Monday, January 23, 2012

The World is Made of Dreams

The world is not made of matter, but ideas

The above headline is an adaptation of a concept originally put forth by Muriel Rukeyser, who put it this way: "The universe is made of stories, not atoms."

That's probably closer to the ultimate truth of things, for those of you searching for an ultimate truth. 'Stories' imply the plotting of some difficult-to-define moral concept or other aspect of human experience. An idea carries no such weight. Harry Potter is a story, a quark is an idea. Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai is a story, string theory is an idea.

Stories, however, are composed of ideas. Good ideas, bad ones, inspired ones, poorly expressed ones. You see, I've taken Muriel's concept and broken it down into its components.

Stories are fashioned from ideas the way molecules are formed by atoms. But that is not the end of the mystery. Just as atoms themselves are formed of particles, and those particles are made of strings and quarks and who-knows-what, our ideas are fashioned by the long timeline of human experience, by the subconscious - and by things we fear to examine.

Orson Scott Card once professed his amazement at the human appetite for stories. It's this apparently-insatiable appetite that allows authors to earn their living, even though one would think (especially in the publishing business) that every human thought had been expressed, every story told. Do we really need another? Why were people so rabid to know the fate of Little Nell, and years later, Harry Potter? Why do films like Star Wars or The Matrix inspire such fanatical devotion among the faithful?

The 'why' of this is worth exploring, but it may not be something we can ever know with certainty. More relevant is the fact that this truth demonstrably exists, and is universally exploited. Movie-makers, politicians, and marketers of all stripes profit from our appetite for story. Even the gigantic modern sports industry cannot draw breath without it. Turn on the TV in the next couple of weeks, and stories about the upcoming Super Bowl will be inescapable. Moral and character sketches will be drawn, erased, and drawn again until we are sick to death of the pointless exercise. Far more time will be spent on them than the game itself will require. NFL Films earns great profits from its telling of its tales - commercially-manufactured fables for our times. Why are major-league baseball and football far more profitable than basketball or hockey? Because we have a wealth of stories built around the men who have played those games. We have our heroes, our legends, our goats and our villains. Outside Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretsky, the 1980 Olympics and a handful of others, there are few basketball or hockey stories that have taken hold in the public's collective psyche.

The public cannot differentiate actors from the roles they play, and the canniest of them choose roles whose stories enhance their public persona. That way, people will continue to anticipate their films. Tom Hanks comes to mind in that regard. His characters in movies such as Big, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, and Saving Private Ryan were extremely sympathetic, and in Angels & Demons no less than the Pope thanked and acknowledged him.

The stories we that utterly surround us each day of our lives are often compelling but rarely true, and are often toxic as well. Yet we are so accustomed to them that often we cannot gain any perspective on their lasting effects. Part of what The Patriots of Mars is about, and what this blog will explore, are those messages and their impact on who we are and what we believe ourselves to be (which are often not the same thing at all).