June 24th, 2018 personal conversation with Nelson McKeeby at the Cliff's Edge restaurant in Silver Lake, California
For the past several years Nelson McKeeby and I have arranged to have regular philosophy discussions while sharing meals, usually at the Cliff's Edge restaurant in Silver Lake. Like many modern intellectuals are conversations often move from the electronic to the spoken to the visual as we move across communication paradigms.
Our nominal purpose was to discuss my upcoming blog and his upcoming book, both of which were projects that we regularly helped each other with, but tonight we devolved into a discussion of the hypernarrative. Rather than give you a blow by blow of our detailed conversations, I will instead try and recreate the multi-fasciated narrative we had, especially when he introduced me to some aspects of hypernarratives I did not know about.
Hypernarratives are not young things. They really go back to the muslim tradition that developed after the Second Fitna and the rise of the Sunni-lead Caliphate states. These states were basically ruled by Muslim law, which was controlled not, as you mighty think, by religious leaders, but instead by more secular scholars in a form of check and balance. These scholars, working out of Madrasa, worked to codify and rationalize a legal system from the teachings of Mohammed. As early as the 800's they began to annotate their writings with little side notes to indicate references to canonical passages, rather than constantly rewrite passages that scholars could just as easily look up. In the 900s this practice ends up being passed to the sciences, medicine, and other fields. It is common enough that Gerbert would bring some aspects of it back to Europe and would actually practice internal citation in his letters, while the monumental polymath Maimonides would apply citation to both his scientific studies and to his work on the Torah.
In the long run hypernarratives were created to allow other scholars to track the thinking process of a writer, they would permit a body of writing to become shorter and more focused by offloading extra details to other documents, and it would be in its simplest form a way of guiding readers through greater truths.
You are correct, and here is an example that I think applies, although from earlier than you are thinking. Imagine that you have a story, a myth, or some other narrative you want to get out to an audience, what is the easiest way to do it? For a lot of writers, it used to be by attaching their myth to an established story. This had two advantages. The first was that you did not have to explain to your audience who the main characters were. They already knew the main characters and what they would to or had already done. You only have to explain to the audience if they acted differently than expected. This was a great way to save time and to increase the popularity of your work.
Whoever wrote the Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus knew this when they choose Odysseus as their foil for a lunacy story, with the hero feigning insanity to avoid the Trojan war know what it would cost him due to auguries but having fate still require he go. And this is where myth separates from history. Pseudo-Apollodorus was writing a thousand years after the Trojan war. The chance he had accurate first person intelligence on the happenings of that war that no one else had ever published was unlikely. If instead you look at the Christian Bible and the Jesus story, read as it is across four books, you get a combination of storytelling and plain old eye-witness fact.
Following Efird and his book the New Testament Writings the Jesus story is divided into three phases of writing. The first phase, occurring directly after his death, includes Mark, the oldest gospel as shown by source criticism (all other books use Mark in their writing, thus they must have had a copy of Mark. There is also the lost Q source which explains identical passages in Mathew and Luke which to not show up in Mark. Mathew and Luke then add their own viewpoints, providing unique information. While Mark was likely written before CE 70, Mathew and Luke were likely written after CE 85 but before CE 90, on the extreme edge of a human life span for an adult who had witnesses the life of Jesus. In other words, the writers could well have been talking to a person who was really there, even if they themselves are unlikely to be witnesses.
In terms of storytelling these "synoptic gospels," all have some historical plausibility because they follow the concept of the Rashomon effect. The Rashomon Effect, put forward by Dr. Karl Heider in his article of the same name, is important to understand for historians in that eye witness accounts should not closely track if they are to be plausible, or else you do not have multiple witnesses, but one witnesses parroted many times. While Heider was picking a fight with Derek Freeman, who joined the fight with gusto, Heider was unwittingly providing the writer who uses historical threads in their own art with a way of understanding human viewpoints. The gospels track human experience because they are different, not because they are the same. John, the only gospel in the canonical bible that is not only not synoptic, but also distance in time and space from the original events, is a mythical retelling of the story using the characters and the story of the original books as its canvas to present a new creative interpretation or Jesus's death.
All of this leaves a new romantic with an immense arsenal in their storytelling toy chest. You can have characters represent unique and subtle points of view by starting them off from different points in time and space. You can have your entire story be a retelling of a different myth, but this retelling can either deepened the original story or tell it in a new fashion. The reason is because people, even without access to a technology called hyperlinking, create hyperlinks to information they already have. If a myth exists in their head, you can tap into it to create a short hand storytelling device, saving thousands of words for your own nefarious uses.
The incident in a a creative writing class where I was hammered by two students and a professor for thirty minutes for using vocabulary they did not understand, in this case the words tallow, chiaroscuro, and perspicuity, was an example of what I call Trump era thinking that the romantic movement, and my own writing I hope, should be fighting. In this case the students at New Hampshire Institute of Art were being taught by the MFA professor that the use of vocabulary should fit the audience, which was ok as it stood, but in their case both of the students had very limited, almost microscopic vocabulary, and the professor was very taken over by those students, who used to bully other members of the class by forming in groups and out groups and using hate speech to control the classroom environment.
