Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Rousseau and Winter's Heart

Rousseau's 1750 "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences" (arguably one of the earliest #slatepitches) argued in the midst of the Enlightenment that supposed advances in the arts and sciences had contributed to the decay of morals in society.  Fitting into the Social Contract theory at the time, he located an idyllic Mankind in during a prehistoric State of Nature who had been moral and virtuous but gradually fallen into corruption.  Notably, a century earlier Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan" had also theorized about this prehistoric State of Nature, but had identified its inhabitants as much less moral and virtuous than Rousseau's imagined people.  Social Contract thinkers such as Rousseau and Hobbes imagined distant pasts, humans in a setting stripped of technology and contemporary conventions, seeking to reveal some universal truth about humanity, but in reality revealing much more of their own individual biases than any universal truths.

Nevertheless, storytellers and fiction writers, particularly fantasy fiction writers have been making up distant worlds populated with people not unlike ourselves but in vastly different contexts since long before Hobbes and Rousseau developed their social contracts, and continuing long after.  J.R.R. Tolkien wrote of developing a "mythology for England" to rival what he viewed as the ancient unifying traditions of the French and the Germans.  Less than a century earlier, the Finnish Kalevala was first compiled, a loose collection of folktales mashed together to form what it's creator, Elias Lönnrot saw as the unifying tradition of his own people.  Nationalism was in the air, and in the invented worlds of the time.  

Contemporary fantasy, of course, continues this tradition.  Pseudo-medieval worlds abound, full of many of the same people and cultural assumptions, all reinforcing each other.  If you haven't yet read Kate Elliot's essay on "The Status Quo Does Not Need Worldbuilding", please click over there now.  I'll wait.  Every author's cultural assumptions reveal themselves in their writing, the details they include and those they leave out.  And every reader's cultural assumptions imprint themselves just as strongly in the details they notice, gloss over, or simply ignore.

As I'm working my way through "The Wheel of Time" (perhaps for the last time), it's striking where Robert Jordan chooses to emphasize details in his cultures.  Essentially we have the Aiel, the Seanchan, and then (the nobility of) everywhere else.  From the borderlands through Andor, Cairhein, the two strong southern kingdoms of Tear and Illian, and the other various smaller and fragmented lands, nobles play the game of the houses to one degree or another, and the king, queen, high council, or other ruling body extends it's sway through the use of force or the promise of protection from an exterior threat.  Little attention is given to those who are not nobles.  They seem to act just about the same in every way, except for the women, who have some unique personality trait in each place (generally related to how they relate to men).  Saldaean women are tigers (and apparently the farmgirls like haylofts), Ebou Dari carry knives and aren't afraid to use them, Domani are sexual and manipulative, Two Rivers women are really in charge.  The list goes on.  Between the mountains and the sea, all are one, either a faceless mass, a noble owing allegiance based on fear, or a woman thinking about how to deal with men.

The Aiel and Seanchan each represent at least slightly more original cultures.  The Aiel are essentially the noble savages Rousseau hearkened back to.  Warlike, but honorable, adopting the practice of counting coup from various native american plains tribes, and following their chiefs while also adhering to their own sense of discretion and honor.  The imperial Seanchan, with a well-established bureaucracy, fanatical devotion, and at least the appearance of meritocracy more closely mirror an approximation of some oriental imperial culture.  Jordan gives us glimpses of ceremonies from each of these cultures, referring to the Seanchan naming day, and at the beginning of "Winter's Heart" showing us the ceremony where Elayne and Aviendha adopt each other as first-sisters.

The women are brought together and first asked to prove their love for each other.  Then with some magical assistance they are forced into a symbolic womb, stripped of their identity and re-emerge, regaining themselves in the process.  The ceremony is literal, and it is primitive.  It is a ceremony performed in the old way, by women whose purpose is to save and retain a "remnant of a remnant" of their people.  Pages later, Rand visits the academy he has established, and reviews the strange and wondrous inventions being developed.  He, too, wishes to establish a legacy that will outlast the battle he is driving towards.  But he wishes to advance the arts and sciences to create his own legacy.  The noble savages, more moral and virtuous, but ultimately less advanced stand in contrast to the Enlightened but morally bankrupt people two and a half centuries after Rousseau.

As readers, we bring ourselves to these works.  We exclaim over some details, ignore others, and potentially are even inspired to blog or tweet or otherwise react to others.  The Status Quo Does Not Need Worldbuilding.  Whitewashed Western European history is not simply the story of an ignorant medieval period between the grandeur of imperial Rome and the Enlightenment of the Renaissance.  Nor is Western European history the only inspiration available for fantasy stories.  I have loved "The Wheel of Time" for years, and the fantasy genre for longer.  It's a pleasure to read and enjoy and travel for a time with new companions into strange worlds.  But in addition to sojourning in other worlds, we shape and construct our view of this world, and that's a lot more complicated than whatever appears in the text on the the page.

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