Book: Last and First Men - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Book: Last and First Men
Saturday, 09 August 2003 at 06:01 pm
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Author: Olaf Stapledon

Details: (c) Olaf Stapledon 1930; the rest of the details I don't have, since I have given M's copy back to him. Random edition here.

Verdict: Some interesting ideas, and a strong style, but flawed.

Reasons for reading it: M recommended it to me.

How it came into my hands: M

My reaction to Last and First Men is that it is rather better than the average rôle-playing handbook, but probably less good than the average novel. It seems rather as if Stapledon had a whole series of world-building ideas (some of which at least are rather novel and intriguing), and strung them together more or less anyhow, with some fairly arbitrary linkers.

The opening section, where Stapledon segues from the modern (to him) world into his imagined futures, put me off rather. Not so much because it is racist, but the fact of its racism betrays a completely parochial concern, which is out of place in a novel which claims to be taking such a broad view of the whole of human and post-human history. Stapledon holds opinions about things like eugenics, the Jews etc which were no doubt quite normal and socially acceptable in 1930s England, but the fact that he so completely accepted the prevailing mood makes it hard to take him seriously as a visionary. Given this ominous beginning, it is not surprising that he never manages to come up with a society where gender roles, for example, are significantly different from those in inter-war Europe.

There were definitely some thought-provoking ideas in L&FM. I can't help thinking that going through 18 separate strata of humanity was slight overkill, but against that, the style is sufficiently cogent that the book is always readable even though its subject matter is generally rather impersonal. I really liked the way that the passage of time and the sheer immensity of history are portrayed by a sort of telescoping style, and the way the broad historical themes are occasionally leavened by a little narrative of particular individuals.
Admittedly the time-scale, even in the early chapters, seems entirely arbitrary, but I don't think that particularly detracts from the book.

One thing that is especially successful in L&FM is the clash of two alien civilizations; Stapledon's Martians are completely non-anthropomorphic in rather an exciting way. Interestingly, Stapledon gets through 5 post-human civilizations (spanning several hundred million years) before he comes to the invention of space travel, and even his 'Last Men' never make it out of the solar system. This struck me particularly considering how much contemporary science fiction was so focussed on rockets and interplanetary travel and the like.

Stapledon's "theology" (perhaps morality would be a better word, since the book is on the whole more atheist than anything) is considerably odd. Despite his explicit rejection of Christianity, he seems to profess a view of redemption through suffering which feels quite Christian. Although I find this kind of thing very alienating, it was quite interestingly and sensitively done. Another motif that seems to run through L&FM is that wars and catastrophes can arise from completely arbitrary and minor causes; not at all a surprising attitude given the time this was written, but anyway.

On the whole, I'd say that Last and First Men is worth reading despite its problems.


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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:August 19th, 2003 03:48 pm (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 11:48 am (rysmiel's time)
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Interesting post. I'd agree with much of what you say about Last and First Men, it's certainly weakest in its near-future moments, and you're right about eighteen species being a bit much; nonetheless, at its best it haunts. I like to think of it as a less successful earlier attempt on the themes of Star Maker, which tells the history of the entire universe and then goes beyond that, much more on the interesting aliens front - I can't think of anyone who's gone quite that far in that way since. I think Last and First Men is the first place I encountered the idea that love could be a supreme virtue among creations without that logically requiring love to be a supreme virtue for the Creator, which was a major insight to me at thirteen.
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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:August 21st, 2003 11:56 am (UTC)
5 days after journal entry, 12:56 pm (livredor's time)
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Oh, so it's another one of yours, is it? Cool cool.

I can't think of anyone who's gone quite that far in that way since
As praise this feels slightly like liking Tolstoy or Vikram Seth on the grounds of length and complexity alone. Yes, Stapledon is tackling grand themes, but that's not per se a reason to like the book.

the idea that love could be a supreme virtue among creations without that logically requiring love to be a supreme virtue for the Creator
Wow, this is heading towards being too theologically sophisticated for me. Are you thinking along the lines that virtue is still virtue in an uncreated universe? Or? Care to expand this a bit?

