Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Worlds of If

The most popular meaning of the word "if" relates to a supposed premise, an "in the event that," or "let us assume the following premise exists." Thus, when Mr. Herman Melville presents us with his now legendary character, he is telling us that if we were to accept the reality of a character  he has named Ishmael, here is how that Ishmael would present himself to us.

We who read stories have no trouble taking the imaginary individual at the full value of his reality--until he begins telling us in some extended detail the reality of whale hunting, at which point many of us begin turning pages in search of a more fanciful universe. This condition has been given the name "irony," which itself seems to be the pole star of storytelling.

In one way or another, all stories begin with the concept of "if," which translates to a segment of a logical equation: If such a character were to exist, this is what she or he would sound like, long for, and attempt to accomplish. 

In the event the storyteller is successful, we--that is, those of us who read, less because we can than because we have to--have somehow managed to conflate the desires and agendas of the protagonist with our own desires and agendas.

This transference of agenda can cause us, whether consciously or not, to feel superior to the sports fan or gambler, where identity is transferred to a shorter term outcome, the turn of a card, the roll of dice, the final score of a game. We readers, smug in our superior emotional tuning are content to let the sports fan or gambler have their momentary outcome. We feel a kinship with lovers of music, of dance, of the visual and fluid art, where an outcome--say the famed Sydney Opera House of New South Wales, Australia--seems a glorious and significant outcome.

We understand the problems of trying to rate and categorize glorious and significant outcomes; often we do so at risk of the logical fallacy involved in comparing oranges to lemons. To invoke another device of logic, we who gravitate to story suspend our disbelief of the if-proposition each time reinvest our appreciation in some narrative. We do so for the range of emotional and aesthetic outcomes and, to a lesser extent, because we crave aesthetic outcomes that winning at cards or experiencing identity with a winner when our team wins fails to provide.

We comfort ourselves with the certainty that we, as readers, have the greater potential for appreciating the shape and placement and sound dynamics inherent in the Sydney Opera House than gamblers or fans of a sports team. But there is no certainty that our logic is correct or that, indeed, an imaginative architect or ballerina or composer of music are not, if we ask them, fans of a sports team or, for that matter, adverse to an occasional hand of twenty-one.

The greater certainty is the joy, starting down at the lower chakras, working its way toward the head when we invoke and identify with if. If allows us to leave whatever constraints hold our dreams, agendas, and imaginations hostage within the cage of our body, reminding us of the ransom exacted for all those moments we spend negotiating Reality.

This is not to say we want the easy way out when we take refuge in our if; far from it. When we enter the worlds of if, whether we know it or not, we're taking on a greater, more intense set of risks than we take by engaging Reality. Here in Reality, there are outcomes to face with the arrival of each new day, including the risk a few of your friends have failed at by having the great temerity to die in their sleep.

To read fiction is a test, to see if we can survive and flourish in an alternate universe where, if we have dreams and persistence, we could possibly design a rival to the Sydney Opera House in New South Wales. Failing that, we could fail in a fall that outdid Icarus, providing, of course, there really was an Icarus.


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