Speculative Fiction in the Aristotelian Age


Victoria Nelson’s “Puppets”: Is the Literature of the Imagination the “Repressed Transcendental” or an Act of Rebellion?

Lezlie Kinyon, Ph.D.                                               


Is the literature of the imagination then the “repressed transcendental” (Nelson 2001) or an act of rebellion (Le Guin, 1973/1979)?

In Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets (2001), she suggests that “fantastic” or grotesque imagery found in modern science fiction and fantasy literature and film is the cultural “sub-zeitgeist” of the transcendental.

Wisdom is complexity understood and relationships accepted. It may be, as Nelson (2001) describes, transcendental, but fiction as art-making is not perforce spirituality or wisdom. The writers of speculative fiction push the boundaries, challenge the envelope beyond even Nelson’s “sub-Zeitgeist” (2000) explanation of the work of the fantastic, into Le Guin’s acts of art that challenge assumptions.

What can be said is that within the realm of speculative fiction, inquiry into difficult questions often occurs, they are part of “classic” science fiction and fantasy story-making. By placing speculative fiction in the context of Nelson’s “sub-Zeitgeist” of cultural gnosis, one runs up against the on-going conversation in popular society that I have titled: Art-as-Spiritual-Journey and the Path-to-Wisdom.




Galatea beginning of paperThe Author Seeks the Dragon

Jane Yolen on Herman Melville for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators first National New York conference in January 2000, subsequently broadcast for C-Span:

Or if Edgar Rice Burrows had written it? Me Ishmael, you Jane. A story about a feral child brought up by whales.

Or if James Joyce had written it? Ishmael. Ishmael. Yes. And Ishmael. Yes. Ishmael. Call. And yes, yes, call.

Or Tama Janowitz: Call me a cab, Ishy.

Or Isaac Asimov? Call me Ishmael-4000B.

Or Maurice Sendak? Ishy, once, Ishy, twice, Ishy eats fish soup with rice.

Or Ogden Nash: Call me fishmeal.

In other words, it’s not the opening line itself, but what it portends and what it pretends to be about. Where it leads. Where it points; what it signifies; what it sets up. The opening sentence is the DNA of fiction, carrying all the genetic material for the story. Or as Jay Atkinson says “When a writer opens a story, rolls down the white space and hits the first line, for better or worse, the narrative course has been fixed.” (“B” is for Beginnings, Call Me Ishmael, para. 6)

The Sub-zeitgeist of Victoria Nelson’s “Puppets”

The genre of what is currently known as speculative fiction covers a range of material from “near-future” scenarios to fantasy fiction and, of course, science fiction.  Such seemingly disparate story forms as the film Johnny Mnemonic to the phantasmagorias of dark romance and gothic novels, the alternate realities of Tepper, the heroic fantasy literature of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and the science fiction world building of writers like Isaac Asimov, C. J. Cherryh, Le Guin or Poul Anderson all belong to speculative fiction.  A large pool of material and none of it falls into the “mainstream” American “high art” of realism.  It remains (along with other “genre” fiction) the literature of the masses – what would have once been called “penny dreadfuls”, and is somewhat denigrated by “high-art” critics as “escapist”.  Speculative fiction is also the most extensively marketed form of creative narrative in existence.  Fantasy, in particular, has become a commercial market of profitable, but predictable tales made for the grocery store rack.  Le Guin (2001) says of commercialized fantasy, in an interview with Locus Magazine in 2001:

Commercial fantasy?  It fills a place that romance doesn’t, because romance is so fixated on sexuality.  …  But a lot of romances are just emotional orgies.  Commercial fantasy supplies the same reassurance as romance does, and a lot of the same familiar themes, but at least there is some imagination, at least it’s a slightly different world (para. 7).

Le Guin (2002/2004) also describes marketing best sellers in this tongue-in-cheek manner,

Most best-sellers are written for readers who are willing to be passive consumers.  The blurbs on their covers often highlight wrenching, jolting aggressive power of the text – compulsive page-turner, gut wrenching, jolting, mind-searing, heart-stopping – what is this, electroshock torture?  (p. 230).

