Opinion

“EarthBound Essay Eighteen: Reading Summers”

essay18

Serialized specially for The Well-Red Mage, based on the podcast by Wesley Schantz

 

 

bookwarm “The following is a contributor post by the Bookwarm Mage.”

Welcome back! Continuing on to Summers, passing through Winters, we’ll cross the half-way mark of the game, and we’re already over halfway done with this opening series of Bookwarm Games. As I’ve been planning it out, there should be 14 episodes left. Whether than translates to 14 weeks or perhaps a few more will depend on how disciplined and productive–or not– I manage to be, with the weather getting nice…

We begin once more in Threed, only it’s sunny this time. Deposited there by the Runaway Five tour bus, we’re left with Lucky’s helpful suggestion to root around for an important item that might have been missed, half-forgotten. No, it’s not the insignificant item, though that, now that Ness knows teleportation, could be worth running over to the guy in the Twoson hospital in exchange for a magic truffle. Particularly if you’re out of bottle rockets and tired of restocking them, you’ll want to have your PSI to fall back on against the guardian of the Fourth Your Sanctuary location, shortly to be faced. What could you be looking for, then, upon this prompt from the singer on behalf of the game’s interest in keeping you playing by keeping you making progress? More zombie paper, another jar of fly honey? An eraser eraser to go with your pencil eraser? Not just yet.

In the cavernous underground room that was Ness and Paula’s prison, you find the answer: the Sky Runner, looking good as new. The two Threedians who fixed it say they gave it a new coat of paint in return for your help in saving the town, and with a quick tune-up Jeff has it ready to fly as far as Winters, where Dr Andonuts can calibrate it for the next leg of the journey. It’s instructive to consider this series of steps: the way they have it fixed cosmetically allows Jeff to see what the problem is inside, but only enough to retrace his initial flight; it will take his dad, the creator, to make the adjustments necessary to fly it somewhere new. In these distinct stages, EarthBound accomplishes the pragmatic task of taking you back to Winters where you might have forgotten that a Sanctuary Spot awaits, but also suggests something about the nature of creativity lurking beyond surface looks or even technical skills or habits.

Back to Winters, then, where you’re recognized this time by Dr Andonuts and made somewhat more welcome than Jeff was before. He invites you to meet his friend Big Foot and to explore the cave north of Stonehenge while he reprograms the Sky Runner. You learn about Jeff’s bed-wetting, buy some excellent beef jerky, have a rest in the revitalizing device and fight Shroom! (exclamation point included). Keep your fingers crossed once those mushrooms start sprouting out of your party’s heads and the chances multiply of them accidentally attacking one another or themselves in confusion. If all goes well, you’re through to the Rainy Circle, a patch of precipitation that mysteriously stays liquid water when there’s snow all around. Being there brings you back from any mushroomization or poisoning you may have endured, fills in the fourth melody on your Sound Stone, and leaves Ness with a whiff of your favorite food. Droplets of rain rippling, falling from an unseen cloud, never freezing…for a moment all is right with the world.

You might be wondering, though, after Apple Kid’s call about going to work on the Phase Distorter with Dr Andonuts, back in Fourside, to see no Apple Kid in Winters. That eraser-shaped statue blocking the way into the main Stonehenge maze is still there, as are the iron gates to Snow Wood Boarding School. You’d think one of your inventor friends would be able to craft something to get you past these obstacles. If you teleport back over there by the gift shop, you’ll also hear about monkeys and a Tessie Watcher named Sebastian going missing, the latter memorialized in a haiku. But these mysteries will have to wait. School’s out, it’s time for Summers!