The main issue was not that in some cases limiting vocabulary is not a good idea, but that vocabulary using in the narrative as opposed to placed into the mouths of characters should stretch the mind of the reader. I noticed this acutely during various readings of The Conspiracy of the Ravens when an group of readers like yourself were reading the book. These readers were west coast, high school educated, Internet savvy, world weary types in their twenties who seemed to always be reading with their cellphone next to them. In the MFA class whenever the students or the professor hit a word like tallow that they did not know, they would quite reading and throw the work down in disgust. To reach them you really had to limit yourself to around 1,000 words of basic English. Now, some of my characters do have vocabulary limits in their oral dialog, but I do not censor my own vocabulary except by picking the word that best works. And this is just another really simple form of hypernarrative, the use of vocabulary that forces the reader to explore their own intellect and develop a hyper-understanding of the work.
Take the fact that Rains-a-Lot uses an icon weapon, the Model 3 Smith and Wesson break-open revolver. There is no assumption that a reader will know what the heck that is. This is true of most iconic weapons carried by heroes at the start of a story. Take the character Roland, who was a knight of Charles the Great who died in CE 778 at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass. All that we know from history about Roland is from this passage.
Whilst the war with the Saxons was being prosecuted constantly and almost continuously he placed garrisons at suitable places on the frontier, and attacked Spain with the largest military expedition that he could collect. He crossed the Pyrenees, received the surrender of all the towns and fortresses that he attacked, and returned with his army safe and sound, except for a reverse which he experienced through the treason of the Gascons on his return through the passes of the Pyrenees. For while his army was marching in a long line, suiting their formation to the character of the ground and the defiles, the Gascons placed an ambuscade on the top of the mountain—where the density and extent of the woods in the neighbourhood rendered it highly suitable for such a purpose—and then rushing down into the valley beneath threw into disorder the last part of the baggage train and also the rearguard which acted as a protection to those in advance. In the battle which followed the Gascons slew their opponents to the last man. Then they seized upon the baggage, and under cover of the night, which was already falling, they scattered with the utmost rapidity in different directions. The Gascons were assisted in this feat by the lightness of their armour and the character of the ground where the affair took place. In this battle Eggihard, the surveyor of the royal table; Anselm, the Count of the Palace; and Roland, Præfect of the Breton frontier, were killed along with very many others. Nor could this assault be punished at once, for when the deed had been done the enemy so completely disappeared that they left behind them not so much as a rumour of their whereabouts. - Passage 9 - Vita Karoli Magni, by Eginhard.
In the later mythologizing of Roland, he was given a magical sword called Durendal. His sword though was not completely explained by all chroniclers. Instead it was given a province that readers of chivalry tales could understand. It was supposed to have been made by another hero of the literary style, Wayland the Smith. Simply mentioning the name of the famous smith was enough for the readers of works like the Chanson d' Roland to understand and accept that the weapon was magical and its great power came from a renowned source. In The Conspiracy of the Raven the weapon used by Rains-a-Lot is an unusual model for a modern person, hinting at his own time quirky past, and it develops a back story by having been carried by Thomas Custer, a renowned warrior whose defeat at the hands of a young Rains-a-Lot defines his life. Thus the weapon in his hands is a constant, but invisible hyperlink to an entire back story based on real history with an extended moral meaning, and a set of important concepts that will drive the character and his story forward, without requiring endless pages of exposition presenting the warriors internal thought process.
As for the basic vocabulary versus using words that may be a stretch for the reader, each of these words often bring the reader to a place where they are exploring language as a meta-process to the reading of the book. A key book I use to understand the meta process of hypernarratives is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The main character, Scout, has a vocabulary that is distinctly far past her age and maturity level.
“We were accustomed to prompt, if not always cheerful acquiescence to Atticus’s instructions. . . .” - p. 154.
“‘I’m afraid our activities would be received with considerable disapprobation by the more learned authorities’”-p. 36
“The man was walking with the staccato steps of someone carrying a load too heavy for him” -p. 266
In each case the young reader would either figure out the word from context clues, increasing their interaction with the work, or would look up the word as part of their development of hypernarrative.
One of the more interesting aspects of hypernarrative is when the work leaves the page of the book and enters the real world. In Conspiracy I ordered forty-eight books to be geo-cached and buried about the United States. In the alternate material for the book, which includes stories like A Test of Angles (the narrative about the artist Markus Haala) there are cache hints that will allow readers to track down and retrieve the books. In another effort, I have concealed supposed master's thesis and doctoral dissertations in several midwestern libraries, each about some aspect of the story. The idea is that the since many of the characters have a real world basis in history, the story itself should have the lines between reality and fiction blurred. You (Rahima) are a blogger. Your character exists in Ravens, and is a blogger working on the same website. Reality that mixes with fiction creates its own chances to develop hypernarratives. The process of a reader learning about you, either from your weebly blog or your nine-muse introduces them to a real human who was the basis for a fictional character, and whose career will go on past when I am gone and the series ends. In effect, by co-opting you, and Markus, and the flight attendant Summer, I have created a hyperlink between fantasy and reality where your future actions will continue telling a story far past when I can possibly control the narrative.