Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Writing a modern Epic

One theme I am interested in exploring in my creative writing is higher consciousness presented through mythos in a manner that is easy to read.

Stories and movies in areas of my interest - fantastical fiction (on Wikipedia this is called Speculative fiction) - tend either to be very bleak and dark (horror genre in various forms), rationalistic (hard SF), pseudo-medieval (fantasy), or scientifically ridiculous (superheros). While I have no problems with any or all of the above genres, which can certainly be included to add spice and tension to the story, none constitute the themes of gnosis and empathy that are central to my present book The Integral Paradigm. A third theme, evolution, is certainly part of hard SF and especially transhumanist and singularitan philosophy, which is why these things interest me. But what about Divinization, as taught by Sri Aurobindo?

In short, mythos in popular culture tends to be at the level of the surface consciousness, the emotional being (romantic and wish-fulfillment), the mental being (especially rational as in SF), and the lower and most grotesque aspects of the astral (as in horror, crime, and other morbid subjects).

In the old days, attempts to describe the Transcendent through mythos (story-telling) rather than logos (philosophy) involved epic poetry and mythological tales of gods and so on. Good examples are the Hindu Mahabharata (which includes the Bhagavad Gita, the most revered work of mystical literature in Hinduism) and the Christian Bible. All of these were presented as objective fact. Hence it was believed as literal truth (and often still us) that Krishna picked up a mountain, Jesus ascended bodily to heaven, and so on. Since then, human consciousness has moved on, and religious fundamebntalism is no longer credible (except to fundamentalists)

Sri Aurobindo sought to present his insight of the Supreme (and Divinization - the Supramental Transformation) through the medium of epic poetry, taking the old Hindu legend of Savitri and updating it. The result is a profound work, considered by many to be Sri Aurobindo's graetest, but, like almost all of his material, written in a heavy 19th century style of Romanticism that makes it almost impossible for the non-devotee and no0n-scholar to read, especially if, like me, you don't have an aptitude for poetry.

Are there then examples of epic mythoi that are accessible to the modern, attention-deficit, early 21st century mind?

Well, here we should distinguish between two types of mythoi, the old, cyclic Myth of the Hero (Joseph Campbell), and the newer form of evolutionary and Integral transformation (Divinization) described in Transhumanism (on the secular level) and by Sri Aurobindo (on the sacred level).

In the cyclic cosmology, the hero's role is to restore and renew the world to its romantic ideal (but not radically change it). For example, Tolkein's ''Lord of the Rings'' (the origin of the entire High Fantasy genre), George Lucas' ''Star Wars'' trilogy (a reinventing of the classic Space Opera; but we can forget the embarresing and disappointing prequels, which all but destroyed the mythic grandeur of the Star Wars universe), and the Walchalskii brothers' ''Matrix trilogy'' (this latter being, along with Peter Jackson's Tolkein adaptation, one of the greatest movie stories of our age, imho).

Science fiction, through the work of the famous trio of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, broke away from the old cyclic mythology, with a new mythos of rationality, which was the beginning of the grand tradition of Hard SF. This is continued by modern SF writers, including the so-called "killer Bs" of David Brin, Greg Bear, and Gregory Benford, along with other hard SF writers like Greg Egan (why are so many SF writers called Greg?), Larry Niven, Kim Stanley Robinson, and many others.

Brin has been very critical of the old mythic-cyclic stories; to quote his Wikipedia page:

"Brin also wrote a number of articles criticising several science-fiction and fantasy series, including Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings. On Star Wars Brin focused on what he called George Lucas's "agenda", describing how he saw the basis of the Star Wars universe as profoundly anti-democratic. These essays inspired a debate-format book: Star Wars On Trial which clashed "defense vs prosecution" testimony covering a dozen political and philosophical and storytelling charges against the Star Wars Universe. Brin also criticised The Lord of the Rings for what he perceived to be their unquestioning devotion to a traditional elitist social structure, their positive depiction of the slaughter of the opposing forces, and their romantic backward-looking worldview."

This is a good example of "culture war" (or clash of ideas) - the premodern or Traditional (Tolkein, Lucas) vs the Modern (Brin). I am reminded of the cultural-evolutionary stages described by writers like Jean Gebser and, more recently, Ken Wilber and Steve McIntosh.

So if there is premodern/cyclic and modern/rational/evolutionary, there would also be a future stage that could be called integral, or evolutionary-divinization (however it is so simplistically linear, because all these stages also evolve in parallel, they are archetypal structures of consciousness)

So far, two modern evolutionary-divinization sets of epics stand out.

The more recent and better known is Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey novel and movie; the movie (directed and co-written by Stanley Kubrick) I felt was better than the novel, the novel reads in a bland and dry style. Some might add Clarke's Childhood's End, but I found the premises and conclusion of that story somewhat chilling, and in any case Teilhard de Chardin says it better, and Sri Aurobindo says it even better again!

The other (and more imaginative) are the the novels of Olaf Stapledon - Last and First Men and Star Maker (or Nebula Maker); which date from the 1930s. Along with Russian Cosmism, Stapeldon represents the beginning of Transhumanist ideal of future evolution beyond the current limited human condition.

Neither Stapledon nor Clarke have much day to day character deveolpment in their stories, so they are not epic mythoi at the level of Tolkein, Lucas, or the Walchowskiis. And it is that level of personal intimate writing taht interest me most. Without it, stories become cold, overly-cerebral, and unintersting, except as purely intellectual ideas. When we look at the classic mythic epics of Homer or Vyasa (the legendary author of the Mahabarata), we find a lot of gritty personalities, who are also larger than life, much like modern Hollywood movies, and for that amtter that Eisenhorn book I'm reading. And that is what really makes a mythic epic. The characters.

This then is the challenge, how to integarte the personal with the transpersonal, as is required in such a story. And that is where the real skill of epic writing lies.

No comments:

Post a Comment