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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Same and Different

In my thinking about various things, I arrive again and again at a basic conundrum of human experience: the Same and the Different.

Even in ancient times this question exercised philosophers. How do we understand the ideas of Same and Different? What makes something the Same as something else, and what makes it Different? I thought of doing a drawing or a painting with the title of "Same and Different": two identical eggs side by side. They're the same--but different.

Another way of presenting this same idea is the notion of Genus and Species. In the ancient, original sense, Genus was the category to which two individuals belonged--as, say, the Genus "egg" in my example--and the Species was the individual instance within the category--as the two individual eggs. Two Different individuals within the Same category. They're the Same--just Different.

Two other terms for Same and Different are Familiar and Strange. For something to be the Same, it must be Familiar: we must have a preexisting idea of it against which to compare it and note its Sameness. The Strange is Different from our familiar ideas. We recognize its novelty.

Every created work will be an amalgam of Familiar and Strange, Same and Different, Old and New. Familiar words in a Strange sequence, for example.

My first thought was about historical fiction: that it is a particular example of Same and Different. For, like, say, science fiction, it transports us to a world removed in time from our own: to a place none of us has been in our lifetime. In that sense it must be Strange and Different. But in that Strange and Different time, it contains people, things, situations, that are Familiar--the Same as what we recognize in our own lives now.

But it's not just historical fiction and science fiction that traffic in the Familiar and the Strange in this way--it's every work. An artist is exactly someone who assembles the Familiar and the Strange in a creative and novel way to evoke a sense of aesthetic enjoyment and meaning in a viewer or reader.

And hence, again, that excellent saying about high-quality writing: it makes the familiar seem strange and the strange seem familiar. This is the ability to see (and represent) things with fresh, unprejudiced vision, with the eye of newness.

A historical project is simply one way of doing that. Right now, it's my way. Day in and day out, I journey through the Strange to find the Familiar in history--and finding the Familiar in history, recognize the Strange in today. My task is to share those insights.


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