The Great Conversation

The Magicians TitleSo I recently reviewed SyFy’s The Magicians. It’s a skillfully put together show, saddled with a sexual preoccupation and a worldview antithetical to much of what I believe and advocate. I rather enjoyed it all the same, which is a fairly impressive thing for a work to accomplish, and after finishing my review, I realized I was still likely to watch the next season. This, again, is in spite of its worldview being fairly abhorrent to me.

I can handle works in which people engage in perverse activities– I’m a seminarian, and until I became Catholic this Easter and got saddled with a bunch of extra books, I’d read the whole Bible. I know what people do in there, and I know that sometimes a narrative includes unsavory things to make a point of some sort. Look at the well known story of David and Bathsheba– adultery (Possibly as what the modern reader would consider rape) and murder. It’s not a story that would’ve been terribly out of place in a world like that of The Magicians, but it’s included in the holy books of both Christianity and Judaism.

Point is, it’s usually not the content of a work that I find abhorrent or offensive, it’s the worldview. Content is what you’ve built your story out of, and with a palette limited by the human experience, we’re all working with the same tools and materials. Worldview, on the other hand, often, if not always, determines “for what end?” Why are we building a story? For what purpose? Money, certainly, is a factor. We’ll get that out of the way right now. We all want to be paid for our work, but most of us with any experience at all with publication know we’re not likely to be the next JK Rowling. We make a pittance for the amount of work we put into things– even if you’re paid well, and you have a hot streak in which you churn out a 4,000 word story in a day or two, you’re still not going to make more than just going to work would’ve netted you. So there are other reasons at work.

I have a worldview that sees the value in fiction, and so I want to contribute to the pool of fiction that I like.  The fiction that I like is largely determined by values that I have– I want stories that make me experience wonder, fear, excitement, joy, sadness. I strain after sehnsucht, for reasons that have a lot to do with what took me to seminary in the first place. It both colors and determines the kind of fiction that I write. It’s why I’m committed to the Superversive cause. So why the devil would I keep watching a show that appears to be mostly about trauma inflicted on both human beings and on NarniaFillory?

What Has Been Done Will Be Done Again

300px-RahxephonartOr, there’s nothing new under the sun. No works emerge from a vacuum. I remember reading John C. Wright’s Golden Age trilogy in 2003 or so and being blown away by the creativity of it all. As I lurked around on his blog, I began to read the books he talked about, and saw that the Sophotechs had their origin in Poul Anderson’s Fireball books and that many of the characters had been drawn from other influences. Gene Wolfe, possibly the most mystifyingly creative man alive, clearly bears the stamp of Jorge Louis Borges. There is no zero point energy for creativity. We are all part of a great conversation; if you’re an anime fan, you can see the conversation clearly at work in a series like RahXephon, which takes hoary old tropes and cheesy old super robot shows and elevates them into a mature, thoughtful work. You can see the conversation at work in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, created when Joss Whedon pictured a chase sequence involving a monster and a cheerleader, a feature of who knows how many horror films, and flipped the roles around. CS Lewis’ space trilogy was part of a conversation that includes Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

Study philosophy and theology even in passing, and you’ll find that the conversation exists outside of fiction. A crap-ton of post-Socratic philosophy was done in response to Socrates; Christian doctrine developed and formalized itself mostly in response to ideas from inside and outside the faith– and frequently in response to ideas that were extremely threatening to the core of Christian faith. A year or two ago I read Kierkegaard‘s Fear and Trembling for historical theology, and found that vast swathes of it were directly in conversation with Hegel.

As long as I can stomach it, I’d rather be in conversation with a worldview I find abhorrent than just ignore it. I can’t always stomach it; my patience with Game of Thrones is completely gone and my patience with its source material is wearing thin.

The Great Tragedies of the Postmodern Age

It’s no secret that we live in a terribly confused era. I don’t know if there’s a way to put a finger on the cause of that, and it’s outside the scope of this rant anyways.  But we have this weird situation in which everything is relative, judged entirely on experience but in which those individual experiences are treated as concrete so long as they are in line with the amorphous thinking of the postmodern world. Each person is their own island of absolutes.

It seems to me that part of our problem right now is that the Great Conversation has ground to a halt. People are so terribly offended by ideas that contradict their isolated, relativistic absolutes that they withdraw and begin lobbing shells at the person who dared to offend their sensibilities. No conversation; attempts to start a conversation of substance are met with declarations of war. I recently finished a long series of podcasts about World War I, and spent pretty close to ten hours listening to the history of the trench warfare years. As long as both sides were hunkered down in the trenches, the war continued. Millions died, but the war kept going because hunkering down in those trenches limited the contact necessary for the resolution of the war. When resolution finally came, it came in a series of bloody, painful battles that abandoned the trenches. It wasn’t fun, but it brought an end to the war.

It might not be for everyone, and certainly I’m not arguing that you have to experience evil to know good or anything like that. But I do think there’s a case to be made for experiencing the works of whose ideologies are opposed to your own. It’s rarely fun to have one’s ideas challenged. But if anything is ever going to be accomplished, one has to be willing to make contact with the other side.

  • Daddy Warpig

    The question is: is there anything to salvage in this work? Planetary, by Warren Ellis, did a lot of bad stuff to heroic characters, but it had a lot of incredible ideas. A heroic and uplifting version of Planetary could be an excellent work in and of itself. (Ditto Watchmen.)

    Heroic and uplifting versions of the influences for “The Magicians” already exist, in spades. There is no conversation needed there, because it has already been surpassed. Heck, the original Narnia books surpassed it easily, and it’s supposed to be a “more mature” reaction to THEM.

    There is no virtue in The Magicians. It presents nothing of value to salvage, either in plot, characters, concepts, or its worldview.

    Wait, that’s not true: it is the single best example of precise and thought-out “somatic components” (gestures accompanying spellcasting) I have ever encountered. Small clips from the show showing how those gestures reflect the desired effect of spells could be useful, in certain contexts (such as designing an RPG).

    The rest? No.