Monthly Archives: May 2013

Flash Fiction: Illusion

Great piece of flash fiction by a friend I’ve know for ages. A good short read, and well worth your time!

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Literature and Science

One of the strange things about being a writer is that you become sucked into having a stance upon scientific endeavour, and its relationship with literature. As far back as primary school, you’d become aware of the tension between these two schools of thought and be forced to pick a side. Yes, it’s the typical Literature versus Science debate. What I find amusing, frankly, about this argument is that firstly there is no need for there to be an argument, and secondly, that scientific endeavour has a great habit of exposing people’s insecurities about their own paths. This whole topic I’ve found is brought up more by writers, English Literature students and other affiliated parties than those with a grounding in or an actual career in scientific fields. That tells you something in itself.

As a writer, I’ve got the worst history I think you could possibly get. Instead of starting writing early and being fascinated with stories, I actually spent most of my childhood interested solely in science. In school my best marks where always in the sciences, I always enjoyed doing science, and I hated doing English and creative writing. Ironically, I simply couldn’t write creatively and at that point I was convinced I wanted to do something in the sciences for a job. Now things are totally the flip side – I’m studying English Literature at university and I spend my time writing. I fit the mould for being a writer better now yet the thing is, I’ve sat on both sides of the camp for this topic. Quite honestly, this whole issue is a laugh for me because it’s not an issue at all.

In several of my lectures so far, I’ve been bombarded with a bit of literature propaganda as I’d like to coin it. I’ve had Shelly’s quote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” repeated more times than I care for (even though that number is one – its such a vain quote) and lectures dealing with the issues of scientific enquiry, each with the veiled implication that literature isn’t pointless. What strikes me about the tone of these lectures is the implicit self-justification, the underlying tone that seeks to reassure both the speaker and the vested interested of the students listening. The message varies, but the overall trend is the same, that literature has a point in the face of science.

What’s interesting is how the perception for such arguments is that science is hostile to all other modes of thought, that it is trying to prove all other schools of thought wrong. That’s an entirely unjust categorisation. The goal of science is to learn the truth about things (a huge generalisation), but the crucial distinction to make is that it seeks to understand and arrive at what can be proved as truth. Thus, it only deals in the physical and the material. Issues of belief and thought are not it’s concern, because no test can be determined to prove a thought true. Therefore, it is not out to prove other modes of thought wrong. Ironically, those knowing in the operation of language should be savy to this distinction. In scientific enquiry, it is determined that a theory can be tested and by confirmation of test results, proved to be correct beyond reasonable doubt. It therefore operates in the psychical world, not the world of ideas. A great example would be that science is not out to prove religion is false, because there is no test that can be devised to prove the existence of deities. The conclusion is that science is a way of determining the properties of the physical world, but it is not in the same realm as philosophy, art or literature. Philosophy deals with thoughts, mostly questions of why. Art and literature cross into philosophy, but they’re also about aesthetic pleasure. Studying English is simply learning a mode of analysis and thinking – just with a different subject matter.

In the end, it becomes clear that Literature and Science are on two obviously different paths, aims and fields. They could not be more different, and thus more separate. One cannot transgress and try to disprove the other because they have no overlapping currencies. This means that yes, arguing that one field is more important than the other is irrelevant. What it only reveals, as I said in the introduction, are the insecurities of individuals. Science can determine what cake is, while language explains what cake is. One is about what it is, the other is about what it means. Both however at first deal with what it is, and it’s the small distinction in what “is” or “being” can mean that you must remember.

 

Laugh At Life

It’s been a thought I’ve lived by for years now.

“Laugh at life, or life will laugh at you.”

The way I see it, life is always laughing at us, it’s just whether you choose to laugh back and laugh loudest. In all honestly, when you stop and really think about what life is, I find I either just want to sit down in a corner and wave a white flag, or just laugh for all I’m worth. I mean, our ideas about our existence are quite vain, but they need to be because there’s an underlying reality that we don’t want to accept.

When you ask what purpose there is in life, you’re not trying to find the answer to existence, but something to fight against what you know already. You just don’t want to admit, acknowledge or accept it. What purpose is there in life? None. I could say writing gives my life meaning, but whether I choose to put words on a page or sit down and do nothing, the net result is still the same. My fate is to dust, the fate of all I do is to dust, and though we all might try to gain immortality in some memory, that just turns to dust as well.