I felt with L&FM that the narrative voice tends to take a quasi-theist view (rather than the atheist view that it apparently professes). The Last Men, and other positively portrayed civilizations, seem to be looking for meaning 'out there' in the same way that a theist looks to God for meaning. It's just defining God as something slightly (but actually not really significantly, I felt) different from how conventional Western Christian thought defines God.

a major insight to me at thirteen
At thirteen I was just about coming to the grips with the idea that a theist world view might be worth taking seriously. (My inclination at that point in my life was still towards treating most of religion as rather naïve metaphor.) I don't think I was pondering such abstract stuff as justifying virtue or whether God was a logical necessity. I'm impressed.
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:August 21st, 2003 02:20 pm (UTC)
5 days after journal entry, 10:20 am (rysmiel's time)
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Oh, so it's another one of yours, is it? Cool cool.

I'm fairly sure M read it on my recommendation, buit not absolutely.

I can't think of anyone who's gone quite that far in that way since
As praise this feels slightly like liking Tolstoy or Vikram Seth on the grounds of length and complexity alone.


A very palpable hit.

Yes, Stapledon is tackling grand themes, but that's not per se a reason to like the book.

Agreed; but I think even though it's a very partial success at what it's doing - IMO Star Maker is much more of one, and it's long enough since I read them and they're similar enough that I may be blurring bits of the two - there's a degree of respect due the audacity to tackle something on that scale and make it work at all.

the idea that love could be a supreme virtue among creations without that logically requiring love to be a supreme virtue for the Creator
Wow, this is heading towards being too theologically sophisticated for me. Are you thinking along the lines that virtue is still virtue in an uncreated universe? Or? Care to expand this a bit?


I can't actually remember how much of this was implicit in Last and First Men, it's very explicitly in Star Maker.

I'm thinking that whether any given virtue is a virtue at the human scale and at the scale of a putative maker of universes are two different questions. [ In a way not unlike the distinction between the best I can do by people I know in the world and the best I can do by characters in my fiction, which are very different values of "best" ]

It's just defining God as something slightly (but actually not really significantly, I felt) different from how conventional Western Christian thought defines God.

The scale of that difference in definition seemed huge to me at the time. I had always, without really formalising it as such, felt that there was something insufferably arrogant in assuming that a Creator has such human-scale interests as the Christian God was portrayed to me in school, and this was a worldview that explicitly broke that assumption.

At thirteen I was just about coming to the grips with the idea that a theist world view might be worth taking seriously. (My inclination at that point in my life was still towards treating most of religion as rather naïve metaphor.) I don't think I was pondering such abstract stuff as justifying virtue or whether God was a logical necessity. I'm impressed.

I wouldn't say my thoughts on virtue were any clearer than an instinctive wanting to be nicer to people than the environment I saw was, and less prescriptivist about how to do so than the moral remedies being offered that were visibly failing to work. Being able to make the separation between thinking about how best to live one's life and thinking about deity was a step forward for me.
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:August 21st, 2003 02:22 pm (UTC)
5 days after journal entry, 10:22 am (rysmiel's time)
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BTW, if you do read Star Maker, I strongly recommend trying to make time to do so in one sitting; it has a very strong crescendo structure which IME suffers severely from being interrupted.
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From:(Anonymous)
Date:August 21st, 2003 08:25 pm (UTC)
6 days after journal entry

Star Maker

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Would you like to borrow Star Maker weekend after next? I was a bit hesitant to suggest so previously, after the negativity in your reaction to L&FM.

PS: Enough Kafkaesque referring to me by initial; it's freaking me out, albeit in a very mild way. I have no objection to your referring to me by name.

Michael

[monogram]



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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:August 22nd, 2003 08:27 am (UTC)
6 days after journal entry, 09:27 am (livredor's time)

Re: Star Maker

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Yay, calling you by your name seems much more satisfactory, really. (I wasn't intending to be either Kafkaesque or freaky, just anonymous.)

