Friday, October 30, 2015

metaphysics in literary fiction

Celtic celebration of Samhain,
or Halloween, where a door opens
briefly to the other world.
Perhaps one of the most profound mysteries we are confronted with might be simply stated as "why is there something instead of nothing?"  Countless philosophers, theologians, and scientists have addressed this question, some from the seemingly unprovable first cause principle--a prime mover, or God.  Others, most often the scientists, are apt to point out we just are not there yet, but look how far we've already come in understanding our universe.  We can even demonstrate all that exists today, starting from a distant Big Bang event, which happened some 14 billion years ago, and the complete, scientific answer is just around the corner.

Well, since this is a fiction writer's blog we are hesitant to delve too deeply into the philosophical or rhetorical arguments that support either camp.  However,  might we sometimes ponder about what view of God's existence was held by certain characters in our reading?  If the author had had an opportunity to seamlessly integrate a spiritual viewpoint in the fiction, might it have given even greater depth, some flesh and bones, to the character, and the choices he makes in the story?

Some of this thought process springs from the reading of The March, by E. L. Doctorow.  The historical fiction covers the devastating Civil War march through the southern heartland, by General William Tecumseh Sherman.  Sherman's army of about 60,000 Union soldiers carried out a scorched earth campaign through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, as the war neared a close and a collapse of the Confederacy.  Like many, if not most, soldiers in either army, it seems safe to assume from writings of that era that the existential view of the combatants was Christian, fundamental Protestantism.  However, most of the officers of that conflict were trained at West Point Academy, which would have had a tradition from the Founding Fathers of the U.S. for a belief in God, but not necessarily in a dogma of any established religion.  And so the concepts of sin, resurrection, and eternal life in heaven, may not have been the uniform view of officers from the Academy.  It was rewarding to read the following, given as internal dialogue of Gen. Sherman before the battle of Savannah:
But these troops, too, who have battled and eaten and drunk and fallen asleep with some justifiable self-satisfaction: what is their imagination of death who can lie down with it?  They are no more appreciative of its meaning than I...

In this war among the states, why should the reason for the fighting count for anything?  For if death doesn't matter, why should life matter?
But of course I can't believe this or I will lose my mind.  Willie, my son Willie, oh my son, my son, shall I say his life didn't matter to me?  And the thought of his body lying in its grave terrifies me no less to think he is not imprisoned in his dreams as he is in his coffin.  It is insupportable, in any event.
It is in fear of my own death, whatever it is, that I would wrest immortality from the killing war I wage.  I would live forever down the generations.
And so the world in its beliefs snaps back into place.  Yes.  There is now Savannah to see to.  I will invest it and call for its surrender.  I have a cause.  I have a command.  And what I do I do well.  And, God help me, but I am thrilled to be praised by my peers and revered by my countrymen.  There are men and nations, there is right and wrong.  There is this Union.  And it must not fall.
Sherman drank off his wine and flung the cup over the entrenchment.  He lurched to his feet and peered every which way in the moonlight.  But where is my drummer boy? he said.
 And where else might a writer also go to study a moving portrayal of the metaphysical views of a major literary character in American literature: perhaps Moby Dick, by Herman Melville:

"What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who's to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar? But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the air smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new-mown hay. Sleeping? Aye, toil we how we may, we all sleep at last on the field. Sleep? Aye, and rust amid greenness; as last year's scythes flung down, and left in the half-cut swaths—Starbuck!"
But blanched to a corpse's hue with despair, the Mate had stolen away.
Ahab, too, is of an earlier era when fundamental Protestantism was the rule of the land, though his First Mate, Starbuck, finds Ahab to be of a frighteningly blasphemous nature.  Note the ornate dialect, almost as if reading from the King James bible, and which makes the passage doubly dramatic.

So far, the discussion relates only to how a central character struggles to express some understanding of a God-based meaning of life, usually falling somewhere within the tenets of written Scriptures of three major monotheistic religions, and on reflections of the character's own life experiences.  A big hurdle is that, however inspired the Scriptures may have been, they were written about two thousand years ago and by men of uncertain erudition.  Since then, vast amounts of human learning and experience has occurred, but religious dogma, once established, changes only at glacial speed.  It might be refreshing to have a few characters express new visions of what a God-based vision of life is for them, where some rational account is taken of the exponential growth of experience and knowledge gained in that two millenniums.

The strange perplexities of quantum mechanics comes to mind as a potential backdrop for new, innovative fiction.  A recent NY Times article discusses ongoing confirmations for a proof of entanglement theory in subatomic physics.  In essence, subatomic particles, like electrons and photons, have an infinite but measurable range of properties, such as velocity, location, and spin.  However, as soon as a measurement is made of a property in one particle of any entangled pair,  the entire range of potential properties collapses into finite, correlated values in each of the particles.  Experiments demonstrate that this happens no matter the distance  introduced between the particles, presumably happening for a distance even  to the far side of our universe.  Einstein did not like the idea, and he and other major scientists fought it.  There was 'the finger of God' aspect in it for them.  Nevertheless, the theoretical underpinnings and the experimental data have continued to hold up through today.

What new kind of characterization of God might this prompt in literary fiction writing?  Perhaps it might lead to concepts far more sophisticated than the anthropomorphic characterization we presently are constrained with in our stories.  

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