Posted by Charles Cameron on February 27th, 2011 (All posts by Charles Cameron)
[ cross posted from DIME/PMESII ]
I seem to be writing some mini-essays that braid together more of the various strands of my interests and thinking than usual – geopolitics and poetics, games and reality, warfare and peacemaking.
Here’s one that I posted yesterday, on a list devoted to modeling and simulation, in a topic discussing DARPA’s STORyNET briefing tomorrow.
DARPA and Storytelling:
Sophocles, pushing the human mind to its limit, genius, wrote the Oedipus trilogy. His plays, which turn on the parallel guilt and innocence of a man who – unknowingly, the fated plaything of cruel gods — kills his father and sleeps with his own mother, were performed by the great actors of his day in the great amphitheater of Epidaurus, the sanctuary of Aesculapius to which the Greeks went for healing.
Freud, also brilliant, also concerned with the human mind and healing, reduced Sophocles’ plot to his own “Oedipus Complex” – which he would then painstakingly find in the murkiest regions of his patients’ mental processing.
Further reduced, the concept becomes a word of abuse so radical it takes two letters, one hyphen and ten asterisks to print it – and finally, it slides into song and speech as mofo, all meaning leached from the two words, let alone the complex insights of Sophocles or Freud.
Story, you might say, has a trunk, limbs, branches, lesser branches, twigs…
Trees and ferns, we now know, are fractal. The mathematical “story” of a tree is arguably just one story: branching. Different trees branch differently, the yucca pushing out its limbs in 90 degree rotation, oaks and birches, beeches and cottonwoods, poplars and ferns each having their own mathematical characteristics, and each individual of each species answering to certain specifics of context – water, sunlight, wind forming clusters of trees into copses.
For the purposes of lumber, the “trunk” of a story may be enough, or trunk and limbs, mofo or m*****-f***** an adequate telling of Sophocles tale. For a winter wood supply, cords of sawn branches, for a camp fire, some branches some twigs — for Sophocles, for Ansel Adams, the one pushing the human mind to its limit, genius, only the full tree, root, stem, branch, and leaf, rich in all its detail and context, will suffice.
So there are six stories, there is only one, the stories in the ocean of stories are infinite, as Salman Rushdie, another of those who pushes the human mind to its limit tells us:
… the Water Genie told Haroun about the Ocean of the Streams of Story, and even though he was full of a sense of hopelessness and failure the magic of the Ocean began to have an effect on Haroun. He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and [the Water Genie] explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each colored strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories …
– and as Edward Tufte, another of the pushers of the mind, illustrates for us in his beautiful book, Visual Explanations, in a page or two of which this snapshot gives only a poor glimpse.
So there is utility in the single equation, the single story line, and there is use for the outlines of the major branchings and knowing the main varieties of trees, and there is beauty and insight and pushing the mind to its limit in the whole tree, individual and splendid in all its detail, the great story, magnificently branching from its seed-story under the influence of a Shakespeare, a Kafka, a Dostoyevsky, a Borges, a Rushdie…
The full spectrum of understanding that narrative might bring us will be found when the full spectrum from “one story” through “six” or “sixteen” to Rushdie’s “infinity” is taken into account, when we weigh the insights of the great novelists and poets of all cultures – Rumi, Shakespeare, Kalidasa, the anonymous singers of the Navajo Beautyway – alongside those of the critic, the psychoanalyst, the guy who puts together the Cliff’s Notes, and the editor with a headache’s headline version of the tale.
We need the forester and the lumber baron, the watercolorist and the fellow who identifies the habitats of the Lepidopterae…
Narrative goes all the way from the obvious platitude to the work of genius. Somewhere along that scale, each one of us will have our area of interest, the place where our skill set fits and perhaps stretches. Numbers of board feet and likely return on investment can be assessed by quantitative means: the beauty of a particular oak tree in the eye of the novelist John Fowles is entirely qualitative, as is the language he must use to describe it.
I suspect DARPA may be stuck at the quantitative end of the spectrum. The mind of a Musab al-Suri demands a finer level of interpretation.