Friday, April 22, 2016

Robert Louis Stevenson: Too simple to be profound?

It often happens that while reading a story or a novel or an essay, which is moderately interesting, the author will say something that stops me immediately.  I go back, read it again, meditate a bit, and move on. Yet, even as I move on, that statement or comment will remain in the background.  And it will remain with me for several days or even longer.  Such is the following brief comment or analogy by Robert Louis Stevenson in one of his essays:

Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child .  .  .


Robert Louis Stevenson
"A Gossip on Romance"
from The Lantern-Bearers and Other Essays


There are innumerable essays, theses, books on the nature of fiction and its popularity or the reason for its existence.  I think a collection could easily take up several very large bookcases.  I have read a number of essays and have several books gathering dust in my TBR bookcase which I will get to, probably, one of these days. But, Stevenson's brief comment--Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child .  .  .  so resonates with me that I may never get to those dusty books awaiting me.

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."  We read this in the King James Version of Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians, and it seems to fit.  Many adults put away those childish things, one of which is play, and they become very serious and solemn; life becomes a grim struggle.

But, this isn't true of all, for some (and that includes me), have exchanged that childish play for fiction.  A child at play is lost somewhere in there, and that child is thoroughly wrapped up in the game, whatever it may be.  The child is now on a different plane of existence.    How different is this from when I settle down with a book and travel off to far planets or to the future?  or work out how someone managed to murder a thoroughly nasty character and escape from a locked room?  or follow the destinies of a young man or a young woman who struggles to become a mature adult and not just a carbon copy of the neighbors? 

As a child, the call to "come out and play" was an invitation to another world; as adults, some of us have substituted "Once upon a time.  .  ."
 



41 comments:

  1. Great quote. I rewatched Treasure Island the other day, the old one with Wallace Beery. It was written by Stevenson, and it's the book I think about when thinking of childhood. I even wrote a blog about movie memories of childhood. A love of stories go back into childhood, so I see Stevenson's quote in different way. https://auxiliarymemory.com/2016/04/19/movie-memories-from-growing-up/

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  2. Jim,

    How do you see RLS's quotation?

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  3. food for thought... considering human activity from varying pov's can lead to varying conclusions. the earth viewed from proxima centauri might appear to be almost invisible and the concerns of the denizens thereof to be less than meaningless. but to a starving sudani, dependent on a moslemic military overlord for a handful of barley to feed his family, obeisance and toe - kissing could be the road to salvation. in general i agree with the above definition of universal play, but, as i say, it's all relative; play for one may be criteria for survival for another...

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    Replies
    1. Mudpuddle.

      Those who study animal behavior say that much play among young mammals is really a practice of survival skills.

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    2. sooo, is fiction reading a survival skill? extrapolated a bit, i suppose it could be considered as such...

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    3. Mudpuddle,

      I would say reading is a survival skill at the most basic level in our society, while reading fiction is a higher level skill.

      What do you think?

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    4. perhaps survival at a higher level requires distraction? a break from present pressures? but literature is an art form, so maybe art, or being creative, is a human need; an imperative to cope with existence... getting beyond myself here; more questions than i can deal with: what are the basic survival needs compared to the higher level ones, or are there higher levels? i guess consciousness might place pressure on individuals and the awareness of death and the universe might be considered survival threats. in which case artistic expression would be an attempt to master or control or direct that threat... where am i going with this? help...

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    5. Mudpuddle,

      Below is a link to an article on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. You might find it interesting.

      http://tinyurl.com/c4y67hb

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    6. tx, fred; i'll check it out...

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  4. Speaking of fiction, a friend just sent me this:
    http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/blink/read/art-and-artifice/article8447205.ece

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    1. Di,

      Interesting article. Thanks for the link. I would have liked to have read the "novel."

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    2. Do you think there can be a Tolstoy AI or a Melville AI?

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    3. Di,

      Following is Arthur C. Clarke's First Law:

      "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."

      Although I am not a distinguished scientist, I suspect his law applies equally to me also. However, at a gut level, I would say no.

