Variations on a ThemeBy James Curcio
July 05, 2011
Tell me if this is a normal conversation to have while standing with the other groomsmen at a wedding.
“Never before has there been a generation of Americans so disillusioned by the American Dream.”
“Maybe in the 20s? It’s hard to compare.”
“Totally broken down. You can see it on everyone’s face. We all know we’ve been had.”
I was fidgeting with my sleeves. I’d never worn a tux before. “Just going through the motions. So. What you been doing lately?”
I’m not sure it is a normal conversation, but who wants to have those? Beautiful wedding, otherwise, at least what I remember through the haze of pain medication. But he had a point, didn’t he? Arguably that dream was always a bill of goods leveraged by the blood and sweat of the poor, but never before has the general public so generally recognized that we’ve been had. Many feel the downward slope yawning before us, as peak petroleum, an Empire over-extended, and an unstable climate push us into a troubled and horribly wondrous near future.
Or so it might appear. Our future runs through our past. In the first century AD, there were revolutions within Rome that made its history seem bleak. I imagine in times like those, it seems like the entire world is about to end. As it turned out, those were the explosions that birth a sun, not its death throes in nova. That wouldn’t come for three or four centuries when the Visigoths helped dismantle an already collapsing empire. It should come as no great revelation that systemic change comes about…systemically. Call it the hand of God, if you want. There will always be “the Visigoths,” in one form or another. Just as it seems there will always be fascists, the great organizing principle of Empire.
We don’t truly have the clarity of hindsight that might come from living a couple centuries, so we can never really know what our future holds. Writers are lucky in this regard. What we don’t know, we can invent. We can ask: what light could history shine on this feeling of an Enlightenment lost, perhaps before ever reaching any real apex?
A question like this can very easily lead you to a novel, if you let it. Theme is ephemeral. We can only dance around it, like drunken hummingbirds.
There’s truth to how we answer existential questions, at least to the extent that all myths are true. Always. To the extent that you believe in them.
That is the kind of question that fiction can let us explore freely, posing endless what-ifs, myths that begin with elements of personal or world history, but that spin off in whatever direction we’d like. So far we’ve only been looking at this macroscopically. I think we all know what this feeling of “Enlightenment lost” feels like on a personal level – we reach for something, nearly grasp it, but it slips away. Maybe our premises were all wrong, or we simply happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Then it seems like the rest of our lives follows suit. We are shown just how far we have to fall.
Our ancestors may look back on the passage of peak oil with a similar sense of loss and wonder what could have been, if humanity only heeded compassion instead of avarice. Carl Sagan, in his Kermit-the-frog voice, hypothesized that if the superstitious and violent elements of Christianity hadn’t risen to the top, we may be voyaging to the stars as we speak.
Let’s explore more. It is hard to imagine what it must have felt like at the turning point of an age, now long gone. What a sense of loss it must have been to see the Library of Alexandria, a cathedral to the best knowledge of that time, pillaged down to scraps and fragments, ancient knowledge lost to a growing darkness that lasted an age. (Sounds like something out of Lord of the Rings, doesn’t it?)
At the time of its destruction, the Library of Alexandria was overseen by Hypatia, who was a surprising figure in such patriarchal times. She was was reviled as a witch because she wouldn’t take a husband, and, probably the worse offense, she dabbled in the dark arts of philosophy, mathematics and science. These were about to be largely written off as occult sorcery for several centuries.
Even in the 16th-17th century, Giordano Bruno was killed for proclaiming the Sun was merely a star, adrift in the suburbs of the milky way and the Earth just her dark passenger. (“Milky” because of the milk cast off from Hera’s tits, I find that amusing.) This was roughly 1000 years after Hypatia had her skin flayed from her body with pottery shards for having the audacity to embrace reason. Quite a learning curve.
We toss off such facts casually, but if you identify your reader with a character, and then have her skin peeled away like the rind of a stubborn fruit with pieces of broken earth, they’ll probably take notice. (And wonder why you’re such a sadist.) I’m not sure why many of us consider reading this kind of thing entertainment. Maybe it gives a visceral sense of the extremity of a moment in time, so long ago.
Despite its distance in time, it is not as if we are much further developed as spiritual beings. I know that’s a bitch of a word to use. What the hell does it mean? We still kill one another as a result of misread metaphors and petty differences. The tension between religion and science remains a bomb ticking in our classrooms – made of equal parts C-4 and stupidity – created by people that don’t seem to understand the function of either religion or science. It comes out to be a bit like claiming a bulldozer is true and a grapefruit is not. Take technology out of the equation and we have, unsurprisingly, not evolved a whole lot in fifteen hundred years. (Put it in the equation, and we still haven’t, but that’s a different story.)
I’m sorry to digress on this point, but I don’t want to be misunderstood. Science is an iterative method which functions best in the absence of belief. Religion is a means by which individual is linked to society to divinity. One is an instrument of empirical discovery and verification, the other, a social institution or personal relationship between an individual and their own understanding of the divine.
Just through looking at the etymology of the word, we can see this. “Religion” comes from the Latin religiō, religiōn-, perhaps from religāre, “to tie fast.” Note that the meaning of this word is fundamentally the same as the meaning of the Sanskrit word Yoga, literally “union, yoking,” or “to join.” In both cases it is an attempt at joining the reference, which the religion refers to but cannot in itself embody, the social body, and the individual. This “joining” may also apply to the social body of the religion, though it is usually through the imposition of social dynamics that the religion polarizes into its opposite, and atrocities (holy wars as with the Crusades, bloody in-fighting over interpretation as with the Protestants, inquisitions, etc.), occur. (The Immanence of Myth)
In other words, primate pack behavior has a funny way of sneaking into our own packs. We’ve yet to outgrow it. Biologically, it may take a half million years.
It was maybe only because of Aristotle’s view of divinity as the perfect mind that worked behind the Empirical world that the ideas of Classical antiquity could be re-purposed. Many old ideas were reborn during the Renaissance – what hadn’t been burned or buried, at any rate. It was only when a way was found to render these ideas palatable to the biases of the time that science and math could again flourish, this time, when married with industry and war, as the part of a new tradition running out of control as religion did in the previous era. The Renaissance reversed the age of darkness, but it was in some ways merely an amplified echo, a carrier wave dragging ideas kicking and screaming through time. If we pretend that history is a strictly linear process, it is easy to imagine that we are approaching our own dark age as the sine wave crests and falls.
It doesn’t matter if that’s true or not. If we look at past instances of systemic collapse, we can find patterns relevant to our fictional explorations.
As a writer of modern myths – let’s not fool ourselves, that’s what a fiction writer is – we are also untethered from historical necessity. If the record doesn’t match our theme, we should feel free to borrow from it as we see fit, and toss what doesn’t match our crazed designs. So, we can see in our past a limitless sea of themes which will be reborn in different forms throughout our collective futures.
We could turn such “darkness” into the theme for a science fiction or fantasy story. We could cast it in a realistic-seeming alternate history. That’s purely aesthetic. For instance, the movie Aghora deals with Hypatia and this idea of a culture’s decline into darkness, however, the creative team inexplicably felt free to actually exercise their creativity.
Of course, a solid theme and setting based on a mental exercise like this won’t assure a good story. That’s the job of a writer. I don’t think anyone reading here needs a crash course on the craft involved. But a well-paced and crafted novel devoid of a broader theme is an exercise in futility if we are looking to take Zeno on and shoot for the bullseye. An arrow can reach its mark by progressing in half steps, as all writers know. I’m fairly convinced that is the only way books are written – in defiance toward common sense.
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