Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Scattered Brain, part 4

*This is a parsing of an article that originally appeared in Storytelling World magazine in 1997

Light & Dark 
There is a house in Mailbu, halfway up a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  I was a guest in this house when I was in Malibu to tell stories. The evening of my performance, my hosts had left early to prepare for the event and I was leaving the house to join them.  Out of habit, I checked to be sure I was turning off the lights as I left the empty house.  I noticed a bright light coming from the bathroom and reached in to flick the light switch off.  The switch was already off and I was momentarily confused as I tried to determine the source of light in the room. Then I realized that the light I was seeing was coming from the late sun shining low over the ocean and through the bathroom window.  I was trying to turn off the sun.  I had somehow forgotten that a room in a house can be lit by sunlight. 
Today our manipulation of light puts the day/night cycle into our hands - or perhaps more correctly - the illusion of the day/night cycle into our hands.   Lights are on at all hours and there are many times when we begin our artificial days long after the sun has set.   The time to turn out the light is the time of cessation: bedtime, sleeptime, endtime, deathtime.  "Turn out the light, then turn out the light" remarks Othello before extinguishing the candles and then extinguishing Desdemona. 
So what does this have to do with a storyteller turning off the sun on his way to tell stories?  In his introduction to the Pantheon collection of Grimms Fairy Tales, Padraic Colum writes: "The prolongation of light meant the cessation of traditional stories in European cottages.  And when the cottages took in American kerosene or paraffin there was prolongation.  Then came lamps with full and steady light, lamps that gave real illumi- nation.  Told under this illumination the traditional stories ceased to be appropriate because the rhythm that gave them meaning was weakened."  The prolongation of light has pushed back the shadows of the hearth where, once upon a time, stories were told.  Further, the prolongation of light has weakened the "rhythm that gave them meaning."  That rhythm, simply stated, is the time for light, the time for dark, the time for work and the time to tell stories. 
We have prolonged the light: we can work whenever we want (and more than we wish) and we have prolonged the seasons: I can buy fresh corn in February.  We have changed the ancient rhythm.  Is there only cacophony?  Or is there a new rhythm? 
"Today, while raking the front lawn, Todd said, "Wouldn't it be scary if our internal clocks weren't set to the rhythms of waves and sunrise - or even the industrial whistle toot - but to product cycles, instead?" 
"We got nostalgic about the old days, back when September meant the unveiling of new car models and TV shows.  Now, carmakers and TV people put them on whenever.  Not the same." 
Douglas Coupland, Microserfs 
The Hearth 
The tradition of the hearth is still among us and played out regularly in many technologies. When we go to the cinema, popcorn in hand, to watch shadows flicker on the wall, we are practicing a human behavior as ancient as the first domestic fire.  (As an aside, it is interesting that popcorn is so intimately linked with the cinema ritual.  Certainly, on the American continent, popcorn has been enjoyed by fireside story listeners for a long time!)  There is something soothing about sitting in a dark theatre.  The cinema is a communal hearth creating adhoc communities that exist for a few hours and then are scattered.  The television set and the computer screen provide the hearth of the modern home.  This hearth is available at all hours.  We can bathe in its stories and images, from waking to sleeping, whether the sun is shining or the moon is full. 
For a long time now, the modern hearth has maintained the broken rhythms of the scattered brain.

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