Zen and the Art of the Tachyon Dragon
Koans, McGuffins, and miracles in
The average Westerner knows two things about Zen: that it features interestingly weird sayings called koans, and that it has something to do with motorcycle maintenance. It would perhaps be uncharitable of me to point out that the modern Western interest in Zen arose more or less simultaneously with the widespread use of psychedelic drugs. You can appreciate a koan without the influence of drugs, but before you can think it the epitome of Eastern enlightenment, you have to be pretty nearly non compos mentis; a state that most people can reach slowly, by years of wilful stupidity and indoctrinated ignorance, or quickly by the powerful aid of chemicals. Hippies knew how to appreciate the profound wisdom of koans, and also how to express their appreciation: ‘Like, heavy, man!’ Or as their children put it, ‘Du-u-ude!’ To each his own.
In the West, the best-known koan is that old chestnut, ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ Actually there are countless koans in the literature, and it is not difficult to make them up oneself. Somewhere in one of my books I have written a passage where an apprentice wizard is being tested with koan-like sayings as a kind of intellectual calisthenics. One of these was, ‘Should you take hold of the sun by the handle or by the corners?’ A philosopher could teach a good rough course in elementary logic just by dissecting all the absurdities and false assumptions crammed into that one question.
The koan has found an unexpected home in that most unphilosophical of Western literary genres, the lightbulb joke:
‘How many Zen Buddhists does it take to change a lightbulb?’That has the aspect of a cheap shot; Zen is neither so simple nor, as a rule, so pointless. But it is only the set-up for the more sophisticated version of the riddle:
‘Two: one to change the lightbulb and one not to change the lightbulb.’
‘How many Zen masters does it take to change a lightbulb?’I find this joke rather delightful, because it incorporates a koan in itself, and what is more, a pretty effective caricature of koans in general. It would be flippant but perhaps not entirely incorrect to say that the joke partakes of the Buddha nature.
‘Four: one to change the lightbulb, one not to change the lightbulb, one to both change and not change the lightbulb, and one to neither change nor not change the lightbulb.’
Koans, of course, are not meant to be profound, but nonsensical, even silly; and it takes a very silly person to try to answer them seriously. But they do serve at least one profound purpose, and that is to remind us of the pitfalls of language. Mediocre writers, or at least those who rest content in their mediocrity, are always complaining that language is not subtle enough, or does not contain words enough, to express the exquisite gossamer textures and fairy architectures that arise in their minds. Actually the opposite is more often true. It is reality that is insufficiently subtle; the universe cannot perform all the tricks that we can train words to do. Koans warn us against the sort of inverted Nominalism that insists that every mental construct must have its counterpart in physical reality.
I say insists, not would insist; for this habit of mind actually does exist. Physicists, expressing themselves in their own peculiar and beautiful language (for mathematics is a language as well as a system of logic), have shown themselves particularly susceptible. For a time in the twentieth century, every particle that the theoreticians could predict with their mathematics turned out to be a real particle that the experimenters could find in the laboratory; and as humans usually do after an unbroken string of successes, the theoreticians got rather cocky. Relativity tells us that matter can only move at speeds slower than the speed of light. Theoretical physicists, conceding this point with evident ill grace, asked if there might not be some kind of matter that could only move faster than light. As it turned out, they were able to devise a system of equations that represented such particles, which they dubbed tachyons. For years they searched for tachyons in vain, or at least for some conceivable method of detecting a particle so speedy that it is here and gone before it can interact with the ordinary matter of one’s instruments.
In fact, as they later came to realize, they had set themselves an impossible riddle. The equations describing tachyons require that the mass of these particles shall be an imaginary number; and nobody could conceive what an imaginary mass might mean. Now, it is just possible to conceive of a particle with a negative mass. If the mass of a body is the quantity of its inertia (a good rough definition of the term), you have only to imagine how a body might behave if it had less than no inertia. Contrary to Newton’s laws of motion, you might suppose, it would actually prefer to change its position and velocity capriciously, rather than stay in one place—until you applied force to dampen, as it were, its chaotic enthusiasm. The harder you pushed it, the more it would not move; but if you let it alone it would be off on the wings of fancy, and an object composed of such particles would fly off in all directions the moment you took your hand away. I do not know whether this idea has any application in the realm of particle physics, but it certainly seems applicable to car parts and computer software. It is still more like the behaviour of love or money. But an imaginary mass, it seems, is a thing beyond even the comprehension of a poet. It can only mean that the particle as well as the mass is imaginary. In fact, as it now appears, the tachyon is no more than a mathematical koan.
Now, the art of fantasy depends fundamentally on this truth, that human language can construct ideas that have no counterpart in physical reality. We can even construct ideas, like tachyons or the sound of one hand clapping, that do not even have any meaning in themselves. In fantasy we seldom meddle with koans, and then at our peril; for the most part, we leave that field open to the Surrealists, who are better equipped to cultivate it in any case, because they are so easily contented with an imaginary audience. Fantasy can concern itself with paradox and conundrum, as in the brilliant work of Lewis Carroll; but it loses itself when it ventures into outright nonsense. This is why Edward Lear, for all his fantastic imagery, is not generally considered a writer of fantasy. Faërie begins, perhaps, on the fringes of Reality, at the edge of ‘the fields we know’; but it also has a far edge, it does not extend infinitely beyond the world from which we manipulate and observe it.
The essential thing about fantasy is that it obeys its own rules, and the general rules of logic, even if it does not obey the rules of nature as we know them. The Lords of Elfland may change the lightbulb or not, but they must do one or the other, and they cannot do both at once. Ursula K. LeGuin has said that the song of the transistor is not heard in that land; and neither is the song of the koan. The usual practice, and one sees this even more clearly in myths and folk-tales than in modern literary fantasy, is to allow one extraordinary concession, which is balanced by making it dependent upon an extraordinary prohibition. Psyche may be the bride of Eros as long as she never sees him. Samson may have the strength to defeat armies and topple temples as long as he never cuts his hair. Sauron the Dark Lord may have the power of command over all other wills in Middle-earth, as long as he puts forth that power into a golden ring, which can then be lost or destroyed.