A good deal of speculative fiction is marketed to the lowest common denominator, and is hardly worth our attention.  Le Guin (2002/2004): “From commercial writing of this type, and from journalism, come the how-to-write clichés, ‘Grab your readers with the first paragraph,’ ‘Hit them with shocker scenes,’ “Never give them time to breathe,’ and so on” (p. 230).  Angélica Gorodischer (2004) suggests that fantastic fiction is not a respectable form of literature because,

Of course!  Critics and academics are very prejudiced and closed minded.  When a friend would see me with an SF book they would put on a face of disgust and ask, “You read that trash?”  Those people don’t know what they’re missing.  A work is good or bad or mediocre, and that’s all.  Neither the theme of the work nor the genre in which it’s written tell you anything.  There are a lot of horrible SF stories and novels, those where the little green men with antennas appear and so, which are in fact trash.  And then there are marvels like Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick and others  (p. 5).

Of more interest is the fiction of writers that take risks.  In Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets (2001), she suggests that “fantastic” or grotesque imagery found in modern science fiction and fantasy literature and film is the cultural “sub-zeitgeist” of the transcendental.  Nelson (2001):

In the current Aristotelian age the transcendental has been forced underground, where it has found a distorted outlet outside the recognized boundaries of religious expression.  As members of a secular society in which the cult of art has supplanted scripture and direct revelation, we turn to the works of the imagination to learn how our living desire to believe in a transcendent reality has survived outside our conscious awareness  (p. viii).

Le Guin describes this genre (and her art) of literature in this way:

When art shows now and what, it is trivial entertainment, whether optimistic or despairing.  When it asks why, it rises from emotional response to real statement, and to intelligent ethical choice.  It becomes, not a passive reflection, but an act.

And that is when all the censors, of governments and of the marketplace, become afraid of it  (Le Guin, 1973/1979, p. 219).

Another writer, Sheri Tepper (1998) who writes from a base of social action states in a recent interview with Locus Magazine,

I know there are writers who say they have no social responsibility except to write a good book, but that doesn’t satisfy me.  I’ve written all my life, but before 1983, with Planned Parenthood, I was a pamphleteer, a sermonizer, a speech-giver, a person who wagged her finger under people’s chins and said, ‘Now see here!’  (para. 8).

Concerning speculative fiction and escapism, Tepper (1998) says,

To me, fantasy has always been the genre of escape, science fiction the genre of ideas.  So if you can escape and have a little idea as well, maybe you have some kind of a cross-breed between the two (para. 4).

In Tepper’s novels, one encounters a mix of fantasy, and themes worthy of the “golden age”: the early to mid 20th century writers when almost all science fiction was written from a technological “gee-whiz” engineering view that overshadowed plot and story.  Tepper (1998) describes her art this way,

The only people who have the long view are some scientists and some science fiction writers.  I have always lived in a world in which I’m just a spot in history.  My life is not the important point.  I’m just part of the continuum, and that continuum, to me, is a marvelous thing.  The history of life, and the history of the planet, should go on and on and on and on.  I cannot conceive of anything in the universe that has more meaning than that (para. 9).

Is the literature of the imagination then the “repressed transcendental” (Nelson 2001) or an act of rebellion (Le Guin, 1973/1979)?  For consideration, Le Guin (2004) provides this insight,

So it may be that the central ethical dilemma of our age, the use or nonuse of annihilating power, was posed most cogently in fictional terms by the purest of fantasists.  Tolkien began The Lord of the Rings in 1937 and finished it about ten years later.  During those years, Frodo withheld his hand from the Ring of Power, but the nations did not (p. 44).

Another science fiction writer, Andy Duncan (2001), from a different generation and temperament says of his art,

There is a great, almost mystical, yearning on our part for a Singularity to come around, but I don’t foresee it happening.  All these innovations, all these new things we’re going to be implementing, are going to be implemented by the same old human beings that have been designing and implementing them all along, for good and for ill.  I agree with Connie Willis and Orson Scott Card – he says, in a thousand years it’s not like we’ve discovered any new ways to be happy, enthusiastic, new ways to be cruel, new ways to be selfish, unconcerned about our fellow human beings (para. 5).

