Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Uncertainty? Certainly Not.

Stories or games with certain outcomes are neither memorable nor exciting.  Their hold on our attention and curiosity are minimal, the likelihood we will read anything of metaphorical or symbolic content into them is negligible.

Games that move into extra innings or overtime become memorable reminders that final outcomes often develop on some accident or fluke.  Stories involving clashes of opponents who appear evenly matched have the added advantage of reminding us how disappointing predicability is in story.  We thrive on uncertainty, aware on some level that Reality has been misrepresented to us in so many ways.

At various times in our life, we set out on the equivalents of wander years, learning from first-hand observation the true anonymous, impersonal nature of the universe, simultaneously learning from observation certain basic laws of physical properties.  Our mistake is trying to conflate the two.

On some occasions, an early bird may get a worm, but not so often as we are led to think.  There are times when being forewarned is a valuable commodity, but there are as many times, in particular when the warning source is not reliable, when being forewarned advances group paranoia and conspiracy theory.  Sometimes a bird in hand may well be worth two in the bush, but on other occasions a bird in hand might result in being bitten.

During these wander year equivalents in which we hone our powers of observation and discrimination, we stumble over the discovery that some stories are simplistic learning experiences, meant to teach us some basic and idealized social or ethical value that may not hold up under closer scrutiny, might in fact be formula and certain outcomes in disguise.  We learn to separate these stories from the pack, then lead them to the barn or stable where fables,legends, and myths are kept.

The more those of us who read continue to read, and the more those of us who write continue to read and write, the more we are able to discriminate between the story and the propaganda packaged as story, perhaps even coming to a plateau of cynicism, which seems at first blush to have been as far as we need to go.

Although do not consider yourself a cynic, you have been one and were happy to have been so, thinking yourself freed from the constraints of the cultural fairy tales and myths with which you felt yourself slowed down.  Aware of cultural myths and their hold on you, you spent time reading, thinking, and writing away from the inevitability of cultural normative behavior, the saber-tooth tiger complacent at having avoided the La Brea Tar Pits.

Being all cynical is as bad as being all accepting.  There was still this large streak of optimism you found, emptying out your pockets from time to time, and this was to say nothing of the tendencies you had toward romanticism and small pockets of mysticism.

The clues lay embedded in your reading and writing, like the Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring and Captain Midnight Decoder Badge of your youth.  Having these devices close at hand, you began to see that the things you wished to put in code were more or less doomed to remain on code, but things you put into story needed not so much special devices as much as they needed individuals such as yourself to read them, applying cynicism, detachment, curiosity but also optimism and, even better than optimism, acceptance.  The brand of acceptance you sought was not the acceptance of being overwhelmed or of defeat, rather the acceptance of uncertainty.

Story runs best on uncertainty.  Knowing what a character will do removes some of the fun in reading and writing.  Thinking you know what a character will do, then allowing that character to have the equivalent of borrowing the family car is the acceptance that speaks to your overall regard for surprise and exploration rather than rigidity and control.

Much is made of athletes performance rations, points scored, hits per times at bat, elapsed time in swimming laps or running or biking distances.  Innings pitched, games saved, assists.

Less is made of the number of successful experiments achieved by a scientist against the metric of total experiments.  Artists are expected to have somehow transcended failure and rejection, arriving in mystical state at being not only artist but as well, a professional artist.

But nothing has really changed for the professional or near professional.  Each has arrived through a series of experiments, failures, near misses, and some successes, the rich irony being the difficulty often present in distinguishing any of these activities from any of the others.

We relish uncertainty in stories because we recognize uncertainty in ourselves, our friends, our family, and those we meet on a less intimate basis.  The Heisenberg uncertainty principal says in effect that certain properties of a particle, such as position and momentum, may be seen and followed, but the more the focus becomes on one, the less the information of the other is available or reliable.

Story thrives on such anomaly.  Story involving characters with arguing inner goals or directives make excellent additions to story.  There is in effect a quantum physics of story, and in that physics, the greater the uncertainty of outcome and the effect of the outcome on one or more characters, the more meaningful and personal the story becomes.  The clearer and more predictable the outcome, the more inconsequential and forgettable the story.

All well and good for the understanding to be had, an understanding that reminds us of and applauds our recognition and acceptance of the uncertainty within ourselves.  Learning when we are uncertain is more meaningful and lasting than learning from certainty and smugness.

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