I'm very rarely against reading stuff, you know. I did say some negative things about L&FM but it also has some redeeming qualities; I certainly didn't hate it. I'm not sure next weekend is a good time for me to be borrowing bookies though, given that I'm going to be on my way to NY at that point. Maybe when I see you on the way back would be better?

Talking of which, am I supposed to be lending you anything? Especially things that I don't personally own copies of, cos I'm going to the parents' for shabbat...
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:August 22nd, 2003 04:11 pm (UTC)
6 days after journal entry, 12:11 pm (rysmiel's time)

Re: Star Maker

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PS: Enough Kafkaesque referring to me by initial; it's freaking me out, albeit in a very mild way. I have no objection to your referring to me by name.

It was mildly amusing me to think of you in the position of Head of British Intelligence. [ A usage dating back to Mycroft Holmes. ]
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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:August 26th, 2003 09:35 pm (UTC)
11 days after journal entry, 10:35 pm (livredor's time)

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It was mildly amusing me to think of you in the position of Head of British Intelligence. [ A usage dating back to Mycroft Holmes. ]
Yeah, I think my primary association with the whole single initial thing was Le Carré or Fleming rather than Kafka. But I didn't know of Mycroft Holmes so I had to go and look him up. So that's another flower for my trivia anthology.
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:September 3rd, 2003 04:37 pm (UTC)
18 days after journal entry, 12:37 pm (rysmiel's time)
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Although the official James Bond history lists Mycroft Holmes as the first M, Alan Moore [ I think ] has suggested that that designation for the head of Her Majesty's intelligence service is in honour of Kit Marlowe.
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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:August 22nd, 2003 10:33 am (UTC)
6 days after journal entry, 11:33 am (livredor's time)
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This is rather a strange recommendation; I don't think I ever have time to read an entire novel at one sitting. No, that's not true; I have time when I'm spending however many hours travelling. But I generally don't have the concentration to do nothing but read for more than a few hours.

Against that I'm pretty good at retaining text in my head, so I can usually get a sense of continuity even if there are actually physically gaps between reading sessions.
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:August 22nd, 2003 04:12 pm (UTC)
6 days after journal entry, 12:12 pm (rysmiel's time)
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Fair enough; in that cse, I modulate my recommendation to; do try to read as much as possible of the last third/half as possible in one go.
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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:August 22nd, 2003 10:36 am (UTC)
6 days after journal entry, 11:36 am (livredor's time)
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there's a degree of respect due the audacity to tackle something on that scale and make it work at all
Agreed entirely. I can easily imagine something L&FM being deadly dull or having no real structure. Purely as an example of writing technique it's impressive, I agree, it's mainly the content of the ideas that I thought fell short of excellent.
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livredor: mask
From:livredor
Date:August 22nd, 2003 10:57 am (UTC)
6 days after journal entry, 11:57 am (livredor's time)
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I'm thinking that whether any given virtue is a virtue at the human scale and at the scale of a putative maker of universes are two different questions.
OK, that's less complicated than what I thought you were saying. Yeah, that makes sense.

I'd read that as an underlying assumption behind describing God as ineffable or equivalent (which you seem to take exception to somewhat). But that's very possibly because I'm interpreting what is basically a Christian concept from a Jewish angle.

In a way not unlike the distinction between the best I can do by people I know in the world and the best I can do by characters in my fiction, which are very different values of "best"
Ooh, interesting example. (This reminds me rather of shreena's thesis excerpt on religious metaphorical language.) Do you consider yourself to have a moral obligation towards your characters?

The scale of that difference in definition seemed huge to me at the time
Mm. L&FM seemed to me very obviously post-Christian, so I was comparing its theology to my understanding of Christian theology. But the latter is obviously very patchy, and it looks as if I may be giving disproportionate weight to aspects of Christian views of God which resonate most with what I'm used to.

there was something insufferably arrogant in assuming that a Creator has such human-scale interests
Yes, I think the underlying assumption of a lot of theism is by its nature arrogant. The Bratislaver, from memory (cos I don't have my sources to hand):

Prayer is an utterly brazen act, for how can a mortal plead before the One who created the universe


To me I think that's where the real leap of faith lies; postulating an omnipotent god is all very well, but postulating that such a being actually cares about individual human actions, much less has a personal relationship with worshippers, that's really a lot to swallow.

