Friday, October 28, 2016

The Reach Of Human Experience

     I’ve discovered that I can no longer predict what will intrigue me sufficiently to generate one of these screeds...and I think that’s a good thing.

     Martin McPhillips, in his review of The Sledgehammer Concerto, made this evocative comment about it:

     ...he is much more determined here to explore the further reaches of human experience.

     Martin’s phrasing struck me when I first read that review and has remained with me since then. Not because of the rather high and undeserved compliment to my book, but because it suggested that it might be worthwhile to try to define “the reach of human experience.” Fiction writers – some of us, anyway – do try to explore it. Some go beyond the known and verified to do so. But very few persons, writers or not, ever search for its current limits – the essence of definition.

     Where do the limits of human experience stand today? In other words: at what points have we halted, whether or not we eventually decide to push beyond them?

     No, it’s not an easy question to answer. But then, we don’t “do” the easy questions here at Liberty’s Torch. Our Gentle Readers wouldn’t stand for it, so we leave them for lesser minds.


     “What senses do we lack that we cannot see and cannot hear another world all around us? What is there around us that we cannot know?” – the Orange Catholic Bible

     Human experiences can be categorized as either external – dealing with the sensory data reality provides – or internal – our mental responses and evolutions. The external category seems fairly easy to delimit: Human beings have not yet experienced environments that reach beyond our Moon – and damned few of us have gone even that far.

     Our internal explorations present a more elusive aspect, but they can be roughly categorized as follows:

  • Intellectual
  • Imaginative
  • Religious / Numinous
  • Emotional

     A small percentage of Mankind has roamed significant intellectual terrain. A larger fraction has exercised its imaginations to conceive of what might be or what cannot be. The overwhelmingly greater portion of our kind has known the religious impulse: broadly speaking, the attempt to comprehend, propitiate, or grow nearer to a power or powers beyond our own. Only psychopaths and sociopaths have been omitted from emotional experiences.

     There exist numerous more refined approaches to our interior lives. Yet, just as every flavor is composed of some combination of the “eight basic flavors” our taste buds can detect, all interior experience will be compounded of one or more from those four basic categories.


     The Sledgehammer Concerto pulled together six short stories:

  • “Communion,” about the emotional travails of three genius-level siblings from an abusive family;
  • “Virgin’s Prayer,” which employed magic in the service of evil to address the power of prayer;
  • “Last Rights,” which told of an attempt by the State to suppress a message it disliked and the effects upon the “messenger;”
  • “Source Code,” which involved scientific speculation and statism, with a concluding observation about what love will and won’t allow itself;
  • “The Last Green On The Willow,” which was about the quest for love, and what can happen when one stumbles upon it – both good and bad;
  • “The House Of Evening,” an exploration of a good man’s sense of having failed, with its consequences.

     The book wraps those six tales in an “interlocutory frame” of the sort I like and have used in other books. The central theme of that frame, which involves an older man introducing an arrogant, disdainful young woman to her father and his family history, is how little we really know about the people around us.

     For me, that’s the most interesting boundary of our experiential frontier, because it’s the most challenging. I have no doubt that our explorations of the physical world will continue. As for intellectual and imaginative advancement, these too will go forward...though they might march a bit more smartly if people would just put down their phones. The possibilities for religious “advancement” are more dubious, owing to the ineffability of the Mind of God. But on the emotional front, as we encounter and react to the non-human world and to one another, there’s a great deal of “work to be done,” and no great supply of persons willing to do it and capable of it.

     If there’s a service storytellers can render to their readers apart from diverting them from their cares for a few hours, it is in extending the borders of this realm, marking ever more of it as “explored” and ever less as “here there be dragons.” But of course, the great majority of fictioneers are mainly interested in making sales, which is why the market is glutted with endless variations on vampires, werewolves, witches, zombies, quest fantasies, and dystopias.

     I’m sure I’ll return to this anon.

     "The proper study of Mankind is Man." -- Alexander Pope

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