It’s bleak, it’s nihilistic and we hate it because existence is inherently hostile to any attempt to give it meaning. We crave meaning, because it is comfortable.

There is relief in accepting this, and then laughing at how absurd existence all is. It’s the strangest liberation I’ve felt. Almost everything we do then becomes funny, and mostly because we take what we do far too seriously. It’s funny that I choose to spend my time writing fiction novels, when that very activity contributes nothing to me.

So I laugh at the fact that I write.

I also laugh at the fact we’re all tiny specks on a ball of rock whizzing through the vacuum of space around a giant burning ball of gas. Doesn’t it just sound mad?

It really hit me once when I was recently taking one of my university exams last week. I was sitting there, in the hall, in silence. All the tables and chairs lined up in orderly rows, and for three hours I had to write. It was incredibly helpful then for the meaninglessness of the situation hit me then. I had the sudden urge to burst out laughing, because it all suddenly became so absurd.

So that’s laughing at life, but what about life laughing at you? By that, I mean how if we take things too seriously, it is very easy for random events to derail our carefully laid plans and generally frustrated our attempts to achieve whatever goal we were focused on. In the end, things go wrong, and our perceived control of our lives really is more of a fanciful illusion than any truth. I mean, how can you say you’re in control when you don’t know all the possible outcomes of one choice? There are too many paths to take, and they all branch off from each other in unforeseeable ways. While we have the power to make choices, we don’t have the power to know all the outcomes of that choice.

But why should I still laugh? I don’t know why I do sometimes. Some days I want there to be a meaning or purpose, but other days I’m glad there is none because it makes my mistakes altogether as meaningless as when I do something right.

The Great Fenrir

Closer.
No voice calls out between the scrawny pines. They only creak and groan under ages old snows; roots grasping for grip over icy stones. No, only the whisper of the north wind calls to my ears; its voice bitter, biting.Closer.I peer between the frozen trunks, searching the brooding forest. I might in vain search for tracks, his presence grows; a looming weight in my heart. Nothing stirs in the gloom save the creak of rotting branches and the soft crunch of snow underfoot.Closer.

Still he lures me on, his chuckle a deep tremor underfoot. I tremble at every echo, and every shadow seems to be his skulking guise.

“Where are you?” I call out, sick of his taunts. My voice echoes between the twisted trees, spitting my words back.

Where are you?

Anger leaps through my veins as wildfire.

A deep rumbling; the very noise of landslide, shakes the ground beneath me before slipping into frozen silence.I make out the chuckle, a throaty growl, more beast than man. More of a monster, capable of a mockery of human speech.

Typical.

***

Black clouds brew overhead. Thick and fast, darkening the sky. The world howls with all the bite of winter; three long years of it. Purpose guides me, my heart warm against the storm. Courage, my watchword.

The trees grow thicker. Roots snake about the ground, snatching at my feet. Wide branches reach to prick me with their thorns. The pines roar on the heights. White wisps of snow haunt the marches and clog the desolate fens. Still I search; still I am beckoned closer, forever closer. The calling of fate relentless.

Faster.

I run forward, towards his voice, right for where the trees are thickest. I push through, branches scraping at my face, roots tangling around my knees. My breath steams out into the frigid air.  The trees think I come to wake the slumbering beast, but a blade does not wake a monster. My fingers weave their way across the hilt of my sword, the steel cold to the touch, the gleam of its edge enough to ward all that might oppose me.

A white plain stretches to the mountains all around, and far away.

Come.

The giant wolf murmurs, the ground shaking softly with enough force to rattle my bones.

“You are in the ground?”

The very ice rumbles, creaking under the strain of the being it blankets; steadily rising after centuries slumber. With a crack, it breaks, the weight of the ice buckling under his strength. Deep fissures race through the ground, revealing an ominous, gaping maw.

Come, that I might greet my slayer.

The wolf pronounces to the creaks and moans of Gleipnir, his strength waning, calling me forwards.

Gleipnir, the slender band! Oh, the gods did fear me, so brave Tyr stood tall in deception. What a warrior! That he would play the fiend, chief of tricks to see if I would bite his hand that fed.

