Friday, September 26, 2008

Pyramids, Epitaphs, and Apologies In Amber

"If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are gone, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing."

Benjamin Franklin

There are many different sorts of blogs - political, special interests, online diaries, and the omnipresent catblogging. :-)

I cannot speak for all, but as for me...

I'll blog on many things, and even have different blogs for different reasons.

But, what I like best is just telling stories. Some of them are even true. :-)

While most of the stuff you're reading here is completely true, some of it is completely made up, and some of it is an amalgam of fact and imagination, with the proportions depending on my mood, and estimation of what makes a better story.

I'm not going to let the facts get in the way of a good story. Some stories are too good not to be true, and create their own reality.

In some of his later novels, Robert Heinlein wrote of a theory concerning the author as a creative force in the universe; that as stories were written, universes were created in which that story was "real."

This is not as outlandish as it may seem at the first glance.

Which person is more "real," any of the nameless billions that have gone to their graves, unheralded, unremembered, as lost to us today as if they had in fact never existed, or, say, Captain Ahab, Romeo, or Odysseus?

In one sense, an anonymous 11th century peasant is more real, as we can be sure that she did in fact share in the same sort of fleshly existence we now do. We most certainly wish to believe that we are real, do we not?

But we can know no more than that about her, or any of those lost ones. We are forced to, like an author of fiction, to imagine the details of her life; her plot and her character, even her very name, are as much a creative work as any of Homer's. (Or perhaps even more so, as we can reasonably surmise that there was a Helen and a Paris and the whole rest of that crew)

As your imagination of her will be different from mine, or the next person's, and so on, her "reality" is not fixed, but amorphous. She becomes no more than a tabula rasa for our imagination.

So in what way is her existence real? She has no way of now influencing us; she is as irretrievably barred from affecting today's news as if she were on the other side of the event horizon of a black hole. (I know Hawking now claims that some stuff does in fact escape, but allow me my metaphor, OK? Thanks.)

Meanwhile, we are moved to weep for Romeo, rejoice with Odysseus as he triumphs over his foes and reclaims his home, and marvel at Ahab's iron will. Their stories, their characters, and those of the thousands of other people that never "lived," save in the life of the mind, first of their creator, then in his readers, continue to move and instruct us, shaping our way of thinking, and thus our way of life.

One of my favorite passages in all of literature is from Ahab as he challenges the gods, and mocks them in their inability to influence him, because as a man, he possesses free will...

"Swerve me? Ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! Man has ye there. Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run."

The first time I read that, as a teen, I was still too young to fully appreciate all the layers of meaning in those lines and the complete passage in which they are found, but even then it inspired me to live my life in accordance with my will, not that of a god I had already ceased to believe existed, or a culture that, given free rein, would be happy to dictate my life's path.

Some will argue that it is in actuality Melville, and not Ahab, that continues to have real power to move us today. That seems reasonable.

But if we are to argue that a creation, be it Ahab, or you, or me, has no independent intrinsic existence, but is just an artifact, a secondhand manifestation of the creator, where, in fact, does that leave us? For if that is true, then we ourselves have no more reality than Ahab does, for we must be the product of some creative force, whichever label your personal beliefs may want to pin upon it, so once again, Ahab's "realness" is as valid as our own.

This leads us to an uneasy conclusion. For our lives, our reality, to continue after we have shuffled off this mortal coil, we must somehow have the ability for our existence to have mattered, or, at the very least, to have it be remembered.

This is the force that motivates wealthy men to donate millions of dollars to charitable foundations, with their name attached to it, that caused ancient kings and causes modern men to erect great civic monuments with their names and deeds engraved upon them, and why, on a much smaller scale, we put names on the headstones of our graves. So that we will not become one of Orwell's "unpersons," erased from history, our lives washed away by the passage of time.

To return at last, like Odysseus after decades of wandering, to our subject, I think that is why we write our blogs, and why, more than anything else, we fill them with the details of our lives.

It's been said that once something has been put on the internet, it is impossible to remove. This is true. Were I to completely erase this this blog, it would till be around in search engine caches, on the backup tapes of the web servers, and, since you're reading this, on your machine, too.

There is every reason to believe that it will be around as long as our species is alive and kicking. Given that we finally get up off our lazy duffs and colonize space, so that when Ellie comes around to give the planet a mortal conk on the noggin, she misses some of us, that could very well prove to be, for all practical purposes, eternity.

This is an entirely new thing in the human experience; the average Joe now has a chance to commit his thoughts and his life to paper, err... electrons, and have a reasonable assurance that they will be around for many generations to come. Even my pets will have the chance to have a durable epitath that will far outlast the pyramids of even the mightiest Pharaoh.

We are the mayflies of the universe. As long as life may seem to us in a subjective sense, we are here and gone again in less than a blink on a galactic timescale. We know this in our hearts, and there is in humans some primordial need to shout "Hey, look at me! Remember me! I was here once! This is what I was like!" out into the eternal void, and hope that someone eons down the road will hear our faint voices.

I confess it to be one of my primary motivations. I don't expect I'll be making millions of dollars to endow an university or charitable trust. These entries, and maybe a few pictures will most likely be all that remain of me a century from now.

I don't think that's the prime reason, though. There is another that spurs me each day to write.

As my life has turned out, I have a daughter that does not live with me, and has not for years. It is unlikely that we will ever even live in the same state before she is an adult.

I sometimes think of this site as an extended letter to her, something for her to read after she is grown, an explanation, perhaps even an apology, for the way the twists and turns of life have taken us away from each other, and a way for her to come to know me in a way that few of us ever get to know our parents.

I had so many dreams about my fatherhood, of being there to help with her homework, to teach, to make her laugh, to play games, to help her through those tough adolescent years, to sing with her and watch over her at night.

The reality is different. I watch her life as through a telescope, from afar, and our time together is telescoped into a few days each year around holidays and such, and talks on the phone that do more to drive home the vastness of the gulf that divides us than they do to bridge it.

Perhaps someday this can be that bridge, and I can become more real to her, so that she will not have to resort, as we do in contemplating that long dead and forgotten peasant woman, to clothing the bare bones of my life with the fanciful flesh of her dreams.

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