The problem is about stories in general. But I wanted to stick to an area that I know more about.
I was thinking about Harry Potter. You know, the story we all know and love. And it got me thinking about how much of my value system is inadvertently defined by that book.
I have an insistence of giving people second chances, sometimes beyond what is reasonable. I was wondering where I could have gotten that idea. This sort of irrational trust in humanity is definitely not reinforced by reality. So why was it that I was so consumed by this notion?
It was pointed out to me recently that it is probably because I read too much Harry Potter as a kid. That is when it clicked: Harry Potter is indeed why I give people second (or even 51st) chances. Throughout the books (Spoiler Alert!), all the good guys have an irrational trust in people. Sometimes, even when everyone in the world has a reason to not trust a given person.
The most obvious example is Snape, where Rowling trolls the readership twice with the same gambit. The first time in book one and the second in book seven. Both times, showing how Dumbledore was right to trust a guy that no one else would. The Potters trust their friends. All of the order of the Phoenix trust each other. It is really a rosy picture.
But it also got me thinking about how it all works out for everyone in the novel, in the end. Yes, people die. But the good guys win.
I don’t have a problem with that. The problem, for me, is this: How they win. They win because in harry potter, love is the strongest force.
Isn’t that convenient? Harry Potter seems to get into all of his trouble by seemingly normal, non-magical actions. But he gets saved magically. Deceit doesn’t get magical powers, anger does not. No emotion except love gets a bonus strength. That’s not a fair fight.
Let us remove the power of love from the framework of the Potterverse. What would happen then?
Well, nothing good. Harry Potter and his family are murdered when he is a baby. Everyone dies, Voldemort wins.
How is that for a rosy picture?
For all that I like about Harry Potter, this seems like a flaw. Why did JK give love the magical power? It seems to imply that without the intervention of a magical Deus Ex Machina, the good guys could never win.
It got me thinking about other fantasy universes, the good guys always get a magical bonus to make sure that the good side wins. Let’s take a non-western fantasy story, one without the ‘chosen-one’ prophecy. For this, I take the example of the manga “One-Piece” where, like most shonen manga, the story is all about hard work.
But even here, it seems to me that the protagonist can achieve ridiculous amounts of strength through hard work. In the real world, 10 people can’t possibly take on a world government. Swords, can’t really stop bullets. Fists, can’t stop swords. Having a strength of will can’t make people faint by sheer presence. So the Dues Ex Machina here is hard work.
Let us look at religious mythology. The good guys have God on their side. Isn’t that convenient the literal Dues Ex Machina (Latin: God From the Machine)? What good is a virtue if it cannot survive on its own?
As I said earlier, this problem transcends the genre of Fantasy. It is merely where I first noticed the problem. Look at Sherlock Holmes, he gets super-intelligence on his side to make sure he wins.
If having a virtue is such an obvious weakness, none of it should exist at all. I am not arguing that ethical behavior is infinitely beneficial, but on a societal level, if ethical behavior didn’t help a species survive at all, it would most likely not evolve or die out completely. So on some scale of population ethical behavior is probably beneficial.
So, if it is not always a handicap, why don’t we reflect this in our stories more often? I honestly don’t know.
I have some guesses, though. We all start with a juvenile idea of how the world should work. And as we grow, we see that ethics is not always strictly an advantage. We over-react to this realization by exaggerating this in our stories. We make the good guys so weak that only divine intervention, magic or some other plot device has to save them.
Conflict makes for good stories. We all like to think that we can transcend our mortal limitations and that when we face an impossible problem, a Dues Ex Machina will save us. But reality, as always, doesn’t care about what we want. It just is, what it is.
This is where one starts to resonate with Ramadeer Singh from the movie Gangs of Wasseypur: “Is desh me jab tak cinema hai. Log c*****e bante rahenge”. (As long as there are movies in this country, people will keep acting like idiots.) This has truth to it. But I would like to generalize and rephrase this message.
It appears to me stories are how humans explain metaphysical concepts to each other. Ethics is one important example of such a concept. Moral Fables have existed as long as time (No, not literally). A lot of existential philosophy has also been explored through stories. From Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” or Camus’ “The Stranger”. Stories are how we often illustrate our philosophies and models of reality. This is why we love telling and listening to them.
