Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter and the Metaphysical Decompression Chamber

Harry Potter and the Metaphysical Decompression Chamber
I experienced an unusually intense collision of worlds this last weekend. Usually when I read a book, it's a fairly leisurely affair. Of late it’s usually non fiction, philosophy & history, I'll read a few paragraphs, marking lines or paragraphs as I go, and by the end of the page, if not sooner, stop and reflect on what I've just imbibed. I'll often go back to the marked lines, write a comment between the lines or in the margin, and if particularly striking, write something down on a notepad (Paper or PC). Sometimes I'll pick up the pace with a Play, or rereading a section of some previously read fiction, but for the most part the pace is pretty tame.

This weekend however for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the pace went into overdrive. I'd begun revving up by reading the previous book in the series over the course of the week, and had finished it about 20 minutes before the doorbell rang with the delivery of the Deathly Hallows - this was a story that had to be read full immersion speed through to the end. I went out on our deck and dove into it, full immersion from 10:00 am till 2:00 am on Sat, then 10:00 am till 5:00 pm on Sun, all that while I was in the world of Hogwarts(thanks for not making a fuss over my leaving for the weekend Dear!). I was barely aware enough to fold down a couple page corners for particularly striking passages, but for the most part; I was in the book, not just reading the book.

Anyone else have a similar experience when involved in good fiction? When I get involved in a narrative story, I feel as though I'm in the story, similar to a virtual movie running in my head... seeing the characters, the setting, hearing it play out around me. When you bring such a book or series of books into your mind, there is a heightened sensation, a feeling which lingers long after reading the last page - that an entire universe has been created within you, lives within you, has become you ("...once a King or Queen of Narnia, always a King or Queen of Narnia."). In the lingo of the Harry Potter world, we all become a bit of a benign Horcruxe for J.K. Rowling’s imaginative world to live in and through us.

Anyway, minutes after I finished at around 5:00 pm Sunday, I received a desperate call from work "Please, can you come in and help another team on a deadline?!" Here I am sitting on the deck with a beer, the book still in my lap, my head still in the world of Hogwarts, looking back on the story which I had in fact begun years ago reading to my two boys, who have themselves grown up with it (they're still reading - their friends wouldn't give them the weekend off); I was very nearly reminiscing in that world... experiencing the sensation of the qualities of the storybook world being my memories... and then this world butts in and demands equal time.

This really was an unusually intensely felt mixing of worlds. I wonder if whether having not only read the books into my mind, but also having witnessed the movies within theatres and our living room; physically seeing and hearing the characters as they grew up from 11 yr olds to near adulthood, I wonder if that lent an added dimension to the affect? At any rate, it was a very strange sensation, experiencing two worlds at the same time… an odd feeling, having multiple worlds coming into being and colliding with each other ... no billion dollar sub-atomic super neutrino collider required.

I was certainly in no mood for work, but having been in that position myself before, I said I’d come on in, threw on some clothes and dashed off to work.

But what world was I dashing off to? What world was I still contained within? I wasn't in one or the other, I was in an odd transitional space, a Metaphysical decompression chamber. On the one hand there was the world we all know and … love, with its slippery willingness to be seen in shades of grey, and on the other hand the world of clear Right and Wrong, Good and Evil, Metaphysical cause and effect dramatically demonstrated to your conscious awareness - and I was disorientedly wedged between them for several hours while I attempted to navigate between the priorities and features of the two worlds – and did so about as smoothly as a bumper car ride.

Imagination - The Chamber of SecretsMy guess is that something such as a Metaphysical Decompression Chamber is always with you, though rarely as vividly as this. It acts as a go-between for horizontal fact and vertical meaning, a case history and reference library for your Vertical sense, with literature being the most accessible way to see that it's shelves remain well stocked.

When deeply immersed in the poetic imagery of a story, that imagery is especially interweaved into your mind, spider webbing deep links throughout not only along the narrative storyline, but also into your internal references to concepts, feelings, percepts, memories and various other associations, establishing a live link to them all under one imaginative image or another. A crude analogy might be to the ubiquitous Icon button in software programs. They typically displays an image, such as an old memory disc image, and seeing that image, we all know that clicking on it will cause the program to save what you're working on, similarly with the Hero or Villain of a story we all know is good or bad, we don't realize all the behind the scenes actions that image represents. In your computer, clicking that button in your program causes hundreds, even thousands of lines of complex code logic to be executed, items are safe checked, processes are committed to files and databases and saved to disc. In our imaginations, when the image of the hero or villain is skillfully and vividly drawn, it touches or reinforces far too many mental and spiritual associations for us to even begin to enumerate.