His words ring mockery inside my head as I tread downward, the walls of ice blocking out the roaring wind.

So brave, so strong, that when worthy match was made, he chose to turn tail. Man is brave, brave enough when all strength is his, but when you sense the hint of death, all manner of trickery is game.

I thrust his words out of my head; how apt that one with such ancestry as his should talk of tricks.

Brave Tyr, God of War would not fight a pup. So without sword, he leashed me instead. Pinned me, stabbed me; bravely ran away till Ragnarok come claim us all.

He does not need to recite the verse, I know the lays already.

“Face me beast,” I call into the darkness, my sword singing in my hand.

Oh, so you have found your voice child?

The ground moans, shakes and buckles. A giant snout, a wall of a muzzle, a blazing sun of an eye, emerges from the dark.

“Now, you have taken your revenge. It is time for me to do the same,” I pronounce, raising my blade in hand, stepping forward.

Silence boy. I have lain here, underneath the world, buried so deep that I could even nibble the roots of Yggdrasil. I have had all eternity to listen to the whisperings of time. My anger is dulled. My fury as cold as the ice.

His words disarm me, staying my blade, inches from his open jaws. One thrust. One stab. One movement. Then it would be done, without even a drop of my blood.

“Why should I take your words as truth?”

Oh, how can anyone take anyone’s words as truth? I have a terrible ancestry, I know, and I won’t try to deny or defend it. All that remains is that you make your decision. Do you trust me, or do you trust your blade?

A master of words, from a wolf no less. What tutelage did the gods give him before the fateful words were pronounced thus?

“You killed Odin.”

Where then is the body?

“You smote his body to shreds.”

Did you inspect the pieces?

“Enough! No riddles, no wordplay. Else I’ll cut your tongue.”

What good that will do?

He glares at me, deliberately tapping the tip of my sword with his tongue. No words come from his mouth, but his mockery still continues.

“Why do you taunt me so?”

A good question, your first yet. I shall explain. Come; sit by my eye so that I might see you better.

I hesitantly oblige.

Good, good. Now, where to begin? Imagine, my brave slayer, imagine that you have been tricked of your freedom for all time. Imagine that in your fury, you bit the hand of the friend you once trusted, knowing that he was the chief deceiver. Now, Imagine that you have all the centuries, all eons tethered to the one spot. What desire stands the test of time?

“I said no more riddles.”

Is it a riddle? Should it be so when I ask you to think? My dear slayer; words do nothing when stated flatly. To make you understand, I must not tell you, but show you myself.

“Speak.”

No, I am done. You must answer my question. What desire stands the test of time?

“How should I know?”

I don’t ask you to figure it out now. Time is something I have in ample supply, patience as well.

“This is idle prattle, the fates wrote our battle, and so it shall be,” I spit. I am done entreating with the spawn of the trickster.

I? The trickster? No, your stupidity amuses me, you only can see as far as your sword. The fates would write so, and you would be their lackey?

“Their word is the way of things,” I state flatly, blade ready once more.

This conversation of ours was not fated, yet is still has happened. I know enough of the Norn’s weaving; Odin the wise heeded their writings, and thus willingly set up his own end. But would I kill the one who raised me? If he hadn’t believed their lies, this would not be.

“The fates do not lie, they cannot lie. They are irrevocable. Which only leaves you,” I press again, raising my sword, placing it between me and his looming eye.

Oh me, the liar? I might be the unfortunate spawn of the trickster, but I am a wolf, and no liar. Only man lies. Maybe if they didn’t betray me so, then what is said to pass might never pass.

He pauses to let loose a puff of great steaming breath from his muzzle; causing the ice above him to melt, showering down upon us. His eyes soften, his tone growing longing, melancholy.

The fates, are nothing but three old hags. They weave one thing, but they forget how we always can choose. What desire stands the test of time? It is not anger. That is a flame that burns hot and fierce, but snuffs itself out quickly with vigour. No, my desire is simple. I long for the love of the hall, the warmth of the hearth and the companionship of my fellows. I wish no harm for Odin, I only wish to forgive him.

“It’s been three years without summer,” I warn, fortifying myself against his sudden turn of sentiment. “The Fimbulwinter grips the land. Odin rode out for battle, and has not returned.”

