Anyone watching the Flying Circus for the first time in 2014 and expecting non-stop hilarity will be rather confused and perhaps a little disappointed. Sketches fail on a regular basis, sometimes quite spectacularly; extraordinarily long periods can pass without anything funny happening (the studio audience tittering nervously from time to time, to compound the embarrassment). Once considered dizzyingly fast, bits of Python now seem painfully slow.
But that doesn’t matter much. Python isn’t meant to be a procession of quickfire gags – rather, it calls to mind the words of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid: “My job, as I see it, has never been to lay a tit’s egg, but to erupt like a volcano, emitting not only flame but a load of rubbish.” The aim is to create a flow of unnerving and bewildering ideas, an unstable atmosphere which may produce hysterical laughter, or merely dumbfound. Those longeurs are part of the deal. Python is not about wisecracks and pithy one-liners – it’s all about the swirl.
There is, or was, another side to Monty Python. Back in the day, that celebrated silliness was only part of the picture; this was adversarial humour, part of the counterculture (in effect, if not necessarily by intention). Very rarely was Python political, but it was a protest all right – a protest against bullshit and bullying, sloppy thinking and humbug, a gleeful assault on philistinism and pseudery. What’s more, it was weird. Not “wacky”, not “delightfully loopy” – really, really weird. At its best, Python could be a disturbing experience, disquieting, disordered, disruptive… something close to Dada. It was not just absurd, but absurdist: cosmic satire, a mockery of meaning.
And yet, like all popular avant-garde art, its appeal was beautifully basic. This was comedy stripped to its root: two incompatible ideas colliding, noisily and painfully. Comedy returned to its primary purpose: to inform the powerful, the headstrong and the vainglorious that everything is bullshit – life is a joke, your finery is meaningless and worms will be feasting on you sooner than you think. Partly out of devilment, partly in the hope that once we’ve got that straight, we can all move on from there. That was the funniest thing of all: deep down, under the warm embrace of bad taste and the cold contempt, Monty Python cared.
You know that thing where you go out for a run and you come back with a goat?
Found her loose up on a mountain path; she’s clearly not wild (see the collar and tags) but it proved impossible to find anyone who knew who the owner could be, so we took her home and tethered her in the garden. Had a nice lunch together – she became agitated when left alone, but curious and sociable otherwise. Met J’s little sister and pal and got a name: Mira.
A bit later she got picked up by another goat farmer who is going to figure out who the owner is.
Bye Mira. It was nice to spend an afternoon together!
OK, some of you may have seen my report of running several waves of Sundered Lands with German kids and teenagers at summer camp.
So yesterday M, the girl of perhaps 12 who helped out co-GMing having never played an RPG before that week, got in touch. I’d sent her an English language copy of the game for her to peruse and decode, maybe to play with her family.
Turns out she has totally hacked it and written her own game.
HER OWN GAME.
It’s called DragonRiders, it’s a 7-page PDF, with four types of missions:
● der Suche von Dracheneiern (search for Dragon Eggs)
● der Drachenjägerjagd (Dragonhunter hunt)
● der Karthographie (Map-creation)
● und der Suche von jungen unwissenden Drachenreitern (search for the young unknown Dragonriders)
Each mission has it’s own rule-sets – for instance, the Kartographie chapter has random village event tables (something totally absent from SL).
New character traits include Eidetic Text-Memory and Rules Through Music.
It’s beyond brilliant. I’m going to try it out next week.
What these auteurs truly have in common, though, is that they have systematically boiled away many of the pleasures previously associated with comedy — first among these, jokes themselves — and replaced them with a different kind of lure: the appeal of spending two hours hanging out with a loose and jocular gang of goofy bros. (Also: ritual humiliation. Humiliation is a big part of it, too.)
So I was doodling with this last week and here it is for #awesomegamerday – a mini story about fauna (& flora) and a poison fit for most fantasy contexts. Add your own mechanics.
The Steward’s Tale
A beehive should last forever. Each queen is born, not alone, but with a sibling, its steward. She the life force, creating, shaping. They the preserver, possessing a gland on the undercarriage of their thorax, a gland that secretes an airborne elixir that permeates the hive, strengthening its hexed walls, catalysing its photosynthetic production of sugars, and revitalising the queen. The ‘worker’ bees are actually thinkers, born to ponder problems miniature and profound; the hive a scholarly seclusium of collective thought, renewing and building knowledge for the future.