Being able to make the separation between thinking about how best to live one's life and thinking about deity was a step forward for me
Mm, I can see that. This is probably something that belongs under the heading of the positive moral value of atheism - a slightly esoteric concept but one that's quite dear to me.
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:August 22nd, 2003 04:08 pm (UTC)
6 days after journal entry, 12:08 pm (rysmiel's time)
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I'm thinking that whether any given virtue is a virtue at the human scale and at the scale of a putative maker of universes are two different questions.

I'd read that as an underlying assumption behind describing God as ineffable or equivalent (which you seem to take exception to somewhat)
.

That virtue should be different at different scales does not to me have any absolute implications as to how comprehensible each of these scales are.

In a way not unlike the distinction between the best I can do by people I know in the world and the best I can do by characters in my fiction, which are very different values of "best"
Ooh, interesting example. (This reminds me rather of shreena's thesis excerpt on religious metaphorical language.) Do you consider yourself to have a moral obligation towards your characters?


Oh yes, but one that's different in kind to that I have to other people on the same level of reality as me; whereas I see moral obligations to people in the real world as entailing compassion and tolerance and such virtues, the moral obligations I have to my characters extend to expressing them so well as I can and so true to their natures as I can. Were I to treat real people in ways that some of my characters have been treated by their stories, they would be lining up to kill me, and not wothout justification.

I think part of the difference is the degree of certainty one can have about a character's attitude, personality or thought process, which is far more than I'm willing to assume about any other human being.

To me I think that's where the real leap of faith lies; postulating an omnipotent god is all very well, but postulating that such a being actually cares about individual human actions, much less has a personal relationship with worshippers, that's really a lot to swallow.

*nod* I just can't find it in me to consider humans important on that scale. [ Have you seen Papersky's "There is comfort in the knowledge you are of your kind and species" poem ? ]

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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:August 27th, 2003 04:31 pm (UTC)
11 days after journal entry, 05:31 pm (livredor's time)
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That virtue should be different at different scales does not to me have any absolute implications as to how comprehensible each of these scales are
Not absolute implications, maybe, but I think it has some implications for how far humans can expect to 'understand' (or even judge) God.

Acknowledging this difference of scale does rule out a whole swathe of simplistic ideas about God's virtue. I think in much the same way that the prohibitions about idolatry rule out naïve ideas about God's nature (eg representing God as a benevolent old man in the sky).

It may be that ineffable has a technical definition that I've missed which goes beyond this; I suppose what I'm saying is not so much: it is impossible to understand God, but more: it is foolish to try to understand God in the same way one understands mundane objects or even other people.
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livredor: mask
From:livredor
Date:August 27th, 2003 04:48 pm (UTC)
11 days after journal entry, 05:48 pm (livredor's time)
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Do you consider yourself to have a moral obligation towards your characters?

Oh yes, but one that's different in kind to that I have to other people on the same level of reality as me; whereas I see moral obligations to people in the real world as entailing compassion and tolerance and such virtues, the moral obligations I have to my characters extend to expressing them so well as I can and so true to their natures as I can.
I can certainly see the distinction, but the second category would not immediately have jumped out at me as a moral question. In a sense obligations to your characters are a subset of obligations to yourself?

Were I to treat real people in ways that some of my characters have been treated by their stories,
That's partly invoking an obligation to the story, rather than an obligation to the characters, it seems to me. I mean, I can imagine a reluctance to create situations for your characters which are unpleasant for them. But the story would be no story if everything always went swimmingly.

they would be lining up to kill me, and not wothout justification.
I think this must be at least partly about the difference in moral status between real people and fictional people? I am generally very cautious about assigning scales of moral value to different individuals, but this seems a rather extreme case. The suffering of a fictional individual can hardly be as important as the suffering of a real person, can it?

