June 07, 2010

The artist as (a) God(s)

Ruminating a bit more on Mojo's post here about art as a creative act:

When I form people and their worlds, and their characteristics, beliefs, and philosophies, then set them loose to see what they’ll do when I give them a particular set of circumstances, I am not worshipping God. I am God.

Listening to a discussion about Lost (which I have never watched) last Sunday morning on NPR, I again marveled at the penchant we have for endowing with life and agency what Kiefer Sutherland described (Saturday on NPR in regards to 24) as "the fantasy of two writers."

We know full well it's the product of somebody sitting at a word processor (and Avid machine) and pounding on keys. But at the same time, somehow, we don't. And somehow, it isn't.

This strange—probably innate—ability to disassociate creator and creation is yet another reason why atheists will rid the world of God about the same time that the "abstinence only" advocates rid the world of randy teenagers.

But while a rational—though playful and adventurous—God is one thing. A Greco-Roman God that just stumbled out of bed after a weekend-long bender is quite another. As exuberantly entertaining as they can be at times, the inevitable hangovers aren't worth it in the long run.

That's the metaphor that springs to mind whenever I encounter a story in which it becomes obvious that the writer had no idea, starting out, where the whole thing was going to end up (other than face down in a gutter somewhere). "Free" and "undisciplined" aren't synonyms.

My answer to the claim that characters take on a life of their own (which they do) is to say that, even so, the writer is by no means compelled to tell us (or even know) everything they do. This gets back to the age-old teleological debate over agency and omniscience.

So I find it perfectly natural that the most popular narrative style in the western tradition is multiple-viewpoint, limited omniscience. In other words, polytheism with finite gods. Because, as I have Milada explain (an idea that came to me reading The Aeneid):

Rome never fell. We are her children and have inherited all that she was. Her language, art, architecture, politics and governance, her coliseums, her entertainment. Her religion and her gods. Only streamlined, made more efficient, and given new names.

Nicene Christianity is monotheism for people who can't count. Paul wasn't overthrowing a world view so much as he was upgrading it to version 2.0. (This is also why C.S. Lewis is so comfortable populating his stories with pagan characters). As Paul preached in Athens:

I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you (Acts 17:22-23 NIV).

If you like, call it the "federalist" view of the divine (admittedly more Hamiltonian than Jeffersonian).

Though getting back to my writerly analogy, Dick Francis said that he wrote in the first person to avoid POV violations. That's a good reason. And it works for the same reason that strictly monotheistic religions tend towards legalism: the absolute control of the narrator.

Which makes them equally lousy foundations for practical politics without a separation between church and state. In other words, monotheistic creators are fine when you have a whole bunch of them competing with each other and avoiding the rabid fan groupthink thing.

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# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
6/09/2010 10:02 AM   
Pierre Bayard (How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read, Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong, Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?) discusses the whole business of characters who take on a life of their own. He's pretty funny although, depending on the translator, his ideas can get kind of convoluted.

And I can acknowledge that Sherlock Holmes, for example, gained almost if not more reality than a real person, so that people actually mourned his "death." Readerly-speaking, however, when I read a non-Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes' story, I demand some correspondence to the original characterization. The writers are NOT allowed to recreate Holmes in their own image, thank you very much. (Although if I really like the story anyway, I just pretend I'm reading about someone else.)

Which is one reason I have a hard time reading books started by authors who die, leaving the books to be finished by someone else.

My personal view has always been, if I don't like what one of my characters is doing, I'm going to go back and change that character until the character does what I want. Talk about god-like abilities! (Genetic re-engineering!!) I guess I'm one of those grim Puritan gods. But I re-engineer because I want to play fair with the reader. What does that make the reader, theologically speaking?
# posted by Blogger Eugene
6/09/2010 10:46 AM   
My excuse is that I didn't pick the right alternate universe (you know, the one where Spock has the goatee). My usual reaction to a less-than-satisfactory story is to immediately imagine it corrected (the impulse to edit being insatiable). They didn't interpret God's will correctly, don't you know.

I agree with Zoe Winters that "no creator has the right to be coy and make things so open-ended then after the fact come out and say: No, this is what really happened. If you thought this other thing happened, you're wrong. As a viewer, I get to interpret what I view, just as I get to interpret what I read."

Of course, this can be quite frustrating to the writer (what's with Mormons who have no problem with "good" vampires in Twilight, then automatically assume mine must be evil?). But the job of the writer is to communicate, after all, and it's a cop-out to say, "I know you read X, but I really intended Y." If you intended it, you should have said so.

I've been lately following the classic advice: say what you're going to say, say it, then explain what you just said.

Alas, from that attitude springs legalism and hedging about the law. Hence, the libertarian instinct: everybody gets to be a creator. This is essentially the spirit of the doujinshi community in Japan, where highly derivative fan-fiction is tolerated as long as it doesn't cross over into blatantly for-profit.

In the extras on the Witchblade anime DVDs, Marc Silvestri at Top Cow (who owns the property) talks about launching a whole new story line and creating quite different aesthetic while remaining true to "canon," an interesting artistic juggling act.
# posted by Anonymous Moriah Jovan
6/10/2010 2:40 PM   
Hence, the libertarian instinct:

Wonder if there's some gene for this.

Okay, I'll admit that when people don't "get" what I wrote, it bugs. Bad. My fingers itch to say, "No no! YOU DON'T GET IT!"

But as a reader, I DO maintain that it's my right to take what you wrote and put my spin on it, therefore, I must at least TRY to be consistent.

(Even if that means I go scream at my husband for a while, who nods and says, "Yeah, they just don't get it," like a good husband should.)