Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Bah, Humbug

with one comment

Well, okay, not quite.

I just had something of a miserable, frustrating day yesterday.

It was Christmas Day, so, of course, nothing was open anywhere that might be useful–like, for instance, repair shops.  And that wouldn’t have mattered, except that the oven here went out of whack and wouldn’t get hot enough to do anything in, which meant that we left this enormous roast beef sitting in the refrigerator. 

It’s still there, and probably will be there for a while.

In the meantime, Christmas dinner consisted of ham sandwiches, provided by the same very good friends we were going to feed the roast beef to.

This was, needless to say, not what I had been looking forward to, and the really great chocolate the friends brought with the ham sandwiches only kind of helped.

Anyway, it’s the day after Christmas, and you can’t get north of Charlotte, South Carolina at the moment–or maybe even Atlanta.  It’s hard to tell, since where I am there is nothing like news on on Sunday morning until it gets fairly late.  From what I can tell, the East coast is going to be closed all of today and tomorrow.

In the meantime, I thought I’d try again to explain something I think, from both the comments and the e-mails, I explained badly. 

Then I thought I’d use that to launch myself into the subject of the Gothic novel. I’m talking about the mid-eighteenth, early nineteenth century Gothic novel, not the kind, as Westlake said, “about a girl who gets a house.”

The issue was this:  I did not mean to say, or even imply, that people these days turn to fantasy or horror or science fiction so that they can “base their morality” on space aliens or dwarves.

I think many contemporary readers find the realities of present day ordinary life to be profoundly unsettling.

They don’t believe the religious stories they learned as children.  For many people, that particular narrative has lost both its force and its credibility.

At the same time, they do not believe that there is a code of morality that can be founded on human reason, either–they don’t think reason will provide them with moral rules that are true for everybody, and not just for themselves.

I don’t think this should be all that surprising to people here, who have expressed the opinion (often) that no such rationally-derived moral code could ever be simply and unequivocably true, rather than just a matter of opinion.

What people are looking for, I think, is a place where a moral code that was simply and unequivocably true could, at least plausibly, be possible.

The point about fantasy novels is not that they provide a moral code in the lives of dwarves or elves that we can follow.

The point about fantasy novels is that they provide a world in which magic exists and can be proved to exist–characters in such novels meet the effects of magic every day.

And since magic exists in such a world, it is not a world restricted to the natuarlistic and materialist.  It is a world in which something exists outside human beings and their wishes an desires.

All fantasy novels I’ve ever heard of, including Tolkein’s (especially Tolkein’s) are supernaturalistic in their assumptions, not naturalistic.

To whoever it was that said that there was never any morality in Tolkein except that “derived from human intelligence”–well, I haven’t read much Tolkein, but I’d be willing to bet that that isn’t true.  Tolkein himself was a devout and practicing Christian, which means he did not himself think that morality was “derived from human intelligence.”  He thought it was derived from God.

What he did was to create a world in which the supernatural was ever present, in the form of prophecies and magic–and in so doing, provided his readers with a world in which the supernatural was credible.  It is not so credible in the world we live in now.

The need for a world in which the supernatural is credible is, I think, also behind the popularity of some kinds of horror–not the slasher kind, but the ghosts and demons kind. 

The everyday Stephen King fan may no longer be able to believe in Virgins giving birth and wise men bringing gifts, but that doesn’t mean she wants to live in a world where all there is is the material, where moral codes are made up by people based on whatever they like on Tuesday, and where death is the end.

A world where ghosts and demons exist and can be seen and interacted with is one in which there is something else beyond (and presumably above, as well as below) workaday human existence.

The issue of space aliens, and that sort of thing, is a little more complicated.

But you can see what I’m talking about by looking into the whole phenomenon of Trekkies, who have managed to derive elaborate moral and ethical codes, and even some nascent institutions, from what began as a rather thin storyline with (at the beginning) what seemed like a limited audience.

