Monday, 22 November 2010

The Devil is in the Details, or: The Irreducible Nature of Narrative

Yesterday, I had an interesting online discussion with a Canadian acquaintance of mine. It started off as a discussion relating to what I am working on for my thesis, but swiftly covered a lot of surrounding areas.

At one point, Joseph Campbell's classic book The Hero with a Thousand Faces was brought into the discussion. While I find Campbell's ideas (as well as those of many other structuralist thinkers like e.g. Vladimir Propp, Algirdas Julien Greimas, and Claude Lévi-Strauss) interesting, I noted that there lies a problem at the heart of this kind of thinking, namely that it can easily reduce everything too much. It is not difficult to reduce the elements of narratives to the point where we can say that there only exists a very limited number of stories in the world and that any given narrative is just an interpretation of one of these stories. However, narrative (be it in literature, comics, film, music or otherwise) is in some sense irreducible. Reducing a narrative alters it, and altering it makes it into something other than what it was.

Consider the old saying, "the Devil is in the details." As it turns out, I would argue, narrative too is in the details (whether or not this, in fact, would imply that all narration is satanic or that narrative is the Devil's tool, this literary Satanist will leave unsaid). This is why abridged versions like Reader's Digest or summaries like York Notes strictly speaking does not work. Oh, don't get me wrong, I am sure that York Notes have saved many a stressed out student on more than one occasion and that there have been many people who have enjoyed abridged versions in their day, but it nevertheless raises the question of what they have read.

Reading (or watching) narratives is not simply a process of taking in information. It is about making a journey of a kind – an inner journey that can only take place in the meeting between the reader (or viewer) and any given narrative. Maybe one could even argue that any such encounter is temporally bound within the reader's (or viewer's) life span; that is, that who we are at the moment of the encounter most likely affects how we interpret that encounter – how we read the narrative.

Once again, this is not to say that the structuralists were wrong, or that the study of genres, types and the grammar of narrative is a vain effort, far from it. It is rather, perhaps, my way of saying that we need to remember that, while this repetition of a few stories keeps playing out before us, each narrative is in some sense its own entity. And perhaps we need to look not only on the components that make each narrative like another, but also on the (sometimes very fine and minute) differences that set them apart.

Monday, 8 November 2010

The Muppetational Jim Henson and... The Muppet Show

I grew up in an era when there was no internet; when there were no mobile phones (and when those did arrive, they were mobile, but hardly pocket-sized); and, most importantly for this post, when there were only two channels available on television here in Sweden. Neither of which two channels were broadcasting around the clock like the multitude of channels we have nowadays do. Nope, starting late afternoons/early evenings and then keeping at it till perhaps around midnight (not that the end time was of great importance to me back then, of course), that was all the television available to us. Add to this, the simple fact that there were no DVDs (not an all-round availability of VCRs either for that matter) and you might imagine (if you were not there too) that what was on the tube was something to be watched, in most cases.

Case in point, I watched The Muppet Show as a kid. And I do think I liked it. Kind of. I'm sure some of the funny antics with the puppets were amusing to my younger self, but I'm equally certain that a lot of stuff sailed by way over my head. In fact, while some things have stayed with me (as pop cultural references are wont to do), in some other sense I left the Muppets behind me a long time ago. Until fairly recently, that is.

YouTube has over the last few years reintroduced me to the crazy world of the Muppets. For instance, there is this absolutely outstanding Muppets' version of "Bohemian Rhapsody", which cannot but melt the heart of an old Queen fan like yours truly.

Now, don't get me wrong. It is not like I've shunned the brilliance of master puppeteer (or is it perchance puppet maestro) Jim Henson or his oeuvre. I am a big fan of both his TV show The Storyteller (and its follow-up with retellings of Greek Myths) and films like Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. I just haven't spent many thoughts on The Muppet Show since back in the day.

Well, don't let it be said that it is ever too late to repent for one's proverbial sins of neglect. Having had the Queen extravaganza in my head for quite some time (as well as snippets with the Swedish Chef and the "Mahna Mahna" song – the latter of which can be viewed below), I started considering actually buying at the very least the first series of The Muppet Show. Most of all, what probably drove me to this was a growing suspicion that I had been missing out on something; that my memory simply wasn't good enough or too tainted by a child's p.o.v.

Yesterday, I finally acted on this suspicion and added the first series box set to my collection. Thus far I have only had the chance to watch the first two episodes, but it is funny to note that, yes, I did miss a whole lot of stuff way back when, because a whole lot of it wasn't aimed at children. Looking at it now, there is also the aspect of the show as an historical document, allowing us a glimpse into 1976. However, most of all, I cannot help but laud the late Jim Henson for his genius in setting up a rather typical kind of television show of that era in the most atypical way possible.

I am fairly sure I will be returning to this topic again, but in the meantime, there is only one thing I would like to say... Mahna mahna!