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    4. Di,

      Do you think there can be a Tolstoy AI or a Melville AI?

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    5. To think it possible would be too cynical, I think. Maybe a kind of E. L. James or Dan Brown AI, but not more than that.

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    6. Di,

      Then AIs cannot produce whatever qualitative difference there is between Dan Brown and Tolstoy?

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    7. It's difficult to say, because now we can do lots of things people in the past could never imagine. But I do think that robots can never have the complexity, ambiguity, spontaneity and self-contradictoriness of human beings, so at some point they can do lots of things, perhaps almost everything, but can't produce works of art.
      Do you know of any AIs? By "know", I mean that you've seen their "works" (not necessarily fiction as we're talking about, but anything, like tweets, conversations...) and known their intelligence. I know 3.

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    8. Di,

      I agree. There are so many examples of things "that could never be done" and today they are being done, perhaps not exactly in the way first imagined, but still are being accomplished.

      Aside from an occasional report on the Net, no I haven't really seen anything that's extensive that was done by an AI.

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    9. I know 3:
      a/ DeepDrumpf, an AI created from Donald Trump's tweets to create new tweets on it own.
      2/ Tay, Microsoft's AI. It could tweet and have conversations with people and sounded more genuine than anything I'd ever known.
      3/ Cleverbot, a website that chats with you.

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    10. Di,

      Is Tay the one that was pulled from the Net because trolls had fed it racist slurs?

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    11. That one. I'm not sure if it's really because of some trolls though.

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    12. Di,

      According to the article I read, Tay was pulled off the Net so that filters could be added which would prevent the racist slurs it was taught by visitors.

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    13. I thought it just automatically learnt from twitter users.

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    14. Di,

      Yes, that's the problem. A large number of racists or trolls or both "taught" it racist comments and concepts which it incorporated into its replies. Microsoft took it off to set up some filters to prevent that from happening.

      Well, it's functioning at the level of racists and others of that ilk. That's not a very high level of intelligence, or so I think.

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  5. Replies
    1. madamevauquer,

      Yes, definitely three cheers--a necessary aid for sanity.

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  6. I think the things we wanted to be as a child are often the things we read about as adults: spacemen, pirates, cowboys.

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    1. Jim,

      So, you see a link between childhood play and adult play?

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  7. Fiction is definitely play! Here's one example. When my niece was little, when we'd get together we'd play with her toys. Now that she's fourteen, when we get together we play by writing fiction together. Sometimes we write short stories, sometimes movie scripts or music videos. We take turns writing a little then handing the page over to the other person to continue from there. It is so much fun!

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    Replies
    1. Cheryl,

      I think that there might be no real wall between child's play and adult's play, that we might just slowly move from one to the other as we mature.

      Of course, some stop playing, but that's their problem.

      That does sound like fun.

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  8. Reading fiction is the great escape -- child's play -- and a use of the imagination that makes us human rather than something less. I know that some people disparage fiction readers. I'm not sure I have much patience for such criticism.

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    Replies
    1. I'm not sure it's really an escape. At least, it always annoys me when somebody speaks of reading literature as escapism.

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    2. escape from what? to some of us, anyway, fiction is commonly more real than the sensory "reality" we observe around us... or as real, anyway, considering the surrealistic and peculiar things currently occurring in the "real" world....

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    3. "truth is stranger that fiction": so "they" say, but i'd comment that they're both pretty weird...

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    4. Mudpuddle,

      Is it escape from or to. . .?

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  9. And there is this from Frank Wilson's Books, Inq.

    Something to think on …
    All that non-fiction can do is answer questions. It's fiction's business to ask them.
    — Richard Hughes, born on this date in 1900

    That perhaps is the best analysis. Well, perhaps.

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    Replies
    1. R.T.,

      "All that non-fiction can do is answer questions. It's fiction's business to ask them."

      Definitely something to think on. I think it was Ray Bradbury who once said that literature doesn't solve nor cure problems--it reflects them.

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    2. also good; possibly definitive...

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    3. Mudpuddle,

      Works for me.

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