun" comes from, always captivates me.

    "For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief."

    Those who are so wise, so clever, like to shrink life down to nothing more than formula writing limited to 36 plots. Gone is the creativity, the magic, the wonder of it all. There can be no surprises, been there and done that, know it all now. This is often quickly followed by intellectual idolatry, where people simply become bedazzled by the brilliance of their own intelligence.

    Narcissism is not really a desire to feel special or unique, it's actually a state of non existence. There is no self there. We tend to perceive narcissists as always wanting to be special, the center of attention, but that's simply because they exist as a kind of hologram, completely dependent on the projections of other people, other people they must manipulate into reflecting back to them what they wish to see in themselves. Narcissism is a bizarre affliction, one I often refer to as being trapped in a hall of mirrors.

    1. If all old men were colorblind, what madness they would think it was when someone new started using the word, "Red."

  2. So, the revision is that there is an unlimited number of plots to tell a limited number fundamental truths :)?

  3. Deathlord Asimov felt compelled to raise from the grave to school you on creativity: