Thursday, January 26, 2012

Logic and porridge

When I teach ancient works, I like to point out that logical coherence is not always the point. For instance: if it’s the tenth year of the war, why is King Priam only now asking Helen to identify the various Achaeans laying siege to Troy? I think there’s only one good answer to such a question: “It’s a story.” For the purposes of the story, it makes sense to have Priam ask about these things, tenth year or no tenth year: his questions and comments let us understand his attitude toward “the enemy” (quite different from those that hold in our world). And in Iliad 3, it really is as if the war is just beginning, tenth year or no tenth year: single combat between Menelaus and Paris — now they think of it? — might settle the Helen question, until Athena breaks the armies’ truce and battle begins in 4.

When I raise or respond to this kind of logical question, I invoke the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. How can one bowl of porridge be too hot, one too cold, and one just right? Well, it’s a story. I am now happy (I think) to see that I am not the first person to have wondered about the temperature differences. Physicist Chad Orzel addressed the question in a 2009 blog post: The Faulty Thermodynamics of Children’s Stories (Uncertain Principles: Physics, Politics, Pop Culture). And there’s a 2007 novel that investigates the question (and many more questions), Jasper Fforde’s The Fourth Bear.

[Reader, have you read Jasper Fforde?]

comments: 7

Elaine said...

I have read books by that author! but felt entangled by an alternate universe... Or else, tried to read successive books too close together and reached satiation.

mwschmeer said...

Have you seen the movie Rubber, about the killer psychokinetic tire? It's an absurdist movie, one which plays with your expectations of what a film should do. It's gory, but still a good movie.

And it makes you think (especially students, many of whom aren't used to movies that require the audience to think while watching).

The movie starts with a monologue by the sheriff character, delivered to the audience, part of which is:

"In the Steven Spielberg movie E.T., why is the alien brown? No reason. In Love Story, why do the two characters fall madly in love with one another? No reason. In Oliver Stone's JFK, why is the president suddenly assassinated by some stranger? No reason. In the excellent Chain Saw Massacre by Tobe Hooper, why don't we ever see the characters go to the bathroom, or wash their hands, like people do in real life? Absolutely no reason! Worse, in The Pianist, by Polanski, how come this guy has to hide and live like a bum when he plays the piano so well? Once again the answer is no reason. I could go on for hours with more examples. The list is endless. You probably never gave it a thought, but all great films, without exception, contain an important element of no reason, and you know why? Because life itself is filled with no reason. Why can't we see the air all around us? No reason. Why are we always thinking? No reason. Why do some people love sausages and others hate sausages? No f*****' reason . . . Ladies, gentlemen, this film you're about to see today is an homage to 'no reason,' the most powerful element of style."

Substitute the word "story" for "film" and it still applies.

So, I think the right answer for why King Priam is just getting around to asking Helen that question after ten years is "no reason." He just does. And that is reason enough.

Michael Leddy said...

Elaine, I think I’m going to read some Fforde this summer. By then I’ll be ready for an alternate universe.

Matthew, I like that reasoning. But if I used it too often, I’d be out of a job. :)

Michael Leddy said...

I have to ask: is Rubber a spin-off from Duel? :)

mwschmeer said...

Michael: No, it's not. It's a stand-alone think piece. Google it, and you'll find a nice Wall Street Journal interview with the director, who of course is French.

Michael Leddy said...

Matthew, I meant to be joking: movie with a truck, movie with a tire. I think I’d like a movie about a killer tire — I’ll seek it out.

Anonymous said...

I love the Tuesday Next series by Jasper Fforde!