Can you see past your sword child? Does that blade in your hand make you feel more of a man?

He tilts his head towards me, a wolfish grin creeping across his muzzle.

Power is a delicate thing; it manifests itself subtly, in ways far sharper than your blade. Why do I question you standing there with your blade? Because you hold the power here. But who gave you that power, and why? A blind warrior is not one at all, and you blind yourself child. Question those who have the power. Why do they exercise it thus, what is their intent?

“I think you’re stalling for time,” I warn, moving closer.

I’ve had plenty of time. It’s nothing precious to me. Just think of my words boy, whatever  you decide.

Writing with Meaning

From experience, it seems as writers we inherently aim to write with meaning in our works. We want to portray some message that is important to us, or highlight something wrong or unjust in society in the hope that when the text is read, it might change minds for the better. The idea that literature is something that should educate is a very old idea, yet, it’s also something that comes naturally to us that it feel new and innovative. Aristotle comes up with the idea in his Poetics that people learn by imitation, and that tragedy through catharsis (a word we struggle to define exactly, but it seems to mean a sort of purging of negative feeling) in art can serve a function to better society. Personally, I then fast-forward a bit to Philip Sidney, who in An Apology for Poetry outlined that art is wonderful because it can educate as writers have the freedom to condemn vice and praise virtue. Meanwhile, history rarely sees such judgement because it’s a record of what’s happened and that alone.

The thing is though, literature can become too caught up in trying to have a message that it suffers for it. I’ve read plenty of works from writers all at various points in their careers, and this is one of the points that they’ve all shared. When a story is too focussed on its message, the power of the message gets lost. I find myself rolling my eyes, sighing as another moralistic point comes through in a very transparent, or explicit scene. This is the problem with giving your writing an explicit meaning. You end up alienating your readers not because they’re hostile to your message, but because they’re fed up of having it raised in not so subtle ways, or far too often.

The reason I find myself groaning is that the message is repeated far too often. Rather than being the climax of the story, it is prevalent throughout the book, and as such doesn’t allow any progression, or even any moment of catharsis. No sooner do you feel things have moved on, then you you find that you’re back dealing with the same underlying issues in another recycled scene. At the end of the day, if the novel is to point out a fault, we don’t want our faces rubbed in it continually. Better to have that one single moment where the message is powerfully conveyed than to have it continually recur. That’s the difference between a moment of shock in literature and getting hammered with it.

However, I think messages in literature are just becoming irrelevant now to us. I’d like to say that from the people I’ve encountered so far in life, the majority of us navigate with a good moral compass, and we’re aware and take action upon injustices and faults in society. We don’t really need to be instructed, and especially as adult readers. Frankly, if the basic morals that make us decent human beings aren’t in place by adulthood, then what good is reading a book going to do? That ship sailed a long time ago. More importantly, the emphasis on literature has, and always will be not on moralising or instructing as Philip Sidney imagined it, but in providing a good story. As Francis Bacon correctly identified, we loves lies (art) for “a corrupt love of the lie itself.”

Morals and messages can the cornerstone of a work, but they never should dominate the work. A story is always a complex interplay of many elements, and a message is only one of them. It is always best to have your written agenda in a book to be one that is very well hidden, that a more discerning reader might pick up on, but other readers who aren’t interested in close reading will gloss over. That, and it is also fundamental to make the reader feel that they came to discover that message in the work, rather than have you force it upon them. It leaves a much more powerful impression when you are the one to conclude something, rather than be told it. That’s my personal opinion and how I prefer to write, but I have one final question to pose on the subject.

Since we’re living in the Postmodernist age, we’re increasingly being confronted with pieces of literature that either have no meaning, no single meaning but multiple competing meanings or actually even resist our attempts to give them meaning. How are we able to create and divine meaning when faced with challenges of interpretation like this? The joys of living in a de-centred universe where all language is arbitrary and meaning is only generated in texts but networks of difference and context. Saussure really did open Pandora’s Box (I consider him to be the basis from which Post-structuralism and Post-modernism come from).

But let’s not worry, because even with problems of truth and language, we can find refuge in our own personal truth. Explaining ideas is an act of translation that involves the risk your idea won’t be understood as you understand it, so what you’ve decided yourself is the (relatively) safest option. As with most things in life, the solution is one of moderation. Write with a message in mind, but not exclusively for that message.