Returning to Tolkien (1966), he likens fantasy to the enchantment of “Faërie”,

… we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm.  But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator (p. 49).

The jury will be out on the question of the nature, respectability and heart of speculative fiction for many more years and I do not hope to answer it here and now.  What can be said is that within the realm of speculative fiction, inquiry into difficult questions often occur, they are part of “classic” science fiction and fantasy story-making: questions concerning evil and goodness (Stoker, Lee, Rice) other worlds (Tolkien, McIntyre, Bradley), the other: the stranger (Heinlien, Vonnegut, Saberhagen), the nature of being (Shelly, Dunsany, Marquez) theology and the transcendental (Sturgeon, Paxon, Lewis, Herbert) the questions of mind and identity (Lem, Asimov, Silverberg, Dick), and those of race, gender, freedom and slavery Kalpa Imperial(Le Guin, Tepper, Russ, Atwood, Cherryh, Delany).  Less obvious inquiries find form and story in this realm as well: Angélica Gorodischer (1983/2003) wrote Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire that Never Was[1] to explore story telling forms in oral tradition.  There are stories and form that urban street storytellers use that reviewer Carmen Perilli (2001) describes as “nothing more and nothing less than free men and women” (para. 1).  Gorodischer herself describes fantasy this way in an interview with Gabriel Mesa (2004) in the electronic journal, Fantastic Metropolis:

Maybe it’s so – this rebellion, I mean.  I hope so because rebellions in our field are very healthy.  But I think that fantasy is inserted in our cells, in the double helix.   Sometimes it works and there appear works of pure, magnificent fantasy.  Other times authors try to tame her and don’t let her come out, but she’s always there and she ends up doing what she wants.  Not for nothing do they call her “la loca de la casa” (“the madwoman in the attic”) (para. 7).

Gorodischer’s (2004) prose in the style of urban storytelling tradition is evocative and musical to the ears, “Now that the good winds are blowing, now that we’re done with days of anxiety and nights of terror…” (p. 1).  She creates her world of Kalpa, writing in a manner that easily falls with in the story-making tradition Tolkien wrote about when he said that fantasy, “Uncorrupted, it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves” (p. 74).

Octavia Butler (2000), a science fiction writer of some note, makes this statement about her art, something I believe all the writers here quoted would agree upon, be they writing fantasy, science fiction or within another genre of speculative fiction,

That’s what I want to write about: when you are aware of what it means to be an adult and what choices you have to make, the fact that maybe you’re afraid, but you still have to act (para. 5).

800px-Ogata_Gekko_-_Ryu_sho_ten_editThe Question of Art, Spirituality and Wisdom: The Dragon Seeks the Author

It does seem that one cannot have a discussion concerning art without coming to the question of spirituality (re: Nelson) and, perhaps, of wisdom.  The literature of the fantastic seems, more than the “mainstream” genres of realism, to lend itself to this spiritual speculation upon the process of creative work and its product.  Although one can make a case for the Grail stories of Eisenbach and Troyes in the troubadour era, the more relevant connection has its historic roots in the Romantic Era and the rise of the literature of the “grotesque” in the gothic novel.  This movement was a popular counter against the growing popularity of the Aristotelian view against “superstition” in the rise of science in Western culture.  Again, Nelson:

The Renaissance offered, like Late Antiquity, a rare moment of dueling equals, but on the heels of its attendant separation of reason and imagination (initiated by thinkers like Francis Bacon), episteme won out.  The subsequent rise of empirical science and the pigeonholing of intellectual disciplines during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would displace gnosis from its role as the prism of truth through which to view the entire cosmos into merely one of many fictive prisms of imagination within the realm of art (p. 28).

