Friday, July 13, 2012

Return to Fascination

"The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder." - G.K. Chesterton

     It was with no little consternation that I had to re-read this quote when I first stumbled across it in a little book by Chesterton called Tremendous Trifles. Like so much of what he writes, the sentence is a small rhetorical explosion that sends painful shrapnel into your brain if you're not careful. Chesterton is like that. It's one epiphany after another, hurled like grenades over the pages of the book. His literary explosives are hand-formulated from a deadly combination of common sense and chiasmus. Recently, I was compelled to return again to the front lines, and, like a soldier in the trenches, hold up against Chesterton's genius, battling my way to a rough understanding of his premices.
    One of the more interesting these premises, pulled from the chapter titled "The Ethics of Elf Land" in his theological autobiography, Orthodoxy, holds that fairy tales are more "coldly rational" than the "sentimental" associations of science. The sentimentalist looks at an apple blossom, and it reminds him of his childhood. The desperately, yet unconsciously sentimental scientist looks at an apple blossom, and it reminds him of an apple. The resident of that wonderful world of Elf Land looks at an apple blossom, it makes him wonder if it might not turn into a crimson tulip. The only pure rationality in the world is the fact that one apple blossom plus another apple blossom equals two apple blossoms. The scientist's association between apple blossoms and apples is not rational, Chesterton argues, but a narrow-minded generalization. It excludes the possibility and probability of miracles. But then again, an apple blossom turning into an apple is a miracle itself. And ay, there's the rub. Fairy tales about apple blossoms turning into crimson tulips are built solely to revive that moment when we discovered that an apple blossom turned into an apple. This is why, Chesterton argues, babies do not "need fairy tales." He writes, "a child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door." Life is exciting enough in and of itself for a child of three, but for the old and weary, fairy tales rekindle that excitement of initial discovery.
    Writing in the the early twentieth century, Chesterton was an advocate of fairy tales, and a self proclaimed inhabitant of Elf Land where miracles were commonplace, because the commonplace was a miracle. But a lot has changed in a single century. All too suddenly, the elves have invaded in mass, and these elves have none of the ethics of the fairy tales of Chesterton's day.
    I recently tried my hand at a cousin's fascinating computer game called Portal. The concept was mind blowing, and the quality of the digital environment drew me into an appreciation of impossible physics and impossible technology. Portal is a perfect illustration of a century's change in storytelling. In Chesterton's day, fairy tales were often crude, crafted on the spot around the fire or the hearth, and infused with a subtle or obvious set of ethics. These stories and fairy tales were passed down in books or by mouth, with the abstract moral retained and ingrained. Then there came the modern era; first with movies, then televisions, then computers, then the Internet, then the media player, smartphone, and tablet. The result has been the exponential rise of a new breed of fairy tales: ones that are not crude, but sonically and visually immersive; ones that are not told on the spot, but constructed over years of work with hundreds of people; ones that celebrate technique or tactic over ethic; and ones that are not passed down in books or by word of mouth, but are instantly distributed to the masses of millions. The new fairy tales are the television shows, the movies, and the video games of our century. 
     I certainly have nothing against the media machine, and personally think it can be used as a positive force; but there are two important distinctions between the fairy tales of Chesterton's era, and the fairy tales of our own era.
     First, the fairy tales of the twenty-first century are largely devoid of all ethics; both the anthropologically practical and the moral, as Kant so wonderfully divided the field. Without a moral absolute guiding the message of a story, the tale is bodiless. And yes. That pun was intended.
    Second, the sheer mass of twenty-first century fairy tales have reversed the roles of reality. The quality of the new fictional environments (never even a factor in Chesterton's written and spoken day) combined with the large volume of all these alternative environments, has made fiction "realer" than reality. Show "The Avengers" to an audience in Chesterton's era, and not one live person would emerge from the theater after the show. They all would have died of heart attacks.
    This second conundrum can be solved by turning, not to fairy tales as was the solution in Chesterton's day, but by returning to a fascination with reality. We must again become the children of three who are excited when they are told that Tommy opened a door. A real door. Made of wood. Not light. Woah.
    The first conundrum can be solved simply by returning to the words of scripture; that one and only moral absolute amid a sea of shifting sand and shifting pixels.