A lifetime can be a long time to live on a memory.
The cartoon I posted Monday makes this point. I have to agree. Almost.
Because it seems to imply that living on a memory will leave you a starving wreck. A social outcast. Uncool. What, the cartoonists seem to demand, is the point of fanciful adventures if all they do is ruin your life? How can you face life as normal, after you’ve found a different world?
I won’t pretend the cartoon is the most thoughtful commentary on this I’ve ever seen. C. S. Lewis explored this tension as the Pevensie children grew too old for Narnia. Tolkien confronted this both in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Arguably, this is what nearly all George MacDonald’s fantasy writings are about.
And your point is?
Say I’m the lucky twelve-year-old who stumbles into another world. Say I save the world heroically, receive magical gifts, and return to normal life. I now find myself in a world that assumes I’ve not seen what I’ve seen, that I’ve not changed. I have seen, I have changed, and now what?
Actually, I dare you to write this as a short story. Take this setting (age of protagonist your own choice), and get 2000 words. Let me know what you come up with, please? (And put me in the acknowledgements if it becomes a novel?)
Now, the cartoonist grouses, all you have is anti-depressants to take for the rest of your life. Wave good-bye to your digestion.
There’s a school of thought common in many stories these days that runs something like this: the purpose of life is Experience. That capital E is important. This is an important Experience. Life is a run of doldrums or of suffering, and then one day, somehow, you Experience something—meet someone, get beamed into a spaceship, find yourself fleeing with a blonde from a shadowy group of gunmen with a Greek letter in their name. You have the Experience.
And now your life has meaning, a purpose. Even if it’s not happily ever after, you can be proud to be who you are. You know who you are, or, perhaps, who you think yourself capable of being.
The technical name of this school of thought is pop-existentialism. The Experience hearkens back to Jaspers’s ‘self-authenticating act of the will’ (could be death, but you wouldn’t know till you tried), or to Sartre’s more compelling and more depressing leap of nonreason.
In other words, the Experience is learning that you are really, after all, waiting for Godot.
This is the mindset the cartoon lampoons. And does so very nicely. Because, as Camus himself pointed out, the point of living is not a single experience, but living itself. All of life is equally absurd. All of life is capable of holding meaning.
Luckily for you, but sadly for me, this isn’t the time and place for a discussion on academic existentialism, or absurdism. Some of my meditations on that have been taken up by a certain novelist, who is mad.
This is the place to point out that memories can be very nutritious, as part of a balanced life of normal living (whatever that is, and I only have a vague idea). Because a memory does not have to be tied exclusively to the Experience as such. It can be an escape, but it is not escapism. The memory of another world can let us return to this world, and see it richer and purer and better. A memory can give us hope.
As Lewis reminded us, reading of enchanted forests doesn’t ruin real forests. It makes all forests seem a little enchanted.
Is seventy years really to long to live with hope in a world rich with wonder?