I think part of the difference is the degree of certainty one can have about a character's attitude, personality or thought process, which is far more than I'm willing to assume about any other human being.
That's a very good point, of course. But surely you must sometimes write characters into situations which you know are bad for them both in the short term and the long term? Like killing them off, for example?

I remember once discussing with Spanish M that aphorism of EM Forster's about choosing to betray one's country over betraying one's friend. And we concluded that in general this was correct, but excepted the case of being so close to someone that one knew precisely what values that friend would be prepared to sacrifice themselves for. I don't know if I still agree with that conclusion, but I do know that at the time we felt ourselves to have that kind of rapport.
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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:September 14th, 2003 10:26 pm (UTC)
30 days after journal entry, 11:26 pm (livredor's time)

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I just can't find it in me to consider humans important on that scale
It's funny, you're sort of arrogant and humble the opposite way round from what one conventionally finds! You're too 'arrogant'1 to accept that humans can not understand God in any natural, reason-based way, which most religious people accept without thinking of it. But you're too humble to accept that God might have a relationship with mere humans, without which assumption most of religion is pretty pointless.

1] I don't mean 'arrogant' in a critical way; this is pretty obvious, but I thought I'd say it just in case
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:September 16th, 2003 02:01 pm (UTC)
31 days after journal entry, 10:01 am (rysmiel's time)
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I like to think of it as confident on behalf of reason and humble from a point of expectiong to be valued emotionally, but you're right, it is an odd combination and not one I'd seen that way before. Thanks.
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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:September 14th, 2003 10:44 pm (UTC)
30 days after journal entry, 11:44 pm (livredor's time)
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Have you seen Papersky's "There is comfort in the knowledge you are of your kind and species" poem ?
Yeah, Michael pointed me to it a while back. I'm exceedingly jealous of it, (quite unreasonably, because by rights I ought to be just as jealous of every piece of half decent creative writing ever, as anyone who can write can do something that I can't), I think because I've never been able to write even bad poetry that actually says something, I always get entirely distracted by trying to make pretty phrases.

But yes, I do know that there's... [something, what's the word I want, nobility maybe, something non-banal, anyway] to be found in humanity, in what a mad Russian schoolfriend used to refer to as 'isness', without needing to invoke any deity. But words that express such things compellingly are a rare treasure, so thanks for reminding me of that cool poem.
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:September 2nd, 2003 04:57 pm (UTC)
17 days after journal entry, 12:57 pm (rysmiel's time)
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whereas I see moral obligations to people in the real world as entailing compassion and tolerance and such virtues, the moral obligations I have to my characters extend to expressing them so well as I can and so true to their natures as I can.
I can certainly see the distinction, but the second category would not immediately have jumped out at me as a moral question. In a sense obligations to your characters are a subset of obligations to yourself?


I don't know. Do you consider the moral imperative to make the best possible use of what talents you have available to be an obligation to oneself ?

Were I to treat real people in ways that some of my characters have been treated by their stories,
That's partly invoking an obligation to the story, rather than an obligation to the characters, it seems to me.


It's a two-way thing; I think it would be serving characters poorly to place them in stories for which they are deeply not suited.

I mean, I can imagine a reluctance to create situations for your characters which are unpleasant for them. But the story would be no story if everything always went swimmingly.

I'm finding myself reminded of the comment in Tam Lin that if you swap Othello for Hamlet, neither of them have a tragedy.

they would be lining up to kill me, and not wothout justification.
I think this must be at least partly about the difference in moral status between real people and fictional people?


"Fictional" does not, for me, mean not "real", as the people in my head are very palpable to me.

The suffering of a fictional individual can hardly be as important as the suffering of a real person, can it?

I'm trying to think of a place where they would actually be qualitatively comparable. I can't see myself refusing to write a scene that the integrity of story and character demanded, just because it might prove upsetting to some potential readers; on the other hand, there are topics about which I do not wish to write, because I do not have the experience to address them at a level that would feel does them justice, and I'd not want to trivialise real people's experiences of said situations by way of my limited understanding thereof.

