There will never be a Literature of Reality

The first job of the myth maker is to shrink the universe. The shrinkage occurs along all dimensions: time, space and mind. You see this everywhere. Immortal vampires and wizards are, at most, a few thousand years old: younger than many real trees. Grand science fiction star empires seldom span a single galaxy in a universe of hundreds of billions. Time travelers never set their machines to zero or infinity; they have no interest in creation or ultimate ends. The demigods, super AI’s, and other transcendent beings brood unproductively, without original ideas, for millennia. Remember when Elrond reminisced about “being there” when Sauron was struck down three thousand Middle Earth years ago. In all that time the great, wise, and nearly immortal, elves of Middle Earth did not move beyond simple swords. How quickly the battle for Gondor would have gone with a few dozen Abrams tanks and a couple squadrons of Warthogs.

It’s hard to fault human authors for shrinking the universe. The real universe, the utterly vast and ancient universe slowly discovered by modern science, is beyond all human scales. Imagine a book that devoted one word to every star in the observable universe. The number of stars in the observable universe is a unit that has a name. It’s called a Sagan in honor of Carl Sagan. The Sagan is currently estimated to be around 7 x 1022.  Assuming there are one thousand words per page our book would have 7 x 1019 pages.

If we read nonstop at a rate of one hundred pages per hour it would take about 80 billion years, or six times the estimated age of the universe, to read this book. Yet, vast as this book is, it leaves out pretty much everything. There’s no mention of the Earth or other planets: so many pages and not even a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s “mostly harmless.” Reality overwhelms imagination. The magic of Harry Potter is piffle compared to cosmic inflation. Haldane was right. The universe is probably queerer than we can imagine and certainly deeper than we can grasp. Our meager fictions must float in serene little bubbles lest they overrun our short impatient lives. There will never be a literature of reality.

The Myth of Sisyphus: Camus’s Absurd Prototype

the-myth-of-sisyphus-coverIn 1942, with World II raging, readers of The Myth of Sisyphus could easily identify with Camus’s absurd man. Not only is man absurd he has reduced his entire world to absurdity. Now, seventy-plus years later, Sisyphus readers are more likely to politely yawn and wonder what the fuss is about. Camus’s themes are not trivial or obvious but we, denizens of the early 21st century, are thoroughly habituated to them. Absurd is now beyond mainstream; how else can one explain facile growths like Facebook. Just like homosexuals kidnapped the word “gay” and changed its meaning Camus abducted “absurd” and changed its meaning. The old “absurd”, synonymous with ridiculous, nonsensical, ludicrous and preposterous, becomes, in Camus’s hands, something few would call absurd. But, part of a great writer’s job description is changing the meaning of words, and it’s easy to see why the best of us have become absurd men.

Camus’s absurd man is a thoroughly honorable creature. He respects reason and wants to understand all things. This is beyond his reach but he doesn’t claim it’s impossible, only that his own limits make it personally impossible. Perhaps you’ve vainly argued with scientific illiterates that assert evolution is wrong because they cannot see how it could work. If I don’t understand it then it cannot be understood. Absurd men recognize, but do not generalize, their limitations. Absurd men also see that in the long run absolutely nothing matters. In a thousand years all but the greatest of us will be forgotten, in a million years even the greatest will be forgotten, in a billion years only precision instruments will detect our remains and in a trillion years it will be like we never existed. Many red dwarf stars will still be shining long after every microscopic trace of humanity has disappeared. This is an inescapable scientific truth. It’s a terrifying banality that is often ignored or wrapped up in sky fairy nonsense. Yet, the absurd man faces cosmic futility without flinching or whining.

Instead of being crushed by a vast, difficult to comprehend, cosmos the absurd man soldiers on. He doesn’t curl up, go on food stamps, or complain about lurid Koch brother conspiracies. He gives a middle finger to his fate and then does what he can. Up yours universe: this is Camus’s revolt and, in our time, it’s a universal sentiment. This part of being absurd is easily faked; every brain-dead rapper and air-headed celebrity sports up-yours-airs, but absurd men do not play at revolt! They do their best to create without delusions and what idiot would claim celebrities are free of delusions? Many like to think cathedral masons were honoring god. Even in the Middle Ages this was delusional. Most were simply earning a living: if a pile of well-shaped rocks pleased god who knew or cared. Besides, in a geological blink, the same cathedral stones will weather to mud. Camus is very clear: absurd creation is self-consciously ephemeral.

Camus started The Myth of Sisyphus with what’s become his most famous line:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.

This is one exam question we all face. Cowards run and hide; they turn the knob to eleven and pop sweet — there’s an app for that — distractions. The religious create elaborate fantasies and declare war. Pure rationalists drag in Spinoza’s objects that long to persist in their being. They don’t commit suicide because that’s not part of their program. Ironically, only Camus’s absurd answer is remotely satisfying. In our lingo:  man-up, stop whining, pull your weight, don’t take crap, expect nothing, use your head and create. Any modern libertarian would approve.

sisyphus-rocking-itWhen casting the prototypical absurd man Camus brilliantly chose Sisyphus. Sisyphus put death in chains, claiming immortality for men, but vindictive and jealous gods freed death and condemned Sisyphus to roll a heavy stone to the top of a hill only to watch it crash down and roll it up again, and again — forever. This sounds awful but Camus saw Sisyphus’s fate as a blessing. Life sucks when you’re pushing your rock up the hill but when it rolls down you get a break. While climbing down Sisyphus has time to think, to absurdly create, and unlike poor doomed mortals, Sisyphus gets an eternity of breaks. This is an absurdly happy fate.

