Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The Most Dangerous Story in the World - Guest Post by Nicola Morgan

If you haven't read Nicola Morgan's newly-published YA novel Wasted yet, then go out and buy a copy. At once.  I say this, not because Nicola is the first Google result for "Crabbit Old Bat" and therefore I'm terrified of her awesomeosity and crabbitness (though obviously I am), but because it's a book I wish I'd written myself. Jess and Jack's story is set firmly in the modern day world, but there are ancient echoes within it, echoes which have everything to do with Destiny and Fate and all those things we inhabitants of the 21st century are meant to dismiss as hokum and bunkum, fit only for the feeble-minded and charlatans.  But I say to you: just try playing 'Jack's Game' for a day (or choose not to--it's up to you, of course).  But if you do so choose, toss a coin (beautifully, of course) to decide your every move.  It's scary and powerful stuff.  I know. I did it.  Now I've spent too much money I couldn't afford and eaten something which disagreed with me.  But I've also rung an old friend I hadn't talked to for years and caught an early train where, by chance, I had an unexpected conversation and found out something I needed to know.  There are many more such stories of chance (including one of mine) over at Nicola's Wasted Blog, which I urge you to visit at the earliest opportunity.  Now, that's quite enough from me.  You'll be wanting to hear from Nicola, who I welcome to Scribble City Central for her first (but I trust certainly not last) visit.  Thanks for sharing your wisdom, O Crabbit One, and over to you for a bit of musing on the Oedipus myth.

Stories are dangerously powerful. The Oedipus story is the most dangerous, devious, destructive story in the world. But it’s also very easy to protect yourself: refuse to believe. Then you retain your power of choice. The story is a very important part of the philosophy behind Wasted – can we escape our Fate? Is there such a thing as Fate? Do we have freewill or are we mere victims?

The Oedipus story goes like this. King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes were expecting a baby. The prophet Teiresias predicted that their son would kill his father and marry his mother. As you can imagine, this wasn’t the best news they’d had all year, but they had a solution: they gave the baby to a shepherd, with instructions to leave him on a distant hillside, making sure he couldn’t escape by driving a wooden stake through his foot. (As if the baby was going anywhere…) Inevitably, the shepherd couldn’t bring himself to leave the baby, and took him to another city, Corinth. Somehow – by a series of coincidences that a modern story-teller couldn’t get away with – the baby was brought up by the king and queen of Corinth. Lucky baby. Or not so lucky, because they called him Oedipus, meaning “swollen foot”. (Be glad your parents didn’t give you such a silly name.)

When Oedipus grew up, he heard rumours that he wasn’t the true son of the king and queen, so he foolishly went to ask the oracle at Delphi. (This was foolish because the oracle was famous for giving unhelpful answers.) Sure enough, the oracle didn’t tell him what he wanted to know but did tell him something he didn’t want to know: that he would kill his father and marry his mother. As you can imagine, this wasn’t the best news he’d heard all year, but he had a solution: a very long journey.

On this journey he got into an argument and killed a man. And carried on, arriving at the city of Thebes, where they were having some trouble with the Sphinx, who kept eating travellers who couldn’t solve a riddle. Oedipus solved the riddle and the Sphinx committed suicide. So far, so good. The queen of Thebes (Jocasta, you remember, and Oedipus’s mum) forgot about being terribly upset about her husband’s recent unsolved murder, and married the hero. Everything would have been fine, but the truth about Oedipus’s identity came out, including that he’d killed his father and married his mother. Jocasta was so appalled that she killed herself. Oedipus was so appalled that he poked his eyes out with a burning stick and wandered around the country for some years while other innocent members of his family also came to unpleasant ends.

So, what’s the problem with this story? The problem is that it’s supposed to tell you that you can’t escape your destiny and that you have no real choices, no free will. It gives us no hope at all.