Within this “sub-Zeitgeist of half acknowledged Platonic assumptions” says Nelson (p. 29) lays the literature of the imagination, that of speculative fiction.  As such, it may become a container for the exploration of philosophy and ideas in a manner that realism in the mainstream of American “high art” literature cannot.  It is somewhat ironic that the work of the “fantastic”, in Europe, unlike this side of the Atlantic, is acknowledged as a part of  “high-art” of literature in the works of Stansilov Lem, C. S. Lewis, and others, whose model was the Romantic Era’s storytelling mode: the “third world of the marvelous, born in the Renaissance and revived during the Romantic Era as an aesthetic revolt against the eighteenth century’s rising Aristolelianism” (Nelson, 2001, p. 75).  Peter S. Alterman in his 1979 essay “Ursula K. Le Guin: Damsel with a Dulcimer” has this further insight:

Science fiction and English Romanticism are both children of the Industrial revolution.  The eighteenth century that saw the rise of the factory also saw the retreat of Christianity in the face of the onslaught by scientific rationalism; among the causalities of this “war” was a complacent definition of man (p. 64).

While Locke defined the tabla rasa the writers of the Romantic Movement  “joined the colloquy, especially with Wordsworth’s Prelude, Coleridge’s theories of imagination, and Blake’s mythic theories of mental creation” (Alterman, 1979, p. 64) to discourse on the nature of humanity.  Romantic Era writers delved ever deeper into the dreaming grotto of myth and Mary Shelly “wrote the first novel to define physical man in light of the new scientific and then-popular philosophical-psychological theories” (Alterman, 1979, p. 64) and invented the science fiction novel. 1

By placing speculative fiction in the context of Nelson’s “sub-Zeitgeist” of cultural gnosis, one runs up against the on-going conversation in popular society that I have titled: Art-as-Spiritual-Journey and the Path-to-Wisdom.

Wisdom and Added Knowledge:  The Dragon’s Pearl is is Viewed

900px-Hokusai_DragonThe knowledge added to the human experience by the artist isn’t always obvious nor can it be quantified or even qualified in spoken language.  By this I do not mean that it is intuitive or unconscious knowledge, but that it is performed or experienced in another language.  (The corollary in science would be the language of symbolic logic or mathematics.)  For example, musical composition communicates in a specific language.  Musical language in particular has been compared with mathematical languages as a “complex and pure” method of expression by various researchers in the hard sciences, recently by physicist Stephen Hawking  in an interview conducted at the White House Millennium Evenings March 6, 1998 and aired on C-Span.

Painting and sculpture use the language of line, color, form, and perspective; while the fiber arts and fabric design use the tactile senses.  While these are not spoken languages such as poetry or literature use, they also are not purely intuitive or unspoken like that achieved in dreams or meditations. 2  The idea I want to express here may be best described as this: the language of the mind operates on many levels, some are unspoken, some in languages like mathematics, music or English, and others in ways that cannot be spoken adequately.

The ancient world of the Mediterranean celebrated a mystery ritual each year during the month now called February at Eleusis.  This was a very famous event celebrated for hundreds of years.  There were ritual events and actions that the mystae – initiates – could not speak of under penalty of death.  These were the lessor mysteries, there were no laws concerning the greater mysteries because the initiate had no words with which to speak of them.  (Mylonas, 1961)  This is more than knowledge or even what has been called intuitive knowledge, it is wisdom.  Maturana and Bunnell (1997) in their essay “What is Wisdom?” describe this aspect of human experience as:

Human wisdom is lived as a coherence between thought, feeling, and awareness of human action in the cosmos; it is innocent and effortless.  Human wisdom happens in our animal living, in our participation in the wisdom of nature, and is not a human construct (p. 3).

