Saturday, August 11, 2012
Pondering Life in the Real World
It's a noble thought, avoiding fantasy and make-believe in order to spend more time solving problems in the here and now. The problem I have with this mindset is that it misunderstands the role of story-telling. Far from being a way to avoid reality, myth-making is a device for setting up simplified model systems in order to better grasp some concept that is too complex or emotionally charged to deal with head-on.
Scientists use model systems all the time. When they first delve into a new concept or discovery, they often set up a simplified version in the lab or in a computer program. They control all but a few variables so that they can observe each variable separately to see how it affects the system as a whole. The real world seldom lets us tease out individual variables in this manner, so the model system is a necessary first step toward an accurate understanding of a real-world system.
After the foundations are laid, the model must be validated against a more realistic system. Often, a series of increasingly complex models are necessary before the whole thing is ready for validation in the outside world.
Likewise, our myths allow us to isolate and explore just a few aspects of our complicated existence using idealized worlds and simplified characters. The simplicity allows a clarity that is seldom available in the daily onrush of events and interpersonal interactions. Myths and stories make no attempt to explain all of reality -- how could they ever succeed?
Fantasy stories are a proven tool for talking about topics that are too emotionally charged to address head-on. The television show Star Trek talked about real-world racism using space aliens as stand-ins for present-day humans. JRR Tolkien explored the concept of evil via the malevolent Sauron, the amoral Saruman, and the obsessive Gollum. These stories stood a better chance of getting a point across to audiences who had their guard up against full frontal attacks on their cherished beliefs. Subversive, but effective.
Myths, allegories, fantasy literature -- I suppose some people just aren't into this form of truth-seeking. If they have methods that work better for them, I respect that, and I hope that they respect my love of metaphorical worlds. The real world needs both Muggles and Wizards, after all.