Drunk on the milk of paradise: The spell of the story, and the works of Pratchett, Holt, Fforde and Jones

by John MacBeath Watkins

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

-- from Kubla Khan, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798

The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, William Blake

In our series on the strangeness of being human, we've discussed, among other things, the seductive way stories shape us, the power of language to shape our thinking, and the flight from meaning by some 20th century writers.

One theme I'm seeing in some of the more playful literature is a self-consciousness about stories. I've just re-read Open Sesame, a comic fantasy novel by Tom Holt in which many of the characters are trying to escape from escapist literature (Ali Babba and the 40 thieves) into reality.

Holt is following in the comic fantasy steps of Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld universe is composed in part of the element narativium, which cases everything to turn into stories. And of course, Jasper Fforde's Tuesday Next stories are about a police woman who goes into texts, becomes part of the world of the story she's read herself into, and has to foil the villain who has discovered that by going into the manuscript of a novel, he can change the story in all the books containing that story.

Diana Wynn Jones approaches this in more subtle way. In The Spellcoats, the main protagonist is a girl who can weave a story into a rug coat, creating an enchantment that can change the real world if the right spirit wears it. It is an allegory about the power of stories, rather than the more obvious approach the other authors I've named have used. All are playful in their approach to the problem. (Jones, by the way, was always published as a juvenile author, but I've noticed she is usually bought and read by adults.)

Contrast this with the flight from meaning that was such a powerful theme through much of the 20th century. Once the power of language began to be understood, some thinkers began to cry Beware! Beware!

From one of Samuel Beckett's letters:
Let us hope the time will come, thank God that in certain circles it has already come, when language is most efficiently used where it is being most efficiently misused. As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it – be it something or nothing – begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today.
 And, of course, Belgian Jacques Derrida worried about the "violent hierarchy" of signified over signifier, and Louis Althusser worried that the structure of language dictates what we can think.

These sincere efforts to do something with the insight that language is powerful, that it gives us the categories that we use to think, seem to me like a dead end. Inherent in Althusser's fear of the power of language and the structure of society it encompasses is the assumption that language is a prison.

But language can change. We change it by using it, playing with it, imagining new meanings for old words and inventing new coinages. The playfulness of writers like Pratchett, Holt, Fforde and Jones means they are not taken as seriously as the severely depressed Louis Althusser or the deliberately obscure Derrida, but they are doing with language and with memes what humans have always done, played with them and learned through play, which is the main way mammals learn.

It is as if the early pioneers, such as Ferdinande de Saussure, made the discovery of language's power, the next intellectual wave was a reaction of horror and fear, mixed with a desire to rebel -- "language, you are not the boss of me!" -- and we are now seeing people comfortable enough with the notion to play with it and laugh about it. I suspect we will learn more from those who play with the notion than we have from those who rebelled against the power of language. After all, language is a tool we created, and one we are not eager to abandon.

And it is not so easy to rebel against a tool. Beckett's attempts to undermine language fell into the trap he probably feared, that anything you can communicate through language is within the box called language. He did not escape it, he just enlarged the box, which is what creative people do.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self