We experience this in dreams, imaginings, in trance journeys, and in the practices of contemplation and ritual.  We also experience wisdom in everyday life as a coherence between the multiple dimensionalities of  “systemic coherences” (Maturana & Bunnell, 1997).  Seemingly integral to the human experience, the idea of wisdom is such an intriguing part of inquiry in science and art that it has been discussed by several philosophers.  Joseph Meeker, in his paper, Wisdom and Wilderness (1981) states,

Wisdom is a state of the human mind characterized by profound understanding and deep insight.  It is often, but not necessarily, accompanied by extensive formal knowledge.  Unschooled people can acquire wisdom, and wise people can be found among carpenters, fishermen, or housewives.  Wherever it exists, wisdom shows itself as a perception of the relativity and relationships among things.  It is an awareness of wholeness that does not lose sight of particularity or concreteness, or of the intricacies of interrelationships.  It is where left and right brain come together in a union of logic and poetry and sensation, and where self-awareness is no longer at odds with awareness of the otherness of the world.  Wisdom cannot be confined to a specialized field, nor is it an academic discipline; it is the consciousness of wholeness and integrity that transcends both.  Wisdom is complexity understood and relationships accepted (p. 1).

I would conclude from this brief reading that wisdom is a kind of knowledge that originates in encounter and – from knowledge of a place or thing – emerges from within an individuals’ deeply felt experience.  The work of Russian poet, Maria Volchenko (2003), may serve as an example of how a writer may use the unspoken language of dreams and the unconscious to awaken pathways and inquire into a deeply felt experience, then find words to express the insights gained:


From the Earth I weave

Through the downy leaves

Seeping into the night

Drafting, evoking

The image of smoking

I take flight

Putting off my shell so frail

Breaking the points of my trai

Behind I perceive

Someone left in pain

Imploring me, saying

Don’t leave!  (p. 1)

Is this, then, wisdom?  No, wisdom is something more.  Maturana and Bunnell (1997) suggest that:

We recognize a wise man or woman because their actions reveal both comprehension and knowledge.  This happens in an awareness of relations that is only possible through accepting the legitimacy of emotions for the comprehension of the relational space that they live in every moment.  And this is possible because the wise woman or man move in a poetic look which captures systemic coherences, and in their respect for emotions they see the emotions which are in every instance the fundament for human existence, and thus they can use their knowledge and comprehension in a manner that is adequate for the conservation of social living as part of the biosphere, community or cosmos.  Thus, the wise man or woman clearly sees the fundaments of local behavior, and does not live in lies.  And with such people human social living participates in the systemic dynamics of all existence in a manner which conserves well-being in a harmony among cultural, biological and cosmic domains – without ideologies, without religious truths, and without sentimentalities (pp. 8-9).

Fienstein and Krippner (1988, 1998) discuss “living mythically” (1988) and using myth as “model by which human beings code and organize their perceptions, feelings, thoughts and actions” (p. 2).  This is echoed in Starhawk’s (1987) exploration of power and mystery, Truth or Dare, when she says,

Mystery is what is wild in us, what is never predictable or safe.  Older and deeper than domination and control, it is the immanent value of the beating heart, blood, breath, survival, life (p. 231).

Wisdom incorporates all the ways we encounter life and the things we keep in our lives that make them meaningful.  We share our songs, our ambitions, our meditations and contemplations; we tell our stories, the personal, cultural and the fictional ones:

Myth, story, dream and laughter are the other roads that can take us to the enclosed chamber where the mysteries can be viewed.  …  Mystery itself is what is common to us all: the pattern, the cycles of time, the body, the sense of place  (Starhawk, 1987, p. 241).

It is no accident that these are also the favorite themes of the writers discussed within these pages, or that the works of power (as described by DeQuincey, 1848) are the works that explore the mystery and the depth of human experience.  Meeker (1981) points out that “Wisdom cannot be confined to a specialized field, nor is it an academic discipline; it is the consciousness of wholeness and integrity that transcends both.  Wisdom is complexity understood and relationships accepted”  (p. 1) and the other writers here quoted discuss wisdom as the mystery, the knowing of our animal nature, the  “And with such people human social living participates in the systemic dynamics of all existence in a manner which conserves well-being in a harmony among cultural, biological and cosmic domains – without ideologies, without religious truths, and without sentimentalities”  (Maturana & Bunnell, 1997 pp. 8-9).  It is viewing the world, indeed, through the Dragon’s Eye.  The fiction writer may write with this view, the “poetic look”, without ideology or sentimentality that would place his or her story-making into the realm of polemic or titillation (as all too often occurs), however, he or she must also write through knowledge gained and funneled through imagination.  It may be, as Nelson (2001) describes, transcendental, but fiction as art-making is not perforce spirituality or wisdom.