But when the philosophies and models are deficient or incomplete, (as they almost always are), these get reflected in the stories we tell. I don’t think it is possible to reject stories as Ramadheer Singh puts forth. After all, he too is a character from a story. But what I consider important, is to be able to build better, more useful tales. So that a better understanding of reality can emerge.
This brought me to yet another question: ‘How do we decide if a story is good as is, or if it needs to be updated to reflect new empirical evidence’. Your first response might be in favor of empiricism and reflecting absolute reality. After all, anything else would be delusional. And for the most part, I am not in favor of people deluding themselves.
But what about circumstances where ethical behaviour is a serious and considerable disadvantage to the individual, but for the benefit of society at large (or a more long-term benefit to the individual) What makes an individual ethical in that circumstance, if not some deluded idea of some force behind the ethic that would help him so long as they believed in it?
The belief in one’s own superhuman intellect like Sherlock Holmes, one’s own hard work like Luffy, or a God archetype makes individuals value society/ long-term good over hedonism. Even if, in reality, hardworking individuals do die in random car accidents, Intellect can fail to account for the unpredictable and a God will not save you from a chasing leopard. The belief in being able to bring order to existence, is of value. Even when it seems to have serious limitations.
But, I can hear you object, why would I value fictitious delusions at all. I don’t know. But a sad story does have a psychological impact on individuals. And people feel real emotions for fictitious characters when they watch a movie. The existence of religions proves the psychological effect that a story can have on people’s minds and behavior.
So, are delusional ideas of virtue important? In the end, it boils down to what one’s view of humanity is: Without these beliefs would humans still behave ethically? If yes, then, a story should completely reflect reality with all it’s chaos truly manifested in them. If not, then you’d want more heroic stories, one where the virtue has a convenient plot device helping it.
Campbell’s seminal work, “The hero of a thousand faces” seems to suggest that the human mind is particularly receptive to a very specific hero archetype. He talks about the different stages of a journey for the hero character that is found across stories, cultures, myths and religion. So I wonder if there is some evolutionary purpose to it? Maybe.
Either way, I don’t know what’s the right answer. So far the best I have been able to come up with is this: To be compassionate of some kinds of delusions, but to expose oneself voluntarily to controlled amounts of chaos and disorder in the world. To use this exposure to develop coping skills. We all need to be swaddled in the metaphorical bubble wrap as we are young and isolated from the world in a familial bubble. But in the real world, it seems more useful to have the skills to cope with chaos, than delude oneself into hoping that one would never encounter it.
The human mind may never be capable of understanding all aspects of reality at once. But what we don’t know can and often will hurt us. So it is much more useful to try as much as possible to reduce our domain of ignorance. It is a tough needle to thread, It is often tempting to either judge another for their ignorance, and on the other hand, choosing complete ignorance. But it has to be done, a controlled exposure to increasing doses of chaos seems the only available strategy.
Sorry about the extremely speculative article this time around. This is a topic that has been on my mind a lot lately. And I have tried to lay out the process I used to think about this problem to the best of my ability. Chances are, that I got a few things wrong. I feel I may have missed something obvious here. If so, do let me know!
A lot of you send me interesting articles that add to, contradict or support some of the notions I have put forth. And they have been valuable in the past. So once I had a reasonably coherent presentation of this, I decided to put it up and get your thoughts.
Update: Still a little irregular on the schedule. Hope you guys understand! I’m still figuring this all out! And it is more a hobby-blog at this point so, I am not always able to give it the time I want to. Do keep checking the site once in a while, I will keep posting.
Many of my readers like to binge the blog. So in the meantime, maybe you can check out some of my earlier posts. Feel free to go back to the first post and scroll through them all (the calendar in the sidebar should help)! Here are some of the popular ones though:
Sports: The Best Thing Ever!
A Poem for Diwali
Textiquette: We all text let’s do it better!
Kitchen Chemistry: Milk
Dissecting ‘Socha Hai’
Bad Movie vs No Movie
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