The most usual concession in present-day fantasy is the one commonly called Magic. The Magician may command the forces of nature by his mere will, just as he commands his limbs and muscles; but he must never break the taboo associated with his particular power. Sometimes the power of Magic can only be wielded by a virgin, or a blind man, or a perfect innocent—three variations of the same idea. The Magician may gain his power by years of abstruse study, or by ascetic discipline, or by swearing a mighty and inviolable oath—three variations of another idea, and all three beautifully developed by Stephen R. Donaldson in his Thomas Covenant books. Power has its price; it may not add up in joules and watts, as it has to do in physics, but even in fantasy you cannot get something for nothing.
That, by the way, is the difference between Magic and Miracle. A miracle is a free gift, an uncovenanted boon, as we can see in the Catholic doctrine of the Apostolic Succession. To become a priest, one must study, one must be ascetic, one must take vows; but these things do not make a priest, they only prepare him to receive the gift. The status of priesthood is conferred by the touch of another priest, a bishop, who received it in the same way, in an unbroken chain back to the twelve disciples; and the Twelve, in turn, received the Holy Spirit by mere miracle from the hands of Christ. Fantasy is not comfortable with miracles, any more than Science is. In fantasy, as in science, miracles are a way of cheating. A scientist observes a phenomenon, a fantasist invents a plot; each sets himself a problem. The scientist will not be satisfied if he cannot solve his problem strictly by the scientific method, without invoking occult powers. He wants his solutions to be self-contained and self-consistent, and to have a certain simplicity and symmetry that he calls, significantly enough, elegance. And he knows that his solutions will not be accepted until they are reviewed and tested and criticized by his fellow scientists.
The writer of fantasy may hold himself to a lower standard, but he, too, is subject to a kind of peer review; for if he fails to entertain his audience, he will lose it, and his work will not find acceptance. And the audience demands that the problem of the plot shall be solved according to the rules postulated in the story, which are the rules of nature itself, modified by the concessions and prohibitions that the storyteller has explicitly laid out. The characters may employ powers that we would consider occult, but they must not be occult in the story; they must be openly acknowledged by the author, even if they are not explained. A deus ex machina, or a sudden change of the rules, or any other obvious sign that the author has contradicted his own assumptions, is not elegant; it does not satisfy. Fantasy readers are often devoted to mysteries and science fiction as well; and this is quite natural, for all three depend on logic and ‘elegance’ to sustain them.
In subsidiary details, fantasy can borrow from folklore, and the reader, being familiar with folk-tales, will grant certain postulates without quite regarding them as concessions. In general, you can only get away with one novum (Darko Suvin’s word for what I have called a ‘concession’) or McGuffin (Alfred Hitchcock’s term, originating in the mystery field, adapted by science fiction writers for their own use, and now adopted in fantasy: a significant concatenation). But certain things ‘don’t count’. A science fiction writer can have faster-than-light spaceships and alien intelligences if he pleases, and still be permitted his novum on top of these; spaceships and aliens are, as it were, the common property, the universal concession, of science fiction.
In fantasy, where the concessions are more generous, this applies even more strongly. Dragons, for instance, have the right of safe conduct anywhere in Faërie. A reader may not like to read stories about dragons, she may be morally offended or aesthetically uninterested or simply sick of the subject; but at any rate she will not complain that the author has cheated by bringing in a dragon, because dragons belong in fantasy. The general concession or novum of Magic is very useful in this respect. How do dragons manage to fly? The thing is physically impossible. ‘Everyone knows’ (meaning that everyone does not know, but will accept the author’s assertion as if it really were common knowledge) that dragons are powerfully intelligent and crafty creatures, chock-a-block with Magic, and the mere magical force of will allows them to defy the laws of gravity and aerodynamics. Without their Magic, they would be no more than flightless cousins of the pterodactyl.
The great thing is to express the novum with confidence and force, weaving it into the fabric of the story, as a thing that ‘everybody knows’ in that world, and takes for granted. A fantasy story is not about the novum or the Magic after all, but about the consequences of it, the effect it has on the characters in the tale. In plain mimetic fiction, we do not explain the operation of the internal combustion engine, we just set our characters down in a traffic jam. Readers do not understand your particular system of Magic as they understand motorcars, but they are remarkably adept at filling in details if you draw a few broad strokes. Two or three well-chosen examples are worth fifty pages of principles, and are fifty times more fun to read.
There is an unspoken covenant between authors and readers of both fantasy and science fiction, that any reasonable novum will be accepted without question if it is dressed up in appropriate terminology. Tachyons may not exist, but if a starship engineer announces in alarm that excessive tachyon flux is causing static field decay in the bradyonic converter, savvy readers will know that he is saying something or other about faster-than-light travel, and politely accept his words as a handwaving substitute for real technical information; and this goes double in fantasy. If you allude to real, pre-existing legends and folklore, or motifs drawn from them, your readers will more readily accept your own original ideas along with them. It is easier to follow what ‘everyone knows’ if it is founded in something that most people really do know. You must earn your audience’s trust; and if you contradict your own assumptions, you betray that trust, and so lose it. If it ever turns out that your novum is also a koan, your readers will spot it, they will stop reading, and some of them will never read anything under your name again.
And of course you must tell an entertaining story; but that is not an art that can be taught in essays. If you fail to do that, the only applause you will hear is the sound of one hand clapping.
17 October 2003