If the literature of imagination can be thought of as a co-creative act of mythmaking, particularly when a book achieves the popularity of a Tolkien, then its significance to our collective culture creating can be viewed though a very different lens.  The literature of the imagination becomes, not merely “escapist” but a conversation between not only writers and their critics, but also with the reader.  Le Guin (2002/2004) speaks of a contract between writer and reader based upon trust:

A story is a collaboration between teller and audience, writer and reader.  Fiction is not only illusion, but collusion.

Without a reader there’s no story.  No matter how well written, if it isn’t read it doesn’t exist as a story.  The reader makes it happen just as much as the writer does (p. 230).

Within this lens of “collusion” between writer and reader in speculative fiction one can find the experimentation with life choices, social criticism (often, of the highest order), exploration of the darkest fears and the brightest hopes of our time and place.  Just as Stoker’s Dracula can be interpreted as a darkly erotic exploration of both repressed sexuality and the image of the (then epidemic) “wasting disease” (tuberculosis), so can Tolkien be viewed through the lens of “looking back” to an age prior to the ills of mechanized warfare that the author was (personally) confronted with in his lifetime.  That Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, with its vision of a world heartbreaking in its beauty, endangered by an overarching evil, and filled with a sad, nostalgic longing for a greater, more noble past, has influenced an entire generation is certainly a fact with no detractors today.

One final word on fantasy in narrative, again from Tolkien.  Fantasy, says Tolkien (1966), is not to be confused with dreams (p. 41).  Fantasy in literature comes from the story-telling tradition of fairy-stories, of folk tales and myth.  It also is not “against reason”, on the contrary (Tolkien, 1966),

Fantasy is a natural human activity.  It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of scientific inquiry.  On the contrary.  The keener and clearer is the reason, the better the fantasy it will make.  If men were ever in a state which they would mot want to know or could not perceive the truth (facts or evidence) then Fantasy would languish until they were cured.  It they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion (p. 75).

Within the Context of Inquiry – Seeing the World Through the Dragon’s Eye

To place wisdom (and the search), and speculative literature within the context of inquiry, let us begin the discussion with Booth and Kennedy (2000) in their description of an attempt to include experiential learning, and the journey toward wisdom in their classroom:

Figure 1: Booth & Kennedy’s “Learning Journey”

The triangle below demonstrates the importance of all the three sides existing together in order to achieve the goal of meaningful learning.  However, if one or more sides are missing, there is an increase in the student’s inability to acquire meaningful learning.

The students’ inability to transfer their acquired knowledge into wisdom and be able to demonstrate the transfer of learning, is caused by either one or more sides of the triangle that is/are missing in relation to their goal to acquire meaningful learning  (pp. 3-4).

diagram 3

This begins to look like a fairly textbook example for a practicum in classroom techniques along the “line of learning” from knowledge to wisdom (Booth & Kennedy, 2000, p. 3); but, is the journey so clearly exemplified?  Or, is wisdom something more systemic as Bunnell and Maturana (2001) suggest? In daily life wisdom happens when one lives in the emotion of love that enables both knowledge and comprehension so that all actions and reflections arise in harmony with the coherences of the systemic medium in which one lives.

Comprehension happens in open reflection as one sees the local situation as participant of the systemic relations that constitute the world (cosmos, biosphere, culture) to which it pertains.  This is a systemic look which grasps multidimensional configurations in multiple domains in an analogical manner.  Knowledge, or at least that which we refer to as knowledge in this culture is different.  Knowledge happens through a look that grasps the local linear coherences of any particular domain without implicating any systemic connections with other domains.  Thus knowledge is always proper to the domain in which it happens, and it pertains to recognizing causal relations.

Comprehension and knowledge are thus both looks that grasp configurations of relationships; comprehension in a systemic view and knowledge in a local linear view.  Both can only happen in a way of looking which accepts the legitimacy of what is seen, that is in a look of love.  Any other emotion obscures vision, restricts intelligence, and one is unwittingly restricted to ones own prejudices (p. 7).