Like Winters, Summers’ plural suggests the abstraction of the class or category, e pluribus unum, which along with its capitalization reaches for the quintessence of the season, a place-name Summers out of the cyclic repetitions of summers. Unlike the gentle circles traced around the signal from the grave-prison back in Threed, the Sky Runner comes in for a crash landing on the beach without build-up. No one remarks on this, but then, the oracle in Moonside already has–she saw a silver ball shining in the sun, you’re burned but you’re fine. The Boom! of your crash landing garners no interest from the wealthy tourists, and no concern from the jaded locals. The bits of broken machinery, just three fragments on the sand, gradually swallowed by the tide, are beyond repair this time. You’re unable to check them, or if you do, you get the generic text: No problem here. The sound of that tide lends itself to the languid music of the place, which lounges horizontally along its beach, as opposed to the rigid verticality that characterized Winters, or the more foursquare structures of the numerically named towns. The same top-down viewpoint which mediates the game as a whole here has the effect of flattening your appreciation of what everyone seems to believe is a beautiful paradise. From your perspective as player, you only see the landward side of things and are incapable, as yet, of looking or venturing out onto the grandeur of that ocean whose extreme limit pushes its seafoam lips against the coastline.

Resolutely focused on seeking Pokey, whose stolen yellow helicopter is nowhere to be seen, your seriousness this time causes comment, as before it was your smile the Runaway Five and old people in Threed remarked upon. The out-of-placeness of your attitude is compounded by further faux pas when you go around talking to the diners at the fancy restaurant, with its geometry-boggling seafront window view, showing the beach off to the side of the entrance that you come in…from the sea–but that’s neither here nor there. The diners comment on mistaking you for the waiter, or compare your brazenness to going into people’s houses and going through their stuff, whilst acknowledging that this is the sort of thing that people on adventures have been known to do. They draw attention explicitly to the trope whose clearest examples are the insignificant item in the hospital drawer in Threed and the short story in the beachfront house couch back in Onett. You might also recall that Pokey’s parents were at a fancy restaurant the night of the meteorite landing. The same sprite as the old woman who liked your smile in Threed is here at a table in the restaurant remarking on how she doesn’t like eating hard foods like rocks–a bizarre thing to say on the face of it, but which may make slightly more sense after you’ve chewed over the rock on stage at the Stoic Club.

In the hotel, which mistakes the spelling of its name, leaving off the final s on its sign out front, the bellhop mistakes you for Pokey. A cosmopolitan traveler on the mezzanine wonders ‘ow you pronounce otter, why it isn’t hotter, since you pronounce ‘otel as hotel, and another unassuming local guy upstairs lays bare the overpriced reality of Summers’ fortunate real estate. Though the shops are tres cher in Summers, it must be said, at least it is said by the people there, that their beach is delightful for tanning or falling in love multiple times a day, while next door in Toto the equipment for sale just is not of the same high quality, and in place of a beach, there is a sleepy dockside, with no boats available. The riviera of Summers and the tranquil port of Toto, with its lampposts and cats, terracotta roofs overhanging narrow cobblestone alleys, combine to give a sense of foreignness and home, the sense of people actually being able to afford to live there in Toto, even if they have to work up the beach in Summers.

The museum, at least, is still cheap, just like its counterpart in Fourside. A muttered gripe you overhear there about Mr Spoon, along with clues about the security guard upstairs, are mysteries which will have to wait for now to unwind. To the French language jokes in the hotel, a dog in Toto rebuts Bow…now brown cow, cleverly punning on more than one animal and reminding the silent Ness (who nevertheless seems able to understand the language of big foot, monkeys, and even French tourists) of the tongue-twisters awaiting even native English speakers when that use of language, usually taken for granted, becomes a consciously trained skill. Keep an eye out, too, for more graffiti on the sign at the border between Summers and Toto, a cheeky Bart-Simpsonism from your dear neighbor Pokey: eat my shorts.

Image result for eat my shorts

In fact, you’ll shortly be eating something else. Not the rock onstage, either, though that’s close. As you go around talking to everyone in Toto, someone gives you the secret phone number to the elite Stoic Club, that place so exclusive that its sign reads Club Stoic in elegant script above the door and yet a voice tells you that this is not the stoic club, so move along, if you try the doors before you use the reservation line. But when you call, they hook you up right away, for free. First, though, you’ll get a call on your receiver phone. It’s Tony, who claims he’s doing a school project, but his relief at getting ahold of you, then his reticence to end the call, suggest really he’s mostly overjoyed to talk to his best friend Jeff, and to make sure that he’s OK. He asks for your name–you, the one holding the controller–not once but twice, so you know it’s important. But without any further items in the questionnaire, the nature of his research survey remains obscure for now. How did he get your number, anyway? What parallel adventure has T-O-N-Y been on? The receiver phone and all the phone numbers now at your disposal, your mom, dad, and sister/Escargot Express, as well as Mach pizza (which you may or may not have actually ordered, since it’s quite pricey) and now the Stoic Club, play into both key motifs we’ve been looking at, the journey itself and the relationships along the way. Both of these contain elements of movement and repetition, the sense of obstacles to face and overcome, struggle and release.

