Jesus, Socrates, the Buddha, Lao Tsu, and some other notable paradigm shifters were not writers. In fact, a great many of the spiritual leaders of the axial age, and the religious and philosophical movements that followed it, talked lots but wrote little.
Some argue that this is because once written down, a meaningful statement loses the warm human connection that lungs and throats and lips bring to language. Dialogue flows between people and to write down a dialogue is to bring eternal winter to the river of words, freezing it for all time. Once written down, stories solidify, teachings harden, and other people, those horrid crowds of ‘readers’ (shudder) turn the stories and teachings into doctrine and dogma. Hardened arteries, stiff joints, crystallized bones, inflexible neck, the whole body of religious and philosophical literature grows old, the eyes growing dim, and eventually, life goes out of it. Writing leads to death.
Ok, point taken.
On the other hand writing creates an artefact. Book clubs get together to talk about books; religious groups get together to talk about great teachings recorded in holy writ; and academics read other academics to build up a body of accepted wisdom.
As much as I love those old text-shy sages, we know about them and their teachings by way of some poor, usually nameless, student who thought to himself, “I’m going to write that down.” He was a little thick maybe, but agile enough to know a good thing when he heard it. Smart enough have learned his letters. The equivalent of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. On the cutting edge of technology. A code writer.
Writing was a way to remember what was important, to refer to it later, or just to remind everyone of something lovely, because it touched something inside even when the voice of the sage was silenced. But a written statement is incomplete. It has to be, it can not contain the subtleties and complexities of full body communication, but first and foremost it is an artefact. An artefact of a person, a mind, a culture, a world view. Wrapped up in the loops and straight lines of text there are patterns that sparky human brains recognize, decipher into language, and kindle ideas with. Like a forest of neatly stacked fire wood, books and writings rest on shelves waiting for human consciousness to covert them into knowing, understanding, a raging fire of comprehension.
At university you are forced to read books you ordinarily would never touch with a ten foot pole. Great classics, they are called. For some people they are grating classics. For me, at 20 or 22 I didn’t want to hear that the world was one large piece of excrement and all we could do about it was hold our nose. And that’s what I heard from a lot of the literature that was foisted on me. I remember in particular feeling physical revulsion reading the Great Gatsby which others found to lift their spirits. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was another thundering affront on my values and taste. Sure it was accurate and pathetic, but so what? The main character, Duddy, is so despicably un-likable why would I want to get to know him? Everyone I have talked to who has read the book agrees that they felt icky after reading it, like a sticky oil spill had fouled their soul. My advice about most of these works of literature is stop reading them if they are depressing, stressing, or flooding you with negative feelings. Pitch them across the table and out an open window. Good riddance.
The depressing quality of many of the classic works from the 19th and 20th century has to do with the loss of faith. Not just loss of faith in God, though that is a big one. When the comforting stories of God redeeming and transforming human kind are toppled from their position of authority, empty souls who are savaged by the realization of “what is” often end up running into the darkness wide-eyed and horrified. And they tell their story, they share their stark view, they communicate the dark pessimism of life without hope.They don’t know it is just an important stage in development and there is more beyond.
I asked one of my professors one time what the point was of writing constantly about the dark underbelly of life. Why did not the curriculum contain some light-hearted stories along with the heavy dirges of wounded existentialists? Shakespeare wrote tragedy and comedy, I argued, and his stories had beauty as well as pathos. My professor’s answer was that stories filled with conflict, pain, betrayal, and scandal, appeal to a larger segment of educated readers, that sunny is not serious, and in the academic world, serious is everything. A serious work of art opens the mind, the emotions, the soul, to the vast reality of life with all its warts. Especially warts.
One might say that serious art opens us to warts. Faithless death and warts, that’s what little classics are made of.
Readers lay down books for a variety of reasons, and that is a big danger when you have something to communicate. Jesus and Socrates and the others somehow, miraculously, didn’t worry about this. Or didn’t let on if they did. They didn’t pull punches, they were shocking and inflammatory and in your face, but in a way that challenges us to be better, to rise from our stupor. The philosophical gadfly who bites us out of complacency does so for a higher purpose. So why not write that down? I say that the answer, contrary to the purist notion of unsullied oral communication, is that writing was not the main form of communication in their day. The majority of people were not literate. So they communicated in a way that reached the largest population. For Jesus, that was traveling around and speaking to everyone he met about the commonwealth of God, For Socrates it was going to the markets and asking everyone he met questions about their assumptions.
