Still following my own tangents.
It also means I’m starting to draw parallels, of the most disparate kind. Here I’ll collect a couple of posts where I link the Kabbalah, Scott Bakker, Steven Erikson, James Hillman, Niklas Luhmann, Evangelion, Lost and The Matrix. It’s a nice geeky party.
Early today I was reading a post of Scott Bakker about free will, perception of reality and whatnot. My comment was a reply to that.
Not trying to close the circle because I don’t feel I have enough elements.
Just a few suggestions.
“a way to successfully manipulate and interact with monstrously complicated systems”
Niklas Luhmann is a sociologist I studied that I still base my fundamental beliefs on. His theory has a place for pretty much everything and is usually dead on (explaining from the evolution of men till modern days).
One of the fundamental ideas is that beliefs systems, religion and modern systems were essentially created to go against uncertainty. Linguistic acts. If the answer to whatever question is always “yes” and “no”, then you need some kind of system that reduces the complexity and makes something just “yes”, or just “no”. Put linguistic order into chaos.
So religion is basically a way to set a “yes” (or “no”) and have no one who can go against it (it’s more elaborated and, well, convincing of this, but the essence is this). “Faith” being the premise for this system to work, so the prohibition of returning to ambivalence and complexity.
Today, he says, it’s pretty much the same but the reduction systems are much more elaborated and he calls them something that translated sounds like “media of communication symbolically generalized”. And so more complex relationships about values, truth (science), love, art, money, property, rights and so on.
I was thinking about this: anthropology basically tells us the same. Religion we know as being totally “wrong”. We know it doesn’t rain because a god is pissed, so the belief system is wrong. Yet today we also know that all these belief systems had a pragmatic purpose and helped societies to survive.
Which means that in the end the same structure you describe is repeated: “He doesn’t care so much whether intentionality is real, as he cares whether its useful”
Religion too. Doesn’t matter if religion says something true. The point is that it can say something useful that can lead us (somewhere?).
“Of course, the problem is that ‘we’ are just a small part of our brains.”
And this reminds me a comment I wrote down on the Malazan reread. Where I go from the ideas of Kabbalah (I explain them wrong btw, but they serve the point) to the idea that “magic” is still well alive under the stream of consciousness (while we are only “aware” on the surface, the conscious, logic level).
(here’s the comment about Kabbalah, James Hillman, and how magic exits through a door, Science, only to reenter from another, the undercurrents, the Midnight Tides)
I wanted to go off for a bit on a tangent to see if maybe someone else got curious like I was. I find fascinating what Erikson says about the way he deals with symbolic subtext because that kind of subtext and complexity is one of those aspects I enjoy the most in this series, and overall in general.
Erikson (not really) demanded if his way of writing is an odd personal quirk. I haven’t read Robin Hobb yet, but Gene Wolfe surely writes in a way where everything is openly symbolic. For me even too much because I consider Wolfe too cryptic and so most of the subtext is lost without having a bottomless knowledge to draw from. Too often to truly understand his book you have to have with you knowledge that isn’t offered within the novel. It’s “esoteric” writing, meaning that one truly understands it only if one has the “code” to interpret it, and so belongs to the group of those “enlightened” (the Illuminati, the typical esoteric group).
From my point of view Erikson satisfies a vaguely similar demand, in the way symbolic meaning and subtext are often quite important, but doing it in a way so that everyone has access to it, as long one pays attention and has patience. It wants to be accessible, and it is a similar quality that I find in David Foster Wallace, whose “Infinite Jest” is, if I can say, even more complex and intricate than the Malazan series, and also exceeding in subtext and symbolic meaning. Yet it is completely accessible, as long one has the patience to go through a 1000+ pages book with that kind of complexity.
These days I was reading about the Kabbalah, just for pure curiosity. The Kabbalah is all based on the fact that its holy books can’t be read for what is literally written in them. You read about things and concepts that are normally part of the world, but all those things are actually “symbols” for something that belongs to the world of spirituality. These books are in truth only “codes”, and to understand them you need a Kabbalist that slowly teaches you how to attain this higher world of spirituality.