Please, share your thoughts about giving your own writing “meaning” in the comments below. How important do you think it is? Do you prefer to find your own meaning or be told one?

– As a note, I’ll explain why I keep referring to the likes of Foucault, Saussure and Aristotle in my posts. To be brief, they came up with ideas that shaped the way we write, read, and interpret literature, and as such it makes sense to understand their ideas so that we may further build our own.

The “Author” Self.

I know precisely why I hate the idea of the archetype “writer”. I have a bit of a long running scepticism against the cultural stereotype of being a writer. I now know why I actually hate it.

The process of writing, and being a writers, is so very contrived. The process of writing and being a writer is an insular process; it is a self-absorbing action that increasingly demands interest in itself. When writing something, you draw yourself as a person into the process – you become increasingly wrought in the story as you write. In effect, the longer you spend writing, the more concerned you become with the process of writing. As you write, you mould yourself into both the writer and into the text itself, so much that you become invested in the text, and your text invests in you. Thus, the writing reflects itself upon you as you become the writer, and this writing persona is then reflected in the text. People look for the persona in the text, and draw parallels between it and the “writer”. What remains is that your real self is sidelined by the authorial identity that is constructed by the process of writing and signified in the written works.

What this means is that when you first set about writing your first piece of writing, you do so as someone who is not an author. As I’ve said before, the notion of the author is a loaded term that comes with a huge baggage train of philosophical and cultural expectations. Thus, as you begin to write (and crucially show your work to others) you move from being you, the person, to you, the author of various works. What happens is that the created “author” dimension to your person grows and becomes the dominant mode, or trait people recognise you for. The example of this de-centring of the “real self” for the “authorial self” is right here.

Let’s ask, how many of you primarily see the identity, “Words” as an authorial one? In effect, what does the name signify when you see it? What do you associate with it? For the majority, it signifies the “authorial identity”. It thus acts as a locus of created written persona that you attribute works to, and from those works you attribute traits to the idea of “Words”.

But the problem is that it is not real. It is not the real me – instead it is created by the process of writing and reading. Written actions, preserved in text create the status as a writer for “Words” but the problem is that writing has no inherent truth, as language itself is arbitrary and only referential to itself. Here’s another example of what I mean – through written works and our reading of those written works, we create the idea of the authorial self. We see J.K.Rowling first not as the person, but as a perceived experience constructed from reading her writing. We have a notion of the author, but not of the real self. Reading J.K. Rowling’s works does not bring you any understanding of the actual person.

This is the reason why writing is contrived – it is so self-absorbing that it creates an other self for the individual that writes, and it is this authorial self that comes to replace the individual.

Thus, your experience of this blog even  is one located, created and reinforced by written works – not by any personal experience from meeting me. Your expectations will be dictated by your reading – you expect that I should post some writing soon, that I should write to a certain style or subject, and you shall seek to draw in impression of personal investment in my writing.

This is the very problem with writing, and the notion of being a writer. Being a writer – I just said it then, comes to define you. It becomes the single stand-out action about that person. Thus, you no longer cease to be an individual, with multiple interests and a complex personality. Instead, you become the writer – a creation that confines you. A “writer” is a constrictive chain upon identity – it speaks of a sole activity that all your other experiences can be linked into as contributing factors to the writing, not as separate parts of your identity. Your hobbies then become means for understanding what you write, not as things you enjoy and are then expressed in your work. In short, things you do become a means to an end of writing. I do rock climbing, and to explain what I mean, if climbing were mentioned in some fiction I wrote it would not be there because I personally enjoy it. Instead, the climbing I undertake in life becomes something that contributes to what I write. In an abstract way, it functions like research. I’m doing it so I can write about it, rather than I’m writing about it because I enjoy it.

It’s this fact that writing comes to absorb your self is what I hate about the idea of being a writer. The phrase itself signifies its aim. Being a writer. It leaves no room for anything else – you are a writer. But remember, it’s also something people impress upon you. Which is why I must caution you – to go looking for “the self” in writing is pointless. We read and interpret stories in our own individual ways, so we don’t need to look for authorial guidance. Does the person who created a story have to be found within the story? No. Remember, as soon as the character’s voice begins, the author is dead.

