Children crave order in their lives. Given the seeming chaos aswirl about them, fixing on the specific edges of a particular blanket or a sequence of events that repeats regularly, like a nap time or snack time, offers them a sense of what and when. There is comfort to place and as they learn the words for the objects they encounter daily they are pleased to discover an identity to things. You can witness the joy of their recognition.
This is all very simplistic, of course. More is going on in those new minds that we can readily understand, but there is much that can be seen and heard that is common to any child, no matter the culture or circumstance. They enjoy the order of shapes and colors. And if they are given the chance, they enjoy changing the order when they are able, exerting some control over the objects about them. The more they discover they can manipulate their world, the greater joy they find in it, and the faster they learn.
Much of the learning process is by imitation. Children mime. They act. I have seen a one and a half year old, already walking, try to copy the specific walk of his father. If you do something, they will try to do it the same way. And by repetition, they learn they can get it right. And they learn the pleasure of learning.
The cave paintings at Lascaux, France, are estimated to be about 17,000 years old and their sophistication would indicate they are the result of many thousands of years of previous efforts. The incredible drawing in Chauvet cave at Ardeche are estimated to be 30,000 years old and they already match the pencil work of an experienced student of art. Other sites of similar ages have been found and at least suggest that period of 30 to 40 thousand years ago as remarkable for being a first epoch of human reporting on the world about us. If there are older attempts, as I’m guessing there might be, it is not the matter here. My concern with these moments of the past, captured there for our modern eyes to see, is simply the human effort to represent what was known by a mind long ago. This is reporting. Before the development of a written language to represent the sounds of a common tongue, these pictures shared what was important to our ancestors.
What we write about says a great deal more about what is important to us and what we are thinking than the simpler meanings of words in combination. The quantity of murder mysteries written in our time is appalling. I’ve written a few and read a few hundreds more and I speak with some authority of worry—appalling. Horror stories have grown to a market almost as large. In my youth, science fiction was abounding. The subjects then were often glum and apocalyptic, but the context was that we had a future and we might control what was to be. However, that subject matter has waned and has now been replaced by fantasy. In that species of story super heroes with no idea of the laws of physics save the world on a daily basis and children with magical power manage the affairs of adults. Apparently an escape from reality is in order. Is that because we failed to control the future that was ours and now that is lost?
Westerns are, as a genre per se, a short lived phenomena. Most of them written today are a recapitulation of past themes and memes. They originally grew out of the frontier stories that were common for much of the 19th Century. But Owen Wister almost singly and most wonderfully established that genre with his novel, The Virginian in 1903, just as the West that was depicted was coming to a close, and it raged through the first half of the twentieth century in large part because they were relatively cheap action stories to film for the newborn Hollywood. But the key to the western was the same as that of any genre, the contest between good and evil. If those elements are removed, the stories are as pointless as a Coen brothers film, no matter how well produced.
It is odd to consider that much of the literature we read today has its beginnings in the recent past. The novel itself was born in the eighteenth century. Sure there were singular examples of a similar story type before this, going back to Homer, or Beowulf, or Lady Murasaki, but without a general middle class reading public, the novel as we know it could not exist. A hundred years later, Edgar Allen Poe invented the mystery and its essential plot of detection with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in 1841. Tales of murder were common enough before, but the process of detection had not been developed as a story device.
The specific story element that might define ‘modern’ in fiction is a lack of judgement, with the action of characters being inexplicable, as if their lives are not important. Much of this grows from the existentialist view of the importance of moment. All the generations of dreams and suffering and love and hate and mothers and fathers before us are dismissed with a flick of the pen. The moment is all that matters. So, I suppose that none of the writers of that dreck will care—if they are still around to care—if all their moments do not amount to a hill of beans and they are justly and quickly forgotten.
The novel is not dead. It is not even sleeping. True it is much ignored, and abused, and misused. But there is good stuff out there and the survival of the modern age depends on it more than a new bit of software to animate the pixels in some CGI which will be technologically obsolete before the illegitimate children of the current Hollywood moguls can grow to maturity. Eons from now, the ‘cave paintings’ that will be found by those who bothered to imagine more than just the moment will likely be the novel. I hope they are the good ones.