Thursday, June 14, 2012

Wrap it in Nintendo(myth): Platypus Nostalgia

C.S. Lewis talks about the effect myth has on ordinary things: it hands us back a sense of wonder.  As an example, he takes a child at play pretending that lunch is actually buffalo meat that he, as a Native American warrior, has killed while hunting out on the plains.  Lewis calls the child "wise" because his make-believe recaptures the truth that all of us once only knew the joys of food through the thrill of the hunt.  The ordinary is seen to be extra-ordinary, the food is seen to be more than mere calories.

I was looking at a stump the other day that several friends were endeavoring to dislodge from the box in the church parking lot.  As the strange and spiky roots peeped through the surface I couldn't help thinking that it was like a little creature that might scuttle off at any moment muttering imprecations at the humans who so had so rudely grabbed it by the head.  The thought, of course, should be familiar to anyone who played "The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past," where some bushes did just that when you tried to pick them up.  One of my students happened to be nearby watching the same spectacle and I asked him if he could picture the stump running away and dropping ruppies behind it.  He got the joke an laughed.

As I said, it's been a few days since the stump incident (they did get it out without mishap) and I've been revolving it around in my head.  The conclusion I've come to is that video or computer games serve as modern myths.  Because, in the game, pulling on a stump might reveal it to be a treasure-hording creature, the player never looks at stumps quite the same way again.  Because the forest may contain a lost temple or an enchanted flute player, all woods are forever changed.  Because there might be a fairy in the fountain or a fish man in the river, water is never "just water."  Now no one expects the stump to get up, and lost temples are getting decidedly rarer as archeology advances, but the potential for wonder remains: the ability to see that the thing, whatever it is, is something more than our daily experience of it.

Lewis tries this idea out in his fiction.  We can see it in many places, but perhaps the best place is in the encounter with the star in The Voyage of the Dawntreader.  Confronted with a living star, the mundane-minded Eustace blurts out that a star is merely a great, burning ball of gas.  The star doesn't object to Eustace's definition, he only adds that "even in your world, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of."

There's a final post-script to be made.  For Lewis, the lunch meat doesn't become more in the child's mind because he has wrapped it in a myth while it remains objectively mere meat.  He also doesn't mean, following Sartre, that there is no such thing as meat independent of our experience of something as meat-for-the-self.  What Lewis is saying is a bit more provocative in this day and age.  He is saying that Meat is objectively more than "meat" but that familiarity has robbed us of this awareness.  The function of myth is to bring that awareness back by taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary.

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