 

What’s In a Name?

Yes indeed, what is the point of names? It sounds silly at first, so I must qualify the context. For a writer, is a name really relevant for you? After all, people read the text you publish, not the name you add on to things.

True, some people do organise their reading by authors, and thus names, but that’s exactly my point.

I’ve never found the reason to attach an actual, real name to anything I’ve written because it can subtly change the way people can view your work. The most important one is the argument of our goof friends Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, who have fun deconstructing what our conception of an “author” is. In short, authors are looked to for textual authority and the “author” is more a persona that bears no reality to the actual person who wrote the text. Besides, they both say there’s no point in listening to the author because we’re reading the narration of a character in a book, not the author.

That’s why I don’t want to put my real name onto something I’ve written. When it’s an alias or pen-name (whatever term suits you) as long as it’s not a real name, I can let people know what I’ve written, but that’s all. You can’t really start asking what the author meant when all you have about the author is an arbitrary selection of words. I’m not there to provide any set way of reading something, because that just defeats the point of reading isn’t it? We all read in our own ways, we all interpret things differently.

But really I don’t want to put a real name onto my writing because I don’t want people to create an alternate version of myself. A version whereby I am only known for a single act of writing, and therefore being a writer. The author becomes this sort of being that people create for you as they read your work, and then they try to box you into that construction in real life. Your work then can become something oppressive, where you are being pushed by social consensus to preform a certain idealised role because that’s what people have come to interpret you as. It’s vain, but more importantly futile to think that you can understand the person who wrote a book by reading that work. Creativity has a capacity to throw up random results without warning. And be warned, I am one of those writer types who just sits down and has ideas hit continuously as I write. There’s no plan planned, it just seems to end up in some order. Somehow.

That’s my feelings about it. I realise someday I am going to have to put my name to my work, but until then.

Purpose

It’s a concept that pretty much haunts us. Just within that title and the first sentence, you might well have figured out where this is going. The purpose of our being is pretty much implied by that word alone.

Purpose.

Why do I say it haunts us? Because I’ve come to believe that our very concern with our being is actually a binding measure, not something that sets us free. There’s a danger in life of being too clever for your own good, for trying to make something seem more complex than it actually is.

I’d say our being falls right into that category.

Human Beings. It’s a pretty loaded term to describe ourselves, isn’t it? Being. What happens when we try to define what being is? Of course, being means to be. Now how do you define to be?

It comes to a juddering halt there.

Really, I think that serves as a warning for us. What happens when we try to define our being? We just come to this halt were we run out of words, were we can no longer give a definite meaning. Unfortunately, that seems to lend itself to abstraction.

So I ask you, what does being mean for you? What is your take on your purpose in life?

I doubt any one of us will agree. We’ll all have our different meanings. That’s fine, but I believe within all these meanings we get to become privy to something. A clue. It’s not so much that within all our ideas there is some underlying universal truth that connects them all. Oh no. I think the multiplicity of meaning there reveals quite the opposite. That there is no fixed meaning; just short of there being no meaning. You can have personal meaning, but no universal one. In short, it’s chaos.

What good is that?

Going back to the idea of being too clever for your own good, the chaos is welcome. Why? Because what I am about to say flies in the face of our beliefs, in face those self-ascribed traits that are innately ‘human’.

Instead of seeking to understand, just give up. Don’t bother.

For one simple reason.

There are some things in life that are beyond our understanding. That’s not meant to be negative, on the contrary, it;s meant to be a positive thing. To accept that some mysteries will never reveal themselves is not a weakness, but a strength.

In this case, it is liberating to accept that we don’t know what our being, what our purpose is. You can substitute a value if you want an answer, but it’s the same as accepting there is no knowable meaning to being.

It’s that you’re free.

With no purpose, no being, the world is a clean slate. It’s open to your choices. What do you want to do? Then that becomes your meaning. Your purpose is not told to you, it is ascribed to what you feel within you. You are free because the notion of a universal meaning is not essentially an answer you want. Theoretically, once you know what that universal meaning is, you would be burdened by it. It would be a responsibility, the knowing, the comprehending of your existence.