Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Illusions of Mastery

I'm re-reading a book, one of the ones that came out in the seventies that makes me want to puke every time I hear the word "warrior", especially applied to a non-violent lifestyle. You know the trope- it's always the first person account of a young, shallow, outwardly successful american college student who meets the quirky old man with seemingly mystic powers in an unlikely place. The quirky old man puts a finger on the vague disquiet that the protagonist feels in his life and challenges him to take a journey or follow a path or (insert cliched metaphor here) to become (insert euphemism for someone really special- warrior, shaman, "man of knowledge", healer, sorcerer, initiate, scout... there are dozens).

The protagonist is always extremely stupid and unobservant. The crazy old man (sometimes a woman) is always deft and subtle and, between the lines, smugly and self-righteously humble. That's humble with a capital H. Like in Horseshit. The protagonist eventually feels 'awakenings' and sees things that he has never seen before and rejects all that he has been taught about the false and plastic and shallow and spiritually dead mainstream culture.

As an aside, if you read these as potential cult initiations, you can get a good feel for the "Jim Jones" moment when the protagonist would have drunk the Grape Kool-aid of Doom as an act of proof of faith.

The whole premise is false and cruel. I'm really sorry that at some point the protagonist stopped smelling grass or tasting food or watching sunlight on water. I'm sorry the protagonist felt empty and unfulfilled. I'm really sorry it took two hundred pages of crappy writing for the author to get it clear to the protagonist that those were all individual choices. Ooooops. I didn't mean author and protagonist. I forgot for a second that these were all GENUINE First Person Accounts! Sorry. I obviously meant it took two hundred pages of crappy writing for the enlightened warrior mentor to bring the protagonist to this gate of understanding. That's what I meant. And they always seem to teach the last lesson on their death beds, which kind of makes it hard to verify anything. That's always convenient.

The need that inspires these books is also false and cruel. They can dress it up any way they want, but seeking mastery, at any level, is about seeking control. The world is a big and scary place. Not everything will go your way. Any way that you can measure happiness can and will be taken away from you- health, friends, posessions, experience will all fall away in age or senility or death. But so many people want to believe that there is this thing, this place, this discipline, this truth that will in some way transcend the inevitability of their own death, their own insignificance in the face of luck. They want an answer. People are lining up to provide answers, for a price.

Here's another persistant and obviously false belief about mastery: that if you truly achieve mastery in one thing, you have achieved it in all things. For the sake of argument, let's say that I have achieved absolute mastery in unarmed combat... you don't want me performing open-heart surgery on your child. Not if you have any brains at all. On the other hand, unless he's really special, you want me coming to save your ass from the bad guys, not your family doctor. The reply, of course, is that a true master has transcended such things as skills... which is a way of dodging and excusing the fact that the world is BIG. You will never know all of it and no matter how good you get at how many things, there will always be hundreds, thousands, millions of things that you don't know and can't fix.

But you can know and fix yourself, the enlightened ones say with smug, yet humble, superiority. To an extent, I agree. You can work on yourself. In any given situation you are the one variable you can control. To that extent, I agree. But if the self was truly mastered, all these final lessons wouldn't be happening on death beds, would they?

You can't beat time and you can't beat death. Get over that. But you can sure live while you're here. That may be the key, the one real chance at immortality lies in the stories you live and leave behind.


Molly said...

You are re-reading this book? It wasn't annoying enough the first time? Do you love how the pro "learns" a very important insight, then drops the ball and doesn't use it when the opportunity comes up, so that in his failure he learns a deeper truth?

The Moody Minstrel said...

Rory, just out of curiosity, have you ever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ? That's an interesting twist on the theme you described because the "mentor" is someone the protagonist wants to escape rather than seek...because it is himself before he has had his personality wiped out by electroshock therapy! I think it's a good read mainly because it looks at things from a totally different angle from what you'd expect.

Kai Jones said...

The only one of those I like is ironic. It's Heinlein's Glory Road.

I've never really understood the hero story, anyway. I'd like to; I know it's important to you.

And look! I signed up for a blogger account!

Anonymous said...

I swear you sound just like two people who used to work with me at Hewlett-Packard.

Rory and Kami liked SCA adventures and I believe that is how they got married...