Keys, umbrellas, fingerprints

This morning I rode past a hand-written sign saying “Lost your keys? Message me which Disney character is on the keyring and I’ll get em back to you.” They wanted to make sure the keys went back to their rightful owner, not just any sneak who called up and claimed them.

Which makes sense with wallets and jewellery and handsome tartan umbrellas, but if you don’t know what Disney character’s on the keys, how do you know which lock they fit?

I realised that you could stumble across the keys to the national mint, the Louvre, to every door in Berrimah jail, and they would be utterly worthless if you didn’t know what they were for. Keys are a treasure that depend on a very specific piece of information.

It was known in the early 1800s that people had unique fingerprints, and that these could be lifted from crime scenes, but it was only really useful if you already had a suspect. Otherwise, what – are you gonna compare the one from the crime scene to every single fingerprint you have on file, one by one, by hand and eye?  It wasn’t until a system of categorisation was developed (by length, width, type and direction of whorl, etc) that fingerprints became look-uppable, and about a billion times more useful.

You see what I’m getting at. Context and connections are what makes something valuable.

Assuming that somehow having the keys to the mint also gave you the legal and moral right to take everything you found there, money only has value because people agree that it does (if it was from the mint, it would have sequential serial numbers, and it could be declared worthless. Then you’d have to see how many people you could convince it was still money before you got caught). Art is a bit more objectively valuable, because you have an emotional reaction to it that has intrinsic worth, but financially it’s bizarre. The Mona Lisa is valued at US$790 million but it’s also worth US$0 because you couldn’t sell it.

In conclusion, go for the handsome tartan umbrella every time.

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Tell me you don’t wistfully long to take a vow of silence

The piece below is an (emailed) interview with monks who do the vow of silence thing. I’m constantly drawn to this idea. It feels like it would be more like a vacation than a fast – freedom from words rather than the imposition of silence. I wonder, if you stopped communicating in words, would you stop thinking in words as well? Or would you constantly be mentally composing all the bits of dialogues you couldn’t say?

I went to a silent interactive performance art party/event last year and it was both liberating and deeply discomfiting to be robbed of the ability to explain myself. I could apologise, with facial expressions or gestures, but I couldn’t give context, make clear my intentions or motivations, “here’s what I was thinking when I… here’s what I was aiming for” – which is something I do almost constantly. You just had to let your actions stand for themselves (but also, people were more forgiving, because they knew there was stuff you couldn’t say. Which is good practice for dealing with the rudeness of strangers: there’s so much context they can’t give you that might explain their actions).

The other tough part was seeing some cool thing in one part of the event – a silent drag show, a mime competition, a strawberry tasting – and then not being able to tell your friends what you’d just seen and where you’d been. You could point, and make your eyes shine – it was amazing! – but that was about it. You had to just accept that you were not capable of making yourself fully understood, and that you were not capable of fully understanding anyone else. There is a meaning here, but I cannot access it. (Again, good practice for the rest of life – it’s much easier to assume, when you’ve heard all the words, that you get what there is to be got. But you probably don’t.)

I’m trying to think of ways to make this acceptable – parties is the obvious one – but another might be something like the 40-Hour Famine, Movember or Dry July. Not everyone would do it, but people wouldn’t find it strange that you were, because it would be a Thing. You’d just gesture, and they’d get it.

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In Defence of Tolkien: a Rebuttal of China Miéville

Rockstar fantasy author and poster boy for the New Weird genre China Miéville attempts to slay the giant whose shoulders he stands on:

Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious – you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there’s a lot to dislike – his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien’s clichés – elves ‘n’ dwarfs ‘n’ magic rings – have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was ‘consolation’, thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.”

Oh my, where to start

Tolkien is the foundation of the genre in which Miéville writes, its bones. Tolkien is a pioneer of ‘second-world fantasy’ – where the setting is not earth, but a world of the writer’s own making. It’s difficult to overstate how influential he was – “you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try.” Fantasy previous to Lord of the Rings involved interactions between the real world and fantastical elements – ghosts, witches, fairies, genies. There are now thousands of ‘second worlds’,  from the Discworld to Westeros to Miéville’s own Bas-Lag. Can you imagine your bookshelf, or your childhood, without them? If anything, Tolkien is the arse on which Miéville is the boil (or the adorable freckle, if you happen to like his writing).

elves ‘n’ dwarves ‘n’ magic rings

Miéville maybe does not know which direction time flows in? Does he blame the 1819 writer of The Vampyre  for Twilight fanfiction, or Shakespeare for the decline of theatre?