That’s the idea. But before the first thinker reaches mentally maturity, the incessant inhalation of the smog of eternity sends the steward mad. They quit the hive, tear off the gland and deposit it somewhere unwelcoming, and dance to death amongst the flowers over months and months, leaving intricate pheromonal clues as to the gland’s location.
The desperate thinkers now devote their frail lives to tracking and decoding these clues, some which lead to the next, some that appear to contribute to a larger puzzle to be cracked. And some are chemical traps, co-opting the thinker’s nervous system to flinging it thrumming into the sky until it’s wings break from exertion, or kicking off an endothermic reaction in their blood until nuggets freeze and the body plummets. All this the thinkers brave, trying to find their way to the gland. In the rare instances that they do, of course, their efforts to graft it to one of their own ultimately just restarts the doomed process again.
So when you see a bee buzz from one bloom to another, know that they are trying to taste the flavour of a mad one’s laughter, doomed to fail their collapsing home of thoughts, and pregnant with profound thoughts that they will die on the wing before ever sharing.
The steward’s body , ground into a paste and in solution, produces a poison of arresting effect. One afflicted is overcome with the need to divest themselves of their most precious item by hiding it somewhere. They are also compelled to leave a trail of clues, traps and challenges; the afflicted acquires the cunning of the steward atop their own and will be very effective at using every means to do so without detection.
Different temperaments will work at different timescales; a dull innkeep might pull an all-nighter to throw his silver into a sack, bury it with a bear trap atop, and whisper the landmarks to his three most violent customers; a cunning sorceress may spend a year or more developing an underground network filled with summoned keepers and violations of reality. The afflicted will never return to the precious item – they care not a whit for that any more – but will continue to be preoccupied by making the series of clues ever more involving and torturous, increasingly neglecting other needs to do so.
The rumours that the chemical traps rendered by the steward are also bequeathed to the afflicted are, of course, merely rumours.
(5 Aug 2014)
I played someone more stupid than me in a game before he died. It took hard work and I enjoyed it.
Damodar worked on a silk farm and escaped to become an adventurer. He had intelligence of seven and wisdom of six. I like to think of my intelligence as twelve or thirteen, but apparently everyone does this so it’s more likely I have an INT of ten, or, possibly eleven.
Every time Damodar had a problem I had to think about how to solve it. I could never solve his problems like I solve my own. If I did things he couldn’t do then the character wouldn’t work.
We have lots of ways to think about someone less capable than ourselves. People like to talk and argue about this a lot. Very few of those ways involve you creating those people from random numbers and parts of yourself and then taking responsibility for both their survival and the integrity of their personality. Except possibly becoming a parent.
I knew when bad things happened and Damodar didn’t. I knew when people lied to him and he did not. I did not find it frustrating, but powerful and energising, my mind worked constantly. I had to protect him with the only tools I had. The ones inside his character.
He asked a LOT of direct questions, because he didn’t know much. (I never do this in real life, I remain silent.) People usually answered because he seemed obviously stupid and innocent. He happily accepted the social superiority of his co-adventurers. (You won’t see me do this.) That made them happy and made him popular. I interpreted his low WIS as courage so he became impetuous.
I found him nicer than me. And a better human than most of my characters. And probably a better person than me. Perhaps that only happened because of the action, inside my mind, of protecting him.
Damodar died defending his friends.
In Dogs In The Vinyard I play a highly intelligent, fundamentalist teenage girl. With Basemeth most of the creative tension comes from her 19th century pseudo-christian morality and my 21st century vague liberalism. Again we must solve problems together. She thinks faster and deeper than I can. I have more time to think of her responses so she acts in the upper range of my own capabilities. But we have different perspectives on the world.
Like the same scene viewed from different points, we share only certain ground. When events moves out of this ground one of us will become upset. Since we live in the same person, this ruins things for both of us. But if I let her collapse into a sock-puppet for my own values then she dies. So we must work together on remaining creatively different.
Every character I play feels like a powerful living exchange between me and this created thing. A waterfall looping like a lemniscate through dual poles. I never know which parts of me will surface and crystallize. Like meeting a new person every time.
I’ve been writing and curating The Occupational Digest for over three years now, time that has flown by.