In normal situations, the characters, issues and plots of a well told story seem so exceedingly vivid and important, precisely because they associate with all those items in your life which are truly important and foundational to your being. Becoming as deeply involved in a single story for the uninterrupted amount of time such as I had this weekend, I expect activated those many deep ranging links, plus the peripheral items, images of posture, mannerisms, scents, sounds... and on and on and on, bringing the images and their associations to the very edges of normal conscious awareness - it takes a while for that level of excited poetic imagery to decompress and recede to their normal background levels.

Exercising poetic imagery in the normal fashion which imaginative fiction does, I think must help to develop and strengthen a deep warehouse of conceptual, ethical and spiritual experience, such as with which we would all do well to visit often to ensure that its doors remain unlocked and the lights left on for us, day and night. Going to the lengths I did... well... be careful operating heavy machinery afterwards. Or driving winding river bottom roads.

For people such as the reviewer 'Flik' of my previous post, I suspect they that their metaphysical decompression chambers are safely empty, locked down and in mothballs. "How could a broom fly? How could a snake talk? Reality isn't like that, and such things are just silly and escapist!". Imagination and reflection, library cards to the Chamber and your inner Vertical Depths; for people such as Flik who don't use them, no doubt they will find that their cards have lapsed. Those soul piercing and encircling links sunk through you with the permission and aid of imagination, are not activated or exercised, they don't hike the mountains and valleys of their soul, and by neglect, their internal conceptual landscape is eroded into an arid expanse of plains and small hills. Talk about ghost stories... shudder.

One reviewer, who while not reaching very deeply into the story, nevertheless noted about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,

“... true to its roots, it ends not with modernist, “Soprano”-esque equivocation, but with good old-fashioned closure: a big-screen, heart-racing, bone-chilling confrontation and an epilogue that clearly lays out people’s fates.”,
even if that person didn't take note of the Vertical elements deeply woven into J.K. Rowling's stories, I suspect that their own metaphysical decompression chamber is humming along behind the scenes very serviceably.

Flik on the other hand, would probably sympathize with one idiot commenter who actually yearned for more of a 'modernist “Soprano”-esque equivocation' in the last of the series, it opined that the clarity of the story and its ending was "...dissatisfying..." and that the epilogue was "Very disappointing, but probably necessary to avoid the clamors for more sequels.”

They'd prefer something more 'reality based', no doubt.

Such dislike of moral clarity, and a preference for conflicting little 't' truths over the sound resolution of deeper Vertical Truth - marks them as the type of person who while they may move their eyes over the pages of imaginative fiction, does so only for escapist purposes, they run from exploring deeper into Life and Truth, preferring flat, horizontal diversions and the confusion of mimicry instead 'They muddy the waters so that they may appear deep'. They have far much more in common with Flik who disdains the imaginative, than with the reviewer who found the story thrilling and satisfying; I can't help suspecting that they entertain few substantial thoughts on their own, and so have fewer to compress or decompress, their day to day decisions based on little 't' facts and figures - dragging on flat and the hollow; I'd not be surprised to find sports cars, extreme sports and many fashionable leading edge items being stuffed into the empty spaces.

Coming down from the heightsThose first few hours after I finished the book, I was experiencing a palpable sensation that metaphysically, my worlds were strangely intermixed – evil wizards and plots to rule the world were jumbled together with traffic lights and work to be done. One world where Good and Evil is so clearly delineated, and another where the later can still so easily hide behind what seems of no consequence, an easy shortcut, letting things be – not rocking the boat.

A very, very odd sensation, and in coming out of this state, I think that there may also be a danger in thinking (encouraged by our culture) that since most of your day to day actions will not be visibly stamped with labels of Good and Evil, or battles with dark wizards, that it is somehow insignificant. I strongly disagree. To the question of whether imaginative Literature, or the Vertical depths are themselves really real, and are they of any real value? Can fantasy and imagination be of any real worth? As Harry asks of a ghostly apparition,

“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Still, for the next time this happens, I think it might be handy for me to have a checklist to follow for exiting my Metaphysical decompression chamber a little more smoothly. Some things of course are fairly easy to deal with, such as,

1. Reach for your laptop, not your magic wand.

But others may not be quite so obvious. Such as,

2. Just because he no longer has a visible name and form, beware not to lose track of the Villain. Fiction, especially imaginative fiction, clarifies Good and Evil, and you must be careful not to let that clarity fade away with the illusions of fiction. Evil, in all of its shades, is always looking for an easy mark; the ones who are convinced it doesn't exist, being the easiest of targets. For those who don’t keep that thought clear in their mind, a grasp of right and wrong can simply slip away. This exchange from the Deathly Hallows seems relevant here, one professor cajoling another, an evil thug in professorial robes to one who is the very soul of teaching:

"...and we'll say they forced her to press her Mark, and that's why he got a false alarm... He can punish them. Couple of kids more or less, what's the

"Only the difference between truth and lies, courage and cowardice," said Professor McGonagall, who had turned pale, "a difference, in short, which you and your sister seem unable to appreciate."
A quality book allows a name tagging of characters to trace such characteristics to, but just because there is no convenient single character to assign the temptations and hurdles thrown up before you in day to day life to, don't assume that detecting and overcoming them will be anywise less important to the outcome of your story. Seeking shortcuts and easy power lead to inner ruin both here and there.

