Monday, December 26, 2016

Alternate Reality: Substituting Certainty with Doubt

Approximately twenty years before you began teaching at the University of Southern California, you were a participant in a promotional prank in which you, dressed in a yellow toga, and wearing a curly blond wig that made you look something like Harpo Marx, were tied to the beloved and iconic statue known to all loyal USC students and alumni as Tommy Trojan.

Your yellow toga was embroidered with the word Scop, which in its original usage, meant an Anglo-Saxon bard.  "The din of revelry and the scop's sweet song..." Beowulf

You were somewhere on the editorial ladder of Scop, the campus humor magazine, at the other end of Los Angeles, UCLA.  Scop was also an acronym for Southern Campus [of the University of California] Official Publication.

Scop and the USC humor magazine, Campus, indulged a profitable rivalry.  After you were tied to the statue of Tommy Trojan and doused with soda water spray from siphon bottles, you were offered towels from the USC gym and escorted to a station wagon that was property of the Associated Students of UCLA, where, with other members of the Scop staff, you drove toward the western quadrant of Los Angeles, where UCLA is still located. You never thought to return to the USC campus, much less with any notion you would teach classes there for so many years, meeting extraordinary students, remarkable-to-the-point-of absurdity faculty mates and, among these, many individuals who would become dear friends.

You also encountered administrators, including a major archaeologist, who sat through a number of your classes and became a close friend, a lieutenant dean who wrote a series of mystery novels in which you appeared as a detective from the Bronx Police Department, and another administrator who was upset with you for having engaged the dean of your school in a conversation about the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis, having discovered he was a linguist.

Nothing works so well as a reminder of the literary genre called alternate universe than a conversation about an experience you had, a place you visited, a book you read, a gathering you attended.  You listen with the interest of politeness to the individual with whom you're having the conversation.

Your degree of politeness is in direct proportion to your estimation of the individual with whom you converse; she or he could drop some detail or observation that will add to your own interpretation of the same experience, making it better or, possibly, quite worse if the other person appears to have got more out of the experience, seen more in its significance, taken away more from it that you.

The You of whom you speak is a veritable sponge and simultaneous Wikipedia of information, a veritable compendium of Jungian archetype, Freudian symbol, and the simultaneous exegesis of critics and observers from as far back as Aristotle to the more recent likes of Empson, Focault, Zinn, Suntag, and Didion. This is the You at top form, the You you are more often than not used to being.

More often than not is the key here; it is not a fix condition.

The downside of this acceptance of self is the vision manifesting itself in this theoretical conversation you're having with the strong possibility of envy, struggling to get beyond mere envy, then coalesce into Envy that the person with whom you engage this theoretical conversation is on so many levels a more accomplished viewer/reader/audience than you. "I was at the event of which you speak," the theoretical conversationalist has told you, "but I don't recognize any of the details you provide, nor do I interpret the various outcomes the way you do."

In summary, the conversation other appears to be saying, "I saw so much more than you did, much of it contrary to your vision, that I wonder if you were actually there.  Perhaps you got it second hand, say a newspaper report. Perhaps you heard a different account of it. Perhaps there are two books with the same title. 

Perhaps there was some strong coincidence such as Ed McBain using Jaberwocky in one of his titles, which would then cause it to appear that he had the idea of using that title in one of his titles long before you did, when the opposite is true (because he told you so)."

Each individual has the capacity to evoke a personal universe, a world filled with types of individuals, event, and outcomes reflecting how the world is to him or her. As an example exaggerated to demonstrate the range of its potential, the home furnishings, clothing sizes, and choices of personal possessions would be notably different were such items be in a universe orchestrated by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar than were they detailed by the actor Danny DiVito.

Each individual projects a discreet Reality, an alternate reality to all other realities, an alternate reality to yours. Sometimes, as when you read work as remarkable and textured as Philip Pullman's Golden Compass trilogy, you are deeply engaged, not only in the trials and tribulations of its protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, you are sent off on the speculative journey of a parallel universe set in a landscape close to the one where you taught for thirty-four years, the University of Southern California, where Philip Pullman has caused you to see, through his creation of Lyra Belacqua, the idiosyncrasies and otherness of a world you recognized as idiosyncratic and other, but in a patchwork quilt rather than any thematic throughline.

You continue to speak of the mystery novel as the one a beginning writer needs to study for the need to focus on the most serious matter at hand, the dramatic resolution of the crime triggering the onset of the story. But you must add something--a parallel or alternate universe something--to the equation by which you measure the effects of the universe upon you and the relative unlikely scenario by which you can have any effect on the universe unless, like the watched pot you sometimes watch as it comes to boil, the effect of you watching the universe will produce some result.

The alternate or parallel universe narrative helps us see the universe as the drop of water sees the ocean, simultaneously drawn to it while frightened by its enormity and, taking you back to those thirty-four years at USC, hard put to control your laughter at the memories of all that seriousness, braided with all that self-importance and otherness.

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