It’s been a voyage of discovery: discovery of valuable journals previously unknown to me, of inspiring presenters at the Division of Occupational Psychology’s annual conferences, of new findings and rigorous investigations that I’ve been lucky to cover across our more than 200 reports.
We’ve always strived to walk a line that informs experts while bringing psychology to life for a general audience, and at times I think we nailed it, in posts about disagreeable men winning the ‘earnings war’ or how negative mood can kick-start the creative process or – our most popular post – how tiredness leads to more online time-wasting.
I take satisfaction in our move towards more systematic coverage of issues, through an increased focus on review and – where possible – meta-analysis, plus our ‘Further Reading’ references that provide the interested reader with a route in to a deeper understanding of the topic.
Most of all I’m pleased with the collaboration between this blog service and that of our parent, the Research Digest: sharing tips, co-hosting content, discussing the future. The Research Digest is a fantastic fixture of the science blogging sphere, virtually an institution, and it’s been fantastic to steer a new venture such as the OD – a specialist-yet-mainstream evidence-based site – using the RD’s success as our guiding light.
So I’m very excited that from next month I’ll be contributing my BPS writing fully to the Research Digest.
The psychology of the workplace will remain a core part of what I do, and it will be great to communicate what I find so exciting about this area to a new audience. Together with this, I will begin to cover other areas of psychology, a return to the kinds of things I tackled at Mind Hacks (in the book and occasionally the blog) and in my research career in cognitive neuroscience. And I’m eager for the chance to get in front of the Research Digest’s much larger readership, in partnership with a new full-time blog editor.
If you’ve been following the Occ Digest via twitter, or through the blog on rss, then please do follow @researchdigest and http://bps-research-digest-blogspot.co.uk if you don’t already.
If you prefer accessing content by email, the subscription for the Research Digest email is here.
This site is now on hiatus, although it will remain as an archive for the time being. Thanks for reading, and find us at the Research Digest.
My piece for the Jewish Quarterly has just gone online along with others about the Jewish conference (and conferencing approach) Limmud.
The New York Times has just done a pretty massive feature on my friend Paul Kingsnorth and specifically on the project he and (my other friend) Dougald Hine began as a response to ecological and civilisational collapse.
It’s a project that I’ve been intimately involved in, as a co-architect of the ritual component of the last three festivals, storyteller, workshopper and helper-outer. This is the first summer in five where we won’t be all gathering, and I know I’m not the only one to feel the absence. One of the most total experiences of community I’ve experienced, community across religion, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and age. It was there I’ve experienced some of the times I’ve felt most human, most chastened, most brimming over.
We were never going to metamorphose into a radical eco-village. We were united not by shared interests or purpose – I have my doubts that either are sufficient for what I consider community* – but by the space we came together in, and a commitment to allowing that space to be a coming-to-terms-with, in whatever way worked for each of us. There wasn’t a permanence in the gatherings; there couldn’t be.
Still these people are important to me, and I’m using this as a spur for more intimate meetings. In May I’ll take the train up to rural Sweden to visit Dougald and Anna for a spell, to talk, walk and think. Over that month and then next I’ll be just one of three or four mountaineers visiting, which promises a languid conversation smeared across the weeks, thoughts carried, deposited, picked up and turned over in hand. Can I make it to Ireland, to Paul and Nav? Scotland to Em and Dougie? Norwich to Ava? Berlin to Jeppe, and to Cat? In time.
In a way, losing the frenetic energy of the festival meetups reminds that these things, truly meeting with others, can’t be hurried, really. I read in a lot of my social feeds of whirlwind meetup weekends and regrets of not spending more time with people, and I definitely know where they are coming from. So I’m going to design more of my life away from that in the future.
And those August weeks thick with magic in the English countryside; won’t they be missed? They deserve to be. But this year, I’ll have to carve out some nostalgia time amongst three weeks of story camps working with teenagers and with families in green Germany. That should soften the blow.
This was a roundup on my Dark Mountain past and present. I recommend the NYT piece but if you’re really interested there is a lot more on the site including some information about the newest book: http://dark-mountain.net/
* If you’re interested, I’ve written around this subject in this Creative Commons piece from the book “Dispatches from the Invisible Revolution”. http://www.appropedia.org/A_show_of_hands_-_Alex_Fradera