Penny Arcade on Miéville

These fantasy clichés were original when Tolkien wrote them. Orcs and halflings were entirely created by Tolkien, and elves mostly so (they used to be small, shy woodland creatures, nothing like the tall melancholy things we have now). And it’s a bit much to blame him for the proliferation of magic rings, since they show up in the myths of every ringwearing culture throughout history.

boys-own-adventure glorying in war

“It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.”

Tolkien in 1916

Translation: ‘war is rad’, apparently? Look, Tolkien fought in World War 1 – he had no illusions about glory. Unless words like “hideous” and “misery” and “oh god, so many lice” seem glorious to you. All but one of his friends were dead by 1918. War in Lord of the Rings had irreparable consequences. The plains west of Mordor, on which the battle of Dagorlad was fought, was the bleakest place the hobbits had seen. Nothing would grow on that desecrated ground ever again. And remember, it wasn’t warriors that saved Middle-Earth  – the last alliance has no hope of victory, they are only buying time for Frodo. Frodo who refused to slay Gollum, who won’t even wear a sword towards the end, and who is so damaged by his experiences that he can never really be part of a happy life again.

fantasy as ‘consolation’

Oh, now, Miéville knows better than that. ‘Consolation’ is a far more complex word than just ‘hugs and puppies’. It’s a word with centuries of thought and theology behind it. The 6th Century philosopher Boethius – and 21st Century philosopher Alain de Botton – have both written books titled “Consolation[s] of Philosophy” and neither of them were intending to mollycoddle.

absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity

‘How shall a man judge what to do in such times?’ ― ‘As he has ever judged,’ said Aragorn. ‘Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men.’

It’s true that Tolkien is not a moral relativist. That’s easy for me to deal with because neither am I. I want to talk about ethics in fantasy in my next post, so I won’t go into it too much here, but I think it’s one of fantasy’s strengths that it’s one of the few places in literature where we can still talk about right and wrong in unambiguous terms. That said, every writer has a moral standpoint, even if that standpoint is relativism. It only becomes obnoxious when the good characters have no flaws, or their good actions never have bad consequences. That is not the case in Lord of the Rings:

  • Gollum is very close to redemption at some points in the book. Sam’s suspicion and unkindness are very likely what tip him over the edge to betrayal.
  • Frodo, of course, fails and succumbs to the ring’s power at the last.
  • Gandalf chooses not to slay Gollum out of mercy, and that turns out to be the saving of Middle-earth. Mercy compels him not to kill Saruman, and that causes enormous suffering in the Shire.
  • Aragorn told Éowyn not to go to battle. That decision was completely wrong. Luckily she disobeyed.
  • Both Boromir and Denethor commit terrible acts, but they are both considered good and noble people despite their failings.
  • “Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.”

In conclusion

The Miéville quote comes from a longer piece in which he tries to defend the fantasy genre by pointing out – rightly – that most of its detractors are referring solely to High or Epic Fantasy, while totally ignoring avant-garde subgenres such as New Weird, in which Miéville writes. But it’s one thing to distance himself from Tolkien’s fantasy – quite another to try and tear it down altogether. With apologies to Susanna Clarke:

It is the contention of Mr Miéville that everything belonging to Tolkien must be shaken out of modern fantasy, as one would shake moths and dust out of an old coat. What does he imagine he will have left? If you get rid of Tolkien you will be left holding the empty air.

Bonus Content: Boromir vs Faramir!

If you want to see where Tolkien’s values lay, compare the brothers Boromir and Faramir. Boromir tries to seize the Ring by force; he is killed and the hobbits are kidnapped as a result. Faramir is not tempted – he keeps his promise, “shows his quality” and aids Frodo and Sam on their journey.

So although Boromir is repeatedly referred to as the better warrior, the bolder, it is Faramir that Tolkien wants us to take for our moral example. Here’s what he has to say about war:

War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”

 Of course, I’m talking about the book. In the movie he nearly succumbs. Peter Jackson threw away the message and the character for a cheap moment of suspense, something that angered Stephen Colbert as much as it did me.

Extra Super-Bonus Content: Dwarfs vs Dwarves!

‘Dwarves’ is the correct plural term when referring to the non-human race in Tolkien or other fantasy works. For human people with dwarfism, ‘dwarfs’ is grammatically correct, but it makes some folks unhappy, so why not say ‘people with dwarfism’? It is only two more words.

So what is even the point of the word ‘dwarfs’? For when you want a verb meaning ‘to make something appear small’ – e.g. ‘the new hotel in Dubai dwarfs the buildings around it.’ The more you know.