1.16.2011

The Relationship Between Significance and Nonsense

I recently read Wicked, which if you haven't read it (that is, you are the only other person on earth, it seems, besides me), talks about the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz, from her own perspective. Honestly, I expected this to be a smirky, silly kind of book, sort of like the children's book where the Big Bad Wolf tells about how he was misrepresented by the three little pigs, only for grownups. In the end, I REALLY enjoyed it (though the end felt a bit forced), and want to read the two sequels now, eventually.


One thing that was VERY interesting to me in the book was how Elphaba (the wicked witch) found meaning in the events around her. If you are like me (I don't know how universal this sentiment is, honestly), there are particular events, concordances, unexpected turns, etc in your life that take on a powerful significance. Some of these events are obvious - if one has, say, a very traumatic event, it becomes significant. Others are not. 

What I loved in the book - and this is something I love in MANY of my favorite books and movies, probably because it is so common to tell a story deceptively to the opposite - is that really, these events, these glimmers of meaning, do not interrelate in a way that one can make a single, sensible narrative of. This feels so personal and familiar that finding it in a book is like finding a piece of myself in someone else. 

Humans are a mythmaking species. For all the trouble this practice has caused us over the years, I think it is, to some extent, intrinsic to who we are - I think for instance it is the root of the idealistic leaping I talked about with Ms Wollstonecraft. There is the macrocosmic version of this of course - religion. But the microcosm exists as well. I think most people gneerate their own personal mythologies, stories they construct about their own internal gods and heroes. For me, at least, time ceases to exist without a narrative to lay it across, and some of the bleakest, most horrifying moments of my life have been those in which I saw my life stretching ahead of me, devoid of any particular story-thread, simply a span of indifferent years and directionless existence, even if this is the more honest way of understanding my life.

The problem, of course, is that life does not always tell a good story. Sometimes, life's stories are kind of awful - not awful like scary and miserable, but awful like, they wander around and make no sense, and at the end you wonder if the author was even paying attention, or if maybe you just were paying attention to the wrong narrative. Like Ulysses (joke. Well, kind of a joke). But we NEED them to make sense - just like our ancestors NEEDED there to be some REASON that the Nile flooded every year and the sun rose, and the winter was cold and harsh. Because without a reason, first of all, the awful things of the world are unbearable, and second of all, the future is scary and unpredictable. In our own lives we do the same thing - how many of us, for instance, comfort ourselves with some variation of "everything in life has a purpose?" In the paraphrased words of Christopher Hitchens, we simultaneously believe ourselves to be the most insignificant of worms, but also that the omnipotent universe has a plan for each of use individually, that the universe loves and directs us as single humans. Maybe this is true, maybe it isn't. IT feels too... easy to be true, I guess, sometimes.

And, yes, this mythmaking makes terrible messes, it makes us do terrible things. What is the classic 'midlife crisis' but a realization that our identity does not match our own narrative? I have done too many things, too many terrible things, because it felt like the way the story should go. Others are better about this than me, but I don't think it's a completely unique behaviour.

At the same time, mythology was a precursor to magic, and magic was a precursor to science, and science a precursor to real knowledge (alter this sentence according to the dictatates of your worldview). And, after all, in some sense, the 'story' that is told by, say, modern astronomy is any ways as awe-inspiring, beautiful, and meaningful as any sun and moon and stars myth, the tale of evolution lists a human destiny as compelling as Ragnarok. Maybe this is the way personal mythologies must work - as a sort of alchemy by which we learn our personal chemistry. But life is so short, so short, and the time to know the weight of your own atoms is so long...

8 comments:

Amy said...

I do think it's amazing in life that we choose in a way, the events to pay attention to and form our story. And then suddenly, sometimes, something else will happen and other events that had seemed to have no significance become more significant. I know I've definitely shaped my life both in my mind and actions around certain things, and I keep telling myself to get over it, to change the way I see my own story. It's funny how intensely as well, I feel the story of me, and know that people who love me might see it totally differently.

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Jason Gignac said...

Ms Amy - Oh good I'm not the only one! I think we sometimes become fixated, and believe that there is only one story that we BELONG in, and so even when a beautiful new story presents itself, or when someone else sees usin a way we did not expect, we shun that opportunity, because it is too terrifying to let go of our own self-story. But at the same time - if we DIDN'T make up stories about ourselves, that would mean, in some ways, we didn't have hope anymore, I think. How can you hope if you haven't imagined any story to hope comes true?

Trapunto said...

See, what you do is, you hope in the negative. I hope this doesn't depreciate. I hope my kids are okay. I hope I don't get that disease. I hope I'm never a victim of identity theft of the kind they frightened me with on the many psuedo-news TV programs for Old People I'm addicted to. I hope I don't slip in the shower. It's a way of living in the moment, actually--and a reason to buy stuff like shredders and SUVs.

I don't know the current trend in anthropology, but it feels to me that magic might come before myth. Warding.

I like the name Elphaba.

Son of a Witch wasn't as good as Wicked, though kudos to Maguire for not trying to do the same thing twice. Okay, frankly, I hated Son of a Witch. Wicked felt like an Ozian joy ride, but Son of a Witch felt like he was just pilfering Baum's imagination. Which might have been the point, and he might be brilliant, but my ire still colors my memory of Wicked. I did not know there was a third. I'll be interested to hear what you think.

Trapunto said...

And sorry to leave that comment if the question was for Amy, specifically. I took it as rhetorical, which would still makes me an ass for answering it, but at least not a butinsky ass. *Bows, scrapes, retreats to midlife crisis.*

Trisha said...

Just a short note: Wicked is the only Maguire book I truly loved. Have you read any others?

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Trapunto - Oh, no, you're always welcome to comment back and forth to each other :). As for hoping in the negative, one is implicitly hoping in the positive for something (though one could, I GUESS Say the verso, too). Even if you're just hoping for peace and quiet, or an easy life, you are hoping for something?

Ms Trisha - I read Matchless, which did not change my life, but was alright. I like the original story better. Which of his have you read?

Trisha said...

Outside of Wicked, I've also read Mirror, Mirror and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister; I still have Lost and The Next Queen of Heaven waiting on the shelves for me. I sort of burnt out on him with the first three.