‘ere’s ‘ow it plays out next: The captain of a ship in Toto bemoans his relationship with his wife, who has taken to hanging out in Summers at some snooty club. He worries they’re growing apart, so down about it he no longer even cares about sailing. She, for her part, has given up working at her magic cake cart on the boardwalk and spends all her time in the Stoic Club. You’d be forgiven for thinking that you reunite the captain and the baker and then cross the sea–it’s a good deal more intricate than that, though. We’ll get there.

First, why Stoic Club? It’s a reference to the respected school of philosophy, arguably as important as Plato’s or Aristotle’s strains of the inquiring spirit of Socrates, whom the Stoics also laid claim to as their model. Whereas Plato taught in the academy, a sacred grove of trees, the Stoics are so named for the colonnade where they held forth, the stoa. This distinction between grove and colonnade seems to be recalled by the painted palm trees on the wall of the exorbitantly priced shop, which neatly conflates the two. Indeed, the Club’s brand of stoicism is not what you might expect, straying from the classical statements of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius or the Enchiridion (ie, handbook) of Epictetus–works by an emperor and a slave, respectively, both of which extol simplicity. As a sample of their writing, consider these culminating sections of the latter:

46. Never call yourself a philosopher, nor talk a great deal among the unlearned about theorems, but act conformably to them. Thus, at an entertainment, don’t talk how persons ought to eat, but eat as you ought. For remember that in this manner Socrates also universally avoided all ostentation. And when persons came to him and desired to be recommended by him to philosophers, he took and- recommended them, so well did he bear being overlooked. So that if ever any talk should happen among the unlearned concerning philosophic theorems, be you, for the most part, silent. For there is great danger in immediately throwing out what you have not digested. And, if anyone tells you that you know nothing, and you are not nettled at it, then you may be sure that you have begun your business. For sheep don’t throw up the grass to show the shepherds how much they have eaten; but, inwardly digesting their food, they outwardly produce wool and milk. Thus, therefore, do you likewise not show theorems to the unlearned, but the actions produced by them after they have been digested.

 

  1. When you have brought yourself to supply the necessities of your body at a small price, don’t pique yourself upon it; nor, if you drink water, be saying upon every occasion, “I drink water.” But first consider how much more sparing and patient of hardship the poor are than we. But if at any time you would inure yourself by exercise to labor, and bearing hard trials, do it for your own sake, and not for the world; don’t grasp statues, but, when you are violently thirsty, take a little cold water in your mouth, and spurt it out and tell nobody.

 

  1. The condition and characteristic of a vulgar person, is, that he never expects either benefit or hurt from himself, but from externals. The condition and characteristic of a philosopher is, that he expects all hurt and benefit from himself. The marks of a proficient are, that he censures no one, praises no one, blames no one, accuses no one, says nothing concerning himself as being anybody, or knowing anything: when he is, in any instance, hindered or restrained, he accuses himself; and, if he is praised, he secretly laughs at the person who praises him; and, if he is censured, he makes no defense. But he goes about with the caution of sick or injured people, dreading to move anything that is set right, before it is perfectly fixed. He suppresses all desire in himself; he transfers his aversion to those things only which thwart the proper use of our own faculty of choice; the exertion of his active powers towards anything is very gentle; if he appears stupid or ignorant, he does not care, and, in a word, he watches himself as an enemy, and one in ambush.