Now, through the anthropological mindset, this is quite easy to debunk. The moment an idea can’t be expressed in words, that idea acquires magic power. It can’t be scientifically known. It’s the old trick of the “magic healing bones”, that, if you aren’t one of the shamans in the tribe, can’t see or touch, because you’d then recognize that they are “just bones”.
Magic is meaning by absence. Magic is language. Or: magic is the absence of language. Magic defines the perimeter of something unknown and untouched. “Holy”. Forbidden. Removed.
The magic quality is in the premise of “faith”. Acceptance of blindness.
So it seems to me that the Kabbalah works on similar premises. The knowledge is somewhat elitist, because the world of spirituality is essentially esoteric, can’t be put directly into words.
Now I even accept that because I think writing corresponds to omnipotence (how’s that for a writer’s ego?). And it’s not an abstract idea. It is easily explained.
Writing is not one of the many human activities. Writing simply INCLUDES everything that a human being can experience. What we are is contained within the perimeter of language. People sometimes think that a “thought” precedes language. But if one makes some simple linguistic studies it’s easily learned that “thinking” is always a linguistic act. There’s no separation between thought and language.
So we are fictional beings. All of us. There’s absolutely no difference between a character in a book and us real beings. Or, the only difference is in the complexity (speed) of perception. Meaning that an instant of our life would require millions of pages to be expressed in its entirety. (this Total Awareness is a theme in Infinite Jest)
It’s then consequent that magic, the supernatural, spirituality (so the Kabbalah, in my example), need to stay outside language. Outside the human perception.
But then it seems that language is only a surface. Psychological studies done by Freud and similar demonstrates how much moves behind the scenes, and below conscious thought. People think of acting logically, but are instead moved by way stronger undercurrents that they rarely understand or are consciously aware of. We learn of how fucked we can be if a trauma may have devastating consequences on our daily life.
And then there’s more, which is the point where I wanted to arrive. After Freud there’s a deeper level that is usually represented by Jung. And then there’s another, even deeper, represented by James Hillman (and btw, all I know comes by just look up the wikipedia and having read some parts of his most known book “The Dream and the Underworld”, so if you’re curious you can just look up the wikipedia and there’s already enough to deal with). Whose ideas may sound as crazy as those of Freud to someone who never heard about these kinds of psychological studies.
What he thinks is that our dreams not only are dense in symbolic meaning, but that this symbolic meaning is rooted far below: in myths. So he analyzes dreams through things like Greek mythology. And even if this sounds completely absurd, it’s still as grounded and concrete as every other psychological study and has obtained attention from those who study this kind of stuff.
Erikson’s pantheon and magic system have more than one thing or two in common with Hillman’s archetypal psychology. I’m reading now Midnight Tides where dreams again have a significant role and divinities are dealt with in a “literal” way. But all I’ve written here wants to hint that there’s more than a fictional dress. More than entertainment. And even Hillman’s principle seems to adapt well to describe Erikson’s work: “dreams tell us where we are, not what to do.”
And so back to what Erikson said about his symbolic writing and especially: “I had a film teacher once tell me that I see the world like a Russian novel. I asked him what he meant and he said that I see subtext in all of reality, that for me environment was symbolic.”
In the end it goes back at finding something authentic to write about. I’m simply saying that this process of looking for symbols isn’t an authorial quirk and actually carries with it in potential a huge power. It is universal. And, in the hunt for meaning, if the building blocks are authentic then the outcome will be too. The truth that builds the foundation is inherited by the rest. Whether completely conscious or not.
I want to quote one of those poem of Erikson I just read:
“There are tides beneath every tide
And the surface of water
Holds no weight”
“The problem is the chasm that seems to be opening between the world we experience versus the world we know”
What about the chasm between the world we don’t see (deep symbolic level) and still has a determinant impact on us?
(thanks to the accumulating horror that is the subconscious)
“I think we are hardwired to believe in magic of various kinds”
But magic in the end is a linguistic structure. I’ve studied a bit of Chomsky and I know that we are hardwired for language before we are hardwired for anything else.
NOTE: I plan to add here a video that will look like the weirdest mix of The Matrix, the Kabbalah, Evangelion and Lost/DHARMA Orientation videos.