Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Master Class

Hello, Terese Cue! If you missed last week's edition – on balance and being too much for ourselves, the Dalai Lama's daily routine and information diet, the paradox of ownership, an illustrated science lullaby about our planet's largest-hearted creature, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps, and comes enormously appreciated.

What's that they say on the internet, now? Oh yeah, that's right: "Wow. Just, wow."

Anyway, I was about to get into my SmartCar to pedal to the nearby dispensary and order a local zucchini-granola smoothie to round out my afternoon, when this gem popped up. Is it already too cliche to waste space mentioning how literati-friendly media is increasingly like 1950s church bulletins? The way this e-mail read, I'm surprised it didn't also include an ad for a used card table. And they even slipped in a little bit about the Company's man in Tibet!

But the header wasn't the most important part.

Neil Gaiman on How Stories Last

Stories have shapes, as Vonnegut believed, and they in turn give shape to our lives. But how do stories like the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm or Alice in Wonderland continue to enchant the popular imagination generation after generation – what is it that makes certain stories last?

Good god, I think it's honest. It's like if we went to a planet where people communicated by standing near each other, closing their eyes, and then producing some kind of magnetic resonance that made our human skin prickle but that we could not ourselves participate in. When these things come here and try to dissect human habits into words they can understand, it just itches of archaeologists from off-planet describing what they've seen to their academic superiors. What's sad is that they never reach a point in their lives where they realize "Every flower bud is the purest one." They just keep searching to be seen doing it, not because they really pursue it, because they really don't believe there is a flower bud that best exemplifies purity. Because they don't believe in purity, either. You just don't have the organs to sense the resonance. You chose your lot.

That's what the wise and wonderful Neil Gaiman explores in a fantastic lecture two and a half years in the making, part of the Long Now Foundation’s nourishing and necessary seminars on long-term thinking.

I've never been to a seminar that was nourishing nor necessary. Think of how devoid I must be by now. Is it healthy for a world, for a society, when you advertise having the ripest and freshest apples for sale in the same way that you advertise a speaking event? That's what the blue and green Earth demonstrates in a fantastic biosphere six and a half billion years in the making. Trust me: with taglines like that, you don't want to visit.

Nearly half a century after French molecular biologist Jacques Monod proposed what he called the "abstract kingdom" – a conceptual parallel to the biosphere, populated by ideas that propagate like organisms do in the natural world – and after Richard Dawkins built upon this concept to coin the word "meme," Gaiman suggests stories are a life-form obeying the same rules of genesis, reproduction, and propagation that organic matter does.

Evolutionary Bangism has so ensnared the mass mind that it's like talking about the problem you had last week in church: Christ Q. Evolution always has to be involved somehow. We have Christian Rock now, and people can identify it. I wonder if I'll last long enough to see stations devoted to Evolution Rock, and all the good music is somewhere else. Maybe the ads will be more uplifting on the Evolution stations, though. There's always a plus.

What a great use for famous names. Now, read this syllabus into this thing here. Omm, could you sip your coffee a little less often? We were aiming for a ten hour semester, not eleven.

Considering the scientific definition of life as a process that "includes the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death," Gaiman argues that stories are alive – that they can, and do, outlive even the world's oldest living trees by millennia:

Computer programs are alive. Did someone already do that one? If not, I claim it. Also relationships. Parties. Dogs. What, you say they already did dogs? Dammit. Fine. Symphonies, and minuets. Musical performances. Old women with blue hats. What's that you say? Old women are already all covered? Who? Yahweh? Dammit! Fine. Stick with "symphonies" for $400, Neil.

Do stories grow? Pretty obviously – anybody who has ever heard a joke being passed on from one person to another knows that they can grow, they can change. Can stories reproduce? Well, yes. Not spontaneously, obviously – they tend to need people as vectors. We are the media in which they reproduce; we are their petri dishes... Stories grow, sometimes they shrink. And they reproduce – they inspire other stories. And, of course, if they do not change, stories die.

On story being the original and deepest creative act:

Pictures, I think, may have been a way of transmitting stories. The drawings on cave walls that we assume are acts of worship or of sympathetic magic, intended to bring hunters luck and good kills. I keep wondering if, actually, they're just ways of telling stories: "We came over that bridge and we saw a herd of wooly bisons." And I wonder that because people tell stories – it's an enormous part of what makes us human.

It's kind of sweet how the ones who know the least are the most coveted by the audience who knows the least. This is like a special ed century, but more humane, where the teachers don't know it's special ed, they think they're lecturing at Harvard and JIMMY PUT THOSE SCISSORS DOWN NOW! Prisoners who don't know they're prisoners, wardens who think they're double agents, drive them in the long white bus to a new place every month and call them consultants. Everybody's happy except the janitors.

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