Last week I wrote at length about image overload vis-à-vis a portrait of Dave Winfield I drew when I was a teenager. The point wasn’t merely to note that the information age has altered how artists parse the world, though it has, but to get at this notion about how wisdom and magic co-exist on a sliding scale; that wisdom might be seen as the accumulation of information, while magic, conversely, arises in the vacuum of concrete information.
I continued to bounce the idea around as I got sucked into M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” last weekend. (Spoiler alert: perfunctory twist-ending soon to be disclosed.) In the film, a group of town Elders convinces the villagers that supernatural lurk in the surrounding forest. To bring the point home Liam Neeson dons a monster costume haunts the woods, and in the process cements psychic control over the town. Toward the end of the film a young woman is instructed by the Elders to brave the forest in order to retrieve needed medical supplies. The drama ramps up as she scrambles anxiously through the woods, until she reaches a wall, where on the other side a park ranger waits in a modern 4 x 4 vehicle. And, gotcha! Well, got me at least.
It’s a clever misdirection. But more than being a cute cinematic trick, “The Village” happens to be an apt metaphor for my two basic philosophies about the relationship between wisdom and magic: 1) a fundamentalist philosophy in which information leads to wisdom and 2) a relativist philosophy that conserves information in the service of fantasy and magic.
The Fundamentalist believes truth and information shall set one free; the more information transferred, the closer one is to truth.
The Relativist holds that truth and information should be dispensed discriminately, but the right information, at the right time, in the right doses, approximates truth.
Some notable fundamentalists (based on my own interpretation, of course):
Jean Paul Sartre
Mr. Ramsay from Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”
Judd Nelson’s parents in the “The Breakfast Club”
Some notable relativists:
Liam Neeson as Town Elder in “The Village”
Colonel Nathan R. Jessup from “A Few Good Men”
The headmaster in “Dead Poet’s Society”
Mrs. Ramsay from Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”
Guy Pearce in “Memento”
Molly Ringwald’s parents in “The Breakfast Club”
Several weeks ago, while I was communing with my wholesome Lake Wobegon-esque in-laws—fishing off piers, roasting s’mores in fire pits, telling wholesome jokes lifted from Laffy Taffy wrappers—I caused a stir by dropping the t-bomb: I told a story about a transvestite around the children.
Children are curious, and the questions came fast.
“What’s a twans fest eye?”
“Are you a transfestite?”
My aunt gave me the head-tilt and hushed voice tsk tsk. She said it barbeque-style: slow and low.
“That’s a F-O-R-B-I-D-D-E-N word!”
Having a few beers in me, I dug in.
“Is it the word, the concept, or the act that’s taboo?”
“All of the above, they’re just too young to be saying the word.”
“So it’s the word itself with the magical powers?”
“So you wouldn’t mind if I taught them about transvestite culture, as long as I didn’t use any banned words?”
“C’mon Shane. We just think it’s mature content that they shouldn’t be exposed to at this age. That’s all.
“He knows he’s a boy, and that his sister is a girl. What’s so extra mature about the notion of ambiguity?”
I plowed forward like a fullback.
“So if the cultural aspects are off limits, could I talk about transgender as a biological issue?”
I could see the adults were getting frustrated so I let go of the throttle.
Ambiguous gender was an unsavory topic limited to adults. End of discussion.
My adult company were information relativists and believed information should be withheld from children in order to carve out a proper fantasy. For the safety and well being of society, they choose to put unspeakable monsters in the woods and keep the transvestites in the cities.
I normally fall on the “truth-shall-set you-free” side of things, but as I continued to chew on the idea of image overload and of the state of magic, I reran a vision of my young nephew walking outside the cabin with his fishing pole and a cup of night crawlers, muttering “trans-fest-eye” under his breath. He put on his life vest, sat on the edge of the pier and fished patiently until he caught a tiny small-mouth bass. He ran back into the cabin ecstatically, recklessly swinging the fish and demanding that it to be on the evening’s dinner menu. Before we could dislodge the hook, someone was slyly on the way to the market to buy enough fish to feed 17 people. Even right now, my nephew thinks his 4-inch fish somehow produced 10-times its edible flesh. We all sat at a long communal picnic table that night praising his catch and smacking our chops as if it was the best fish anyone had every consumed. Each family member fought to lay it on thicker than the next until my nephew was intoxicated and dizzy with fake praise.
The image was almost too Norman Rockwell to trust, too Mayberry to believe my memory of it was reliable. Saccharine-sweet with an aftertaste of something fishy. Or was it fishy with an aftertaste of saccharine? It was something like reality, anyway. But a reality created through control.
Funny, “a reality created through control”—that’s not a bad definition of art.
A wise man once said that a map of something that is exactly the same size and detail of what it is mapping ceases being a map. It’s true; sometimes having all the information in the world isn’t as redeeming or as useful as having a little bit of it well edited.
The ultimate question then is: when one goes seeking truth, does one try to grasp reality all at once, or does he start with a map?