Movies, television, and electronic games are the new popular media. Sure people still listen over the fence to wise neighbours; still attend church to hear a sermon, still read books. But those forms of communication are miniscule compared to the great electronic pipelines into the hearts and minds of people today.
Yet there are still millions of writers. When I contemplate all the writerly minds working like particle colliders only with participles instead of particles, I start to feel desperate. All those words flowing out of all those minds and I will never be able to read even a small percentage of them. And in that huge avalanche of ideas and observations and stories and theses and metaphors and metalevels of meaning, do we have anything that matches Socrates? Jesus?
That is an important question.
You see I read slowly. I don’t have time to wade through excess pontification, I reserve that time for making pontifications of my own. So when I read I look for certain things. I want non-fiction to be clear, crafted, and concrete. I want metaphor, anecdotes, illustrations, and similes. Don’t give me those massive pillows of puffy nothing words. I can spew out plenty of that myself. Look, I’ll show you, “the logical derivatives of a careful examination of evidence-based theories on the diversity of structural elements in emerging post-modern realism includes but is not limited to the standard philosophical parodies of journey themes juxtaposed to the relativistic ethos that consumes written texts composed by those struggling to appropriate a context rich perceptual scheme in the light of their own ego consuming nihilism.” Hah, so there.
The second related question that keeps niggling at me these days is who will be the next gigantic paradigm shifter. And a corollary question is what will be the next medium into which that shift will be communicated. As much as I love the written word, I believe the medium the graphene Jesus will use, will be electronic gaming, or the generation of interactive media consumption that will grow out of it.
Unlike books which have always suffered from the progression to “classics” and dogma, electronic games are both constantly evolving technically, and moment by moment interactive. I’m interested in knowing if games will become cultural artifacts, or maybe will develop into a new form of literature in which participation re-emerges as the norm in philosophy and meaning making, or even become a whole new thing entirely.
At the moment gaming is merely an exciting form of entertainment, providing mastery and flow in a carefully controlled way. The business people of the game world back games for the main purpose of making money. As do publishers of books. Most of the games of today are like mass market novels. Entertaining, enjoyable, but not particularly poetic or mind expanding. But good for you even so, according to Jane McGonigal.
Playing up to 20 hours a week, says Ms McGonigal, improves our ability to make and achieve goals, be more likely to help people in real life, and have a sense of control. Playing more than 20 hours a week is when the troubles begin.
I highly recommend Jane McGonigal’s interview on CBC radio from earlier this week. It is more detailed than her TED Talk. The whole interview is enlightening, and I recommend anyone who is sceptical take the time to hear what she says. The full interview is here: http://www.cbc.ca/spark/2011/01/full-interview-jane-mcgonigal-on-fixing-reality/
Jane says that any game is an “unnecessary obstacle that we volunteer to tackle. It is hard and challenging and we are self motivated to put our best effort into achieving the goal of the game, and that is what really separates it from real life. We get to choose what game we want to play, and then bring our best effort to it.”
Reading and writing function in this way for me, so I guess I could say that the literary world is my game. I also like to imagine a time when the palette of creation for even a lowly newb like me will include the ability to create a book as a game, to create a work of literature in moving pixels and consumer interaction. E-book publishers and writers are now dreaming publicly of the possibilities. Just imagine entering into your own created world to experience your creation. It would have to be as natural as learning to talk, no more difficult than learning to write. Without this ease of use (i.e. a two to 5 year learning curve), the media will remain under the thumb of corporate kingpins. Maybe some arthouse-small-literary game manufacturers will develop to market masterpieces?As electronic gaming widens it’s demographic, I think we will see it.
If you go with the odds, the next Socrates or the next Jesus will probably be born in India or China, or one of the mega-cities like Jakarta or Seoul – the re-invention of a new kind of city-state dawning not too far in the future. He or she will have grown up playing video games, will have something to say, will have the drive and expertise and opportunity and the glowing incandescent mind the world need for answers we are only starting to ask.