November 1, 2015

The Greatest Tale: A Mind at Work

In his lovely, small volume on description in poetry, The Art of Description: World into Word, Mark Doty uses Elizabeth Bishop's famous poem "The Fish" to show how description acts as a roadmap to the poet's (or narrator's) mind. The reader sees not just the object but the route that the poet took as her eyes and mind roved over the thing being described.

The way a mind works is one of the most fascinating subjects of any art. It's there in detective fiction, with both the detective and the villain. And it's there in one of my favorite genres—one of humanity's favorite genres, actually—the survival tale. From The Odyssey to Robinson Crusoe to films like Swiss Family Robinson and Touching the Void, watching a single person (or two) confront seemingly insurmountable odds—with very few tools but one big brain—has everything you could want in art: suspense, creativity, hope, despair, beauty, loneliness, mortality.

This is the type of movie The Martian is. When astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left on Mars by mistake, he has to "science the shit out of this." Entertainment Weekly in its review lists five other movies with a single protagonist battling a hostile natural environment: Cast Away (Tom Hanks), Moon (Sam Rockwell), 127 Hours (James Franco), All Is Lost (Robert Redford), and Gravity (Sandra Bullock). That would be a hell of a home film fest for being snowed in this winter.

There's an element of fantasy in these tales. Not fantasy as in genre; rather our own minds' craving the imaginative experience of ingenuity triumphing over difficulty. Modern novels like Neal Stephenson's Reamde and pulp like The Hunt for Red October have it. It's a bonus if the art is based on a real story like Apollo 13 or the upcoming movie on the Chilean miners' rescue. The truth is, we fail as often as we triumph (no movie yet on the Challenger disaster or the hundreds of miner rescues that failed). But that's okay. We know what failure feels like all too well. We want to experience what success looks like, what happens when resources + brain cells + persistence are combined with enough luck to defeat despair, loneliness, mortality.

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