05 September 2007

Strange news from a far star

I was very taken with Jim Putnam's linking of light arriving from a distant star and the words of an author arriving from half a decade past, both examples of the expanding wavefront of our "now", both present to us though irretrievably past.

I suppose, thinking along the same line since reading his post, that all arts are the past made present in the same way. Unlike the light from the star, however, their information doesn't pass on; we can experience it again and again. Not an expanding wavefront, but a standing wave. Or, as they interact with one another, with other information sources, with our own minds, a static interference fringe giving rise to something like a hologram.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.[1]

The interaction leads to unexpected, unpredictable fringe artefacts. In this, words are again like the light from the far star.

Consider a star going supernova. Within minutes, or less, it might (who knows?) have locally wiped out all observers in a life system on its third planet. Centuries or millennia later it might (who knows?) arrive at a much more distant planet where a chosen people on the verge of the iron age watch the sky and await the arrival of a messiah; at such a moment, it might (who knows?) change the course of that planet's cultural history. If the same light arrives at the same planet two thousand years later, on the other hand, it might (who knows?) add the crucial data which triggers new theories about time and gravity. Or it might just trigger the writing of a song.

The way we look to a distant constellation
That's dying in a corner of the sky,
These are the days of miracle and wonder...[2]

The way the light interacts with observers will vary according to time and place; and so it is with words.

Words spoken at a particular moment, on a particular planet, by a man who has been hailed as the awaited messiah following the arrival of the star's light, may be heard by the people around him as exhortation to peace, love and coexistence. The same words, by the same man, heard at greater distance in space and time by other men clinging to power, may be heard as threats and so lead to his agonising death. As the distance increases they may bring down one empire, fuel another, lead to torture in support of factional infighting, inspire both saints and bigots.

Words written by an author living within a repressive state may be seen as simple poetry by his intended readers, sedition by the state's secret police, a song of freedom by the state's enemies abroad.

The Harry Potter cycle of novels (which Jim takes as his starting point for the thoughts on time) contain, to my mind at this particular space/time/culture locus where I live and the point in my life when I have read them, many condemnations of the society within which J K Rowling lives and writes. They also emphasise, again to my mind here and now, the same values of love and care as Christianity; yet in another place and culture they are burnt by Christians as heresy. Salman Rushdie's The satanic verses seem to some readers a cry from the heart on behalf of those who (from a difference cultural point on the personal/informational interference fringe) vociferously demand Rushdie's death for blasphemy.

And I hesitated before mentioning Rushdie's The satanic verses. Because there is still a chill curl of fear about being associated with either the author or the title. It takes an effort of will, even in this small thing, to stand up and be counted. (Perhaps I mean especially in small things; "men stumble over pebbles, never over mountains" as Emilie Cady said - though I forget where and when she said it. I can effortlessly imagine myself on the burning barricades, but screw myself up to mention of a book.)

Peter's thrice denial of Jesus is the best known cultural embedding of this human tendency; my favourite expression of it is in the Melvyn Bragg film version of Rice and Webber's Jesus Christ, Superstar (itself, ironically, condemned as blasphemy):

Mary: "Don't you see what you have said? You've gone and cut him dead!"

Peter: "I had to, don't you see? Or they'd have gone for me."

Much of the fuss has died down, now; the words have moved on; but for people of my age just mentioning TSV evokes memories of burning bookshops, assassinated translators, mob beatings. And most of those who have either defended or condemned TSV in discussion with me have not even read Rushdie's words: they defend or condemn on hearsay.

Given the unpredictable ways in which words will be reflected and refracted in the reading, to publish a fiction in a factual context (as Jim Putnam, again, has done in This is fiction - entirely so) is a brave thing to do. Not, I fear, a thing that I would myself be brave enough to do. I am more likely to take the opposite, more cowardly course, presenting facts as fiction. We live in times when systemic suspicion and paranoia are on the increase; if I make an immediate assumption about who the fictional "Tex Andover" represents in the real world, I am sure that the Heimat Sicherheit Abteilung are way ahead of me. The statistics for my (pretty innocuous) website already show a puzzling proportion of searches by military departments. So, I don't try this experiment with this myself; I restrict myself to swallowing nervously and associating myself, here, with Jim's experiment.

[1] T S Eliot. Four Quartets: "Burnt Norton". 1943, New York, Harcourt.

[2] Paul Simon. Graceland: "The boy in the bubble". 1986, Warner.

[3] Rushdie, S., The satanic verses. 1988, London, Vintage. 0670825379

[4] Melvyn Bragg and Norman Jewison. Jesus Christ, Superstar. 1973, Universal Studios.

[Post title] Herman Hesse. Strange news from another star, and other tales. Translated by Denver Lindley. 1973, London, Cape.

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