Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Are there really any accidents?

As much as art nerds like surprises in art, I don't think we're really all that friendly to accident. I think we're prisoners of form, when you look at how life really goes. An apparent accident is nice -- say the discovery that Darth Vader is in fact Luke's father, or, less fun, the modernist experiments with language and the "make your own adventure" of 90s hypertexts. The accidents that happen as you're making the art are nice, too, like, say, the sudden understanding that a milquetoast character is really a kind of blind prophet and the pivot of your story. But there has to be some emotional coherence to art, which means "why" attends every choice. Why does this character show up now? What does it mean that he's dressed like that, and who cares? "But it really happened that way" is a lousy defense, even in nonfiction, and I'd bet most editors are pretty quick to dismiss it. Not because editors are dismissive jerks, but because it's pretty rare for big, strong-emotion-generating machines to assemble themselves by accident in short realtimes; as long as it takes to read a novel, for instance.

If you manage to break out of the expected causal relationships (the antique-gun dealer has to leave the pistol on the mantel so the protagonist can ignore it and watch her husband leave with another woman in 60 pages, leaving the gun as a symbol of how the protag deals with the world generally and her reasons for it), you'll still have to make the work coherent somehow. With tone, or unusual connections between elements of your piece,or somehow -- it doesn't matter how. There are grammars to how fiction goes, too, from "Once upon a time" to the expectation that the quaint hypertext you're playing with will not turn out to be a spybot for NSA or a straight-ahead Burroughs cut-up or be written entirely in cuneiform. If you're not working with a well-established grammar, you'll have to come up with some internal structure of your own, or at best you'll have made a marshy curiosity, a one-off.

Combine those restraints with artists' limited imaginations, and I think it's very hard, maybe impossible, to make a fiction that's as strange and accident-ridden as life. It seems to me the mechanical-universe view is actually friendlier to accident. Not because of the idea that things are in fact accidental and chaotic, but because of the acceptance of our limited understanding and data collection. If we can't model a few hydrogen atoms' behavior in a closed space, how can we hope to explain the origins of a particular real cancer, let alone why Uncle Charlie met that floozy at church two months before he died and left her everything? For all purposes, much of life is accidental, then. Until, unless, we have a better explanation, and in the meantime you can believe what you like but there's no scientific basis for it. Unless you're Michael Behe.

Speaking of Behe (and must I? No, but as a Lehigh alum it tickles me to think what he's doing to the administration), here is a quiet but demurring review of his book by Alice Fulton, who's a biochemist here at Iowa and a recently-ordained Episcopal priest.

Would a more mechanical view of life force greater tolerance of apparent accident inside fictional worlds? I'm thinking again of cars and how, in stories, characters attach supernatural meanings to breakdowns. I wonder if a fictional world where characters are simply tolerant of accident would be too boring.


Central Content Publisher said...

You know how Slacker continually sets up situations then moves on before they resolve? Perhaps a piece about accidents would present the resolutions to situations without ever completely explaining why these events occurred; a sort of Slacker in reverse, like a Time’s Arrow that jumps to a new resolution before time regressed to the beginning of the story; an outcome whose explanation is cut-off by another outcome before it completes.

Amy Charles said...

OK, so what would that show, in the end? I mean imagine you're reading such a story, and the tremendous frustration that would create. At least in, say, Faulkner (again), you do eventually get the whole picture and understand what's gone on, and when, and why, and what it means. It's just that you get it all the way any stranger or 5-year-old walking in gets the story, in pieces that are obviously meaningful but you can't tell what in hell they have to do with each other. (And that's unfortunately why the trick only works once, on the first read-through.)

But if you had a story where things were simply accident...OK, what does it show? What's the vision of the world, how do you live in such a world without attempting to impose some sort of causality on it? And why would you?

I mean this is my impatience with much Slackerish work -- yeah, OK, shit happens and sometimes pieces of it are pretty or poignant, but how is that new or interesting to anyone thoughtful over the age of ten? It seems to me there should be something more substantial to the fiction, unless you're going to make some remarkably beautiful accidents.

Leaving the structure alone, though, I wonder what it would mean to the characters within the work if they actually viewed life as essentially accidental. Not accidental in a mystical way, but accidental in a physical way we're not currently smart enough to understand.

Central Content Publisher said...

Well, many people view life as ultimately accidental. It’s a strange sort of nihilism that’s uncomfortable with uncertainty, and prefers to adopt the notion that everything is a big accident. What does it mean? Like most nihilism, I think it’s supposed to mean nothing, or rather, its meaning is nothingness. What does it mean to a character who believes this? I think, for those characters, it generally means that meaning, or the understanding of meaning, simply isn’t an essential part of living and being human. Much like the fabled children in the Garden of Eden, they’re content with their ignorance.

