You May Begin To Feel Overload

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-01-07 13:00:00 No comments

There's this sample floating around the musical ether -- Hive used it in their song "Ultrasonic Sound"; and I think they got it from Crass's "Bomb plus Bomb Tape": During these films you may begin to feel overload ... There are times when, I imagine like many of you, I just sit there and feel crushed flat by the weight of everything going on. The little stuff and the big stuff alike. Feels like there's no difference between the threat of annihilation and the misery of a friend; they both just hurt.

What makes the pain bearable, what turns it into something that's at least not quite so painful, isn't running away from it or throwing one's self headlong into it, but something in between -- being able to look at it and understand it. It's the Václav Havel quote I come back to so often: hope isn't optimism, but the certainty that things will somehow make sense. And so we tell stories in the hopes that they will help us make sense of things, even if those stories aren't about anything that actually happened.

When I started writing, I didn't really understand how writing could be connected to anything of significance in my life. I was trying to impress people, that's all. It took a long time to move past just impressing people. Genji Press (and the thing Genji Press will turn into eventually) came about when I felt I'd milestoned myself into being more than just a showman.

Somewhere along the way, I figured out how to take the impulse to entertain and plug it into the need to make sense of things. If you wrap that up in a package people want to experience, they go in looking for a good time and they come back out the other end feeling like the world is a little less mad. They feel less overloaded, more connected. A woman who lives nearly half a world away from me once told me that reading Flight Of The Vajra was one of the few things that helped her keep it together when her life fell to pieces at her feet. The only answer I could give to an admission that humbling was, "You're welcome."

I'm skeptical of the idea that people who read more fiction are more empathic, but I believe completely in the idea that stories are how we make sense of the universe. I don't want to slide from that into some John Gardner-esque prescriptum about "moral fiction", which mostly manifested as scolding certain works for being something they were never meant to be. But I do want to make a case for storytelling, especially fantastic storytelling, as a way to make sense of worldly pain.

Smarter people than I have made the case for how science fiction and fantasy are really about this world, not the other ones they depict. The function of those stories isn't to predict the future, or even to imagine something different (although both of those are useful), but to project ourselves into them and ask, what do we do now? Emotional thought-experiments, I guess you could call them. And the more emotionally wise the author and reader, the more revelation and insight you get out the other end. Most of the material now produced in the isekai genre is total dumpster juice, and that's a shame, because we really do need good stories that have something to say about the feeling of being thrown bodily into a past, or a future, or a none-of-the-above, where everything we had before can't be taken with us. We need that because we're living in that right now, and the more imagination we can bring to the problem of what to do about it, the better. And the more we feed the young with such possibilities, the less they will feel inclined to assume this misery is a given and more inclined to kick against its pricks.

I say all this because even as I believe in it, and have seen evidence of its power, I know that it is not the entire picture. Eternal skepticism is the price of spiritual freedom, and I have long been skeptical of how much we can live our lives aesthetically rather than historically. Let me believe that good art can be part of how a better world is made, but try as I might, I remain uncertain of how much, or to what end. What good is a story in the face of a melting planet?

But that's the wrong way to frame the dilemma, as wrong as wondering what's the point of a beautiful poem when the south side of town is such an ugly place. The good of a story is to have something good in the world aside from the world itself melting, to have one more thing that isn't itself overload. Jonas Mekas did not believe the way you fought ugliness was by trying to put it on display and thus "neuter" it; you fought it by making lovely things, the better to outweigh the ugliness. You tell a story because it helps others make sense of things, and because you yourself make sense of things by telling it. And when so little offered to us helps us do that anyway, when the situation we are in is actively hostile to grace, then I say, I will take what I can get, and I will give whatever I can come up with.

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