But it doesn’t tell us this at all – it just pretends to. It’s a fairy story, not a story of something that happened or might happen but a “what if” story, a “thought experiment”. All it really does is ask us to think, “What if you were told your future? Here’s an example of a made-up story of how someone tried to avoid their foretold future and ended up fulfilling it.” So??? It couldn’t happen because it is impossible on any level to know your future. It’s impossible because there are so many permutations of tiny combinations of events that there are an immeasurable number of possible futures, because each result depends on what comes before, and what comes before depends on what comes before. Etc. Etc. Etc.

When one of my daughters was small she used to ask questions like, “What if you woke up in the morning and you had two heads? What if you woke up and the sea was made of cucumbers? What if chickens spoke French?” I was frustrated by the questions and she was very frustrated by my answer, “But it couldn’t happen.” I wasn’t being obstructive – I genuinely couldn’t answer the question because it was literally impossible in this world, therefore it was philosophically impossible in this world to say what “I” would do because “I” am in this world.

When I studied philosophy at university, one essay question in my final exam was something like, “Can you know what it would be like if you were a scorpion?” Basically, my answer would be, “No, because if I was a scorpion I wouldn’t be me and it wouldn’t be this world.” I think I probably made the essay a bit longer than that….

So, ignore the “what ifs” of the Oedipus question: if you believe the story and think it has any meaning, it will wreck your self-belief. It loses all its power if you refuse to acknowledge it.

You do not have to worry about whether you can avoid your “Fate”, because there simply is no such thing. Like a sea made of cucumbers. Or chickens speaking French. It’s not in this world.

This is what Jack needed to discover in Wasted. I can’t tell you whether he does. Because it depends how the coin spins and you’re the one who has to spin it in the end. Also, the first chapter seems to foretell the end – but it doesn’t. Because the message of Wasted is that nothing is until it is; everything is possible until it isn’t. Oedipus came to a terrible end because a) he was foretold a future and b) he believed it. But a) is the false bit.

If Oedipus had known that, he could have ignored that silly oracle. Just as Jack and Jess ignore Farantella the Famous Fortune-teller. Even though she got it right….

Thanks so much for having me on your blog, Lucy! I know you love the old stories as much as I do. Keep up the good work!

Copyright © Nicola Morgan 2010

More about Nicola:
Nicola Morgan is an award-winning author for teenagers, with successful titles such as Fleshmarket, Deathwatch, Blame My Brain and Sleepwalking. She prefers to forget that she also used to write Thomas the Tank Engine Books.... When she's not writing, she loves speaking in schools, and at festivals and conferences in the UK and Europe, She also enjoys messing around on Twitter or her blogs. Nicola blogs for writers HERE and has set up a special blog about her brand new book, Wasted - you can join the activities and contribute in lots of ways HERE


Nicola Morgan said...

Hi, Lucy, and thanks so much for hosting me here. I'd love to know what people think of my take on the Oedipus story. And I promise I won't be (very) crabbit if anyone disagrees with me!

catdownunder said...

"What if...?" seems like a terribly important question to me. Imagination hinges on it. "Why?" is equally important.
Taking advice without checking facts or considering the possible implications of your own actions and their effect on other people is foolish - and yet we do it all the time. Perhaps the Oedipus story is also about that.

Lucy Coats said...

As I said, I'm delighted you're here, Nicola. I too can't wait to hear whether people agree with you. The prospect of an explosion of crabbitness on SCC fills me with joy and terror in equal measure, so I hope someone takes issue!

Cat - I agree--we live reckless lives without even thinking about it. Oedipus just made the wrong choices and they all added up to a disaster. He could have said no or walked away at any point. But he didn't, and that's what makes it such a compelling car crash of a story. Personally, I always want to do pantomime shouting to warn him, yet know it would do no good. I do the same to the TV when someone does something stupid. Mad, really.

Jenny Beattie said...

I love the classics. I've just received my copy of Wasted (in Bangkok) from a friend who brought it for me in the UK. I can't wait.