Bunnell and Maturana call this “systemic thinking”, and further describe systemic thinking as the “poetic look”.  The “look” that goes deeper, sees the world in a manner reflective of viewing – and experiencing – the systemic relations that constitute the world beyond the causal relationships that have created “causal linear thinking” (p. 7).

In causal linear thinking one sees the regularities in closely connected processes.  In focusing on a local look, one notices how the flow of changes necessarily results from the structural properties of the elements, and thus the notion of causality emerges.  If a certain perturbation touches a particular structure, that structure becomes modified in a particular manner – thus A causes B.  It is this kind of thinking that has enabled us to obtain many of the effects we desire, and it is in this kind of thinking that we have invented procedures, tools, and technologies.  Linear logical thinking with the notion of causality enables us to engage in effective local action.

In our culture we are trained to focus on causality.  Causality can always be found in a local situation, and irregularities can always be externalized – as random effects, or outside influences, or changed conditions.  In effect we cannot prevent our own grasping of systemic connections, but we can rationalize them.  An observer who lives immersed in the local linear rationality will treat those analogic systemic relationships that he or she grasps in an unconscious poetic look as if they too corresponded to linear logic.  That is, if one believes all thinking is causal, then all that one has grasped must be given a causal rationale.  In linear causal logic we are trained to look for “the reason” for any circumstance we do not like, for any unhappiness or conflict, so that we may change that.  Thus in this logic anything irregular or undesired is a “problem” implying a “solution”  (p. 7).

One may infer that in the marketplace of ideas, the literature of explanation, and by extension, that of journalistic “realism” in American literature is the result of causal, linear approaches.  A problem is presented in Ch. 1 and with a certain regularity of plot and device, explained, then expiated by Ch. 10.  All that follows is then denouement.  As Nelson (2001) suggests,

For a broader view, it is important to look at how the displaced longing for the transcendental functions in the larger framework of a mercantile society like ours, which values art primarily when it manages to achieve the status of economic commodity … This is a subject on which Walter Benjamin had something worthwhile to say: that the Patron to who twentieth century artists must make flattering obeisance is the middle class.  Paradoxically, in literature this obeisance is also (and especially) performed by works of fiction depicting poverty, violence, exotic cultures, and the like, all of which serve as Object to the Patron’s Subject.  …  Here is your mirror, and there is your shadow; both images serve the consumer’s needs (p. 84).

In the literature of the imagination, the unexpected happens, the ideas and dreamscapes of alternate reality ebb and flow in ways that temp one to play with different ways of thinking.  The writers of speculative fiction push the boundaries, challenge the envelope beyond even Nelson’s “sub-Zeitgeist” (2000) explanation of the work of the fantastic, into Le Guin’s acts of art that challenge assumptions.  When we approach story-making in this way, we can agree with Le Guin (2004) when she says, “it is possible to believe that our narrative fiction has for years been growing, slowly, vaguely, massively, not in the direction of fad and fashion but as a deep current, in one direction – towards rejoining the ‘ocean of story,’ fantasy” (p. 43).  When literature is commodified, marketed fantasy – speculative fiction  – or realism – it takes no risks, it lacks the quality of De Quincey’s literature of power and it becomes counterfeit.  Reasonably literate humans can, and do recognize the difference.  Samuel R. Delany (1979/1996), in his essay “Science Fiction and ‘Literature’ – or, The Conscience of the King” said, “… the only defense of anything is first to separate out what’s definitely bad; when something doesn’t work and leads nowhere” (p. 443).

To look again at an example of music, I would like to refer to a paper by Thethys Carpenter and Brian D. Josephson  (1992) called Music and Mind — A Theory of Aesthetic Dynamics.  In this paper, the authors maintain that music is a bit of a mystery, a mystery that has been approached by several different authors with differing points of view.  The main point being that although we can make music by a set of rules encoded into a computer program – rules which are perfectly good ones in use by composers all the time, the electronic results lack that quality which makes for, in the words of the authors, “while in some sense sounding like music, lacks, to an experienced listener, the quality of real music” (Carpenter & Josephson, 1992, p. 2).  Again, in the words of Carpenter and Josephson, “We are faced, then, with the existence of a phenomenon that is apparently at once very arbitrary (the latter in the sense of there being no clear reason for the observed specificity)” (1992, p. 2).  In other words, we know good music when we hear it, based upon our experience of music; and, we also know counterfeit based upon that same experience  (see diagram below, “real music” a Dadaist counterfeit).