King Hobbit Kong

The pre-Hobbit hum was not harmonious. It started with the interminable legal battle over who would direct the Hobbit and how to split any spoils. After Peter Jackson’s cinematic Lord of the Rings triumph people assumed he would be The Hobbit guy but an envious and embittered clique of Tolkien’s heirs felt the weren’t getting enough for their stuff and filed suit demanding more. For some reason the spoiled progeny of the famous and accomplished think they’re entitled to feed on their glorious ancestor’s corpse — oops estate — forever. We’ve seen enough of this in the US with the idiot Kennedy clan: none of whom I would trust to drive or fly me anywhere. Even white-bread, holier than thou Canada, cannot shake this affliction. Look at Justin Trudeau — living on his father’s fame and full of it right up to his naturally curly eyebrows. Go back far enough and we all have glorious ancestors; unfortunately, this entitles us to precisely squat which, in a just universe, would constitute the sum total of royalties due to the current parasitic Tolkien generation.

Once the legalities settled and Jackson got control of the project ominous stories started swirling about “changes” to The Hobbit. One particularly disturbing rumor had Legolas making an appearance. Funny, I’ve read the Hobbit twice and missed him in the book! Whenever people start “improving classics” I get very wary. I’m sure the Hobbit screen writers are very smart and capable but they haven’t written a literary classic. If Legolas shows his pointy little ears in The Hobbit they should put bags over their heads and go into hiding for their own safety.

After the legalities and plot rumors the technology of The Hobbit made news. The Hobbit was shot at 48 frames per second: twice the standard rate. This was allegedly done to improve 3D projection. The biggest complaint about 3D movies, other than that they are 3D movies, is that they’re dim and fuzzy. Why this surprises anyone astonishes me. Hey, I’ve got an idea, let’s watch our three hundred million dollar movie through cheap, dark, optically flawed, polarized, throw-away plastic glasses. What could go wrong? The stupidity of hollyweirdos is boundless but what do you expect from Obama worshippers. It’s been claimed that 48 frames per seconds allows 3D projectors to present 24 frames per second to each eye and increase projection brightness, compensating for the those cheap dark glasses, without introducing an annoying flicker that plagues lower frame rates. We shall soon see if this is the case or just more Hollywood bullshit. Still, it would have been nice to test this technology on standard cinematic crap before subjecting classics to it.

Finally, if all of the above wasn’t enough, The Hobbit, by far the shortest of the famous Tolkien books, is being split into two, maybe three films, with the first installment running around three freaking hours. Wasn’t Jackson the guy that took a short, tight, beloved film classic, the original King Kong, and blew it up into a gigantic, tedious, overwrought, hemorrhoid inducing bore that was gutted in less than ten seconds by Robot Chicken! Yes the pre-Hobbit hum was not harmonious so I wasn’t expecting much when I plopped my discerning ass in my cinema seat and braced for The Hobbit.

Then three hours passed.

So what’s the verdict? I’ll try to do this without profanity. First a few warnings:

  1. If you have read and enjoyed The Lord of the Rings but haven’t read the Hobbit do not see this film until you have read the book! The book will not spoil the film but the film will spoil the book.
  2. If you’re a parent, looking to entertain your sucrose saturated children over the holidays, and you take them to The Hobbit, before they get a chance to read the book, you might as well go whole hog and tell them, there’s no Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny does not lay hardboiled colored eggs, the Tooth Fairy is mom and dad and little children don’t go to an imaginary heaven when they die; they’re just dead.

With that out-of-the-way I will publicly confess to enjoying the film labeled “The Hobbit.” Yes, my worst fears materialized on an epic scale. This is not, “The Hobbit,” but rather Hobbit inspired. So many artistic liberties were taken that I predict a rash of Hobbit, or not Hobbit, critiques will flood the intertubes. The story unfolds with a leaden, worst camping trip ever, pace and even the best scene in the movie, when Bilbo wins his riddle contest with Gollum and makes off with “the precious” ring is tedious. The famous time riddle comes across as a mood-lighting lighting aside and is so far removed from the brilliance of the book that it would have been better to just omit it, but you could say the same for at least half the scenes in this movie.

As I left the cinema surrounded by subdued teenagers, many of whom where commenting on how, “that wasn’t like the book,” I wondered who is this film for? Then it hit me. This is for the fantasy role-playing video game crowd. Many kids spend days immersed in these games. They’re used to laconic meandering pointless plot lines. This demographic will find the Hobbit tight, on plot, and will delight in the impressive special effects. Smaug does have beautiful eyes and I really enjoyed the wood trolls. I would have positively loved this film if the trolls had eaten the dwarves on the spot and then followed it up with a celebrity chef panel discussion. Maybe we’ll get lucky in Hobbit 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, ….

You've burnt the plot and added ingredients that the recipe didn't call for. This isn't Hobbit stew and you call yourself a chef.

You’ve burnt the plot and added ingredients that the recipe didn’t call for. This isn’t Hobbit stew and you call yourself a chef.