 

  1. When anyone shows himself overly confident in ability to understand and interpret the works of Chrysippus, say to yourself, ” Unless Chrysippus had written obscurely, this person would have had no subject for his vanity. But what do I desire? To understand nature and follow her. I ask, then, who interprets her, and, finding Chrysippus does, I have recourse to him. I don’t understand his writings. I seek, therefore, one to interpret them.” So far there is nothing to value myself upon. And when I find an interpreter, what remains is to make use of his instructions. This alone is the valuable thing. But, if I admire nothing but merely the interpretation, what do I become more than a grammarian instead of a philosopher? Except, indeed, that instead of Homer I interpret Chrysippus. When anyone, therefore, desires me to read Chrysippus to him, I rather blush when I cannot show my actions agreeable and consonant to his discourse.

 

  1. Whatever moral rules you have deliberately proposed to yourself. abide by them as they were laws, and as if you would be guilty of impiety by violating any of them. Don’t regard what anyone says of you, for this, after all, is no concern of yours. How long, then, will you put off thinking yourself worthy of the highest improvements and follow the distinctions of reason? You have received the philosophical theorems, with which you ought to be familiar, and you have been familiar with them. What other master, then, do you wait for, to throw upon that the delay of reforming yourself? You are no longer a boy, but a grown man. If, therefore, you will be negligent and slothful, and always add procrastination to procrastination, purpose to purpose, and fix day after day in which you will attend to yourself, you will insensibly continue without proficiency, and, living and dying, persevere in being one of the vulgar. This instant, then, think yourself worthy of living as a man grown up, and a proficient. Let whatever appears to be the best be to you an inviolable law. And if any instance of pain or pleasure, or glory or disgrace, is set before you, remember that now is the combat, now the Olympiad comes on, nor can it be put off. By once being defeated and giving way, proficiency is lost, or by the contrary preserved. Thus Socrates became perfect, improving himself by everything. attending to nothing but reason. And though you are not yet a Socrates, you ought, however, to live as one desirous of becoming a Socrates.

 

  1. The first and most necessary topic in philosophy is that of the use of moral theorems, such as, “We ought not to lie;” the second is that of demonstrations, such as, “What is the origin of our obligation not to lie;” the third gives strength and articulation to the other two, such as, “What is the origin of this is a demonstration.” For what is demonstration? What is consequence? What contradiction? What truth? What falsehood? The third topic, then, is necessary on the account of the second, and the second on the account of the first. But the most necessary, and that whereon we ought to rest, is the first. But we act just on the contrary. For we spend all our time on the third topic, and employ all our diligence about that, and entirely neglect the first. Therefore, at the same time that we lie, we are immediately prepared to show how it is demonstrated that lying is not right.

 

  1. Upon all occasions we ought to have these maxims ready at hand:

 

“Conduct me, Jove, and you, O Destiny,

Wherever your decrees have fixed my station.”

(Cleanthes)

 

“I follow cheerfully; and, did I not,

Wicked and wretched, I must follow still

Whoever yields properly to Fate, is deemed

Wise among men, and knows the laws of heaven.”

(Euripides, Frag. 965)

 

And this third:

 

“O Crito, if it thus pleases the gods, thus let it be. Anytus and Melitus may kill me indeed, but hurt me they cannot.”

(Plato’s Crito and Apology)

Image result for stoa

Part of the importance of Stoicism for us is the way that it, like the Aristotelian logic and Platonic ideals taken up later in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, respectively, is woven quite early on into the emerging Christian philosophical framework. Right at the tail end of the Roman Empire’s sway, a major proponent of this fusion is Boethius. Neither a slave nor an emperor, he was an esteemed statesman who then fell out of favor and was imprisoned for his honesty and integrity. For living up to his Christian stoic principles, he died by them, much like Socrates did for his revolutionary intellectual honesty. Here’s an illustrative passage from the opening of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy:

I who once composed with eager zest

Am driven by grief to shelter in sad songs;

All torn the Muses’ cheeks who spell the words

For elegies that wet my face with tears.

No terror could discourage them at least

From coming with me on my way.

They were the glory of my happy youth

And still they comfort me in hapless age.

Old age came suddenly by suffering sped,

And grief then bade her government begin:

My hair untimely white upon my head,

And I a worn out bone-bag hung with flesh.

Death would be happy if it spared the glad

But heeded invocations from the wretch.

But now Death’s ears are deaf to hopeless cries,

His hands refuse to close poor weeping eyes.

