Animism and Writing II: Embedding the Past in the Present

Last post I spoke of concision: that simpler and direct language resonates better with our hunter-gatherer selves, descibed by neo-primitivists like David Abrams. It also emerged with the back-to-original-nature philosophy of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism, influenced by Taoism. Thus concision is great in fiction: writing that connects to our natural selves is entertaining.

The dynamics of Time in fiction are similar: the nature-oriented philosophies of time, adapted untold centuries ago to our genetically hard-wired genetics of untold millennia ago, embed the past in the present and thus engage our sense of life as it is lived. Even if written in past tense, fiction like this connects readers with a sense of Now.

In the Modern mind, history objectively exists. ‘Tis in a realm of Platonic actual truth beyond any library or database. To be more realistic, history is in our minds, and as far as we subscribe to a common paradigm, an illusion arises of a history beyond our brains.

In the Traditional mind, history is attached to a place. History comes alive when we pass through it physically.

An example from Apache culture noted in Abrams’ in The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram describes the work of linguistic anthropologist among the Apache:

Apache persons often associate places with particular ancestors. Indeed, the earthly places seem to speak to certain persons in the voices of those grandparents who first “shot” them with stories, or even to speak in the voices of those long-dead ancestors whose follies and exploits are related in the agodzaahi tales. The ancestral wisdom of the community resides, as it were, in the stories, but the stories—even the ancestors themselves—reside in the land …

To members of a non-writing culture, places are never just passive settings, Remember that in oral cultures the human eyes and ears have not yet shifted their synaesthetic participation from the animate surroundings to the written word. Particular mountains, canyons, streams, boulder-strewn fields, or groves of trees have not yet lost the expressive potency and dynamism with which they spontaneously present themselves to the senses. A particular place in the land is never, for an oral culture, just a passive or inert setting for the human events that occur there. It is an active participant in those occurrences.

In indigenous Australian cultures, places connect not only to history but also to another continuum, the Dreamtime:

These meandering trails, or Dreaming tracks, are auditory as well as visual and tactile phenomena, for the Ancestors were singing the names of things and places into the land as they wandered through it … Every Ancestor, while chanting his or her way across the land during the Dreamtime, also deposited a trail of “spirit children” along the lines of his footsteps.

This is real enough to be a bodily sensation. Consider the story from poet and Zen popularizer Gary Snyder, described by Abrams:

Snyder was traveling through part of the central desert in the back of a pickup truck, accompanied by a Pintupi elder named Jimmy Tjunguerrayi … [he] began to speak very rapidly to Snyder, telling him a Dreamtime story about some Wallaby people and their encounter with some Lizard girls at a mountain they could see from the road. As soon as that story ended, he launched into

another story about a another hill over here and another story over there. I couldn’t keep up … these were tales meant to told while walking, and … I was experiencing a speeded-up version of what might be leisurely told over several days of foot travel.”

When the past is stored in our environment, we are safely in the present, doing real things in a world where we have choices.

I didn’t Get You a Present

On the Left Coast we keep hearing about staying in the “present moment.” One of the inspirations for this new-age cliché is actual Zen practice. We use our breath and our half-lotus knee pain to divert from the endless monologues in our brains, voices that reassure us we are who we think we are, or relentless scanners for every danger we can imagine. Do our people really love us?

When this “present moment” stuff avoids rather than inflicts responsibility for our own lives, ‘tis an easy target of angry lampoon. To be aware of history is to be conscious of oppression. To prevent fascism and extinction we must consider the future.

Yet we thrive in the world we evolved for. Cynics bemoan that our souls haven’t evolved as fast as out technology, as if it’s bad that we’ve retained our original nature. So much of what is best in us is brought to life in presence. We don’t have to speed up to keep us with Dystopia USA; we can keep our centers and drag the world back to a sensible timespace continuum.

In Fiction, Be Present in the Past Tense

Fiction is usually written is the past tense, though present tense fiction is trendy lately (ugh). In past tense, events before the main simple-past-tense story are told in past perfect—she had believed, they’d built this thing centuries ago—while in present tense stories, the past of the main time time is expressed in simple past.

How to handle events and details that don’t fit into the main timeline is a troublesome aspect of fiction craft. Various advice can be found from how-to-write sites off Google:

* Pick the right starting point for the story Probably not the protagonist’s birth. Early in the story but where the action of the story is underway.

* Add “backstory,” history from when before the story starts, sparingly and not too soon, thus filling in the reader without getting too distracted from the main timeline, which, whether written in past or present tense, is the point-of-view character’s “present.”

* Same with “world building.” Especially in sci-fi and fantasy, this is relevant information about the world removed in space rather than time, e.g., the current state of economics in the Terran Empire.

* If the info is removed in both space and time, the history of the empire vs. the protagonist’s childhood, it’s still called world-building. But in either case, we want to stay grounding in the here-and-now of the character.

However, sometimes writers follow these principles and still sound stale. Not only beginners I meet in critique groups, but even novelists newly published by small presses add background in “infodumps” even if the pace is right. Often the point-of-view characters takes a moment to think, then reviews info their head for a few paragraphs. It still sound like a history text.

(And even history texts shouldn’t sound like history texts. Good history writers use the same techniques as fiction writers, except they aim to only write true statements.)

More is needed to make it visceral, to invoke the namesake of David Abram’s book: The Spell of the Sensuous.

The story of the Landscape

As with concise language, fiction is stronger when we achieve a similar perspective to a non-alphabetic culture. The past can be grounded in the environment.

For example, the knight comes upon a clearing where she experienced terrible battle three years back, and this is where the novelist chooses to describe the battle. Rather than ruminate on abstract history, whether in her head or in a history book she reads. Interestingly, real history is often related the same way. A famous battlefield becomes a park.

And famous person’s house becomes a museum. In fiction, a common successful method is for a character to enter a familiar house, often where they grew up. The house functions as a museum, full of interesting artifacts, much like the historical sites.

Consider literary fiction, or perhaps a cozy mystery. I like to add literary features to my science fiction and fantasy, but some disagree:

Tell us more about the teacup. It’s chipped on one side, but somehow the friction from all those fingernails holding it steady has worn it down. So the chipped area feels almost polished, as if the cup-maker chipped it herself, and then glazed it. There’s a stain on its base that no amount of scrubbing with the wiry brush is ever equal to removing. It has a pattern of flowers and baby’s breath, which you haven’t noticed in years.

Fun to make fun of, but I want to see that teacup from the eyes of a storyteller bringing the past into their environment. Did the butler chip it? Is that an example of his nervous disposition? Is he the killer?

That’s all I have for now on nature-based consciousness connecting to our natural minds in fiction. I’m sure more will arrise. Somehow it took me two years to write this sequel post, during which time I didn’t blog!

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