Friday, June 18, 2010

Infinite Regression

Many years ago, James Taylor wrote an environmentalist song called “Traffic Jam”. I suppose that it is cute in its own way, but I never really like the musicality of the piece. There was, however, a verse that really captured my imagination. I include the previous verse just to give you an idea where the narrative of the song was going.

Well, I left my job about 5 o'clock,
It took 15 minutes go three blocks—
Just in time to stand in line,
With the freeway looking like a parking lot.


Now, I almost had a heart attack—
Looking in my rear view mirror.
I saw myself the next car back,
Looking in the rear view mirror,
'Bout to have a heart attack.

It is to be imagined that JT was also in the third, fourth, (and so forth) car looking in his rear view mirror, “Bout to have a heart attack”. That effect is called “infinite regression”.

When I was a little boy, I read a short story about a man who was sitting in his den reading a novel. The novel was about a man sitting in his den reading a novel about a man who was reading a novel, and so forth. In the novel, the man reading the novel was about to be assassinated by a murderer who had just come in through the door behind the chair. The first man reading the book then hears the floor squeak behind him. Again, the effect was “infinite regression”. The intent of the story was to chill the person reading the short story and ultimately look behind himself for the murderer. I know that the story was written by a prominent writer, but I just can’t remember who it was. I remember, however, that in the pulp science fiction magazine where I first read it, the cover was illustrated with a series of identical pictures of men reading a book, infinitely regressing.

I am in the midst of reading the complete fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, purportedly the master of 20th Century horror stories. There is no question that Lovecraft had an inventive genius, but his style of writing decidedly draws attention to itself. It is as if H.P. thought of three words, like “charnel”, “gibbous”, and “lugubrious”, and then opened a thesaurus in order to come up with every possible permutation of those three words. These would all be strung together for a distance of 5000 words or so while telling a dark tale. As he got older, Lovecraft became less addicted to that process and his stories became a little more moderated.

At the end of the first third of the book, however, H.P. Lovecraft produced a lovely little story that has to do with our topic. It is called “The Silver Key”. It is about ten pages long in my edition. Lovecraft wrote the short story in the fall of 1926 and had it published in January 1929. In tone, it differs greatly from everything that he had written prior to those dates.

The protagonist is a fellow named Randolph Carter. The opening sentence of the story is: “When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams.” The rest of the story has to do with how Carter tried to deal with the loss of his imagination. Frankly, it is a rather long diatribe about the ineffectual nature of every other genre of fiction and philosophy. Carter spends the next twenty years of his life trying to find a replacement for that which he had lost. One night he had a dream in which his dead grandfather came to him in a vision and reminded him of a box in the attic. Randolph immediately retires to the attic, finds the hideous box, and opens it to find a great silver key. A short time later, Carter decides to visit the old house of his youth, where he had been raised by his great aunt Martha and his great uncle Christopher. He drives to the hill upon which the house had been built and walks the path toward the top. Along the way he hears the voice Benijah Corey, his uncle’s hired hand calling for him. Eventually the two meet, and Randolph is taken to the house to be greeted by his long lost relatives.

What is hinted at, is that the fifty-year old Randolph has become a ten-year old boy again, equipped with the silver key by which he is able to open the gate of dreams which was located somewhere on his uncle’s property. The fellow grows up again, and for the next twenty years enjoys all of the benefits of the key and domain that it opened to him. The assumption is that this has been repeated several times and the boy/man has become essentially immortal. This effect might be termed “infinitely progressive”, yet it is in reality merely a loop.

All of these things produce another effect, a disassociation from reality, that reality is not really what it seems to be, that we are part of a mechanism that is far more complex and convoluted than we might suppose. Lovecraft’s perception of “reality” is extremely black and bleak, the attempted comprehension of which, he suggests, can bring nothing but madness. The stories and lyrics that use the infinite regression technique are merely playing for a short burst of startled, emotional reaction from their audience.

This manner of writing does little to improve the human condition. It does, instead, inspire fear of the unknown, insists on the insignificance of the human creature, and that the universe is, in the end, a capricious and unbridled thing which has no concern for creation.

Coleridge wrote that one of the necessities for writing and reading Romantic literature was the “willing suspension of disbelief”, that the reader must assume that the world that the author is creating has a reality worth exploring. While that approach has merit up to a point, there have been and continue to be great abuses of that principle by which men of our age have become cynical and selfish, believing in the world of their own creation and having no compunction against forcing others to believe in it too. Most of the world’s ills can be traced to these idiosyncratic assertions of “reality”.

What is absent in all of this is the truth, a truth that states that there is a “reality” that does govern all that we see, experience, and understand. What is not generally known is that that truth is benevolent, kind, compassionate, and willing to do whatever is possible to bring happiness and joy into the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of the earth.


Rebecca said...

That was interesting... I don't like literature that is written this way - it bothers me and I could never pin point what it was - now I can. You stated it perfectly.

I remember reading something that CS Lewis said at about writing: "A good writer can only write what he knows."

Anonymous said...

OOO! I read that story too! I read it for a literature class, and for a spanish class (in spanish, it was pretty funky). I have a couple of copies somewhere around here...

I always think of mom when I watch movies. Her words echo in my head, "I can't suspend my disbelief that long..."