Nicola Morgan said...

Blimey - Bangkok! I do get around! Thank you!

I once (twice, actually) heard a telling of the whole of the Odyssey by an oral story-teller, at the Edinburgh book festival. Until then, i had never believed quite how the ancient bards / Homer could have told such long long stories from memory. This guy made me believe. It was mesmerizing.

Lucy Coats said...

Scribble City Central obviously going global this morning :-) Now, here I have a comment sent to me from Alison Croggon (author of the Pellinor books) who lives in Australia. (Blogger won't let her do it direct for some mysterious reason).

Alison says:

So, what¹s the problem with this story? The problem is that it¹s supposed to tell you that you can¹t escape your destiny and that you have no real choices, no free will. It gives us no hope at all.

I think this is a terrible misunderstanding of tragedy.

I don't think the story of Oedipus is dangerous, or destructive, or devious.
But it is certainly a great tragic story (and the play is a masterpiece).

"I'm not sure even the Greeks believed in the gods - quite a lot of them certainly didn't - but they were certainly very aware of the capriciousness of life. The ultimate fate of all of us is death, and it's simply foolish to think that we can escape it. I think in their tragedies the Greeks were talking about that kind of thing, and they believed - or at least Aristotle believed - that the catharsis art creates through imaginatively facing catastrophe is a very positive, even a necessary thing. It's about facing our deepest fears. Only then can we be fully joyful in our lives."

Over to you, Crabbit.

Anonymous said...

Firstly, you're funny ("This wasn’t the best news they’d had all year"). Secondly, you're right. Thirdly, I have to read this book. Fourthly, I'll shut up now. ~Miriam

Joanna Troughton said...

There are many old proverbs concerning fate:
'If we do not change our direction we are likely to end up where we are headed.' Chinese.
'You often meet your fate on the road you take to avoid it.' French.
'Nae fleeing frae fate.' Scottish.
Nicola's book sounds fascinatinating - I can't wait to read it!

Nick Cross said...

I think that, by their very nature, most writers prioritise free will above the whims of fate. Otherwise, why would we all labour so long and hard to achieve publication, and then to stay there, book after book? True, there is a small element of luck to the whole process, but fate is just a concept made up by people who fear taking control of their lives.


Kathryn Evans said...

I have a slightly different take on Wasted ( sorry Nicola - I know it's your but it is now also ours!). I see: Jack has OCD brought about by the tragedy of the deaths of his 2 mothers - and I know how this feels having lost my birth mother when i was very young and nearly losing ( though not, thank god) my step mother to cancer. You fill your mind with what if's in an attempt to realign what surely can not be - there is part of our brains that can not accept the horror of loss - for me this book is as much about loss and mental instability ( Jack, Sylvia, Simon even Kelly to some extent) as it is about luck or fate. Luck and fate are expressions of inner turmoil...of course the structure of the book ( which is fantastic BTW) draws us into Jack's game but we all play it, particularly at the end, hoping for a positive outcome - something that will put the world right. Not so much luck or chance but manipulation of those particles......

Nicola Morgan said...

Alison - as someone who studied classics at university, including a large part on tragedy, I am afraid I don't understand my misunderstanding! The Oedipus story isn't a tragedy by the full definition - because it doesn't contain the elements of nobility and hubris, for example, has no tragic form - but the various plays about Oedipus are indeed tragedies and very marvellous they are, I agree. I have no quibble with the plays. They teach us a great deal. I have a huge quibble, as Socrates would have had, with the philosophy behind the core Oedipus story. And that is what Wasted is about. I absolutely hate what it can do to people who believe in fate. My approach to the story, in life and in Wasted, is to take the wind out of its sails by refusing to believe. Just as with fairies.