First fickle Fortune gave me wealth short-lived,

Then in a moment all but ruined me.

Since Fortune changed her trustless countenance,

Small welcome to the days prolonging life.

Foolish the friends who called me happy then

Whose fall shows how my foothold was unsure.

 

While I was quietly thinking these thoughts over to myself and giving vent to my sorrow with the help of my pen, I became aware of a woman standing over me. She was of awe-inspiring appearance, her eyes burning and keen beyond the usual power of men. She was so full of years that I could hardly think of her as of my own generation, and yet she possessed a vivid color and undiminished vigor. It was difficult to be sure of her height, for sometimes she was of average human size, while at other times she seemed to touch the very sky with the top of her head, and when she lifted herself even higher, she pierced it and was lost to human sight. Her clothes were made of imperishable material, of the finest thread woven with the most delicate skill. (Later she told me that she had made them with her own hands.) Their color, however, was obscured by a kind of film as of long neglect, like statues covered in dust. On the bottom hem could be read the embroidered Greek letter Pi, and on the top hem the Greek letter Theta. Between the two a ladder of steps rose from the lower to the higher letter. Her dress had been torn by the hands of marauders who had each carried off such pieces as he could get. There were some books in her right hand, and in her left hand she held a scepter.

At the sight of the Muses of Poetry at my bedside dictating words to accompany my tears, she became angry.

“Who,” she demanded, her piercing eyes alight with fire, “has allowed these hysterical sluts to approach this sick man’s bedside? They have no medicine to ease his pains, only sweetened poisons to make them worse. These are the very women who kill the rich and fruitful harvest of Reason with the barren thorns of Passion. The habituate men to their sickness of mind instead of curing them. If as usual it was only some ordinary man you were carrying off a victim of your blandishments, it would matter little to me — there would be no harm done to my work. But this man has been nourished on the philosophies of Zeno and Plato. Sirens is a better name for you and your deadly enticements: be gone, and leave him for my own Muses to heal and cure.

These rebukes brought blushes of shame into the Muses’ cheeks, and with downcast eyes they departed in a dismal company. Tears had partly blinded me, and I could not make out who this woman of such imperious authority was. I could only fix my eyes on the ground overcome with surprise and wait in silence for what she would do next. She came closer and sat down on the edge of my bed. I felt her eyes resting on my face, downcast and lined with grief. The sadly she began to recite the following lines about my confusion of mind.

 

“So sinks the mind in deep despair

And sight grows dim; when storms of life

Blow surging up the weight of care,

It banishes its inward light

And turns in trust to the dark without.

This was the man who once was free

To climb the sky with zeal devout

To contemplate the crimson sun,

The frozen fairness of the moon —

Astronomer once used in joy

To comprehend and to commune

With planets on their wandering ways.

This man, this man sought out the source

Of storms that roar and rouse the seas;

The spirit that rotates the world,

The cause that translocates the sun

From shining East to watery West;

He sought the reason why spring hours

Are mild with flowers manifest,

And who enriched with swelling grapes

Ripe autumn at the full of year.

Now see that mind that searched and made

All nature’s hidden secrets clear

Lie prostrate prisoner of night.

His neck bends low in shackles thrust,

And he is forced beneath the weight

To contemplate — the lowly dust.

 

–from the text available here

Image result for boethius consolation of philosophy

So Boethius encounters Lady Philosophy. Up in the club, though, rather than the serious questions of the place of mortality and free will in the plan of a divinely ordained cosmos, we are invited to ponder pretentious pseudo-intellectual balderdash of the likes of this:

Didactically speaking, seminal evidence seems to explicate the fact that your repudiation of entropy supports my theory of space-time synthesis. Of this, I am irrefutably confident.