Music is a highly structured and complex language, one that may or may not incorporate human spoken language (as in opera or popular song), and is an ancient form of human communication.  We also know story-making when it is real, when it describes and explores our universal experience of being human.  Speculative fiction can, and does, create story from this deep experience of humanness.  We can separate the real from the counterfeit, we know it when we see it, read it, hear it.


Figure 2: Music and Counterfeit.

figure 2 full

Reflection: “funding” and the “truth”

The relationship between “funding” and the “truth” keeps popping up in this discussion; I wonder to what extent this permeates all of our efforts, at least in the Western cultures.  It would be interesting to speculate on what alternative schemas might be like.  Is it possible to frame this question as:

a) Establish a relationship (positive or negative) between “funding” and “creativity”, or perhaps “truth” and “creativity”.

b) Truth, as the oft misquoted adage coined by Keats goes, may be beauty, but in Western culture, it also seems to require the “filthy lucre” to obtain.

c) If an alternative schema to this seeming impasse were to be formulated, how would the world of the artist or researcher be re-structured?

This reflection would seem, then, to point to future studies in questions of teleology.  Although, a partial answer may be found toward the end of the dissertation, it will– by necessity – remain partial – for now.

Herein, asking this question of how art became a commodity, may shed some light into three questions germane to this study:

a) How and where did this state of affaires begin?

b) And, perhaps, more importantly, what is meant by “literature” itself – leading to:

c) The emergence of the key idea of “authorship” itself – a idea that may seem obvious to us, in the 21st century, but was not the case only a short time ago.

This last concept, that of authorship itself is, I believe, an important key in the understanding of this discussion, and a cornerstone in the idea of aesthetic inquiry.

Reflection 2: The Dragon’s Invitation

The Story Woman laughed and said, “Treasure is where you find it.”  The dragon had buried his hoard long ago.  (What was the true treasure the dragon guarded so fiercely?)  “Well,” says the Story Woman, “Do you think you could find out by a simple question?”

The dragon snorted, and sent a cloud of sulphurous gas into the cavern … “The heroes were tasty.” he mused, ungraciously, “I miss them.  Especially the royal ones.  Nothing like an aristocrat with a jolt of prideful audacity and a pinch of arrogant cruelty to season the bones.  Chase it with noblenesse and you’ve got a meal.”

“Let’s get on with this story,” said the Story Woman, her stomach turning a little.  She didn’t really miss the aristocrats much and the metal-clad clanking heroes least of all – except as grist for another story.  Still, eating them might be going too far…  “What about all of those princesses and damosels?”

“Oh, I never ate any of those!” the dragon reared up, offended, “I tried to educate them!  But, then just as one started getting interesting a damned hero would come clanking along, waving a sword, or a lance, and later, a bazooka or two—well, what was a dragon to do?  It was self-preservation!”

“And, see where it got you!”  The Story Woman retorted, gesturing to the chains.

“Oh, that’s not the whole story – now be quiet little human, if you want the rest!”

The Story Woman sighed, “very well.”

“Did you think it would be short?”



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1 Although this “invention” has been more popularly attributed to H. G. Wells, Shelley’s work has both precedence and greater power.

2 I would like to refer the reader to Matthew Fox’s many writings on this subject and its reference to the gaining of wisdom as well as knowledge through intuitive and meditative means.  Fox’s writing has much insight based upon the work of philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, Hildegard von Bingen, Thomas Aquinas among others.

[1] Retrieved from http://t1.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcS-o1YApUrrqjIcPJQagUw5naRKsRurqn1iAUny8Xpl9xMrtSe9.




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