Saturday, April 17, 2010

Getting the Magic Eight Balls Rolling

Last night's tweets;

Old plastic holds gelatinous water.
Endurance is built by light illusion.
Gargoyle tape worms are joined by solder.
Castle parasite electrocution.

I finally found out why the first edition of War and Peace I'd started reading was abridged--in the latter portion of the book, it begins to alternate between the fictional story and sections of straight philosophical essay. Princess Alexandra Kropotkin, the translator of the first version I read, had chosen to omit the essay sections, and I must admit I see the sense in the omission. The essays feel fundamentally disconnected from the story, and are even distracting--the epilogue is evenly divided between a story section in the first half and an essay section in the latter, and I had to go back and reread the end of the story portion because I wanted to get the note on which the story ends.

Which isn't to say that the essays are uninteresting or even irrelevant to what's going on. I was reminded of the standard, creative writing wisdom that says, "Show, don't tell," which is something I don't universally agree with. Especially when telling is showing, whether it's through the words the speaker of the apparent exposition dump chooses to use, the sequence of the facts, or the general tenor of the way in which the information is given. This is at the heart of the effectiveness of a lot of Lovecraft's stories. I also love stories where the apparent exposition dumps turn out to be packs of lies that reveal something psychologically or thematically, as seen in Vertigo or in the "Suruga Monkey" story arc in Bakemonogatari I talked about the other day.

But the logic behind the "show don't tell" idea is easily perceivable, as information is going to have greater impact when it is conveyed through something visceral. At the same time, in a philosophy text, due to its nature as a pure vessel of ideas, it's more important to tell than it is to waste time showing. One uses different mental muscles for the two media, and I found it somewhat awkward to switch gears in War and Peace. Nonetheless, the philosophy Tolstoy expresses in his essays gives insight into how he crafted the characters so brilliantly. A veteran of the Crimean War, Tolstoy was intent on setting straight the various historians whose texts he read in regards to what he saw as a fundamental flaw in the way they threaded history together by the intellectual ideas and commands of men. Tolstoy felt that taking history as a science was problematic due to what I felt was his imperfect perspective on scientific laws.

The recognition of man's free will as a force capable of influencing historical events, that is, not subject to laws, is the same for history as the recognition of a free force moving heavenly bodies would be for astronomy.

Such an assumption would destroy the possibility of the existence of laws, that is, of any science whatever. If even one freely moving body exists, then the laws of Kepler and Newton no longer exist, and no concept of the movement of heavenly bodies any longer exists. If there is a single action due to free will, then not a single historical law, nor any concept of historical events, exists.

Tolstoy seems to subscribe to the not uncommon conception of scientific laws as being something somehow externally prescribed when in fact they are merely handy labels for a set of observably consistent phenomena. If one observed a body moving, as Tolstoy suggests, in apparent defiance of a scientific law, it does not by any means destroy the possibility of scientific law or science, but would, at most, merely call for the creation of a new law.

However, Tolstoy's essential argument that the complexity and chaos of social movements and events defies any attempt to nail such phenomena to the command of a specific person or published thought, is incredibly important.

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