One of These Things is Not Like the Other

Unless you’re one of the people to whom the Grand Design was handed on a platter, “meaning” is where you find it. And when one is in that particular karmic space, one finds the strangest things to puzzle over. For instance, I’ve been going around and around over possibly the stupidest, least consequential questions in all creation: why do I have no problem re-reading an old story series but balk at watching TV re-runs?

It’s not that I can’t watch re-runs. I’ll catch an occasional Buffy episode, or ancient “I Love Lucy” at opportunity, but I don’t seek them out, even when easily available. Small doses, that’s it. Anything else and I start twitching and looking for something else to do. It doesn’t matter if it’s a show I liked or not. It doesn’t matter if it’s a program I watched religiously, though there aren’t many of those. Yet this only applies to fictional/story series. I can rewatch old Mythbusters episodes in marathons, no problem. Yet when Carol, who loved loved loved the show Ugly Betty, discovered the station that was re-running them and became glued to the screen, I had to go do something else. Just about anything else.

On the other hand, if I take a notion to re-read The Lord of the Rings, no problem. Yes, I know the story. Yes, I know how it ends. Doesn’t seem to matter. I found this equally true when I picked up one of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman compilations and got hooked again. That one kind of surprised me. I had suspected that the difference was in the medium, but Sandman didn’t seem to fit. As a graphic story, the images are spelled out for you much like in television. But after a bit I realized the similarity is less than I had supposed. In re-reading Sandman, I was reading a story with pictures. While it seemed that I was handed all the visuals for the story, what I was supposed to see, but I realized that was only part of the story and I was still filling in the rest. A story that just happened to have a lot of pictures. Still a story.

So? Some tv series, like Buffy, had a story arc and a definite beginning and end. Why was this different? And back to square one, only not quite. I finally realized that the difference was the medium, it’s just that the medium wasn’t what I thought it was.

In a TV series like Buffy or Star Trek, the story takes place on the screen. In LOTR or even Sandman, for the most part the story takes place in your head, and that’s a big difference. What’s the old zen cliché? “Why can’t you cross the same river twice? Because the second time, you’re not the same person and it’s not the same river.” Reading LOTR at forty or fifty is not the same as reading it when you’re twenty, even if you’ve already read it before. Maybe especially if you’re read it before. To a degree that’s true with a TV show, too. Your perspective changes. You’ll see it a little differently. But you’re still seeing exactly what you saw ten, twenty, thirty years ago, and your brain is telling you that it’s no more or less than what you’re seeing now. When the story takes place in your head, you not only don’t see it the same way, you don’t even see the same thing.

This isn’t exactly a revelation, I know, but I want to ponder the implication for one more step. If you consider the idea of Jung’s collective unconscious, you realize that, perhaps, a story on the page is not simply taking place in your head. Rather, it’s taking place within a shared mythspace. And by that I don’t necessarily mean that anyone else is experiences the story the same way and the same time you are, as that is close enough to impossible as to make no difference. But in a sense the story on the page remains alive in a way that a story in a TV series does not. On watching a rerun of an old show, it always seems a little like I’m watching old home movies of people long since gone. It always feels just a tad like a wake. There’s always something nagging at me, telling me that this is simple nostalgia, and one can only afford to indulge in it for very limited periods, because life is waiting. A story on the page, in your head, in the mythspace? That is life, nor am I out of it. Which brings me back to something the god Shiva said in “The Finer Points of Destruction”:

“To understand this, Jack, you have to learn to think, not in terms of space and time, but in proper symbolic space, which is wholly without the vector of Time,” Shiva said. “See, this didn’t happen millenia ago. It’s not going to happen in some distant future. It’s not even happening again. The trick to it is that this is always happening.”

Or in a nutshell: One is alive, and one is not. And that’s the difference.