Monday, January 23, 2017

Filling our minds with stock figures: On an essay by Terry Pratchett

For the Deal Me in 2017 challenge, I read Terry Pratchett's grumpy, funny essay/rant on the clichés of fantasy fiction, and what 'fantasy' and 'escapism' mean. He calls his piece "Elves Were Bastards," to attack the cliché of the noble elves from Tolkien.

He rails against:
... so much round-eyed worship of mind-numbing myths, so much mindless recycling of ancient cycles, so much unthinking escapism.
I like how he distinguishes between meaningless escapism vs. an experience that you learn from and take something from.
But the point about escaping is that you should escape to, as well as from. You should go somewhere worthwhile, and come back the better for the experience.
And later:
The best stuff does take you somewhere. It takes you to a new place from which to see the world.
It's also a sense of wonder not limited to fictional stories.

Pratchett's repeated use 'mindless' is key. It's inevitable that we'll retell stories, but they shouldn't be expressed in rote ways, without care, thought or imagination, not if they're to be meaningful.

This got me thinking about the contents of our minds in all respects, especially our representations of other people. It would be easy to fill up on 'stock characters' - two-dimensional representations. It makes life simpler in some ways; what to think, and the right ways to act, take on apparent clarity. At the same time, it's an unfulfilling way to live. It's also like a bad diet that poisons the health of the mind. It compromises the ability to understand complex situations, in anything from politics to personal relationships.

Stock figures are stunting. If we can imagine only the 'noble elves,' we're limited, lacking in wisdom and more vulnerable to deception. The stock figures populate a deceptively simple world, and chances are if we escape to it too much, we'll stay trapped in it. One way or another, we'll suffer and allow others to suffer without understanding complex situations and the possibilities for how to act.