But surely you must sometimes write characters into situations which you know are bad for them both in the short term and the long term? Like killing them off, for example?

Is killing a character necessarily a bad thing ? Given that humans are mortal, is providing a human character with a clean ending, giving resolution to what matters to them, necessarily a bad way of aving them remembered ?

I remember once discussing with Spanish M that aphorism of EM Forster's about choosing to betray one's country over betraying one's friend. And we concluded that in general this was correct, but excepted the case of being so close to someone that one knew precisely what values that friend would be prepared to sacrifice themselves for.

Well, yes, but not letting one's friend sacrifice themselves in the way they choose would strike me as being in and of itself a betrayal, no ?
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livredor: mask
From:livredor
Date:September 13th, 2003 10:31 pm (UTC)
29 days after journal entry, 11:31 pm (livredor's time)
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Do you consider the moral imperative to make the best possible use of what talents you have available to be an obligation to oneself ?
That's a very interesting question. My first answer was definitely yes; in fact, that's pretty much what I was thinking of when I mentioned an obligation to oneself. But now that you've asked the question, I realize that it could also be interpreted as an obligation to others. After all, if your talents are able to improve the world (of which creating art that others can enjoy is a subset), then making the best possible use of them counts as part of making the best moral contribution you are able.
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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:September 13th, 2003 10:35 pm (UTC)
29 days after journal entry, 11:35 pm (livredor's time)

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"Fictional" does not, for me, mean not "real", as the people in my head are very palpable to me.
Sorry, that was me being sloppy with language rather than intending to cast any aspersions on the people in your head. Apologies if I caused offence. Real is almost always a bad word, in opposition to just about anything.
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livredor: default
From:livredor
Date:September 14th, 2003 04:53 pm (UTC)
29 days after journal entry, 05:53 pm (livredor's time)
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The suffering of a fictional individual can hardly be as important as the suffering of a real person, can it?

I'm trying to think of a place where they would actually be qualitatively comparable.
I think that's what I was trying to get at: not so much that flesh people [now I'm trying to avoid 'real' and getting into difficulties. You know what I mean] are 'more important' than fictional people, but they just aren't reasonably comparable.

Is killing a character necessarily a bad thing ? Given that humans are mortal, is providing a human character with a clean ending, giving resolution to what matters to them, necessarily a bad way of aving them remembered ?
I'm very fascinated by the way you seem to be regarding characters as moral entities in the course of this discussion. I think this comment encapsulates partly the lack of moral equivalence; killing a person is necessarily a bad thing.

But you are painting a picture of having some moral obligations towards characters, a sense of what is good for them. That actually makes sense, but it isn't terribly intuitive to me. Clearly events within the story are good or bad for the characters (otherwise they wouldn't be human in any reasonable sense), but the question of events external to the story (at the level of you the author and the people you interact with) is a very interesting one.
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:September 15th, 2003 03:45 pm (UTC)
30 days after journal entry, 11:45 am (rysmiel's time)
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Is killing a character necessarily a bad thing ? Given that humans are mortal, is providing a human character with a clean ending, giving resolution to what matters to them, necessarily a bad way of having them remembered ?
I'm very fascinated by the way you seem to be regarding characters as moral entities in the course of this discussion. I think this comment encapsulates partly the lack of moral equivalence; killing a person is necessarily a bad thing.


OK, let me try to be a bit more precise about what I mean here. Taking the axioms

1/ it is the purpose of fiction to hold up a mirror to reality that is in some ways true

and

2/ human beings are mortal,

and sweeping the enormous pile of assumptions underlying both of these under the rug for a moment, we are left with the conclusion that fictitious human beings are mortal in their own context.

Given that I have accepted that they are going to die, I consider it morally preferable though not imperative that any of them who die on screen do so in ways which are apt to their character, which fit with the goals they are concerned with, and which are well remembered.

I have problems, both aesthetic and moral, with the kind of novel which posits serious life-threatening conflicts but limits the actual casualties to spear-carriers and renders its central characters safe from certain kinds of fate simply because they are central characters. I think that's a culpably inaccurate reflection of the universe.
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