That said, I think most accident perceiving characters are a little conflicted about the whole thing, and can’t help but constantly second guess themselves, and wonder if meaning might turn out to be something important after all. “Maybe”, they think, “we should keep researching just in case we find some meaning. If there’s meaning, we should probably know about it.”

Amy Charles said...

I have to be careful here, because I'm very weak in philosophy. But it seems to me that it gets a little easy to start mixing up nihilism, existentialism, Couplandish consumer-anomie, and the idea that the universe does have physical rules, but that we're not currently bright enough to see them all.

I don't think that a mechanical universe, or a mechanistic view of life, need be nihilistic. Just because the physical principles of life are not, for instance, potent and immediately human works like Biblical texts -- well, that doesn't do away with either the need for story or the need to shape human lives. The question that comes to my mind immediately is "well, then, around what might those stories be shaped?"

I will eventually have to find other paintings to think of but I'm reminded again of Rothko's black paintings. I saw them at the Whitney show several years ago and they were in a room by themselves. I hadn't known anything about them, or that they were in this room, but when I walked in I found myself in an obvious sanctuary. Others seemed to think so too, since everyone in there was dead quiet and people tended to come in and sit for a long time. The feeling was deeply religious, but terrifying; the God of these paintings, if it could be called a God, was entirely unconcerned with human doings. The language had nothing to do with humans, and the feel was, to me, icy and undeniable. I'm not a religious person, but those paintings were strong enough that I'm willing to believe Rothko saw something.

So good for the universe. Meantime, I'm human, and I need something to live by. Needn't be the same every day. But if part of my experience in the world is a common faith that I'm a sort of machine, and that my accidents have some basis in physical laws, I imagine that makes its way into the stories and my sense of life.

Stefanie said...

Hi Amy. Like your site and your thought-provoking ideas. I'm currently just learning the theories of quantum mechanics ala Brian Green and to me the idea of accidents relates to the quantum idea of probability. It seems that it could be said we only perceive accidents as accidents because we are unable to see the entire universe and therefore unable to calculate the probability of events.

That being said, I think the human way we tend to deal with accidents is to attribute them to Fate or God or some power beyond our control. Story is one way in which we attempt to make sense of it all. We don't like the accidental nature of life so we try to impose a structure and meaning onto it.

To create a story about accidents from a purely mechanistic point of view would be fascinating I think as well as potentially disturbing. It verges into the nihilism that central content publisher suggests. But maybe we need to impose an artifical meaning on accidents in order to avoid going insane over the ultimate meaninglessness of it all?

Amy Charles said...

I am completely talking out of my ass here, which is normal for artists talking about science and why we need some scientists to set us straight. However: I don't know how fine you can slice probabilities in physics; whether it'd be theoretically possible, if you were able to see the whole show, to say events or causalities were so likely that you could more or less take them as the way things happened, or why things happened. I don't know how unpredictable "accidents" theoretically are, in other words.

For making fictional worlds, I think it makes a big difference whether accidents are theoretically predictable (and we're currently too dumb to do it) or whether we just cannot know. If we cannot know, I would think that opens a big hole in science, and then we're back to mysticism, religion, making things up. Which is how I see most fictional characters operating now. I can't recall a literary character who has a sense that all is rationally explainable but we're too dumb to do it just now.

Why do we make stories? Well, that sounds like a good thread. I'm a pretty thorough agnostic with no pressing need to understand how or why (or what) the universe is. No need of a reason or point to it all. (When I was an undergrad, a psychologist asked me, badgeringly, why I didn't just kill myself if that's what I believed. He was pretty upset about the idea of a pointless universe, seemed to view it as...not just an outrage, but a betrayal. He killed himself shortly afterwards, too. I don't know why, of course, but I remember being surprised by his vehemence about how the universe had to have a point, and maybe that was one of the things disturbing him.)

Anyway. Why stories. Well, think of how it goes for protagonists in fairy tales. You know how fairy tales go, and there's always some point where, if the protagonist only knew he was in a story, and what kind of story it was, he'd know exactly what to do next. He wouldn't insult that crone; he wouldn't eat that meal and fall asleep; he'd throw that strange golden ball into the woods as hard as he possibly could. I find it useful to know of what story I'm in at any given time. Here's my current story; in that kind of story, what usually happens next? And then I have a pretty good idea of what to do, or what not to do. Plus it creates a romance I find hard to live without. But I'm a theatrical sort of person and I don't imagine everyone shares the taste. The romances are all fleeting, and whether that's a misfortune or not I don't know.