Arguably, that could be unpacked (to explicate is literally to unfold) to actually mean something. I confess, I have tried to do so in another place–but more important than any serious point about entropy (the tendency of ordered systems towards disorder, and if you take our universe to be a closed system, the ultimate heat death of the universe–which Ness and friends are evidently repudiating!) or Einstein’s insights about space-time–more important than those is the overwhelming odor of BS. The joke hits close to home, dear listeners. There are shades, too, of the Sokal hoax–here’s how Pinker describes it in his spiritedly witty and fearsomely empirical Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined:

Alan Sokal’s [essay] “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”…[is]  the centerpiece of the famous Sokal Hoax, in which the physicist had written a mass of gobbledygook and, confirming his worst suspicions about scholarly standards in the postmodernist humanities, got it published in the prestigious journal Social Text.

Lest we fancy ourselves brighter or at least more commonsensical than the editors of contemporary academic journals, though, we should also bear in mind that the likes of Goethe and Thomas Jefferson were taken in by a literary hoax back in their day, this one engineered by a Scottish schoolteacher-poet purporting to be translating an ancient bard, Ossian, the so-called Homer of the North. Here’s Jacques Barzun’s assessment:

This was Ossian, a work published by James Macpherson that soon swept Europe in translations. He presented the poem as his rendering into English of an ancient Gaelic epic of which only fragments remained. It caused rapturous admiration and violent controversy. Dr Johnson denounced it as a fraud–and was right. But the evocations in archaic tones of antique manners in the midst of wild nature filled a need not merely emotional but intellectual: new names, new modes of life were in demand: boredom had done its work of preparing for renovation. Ossian, now unreadable, served its therapeutic purpose down to the time of Napoleon, who admired it and encouraged his court composer Lesueur to make it into an opera.

(Dawn to Decadence 409)

And yet for all its excesses, the poetry of the Romantics, in part inspired by it, continues to inspire: the child is the father of the man, as Wordsworth put it.

We’re also invited to blush at our ignorance of the ideological inner party line:

You guys can’t envision the final collapse of capitalism? Incredible!

Other patrons are more honest:

Mmmmm. I think it’s a very complicated issue. Oh, sorry! I was sleeping…

You know, I really want to eat some Magic cake. It’s a mysterious work of art…  I can’t get that cake off my mind. There’s only one woman who can make Magic cake… She’s hanging out in this club. Yeah, she’s over there at the entrance… Anyway, the absolute irony and study of self-identification is… Blah, blah, blah… I don’t know what to do!

But the owner of Stoic Club is the best of all:

You don’t understand what the hey everyone is talking about, do you? I don’t either, but I try to be patient with the customers. They pay high prices just for a glass of water and the chance to have serious, intellectual discussions. Actually, it’s an easy business. You want a drink? We only serve water, though…

[In case you were hoping to meet the Runaway Five, he points out]

The show? It’s already started. Everyone stares at the stone on stage and philosophizes….Doesn’t it sound stupid?

If you just want water, go to the drug store. It’s a lot cheaper there.

As for the woman in what looks like a pink snuggie, the captain’s wife:

I’ve finally awakened the inner me, the true self. The patrons of this club are able to stare into their own soul hard enough to burn a hole in their psyche. I’m now comfortable enough to stare at the real me, the true self, and burn the impression into my super-ego. I want to be in this comfort zone at any time, all the time or at no time. My id is telling me…

What?  What? Magic Cake? You came all this way just to eat my Magic Cake?

[If you say no–]

Okay then, don’t get in my way while I search for the little girl within me…

[Yikes! But if yes–]

I see… okay…Why don’t you stop by a little cart out on the beach later?

She is convinced to make Magic Cake again not by telling her about her husband, but by asking her about Magic Cake. The one she prepares for Ness is a special Magic Cake made from all the leftovers she could find. Whatever the relation between magic and PSI, the effect is like that of traveling to Moonside, but even more like the upshot of the ambush in the hotel room, which led Paula to call to Jeff. This time it’s the fourth friend, Poo, or whatever you named him, setting out on his adventure.

So that’s where we’ll pick up next time. The hangouts of hoaxers and posers of the decadent West, along with its pamphlets or handbooks of proselytizers Christian and stoic, will be set aside, rocks or millstones booted off the stage. We’re off to Dalaam, a country to the East. 

 

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Categories: Opinion

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2 replies »

    • Yes! Of all the dialogue in the game, it is some of the most spot-on satire, hilariously undercutting any attempt to explain it. But that doesn’t stop me from trying 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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