I don't disagree with your final para - but it isn't what I'm talking about, so I'm sorry if I've been confusing. I'm not referring to the Greeks and what they did or didn't think - I'm talking about the implications of us, today, believing in "fate", whatever we think we mean by it. No one, so far as I can see, is suggesting that we can escape death. But your death might be tomorrow or it might be in twenty years' time, or any one of an infinite number of moments away - and the actions that you and others around you take will make a difference. How much of it you can control and how much you can't is partly what Wasted is about. The nature of free-will is another important part. It's not about the Greeks and it's not about tragedy - a form I love, I assure you.

Kathryn - i love how different people have different takes on the book! And I don't disagree for a minute with the slant you've taken. There are many many themes in it and I probably haven't noticed them all myself. I might not even have meant them all to be there but if they are they are.

Nick - you're right, but I also think Fate is a throwback from the days when we knew so much less and when we all really believed that a god / gods could have spun it all out in advance.

Joanna - I love the first one. That tangles me up!

Miriam - hello! (And Lucy probably doesn't even know that her global blog has also reached Jerusalem.)

Clare said...

"But it couldn't happen." Nicola, you sound like my old science teacher! Like your daughter, I could never resist, "but what IF....?" and I haven't grown out of the habit.
You sound very certain and your thoughts sound very logical but seem to leave little place for the unknown, the unmeasurable, the intangible, the spiritual?
I don't believe in the concept of pre-destined fate but I do believe that science hasn't, and never will have, all the answers.
Personally, I read Oedipus as a STORY but have never felt troubled by it - now I picture him tossing a coin every time he comes to make a decision - agh!
My husband looks at the stars and can tell me the names and their distance from us. I look at the stars and see the great unknown and unknowable. Perhaps my seas are made of cucumbers....?

Nicola Morgan said...

Hi clare - thing is, my daughter wanted an answer and I couldn't give an honest one other than to say that it couldn't happen. She wanted a logical, scientific and reassuring answer, so I couldn't give her something that wasn't.

And oh, absolutely I think there's room for mystery and magic. I only sound certain about those other things because they happen to be the things I feel certain about but get me onto other topics and I'm as airy fairy as anyone! No scientist claims to have all the answers, but I am no scientist. yes, i'm a rationalist, and happier when I can find good explanations for things, but I don't beat myself into a tangle if I can't.

To take each or your words:

"Unknown" - absolutely masses of it.
"Unmeasurable" - measureless amounts of it, hence the whole focus on quantum physics, apart from anything.
"Intangible" - oh my gosh, virtually everything interesting is intangible!
"Spiritual" - in the sense of something unknown, intangible and unmeasurable, yes. In the sense of ghostly beings, sorry but I can't go that far.

Anonymous said...

If we woke up and the sea was made of cucumbers, a lot of fish would be gasping and dying, a lot of scientists would be testing and muttering, and a lot of people would be making pickles.

And then would come the smell, as all those fish and the pickles far off began to rot.

And an ice age. I think that's how the science goes.

And the economic crash, particularly in maritime tourist destinations.

On the whole, I'm glad the sea has not yet been cucumbers.

Lucy Coats said...

Goodness--I go away for a minute, and come back to find all these differing opinions. Excellent. I'm not going to add to Nicola's comments, because she's answered everything very comprehensively already.

Mokie - I should tell you that you made me spit out my porridge all over the table (luckily not on the keyboard). Thank you for making me nearly laugh my breakfast up.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thing is, if the sea was made of cucumbers, it wouldn't be the sea, because the sea by definition is not made of cucumbers and logically couldn't be. If the sea filled up with so many cucumbers that there was no sea left, it still wouldn't be the sea made of cucumbers: it would be the sea replaced by cucumbers. It wouldn't be the sea.

A more interesting conundrum is at which point we would decide that it was no longer the sea. Where would we draw the line? How much salt water does a sea need to contain to be a sea? And then enter the pre-socratics to make our minds boggle in fabulous ways, ways which show that Achilles can't beat the tortoise etc. But ti then becomes about words and definitions (and, horribly, calculus) and doesn't help me answer my daughter's question.

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