Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Strangeness Makes Us See

It was Memorial Day, and I sat in the living room with my brother-in-law, who was visiting from Illinois. Our wives were busy in the kitchen with Parmesan and garlic, spinach and asparagus, flank steak and potatoes. While the smells of spices and seared beef floated through the house, we occupied ourselves with work, he on a project for a client, myself on a short story. "What are you doing?" he asked at one point, catching me staring off into space. I tried to explain how the premise I was trying to pen related to a chance encounter with a clerk. He squinted at me a moment, then said, "I don't think your mind works like mine."

That wasn't a revelation for either of us. My brother-in-law has an advanced certification in an especially complicated offshoot of statistics and can make reams of data turn cartwheels for him; I barely survived "Intro to Quantitative Analysis" and break out in a sweat if I can't find a calculator when it comes time to balance the checkbook. But it isn't just different aptitudes. If you have ever tried to discuss speculative fiction with someone who doesn't enjoy it, you know what I'm talking about: Such people balk at leaping into imaginative gulfs.

Why the hesitation? Well, speculative fiction is odd in its approach. Not that one needs to apologize for it. Dr. Leland Ryken of Wheaton College notes that both fantasy and poetry share a penchant for the unorthodox. Indeed, it seems the very soil out of which they grow. "[Poetry] speaks a language of images," he says. "It prefers the figurative to the literal and is, in fact, a form of fiction and often fantasy, as we signal by our phrase 'poetic license.' ... It possesses, to use a formula of J.R.R. Tolkien, 'arresting strangeness.'"

Such strangeness is, of course, intentional for genre authors. It catches readers' attention in ways other things cannot. We may not pick up The Federalist Papers to ponder human depravity's effects on society or peruse Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics to discover the nature of bravery. But we'll read The Lord of the Flies and Watership Down and, in reading, remember. Strangeness moves us beyond analysis to experience, and it can make us see if only we will let it.

(Picture: CC 2006 by
spoon )


B. Nagel said...

We get so used to seeing the world in certain ways, our experience informed by personal and cultural 'norms.' The best fiction doesn't so much shed new light as it reveals our (sometimes willing) blindness.

Fiction has such power to evoke visceral, emotional responses.

It's 7.20 in the AM and I've got a hankering for fajitas. This is your fault. Mmm. Marinated flank steak, sauteed bell pepper, mushrooms and onions, dab o' sour cream, little bit of salsa, all wrapped up in a flour tortilla. A little piece of spicy heaven.

Loren Eaton said...

The girls actually made a kind of churrasco, although it had a Middle Eastern-ish garnish made out of almonds (I think), parmesan, olive oil, hot peppers and some spices. Great, now I'm making myself hungry.

ollwen said...

I guess it's the same phenomenon where a song or short drama can cut to your heart where a lecture or sermon would bounce off. I wonder if speculative fiction does this in a particular way, or just to a particular audience?

Ravi Z would say this is how philosophy is communicated on the 'existential' level, rather than the theoretical or prescriptive. "Philosophy" is a loaded/jaded word though. I think men like us best hope to communicate truth to our readers/viewers.

Loren Eaton said...

I wonder if it's intrinsic, too. Sometimes, people will love a work once they get over the wow-that-sounds-really-strange hump. My wife really enjoyed Watership Down once she got past my description of it being "like Lord of the Rings -- but with rabbits!"

Regarding Ravi, I think he has a point, but both abstract philosophy and narrative can get the same point across to us; they just use different delivery methods. I must confess to preferring the latter, though.

B. Nagel said...

What was the strange thing the clerk did in the chance encounter, Holmes?

Loren Eaton said...

No, no, it wasn't the clerk that was strange, just the premise. Which says far more about me, I suppose, than anything else!

ollwen said...

Haha. Looks like I confused you on Dr. Z's intent with too sparse an explanation. The point isn't that we should be using one or the other. He usually brings up these three 'levels of philosophy' to illustrate how powerful the 'existential' (arts) level is, and how much it communicates to people and into culture without people realizing what the import would be on a theoretical philosophical level. He also points out how often Christians just use table-talk prescriptive explanations only. Ideally we should explain on the theoretical, illustrate on the existential, and apply on the prescriptive level, if we're lecturers(?) I have heard at least a couple times his insistence that we must reclaim the arts if we are to reclaim the culture, because it is through the arts, that philosophy actually makes its way into culture. He certainly doesn't elevate abstract philosophy above narrative. In his speeches he tells a lot of stories.

Loren Eaton said...

Yes, I don't think I got it the first time around. Funny that you mentioned it because I was mulling over a post related to it.