3. Focus on what's real, but don't let yourself be disillusioned, that too can be fatal. Just because magic doesn’t flow from mixed up Latin phrases, don’t miss the Magic around you, or forget that some of the most magical things in daily life require deliberate steps, and some flair, to produce the correct 'spell'. Remembering to follow not just logical sequence and frequent fact and premise checking in your thinking, but also an artistic eye to the rhythm and context of your surroundings is vital to produce Intelligent results, as opposed to the merely clever, and what is more magical than that? Leaving the Vertical out of your Horizontal actions, can lead to devastating error, even though your truncated, out of context 'logic' may seem sound. See most any wackademic article for an example. And of course, forgetting to delight in your family, forgetting to keep what is truly valuable first in mind, can be every bit as deadly as failing to produce a patronus charm while the dementors swirl down upon you to suck out your soul.

4. Remember that just because Time is not abbreviated as in story, such devices as plot and cause and effect do still operate in your life – visible only if you know to look for them. In this world, you don’t often get that heady sensation of seeing how deeply it matters what is thought, said and done, as you do in story. While your daily life may not be reinforced with suspenseful plotting, don’t be discouraged, remember that while you no longer have a tangible narrative compressing time and place to reveal a clear chain of events, that chain is nevertheless there - and binding upon your fate, and others.

Simple things like speaking up when you hear someone speaking nonsense, or returning the extra change a cashier accidentally gave back to you, can be the strongest magic of all, and may have huge reverberations not only in your life, but in the plots of your children’s (as well as cashiers and other onlookers) lives. At Hogwarts they concentrate on Spells and chasing down and defeating Evil; at work you concentrate on writing good Code, at home, on exhibiting good manners and sound behavior.

It is enough to keep your feet firmly on the ground, your head needn't be down there as well. Don't get lost in illusion, but don't try to rid yourself of it too quickly either; when you come out of a good book, or even a movie, those images that stay with you might be very useful for keeping you focused on what is really important, rather than what is merely practical. Enjoy humming the theme song, walking a little straighter and taller, go ahead and spend a moment to think deeper or even daydream about the Good, the Beautiful and the True, such thoughts range deeper into you and carry you farther forward into time than I think we might imagine - and shaking them off the moment the book or movie is over just might give you a case of the Metaphysical Bends, potentially fatal to a well lived life.


USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Excellent post, Van!
The last time I experienced decompression, after reading good fiction, was when I read the Chronicles of Amber, by Roger Zelazny.

And of course, the Lord of the Rings, Dune, and Piercing the Darkness, by Frank Peretti, to name a few.

This is where imagination can be used to elevate or transcend our understanding...our O-->k experience, increasing our comprehension, our being...of the Good, True and Beautiful.

"My guess is that something such as a Metaphysical Decompression Chamber is always with you, though rarely as vividly as this. It acts as a go-between for horizontal fact and vertical meaning, a case history and reference library for your Vertical sense, with literature being the most accessible way to see that it's shelves remain well stocked."

Your "guess" is right on, methinks.
And this:

"When deeply immersed in the poetic imagery of a story, that imagery is especially interweaved into your mind, spider webbing deep links throughout not only along the narrative storyline, but also into your internal references to concepts, feelings, percepts, memories and various other associations, establishing a live link to them all under one imaginative image or another."

Helps to reinforce right gnoing.
But as you said, not as escapism, which is shallow entertainment, but an added depth, a new dimension where we see more clearly the Good, True and Beautiful, and the evil, lies, and ugliness that seeks, hungers, to devour and destroy all that is Good, True and Beautiful.

For one cannot experience any Truth if one denies the very real existance of evil.
Not to be consumed by it, but to identify, and discern evil, for the purpose of knowing what, where, when, and how to fight.

Otherwise, the ripples we make will have no effect at best, understanding that Grace also plays a part, and oft times the main part.

Like a chess player we must be circumspect, thinking more than one or two moves ahead...and better yet, being several moves ahead.

A very thought-provoking post, Van! Thanks!

Van Harvey said...

Testing new PocketPC

Van Harvey said...

Good comment Ben, thanks.