Sunday, December 5, 2010

Doctor Who and the Reflection Trap

"Fame is a by-product of doing something else. You don't go to a restaurant and order a meal just because you want to take a shit!" -- Banksy
I've become a fan of Doctor Who - the British series about a time traveler careening around the universe in a phone booth. I'm speaking not of the first 26 years of unbelievably cheesey, low-budget Doctor Who, but of the reinvigorated Doctor Who that launched in 2005 with much higher production values.

The series' central conceit is that the Doctor, a 900-year-old Time Lord from another planet, brings a series of human companions along with him as he traipses around the universe. The dramatic function of the companions, of course, is to provide an excuse for the Doctor to explain what's going on to the audience. If there were no companion to serve as our proxy, this would just be some dude silently doing inexplicable things in inexplicable places.

But after viewing a slew of Who, barely tolerating the dramatic kludge of the companion, it hit me: if the Doctor had undergone his adventures without folks along for the ride to observe how cool it all is, it wouldn't seem cool at all.

I've seen people be bored stiff doing the most remarkable things. The glum operator of the Aeri de Montserrat cable car outside Barcelona, who spends his days traversing a spectacular misty mountain face in a cabana dangling from a cord, might as well be peeling potatoes.
The Doctor must see himself through others in order to avoid an existential void. Adventuring around the galaxy for nine centuries would soon come to feel like the most pointless tedium without an external reference point to serve as mirror. All glamour is strictly secondhand. To feel glamourous to oneself requires vicarious self-reflection - a tangly maneuver, indeed.

We've all been in situations where we failed to notice we've said or done something interesting, smart, or funny - until someone around us took note. We've all passed through stages of our lives where we were too busy living it to notice what it was like, remaining oblivious until we could see it via the viewpoint of an outside observer (or, much later, via the hindsight of one's own memory). On those rare occasions when I write or play something affecting, I can only really appreciate it, myself, when it's expressed by others. There have been a number of times when someone's told me how a piece of writing or music I've created has affected them, and I've gone back and revisited the work, and, only in that light, was able to really understand what I'd done.

The problem is that creative people need to shun self-consciousness. It's the death of spontaneity, so attention must be riveted on the doing, rather than on the doer. The periods of our lives when we're too busy living to notice what it's "like" tend to be our most content and productive periods, in large part because we've not distracted ourselves via self-reflection. Divided focus is weakened focus, and so the richest results come from persevering in an unselfconscious oblivion. Results are best when you don't stop to experience them. Show me someone who talks a good game about what she's trying to "accomplish", and I'll show you someone who's more talker than doer.

To make magic (creativity is what magic is) requires heedlessness - utter immersion in moment-to-moment process. Food results from a great chef's work, but he rarely sits at the table. The makers of the greatest port wines never taste their best work, which require decades to mature. Few musicians dance. To take one's own measure is to quench the creative flame - to taint inspiration and reduce spontaneity. The centipede gets along perfectly well until made aware of his hundred ungainly legs.

What's worse, the reflection is never quite apt. Many are the creative people who've been deranged in trying to be "understood". One never can be, precisely. So it's best to pay reflection no heed at all.

A magician fades into oblivion as his work gains power. He can only take his own measure via the reactions of others, but he shuns that fatal yoke at all cost, working on faith alone, with single-minded commitment to process.

But if the Doctor doesn't remind himself how cool and adventurous he is, seeking neither affirmation from others nor self-conscious glimpses into the mirror, how does he forge on for nine hundred years? Or, for that matter, even for seventy? We live, alas, in a society where such a prospect is unimaginable; where the only reason to do anything is so that one can claim doership.

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