Monday, October 21, 2013


The conventional pattern for action in a narrative is vertical: a starting point, a number of points on ascent (base-camps as it were), eventually a climax/crisis of a peak turning point, and then resolution coming down the mountain on the other side.  This might be a jackandjill story -- not the ascent of Everest, which is as dangerous in descent as in ascent.  On the other hand, J+J did tumble down.

A good place to process buffalo carcasses.

Anyway, here’s an alternative based on the layout of Head-Smashed-In buffalo jump.  First there is a grassy plain where the buffalo graze up on the top.  They are gradually moved towards a cliff, gentlygently at first and then in greater panic and confusion, until they fall over the cliff, which is not meant to be so high that it kills all of them but cripples many.  (No refrigeration, so the longer they stay alive but captive the better.)  Then the hard work gradually processing meat, hides, bones and fat -- some of which must be boiled out of the bones.  Maybe this kind of plan for a book or tale would work better for nonfiction, but at the core must be a cataclysm:  9-11, Krakatoa, the AIDS pandemic, a pinch-point that shifts everything into a new pattern.

Maybe it works for a compilation of short pieces, each one a bison with a head and tail, guts and legs, metaphors waiting to be unpacked.  

The theory of deep experience I’m exploring works pretty well with this pattern:  the first part, the grazing, is the gathering of the sensorium and life itself, going along.  The cliff is the moment of plunging, changing, out of control, over an edge.  Then the space below near water is where the experience is sorted, invested with meaning, translated into action, processed.  “Parted out.”  So the people of New Guinea spend the whole year preparing for their climax ritual in small ways, but then in the burst of energy for a week they participate in what they believe (a liminal time), and afterwards they have the courage to survive in one of the toughest environments on the planet.  It feels right and whole.  Same for the Plains Indians.

The pattern works pretty well for the process of writing itself:  the gathering of detail, the gradual movement towards the discovery of the essential conception (a kind of gestation leading to delivery), and then the working out page-by-page and the consequences in feedback from readers, the eaters of the words, the wearer of the robes.  

There is another difference from the usual pattern of Western lit, which is that in traditional stories there is generally a protagonist and an antagonist -- a hero and a villain (and maybe a lover or two) that conflict.  It’s that debate agonistic structure meant to preserve rationality and clarity about what’s happening which is the basis of our law system and often our governance.  But this other buffalo jump pattern I’m talking about -- what to call it?  “the hourglass” with it’s implication of time passing? -- is about a whole people interacting with a whole people, a situation (grazing as usual) grabbed by a massive event (going over the cliff) and then the elements of developing a new complex as the shift of focus goes from buffalo people to human people.  This is more like the pattern of scientific inquiry:  gathering evidence, forming a more-or-less committed hypothesis, challenging and opening up that hypothesis.  It’s also the pattern of discussion.  And harvest.

The agonistic Middle Eastern Manicheist black-or-white way of thinking has dragged us into political gridlock, both between parties and within parties.  It eliminates options and resists the shifting of frames.  This or that -- me or him -- often based on concrete, circumscribed thought and evidence meant to keep people from finding out the limits of the assumptions, rather than realizing finally that the earth goes around the sun and evolution is real.

But the changes just keep coming and we keep going over the cliff:  drugs, stigma-based poverty, the Internet, various pandemics and social shifts.  “The Pill” was a cliff.  The Vietnam intervention was a cliff.  We thought we had a clear idea of what was going on, but then we found out the world had changed into something else, and we’re still struggling with what to do about it because they all interact.  Social dissection is much more difficult when the whole economic system challenges class and education, when black is legally as good as white skin (but what about red and yellow?).  Parenthood might mean almost anything, genetics only being the beginning.  The old biological taboos don’t work:  we need new taboos.  There’s no such thing as not having taboos, not having stigma.  We should have taboos against cruelty and neglect, stigma for greed.

Such complexity.  We wouldn’t be motivated to keep working on this re-assorting and re-programming if it weren’t so painful, so joyful, so technologically powered.  We thought that the Internet meant that individuals were empowered and the chorus of their voices would change the world.  Instead the big tech providers are re-creating network television, dominated by the opinions of the nameless corporations who hide behind them.  The work is a lot harder and will take a lot more group effort than we thought.

Most people think in terms of centuries, partly because around here most of the white people came about a century ago.  Some people think in terms of the Declaration of Independence.  Other cataclysmic markers are Protestant Christianity, the devising of agriculture/towns about ten thousand years ago, the invention of writing about five thousand years ago -- emerging out of bookkeeping (numbers) intended to be mnemonic devices for gains and losses, winning and losing, a way of defeating arguments about whose land, whose harvest, whose profit, the credits went to.  Agonistic.

Early story came from a different place -- spoken or sung, with rhymes and rhythm as their mnemonic aids, with story lines that varied to suit the audience or the teller -- and also, thirty thousand years ago, with art -- repetitiously stuttering sketches towards the truth of horses, aurochs and mammoths.  Story versus numbers.  Testimony of witnesses versus scraping data.  Novels versus spreadsheets.  The poetic possible versus concrete verifiable.  Two sides of the brain.

But now we see that the whole brain -- plus the body which “thinks” with tension, pulses, secretions, sensory information: the chords the feet of the organist play while the fingers work the keyboards above -- is a flexible instrument, a both/and operator that can look on both sides, even fifty sides, and play out the symphony of life itself -- here the grass, here the panic, here the falling, here the boy who got caught in the stampede so that his head was smashed in, here the man whose stone maul killed the bull bison and split its head so he could scoop out the good fat brain to eat.  Here the man and woman, replete and nourished, find a patch of grass and lie down together to make a new boy.  Plenty of time later for the scientists to sort bones, estimate amounts, carbon date the fires, calculate the calories and nutrients in bison carcasses and what impact they might have on Blackfeet genetics.

There are two ways to resolve conflict: the first is for one of the forces to dominate and "swallow" the other.  The second is to break the situation into so many different smaller factors that no two forces are strong enough to oppose each other and all must depend upon coalitions, compromise, and mutual interests.

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