But the phenomenon is even easier to trace in the Star Wars saga, because Lucas seems to have been deliberating developing a theology for it.  “The Force” is a power so close to magic it’s hard to think of anything else to call it, and the people who dedicate their lives to it are said to follow a religion.

In all these cases, however, the primary driver is not that there is some explicit moral code outlined for readers to follow.

It is that books like these create worlds in which human beings and their reason are not the only intelligent force.

They create worlds, in other words, where something exists outside ourselves on a moral and ethical level.

I’m probably blithering again.  It always amazes me how clear something can seem in my head and how difficult I can find it to lay it out here.

Let me try to leave it here:  I think many people, faced with living in a world where human beings are the highest intelligence possible, where there is no intelligence lift outside ourselves, no life after death, find that they don’t particularly want to live there.

Many of them feel–as many of the people who comment on this blog feel–that such a world is one in which there is no morality, just a lot of subjective opinions about right and wrong.

And then they go looking for places where the supernatural, or the superior to human, feels credible to them.

Now, I know I’ve probably put that all badly, and we’ll go reeling off into goodness only knows what.

But for now, I just want to say–a very similar situation existed at the height of the Enlightenment, which corresponded to the  height of the popularity of the Gothic novel.

And I’ll get back to that later.

Written by janeh

December 26th, 2010 at 7:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Bah, Humbug'

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  1. OK, much clearer and more plausible. I’m not sure about true, though. Tolkien, of course, believed this world to be controlled by a superior will, and built his “sub-creation” accordingly. There’s actually very little surface-level “bang and flash” magic in it–so little I’ve heard fantasy fans complain. (Notice how the movie had to keep putting in magic not there in the text.)
    But the runner-up most popular heroic fantasy writer would be Robert E. Howard who was an atheist and built HIS world accordingly. Gods exist–almost always well off stage–but when you have conflicting gods, you don’t have a source of moral authority–just a sort of supernatural official to be bribed or threatened. His magic is very close to engineering: you study long enough, you know how to do things, and have points of contact. There is a beautiful scene in “Rogues in the House” in which the “sorcerer” uses a periscope–perhaps in combination with a telescope–to observe events. Conan’s accomplice is awed by the learning and science represented. Conan puts it all down to magic and isn’t much impressed.
    (Of course, there’s also CJ Cherryh. “The Paladin” is perfectly good–superior, in fact–heroic fantasy, and not a trace of the supernatural from one end to the other.)

    Science Fiction–must I take “Star Wars” seriously? I enjoy a good sword fight as much as the next man, but the “theology” was incoherent drivel–and that was in the good (first) trilogy.
    Generally, the defining point of SF–what sets it off from fantasy–is that there is a rational explanation for everything. We may not be given it–you don’t interrupt a detective stor to explain how the detective’s firearm works–but it’s assumed to be there. And there isn’t any harder hard SF than “The Cold Equations” which is about as uncomforting a story as I’ve ever read.

    What’s left? Horror. Well, you could go either way about ghosts in a universe without a controlling divinity. “Not explicable at our present level of understanding” is not the same as “no rational or material cause.” My guess is we’re still missing something as big as electricity. But neither Stephen King–what of him I’ve read–not Lovecraft–and I think I’ve read everything–is much for ghosts. In fact, “mature” Lovecraft–what’s been called the “Cthuthlu Mythos”–has no supernatural element whatever–simply a universe in which Man has no special place, and won’t have any place very long–which is what makes it so terrifying. Lovecraft was a firm rationalist and wrote his fiction accordingly. It’s a lot of things, but not much of a source of comfort.

    I’ll stand by the earlier call. Adventure stories moved out into fantasy and SF as the map filled in, and for other types of stories they provide the option of the exactly right setting–not always obtainable here and now, nor in history books.

    And if I want my fiction to assure me that the world is watched over by a benevolent deity, I’d be much wiser to turn to my “mainstream” Agnes Sleigh Turnbull than to my “escapist” Howard, Heinlein or Lovecraft.

    It’s not the setting or story type, but the beliefs of the author.


    26 Dec 10 at 10:19 am

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