Ba Feng Ku, Dragon City Journal Senior Correspondent
I interviewed Sebastian Gerard in Hong Kong about his forthcoming work of fiction, his third, The River Dragon’s Daughters: A Novel of Four Women of the Yangtze in Interesting Times.I began by asking the dashingly-handsome, powerfully-built, and brilliant writer:
BFK: What is the reason you, a Western man, decided to write a story about four Chinese women?
SG: Do I need a reason?
BFK: Well, everything happens for a reason, does it not?
SG: When someone remarks to me, “Everything happens for a reason,” my instinctive response is “What makes you say that”?
BFK: Touché. I realize that we could get into a causal spiral, like “what do you mean, when you ask what do you mean . . . ?
SG: OK. I’ll take your question the way I think it was intended. But first, let’s go a bit further with its alternate implications, because, as you know, I am also the author of The Babo Gospels: Essays and Parables on Faith and Reason.
BFK: Clever how you slipped that in there. I think I already know the reason.
SG: Touché. Soooo . . . We’ve all heard “Everything happens for a reason” at least a few times. There are people who actually believe it, even though when you ask them for the reason something happened they are unable to explain why beyond some vague and fallacious post hoc, ergo propter hoc.
BFK: Hey! Cool it with the Latin. I haven’t used any Cantonese on you.
SG: I am not referring to the reason (cause) we might give to an everyday event (e.g., “he took the gun to school and shot up his schoolmates because he failed algebra”). I am referring to the implied transcendental reason (Karma, Kismet, or something else beginning with a K), the “it was meant to be,” the sometimes exculpatory reason, that is invoked (“there must have been some reason that God looked the other way during the Holocaust”).
BFK: He does seem to have some Attention Deficit Disorder.
SG: This, of course, is intimately connected to the idea that God, or maybe Fate, has some sort of plan for everything and that within that plan, therefore, everything happens for a reason. One has to wonder, of course, whether are there are things that ”don’t happen for a reason,” the null, as well––so-and-so did not fall off that bridge for a reason. So how do we go about explaining the presumed causes behind everything that happens? It is a vision of existence in which h “all the dots” are necessarily, logically connected, in which all effects are causes and all causes effects. To believe that all thing s happen for a reason is, ultimately, to believe that all things are fore-ordained. It’s fatalism’s preamble.
There’re two directions I can go with this one is the sort of metaphysical direction of whether or not our lives are all laid out scripturally or in some other fashion by a supreme being and that we are only going about living out a script in which presumably everything happens for a (God’s?) reason.
BFK: But that will lead to an interview about The Babo Gospels . . .
SG: Okay, then, let me see if I work my way back to your original intent. The second direction this can go in, although it is somewhat connected to the first, is that in real life there is no way of determining whether everything that happens does happen for a reason–– and this is because there are always innumerable directions in which things can go (could have gone). There is an obvious rejection of the principles of quantum mechanics in this. Literally, one change in direction can completely change the alternate trajectories of one’s life–randomness. So, to say that everything that happens for a reason means that the connections between events are not choices made, but predetermined, predestined directions that lead one from beginning to end without ever their having been an act of free will.
BFK: But some things happen that are not human actions, like evolution and volcanos.
SG: Yes, which is why, I suppose, people bring in the agency of the divine, to give themselves a “reason “. But there is a distinction I would make, and it is this. In, say, Darwinism everything does happen for a reason, that is “natural selection.” But there is no normative, intentional purpose in this process. One could not apply it to a morality test, for example.
BFK: Unless you bring God into it.
SG: Yes. Then you could ask him the reason he killed all those people with one of his tsunamis. But that leads us back to . . .
BFK: Right, and I suppose God can do no wrong anyway.
SG: Don’t get me started on that one. So let’s get back to an aspect of life in which it can be said everything does happen for reason, and that is in that human activity we refer to as art. For example, in the narrative form––chance will connect to the reason of necessity—everything does happen for a reason because the intrinsic requirement of the net narrative form demands it. Consider, for example, the classic mystery novel, or romance novel. In the detective novel all of the elements of the narrative must be laid out for the reader to leave him or her to some dénouement in which it is the butler that did it, perhaps dispatching the victim in the library with the candlestick, and all of these elements must be logically connected backwards to a reasonable succession of factual information in which the reader can accept the notion that indeed everything did happen for a reason (in the detective novel these elements are motive, method, and opportunity).
BFK: Amazing, and you said that last sentence all in one breath.
SG: I’m not finished. So also is it in all art forms, the movie being the most closely connected to the narrative, but also painting in which dab of color next to another color is there for a reason the artist is employing the connections of chromatics, and light, to direct the viewer to a visual conclusion, or the sculptor chips away that extra centimeter of stone to create the illusion of some physical attribute or form. Every action has its antecedent reason because art is intentional.
In motion pictures, everything happens for a reason, as it must, in order for there to be a logical narrative. In real life, there can be coincidences that are difficult to explain. Are they part of a plan of unknown and unknowable authorship in which there are no coincidences, where there are no things that do not happen except for a reason? Or do things that happened that seem to be part of a narrative, or a plan, that seem to have a reason behind them, are they merely coincidence, merely statistics, appearing as a form of déjà vu, as the mind tries to make the inexplicable explicable by embedding happenstance in a “backstory”?
BGK: You wouldn’t have a couple of Tylenol you could spare, would you?
SG: Sorry. Let me go at it from another angle. It is in the imaginative aspect of the artistic impulse—the what if—that “everything happens for a reason” destructs in the stew of its in terms. Science might be that endeavor that is always in quest of the reasons things happen. Science is analysis, the taking apart, deconstructing if you will, of aspects of reality, the figuring out what makes things tick. The reasons that things happen in science are reasons of functionality and practicality. Art, however, is the act of synthesis, of putting things back together not in the way Nature presents them, but according to the creative whim of the artist. Raw geology, marble, becomes Michelangelo’s David; the way optics and chromatics function becomes the pixilated representations of Impressionism; that melody line from Stella By Starlight suggests harmonics you never thought of before; in comedy a commonplace aspect of human behavior evokes an ironic interpretation that gives it a quasi-philosophical meaning; that shifty-eyed guy down at the end of the lunch counter becomes a character that moves the narrative in your novel. Art is reality re-constituted.
BFK: Are we getting close?
SG: Maybe. I don’t think I fully appreciated this until I began writing fiction not many years ago. (I was playing improvisational music long before; but I never understood, analytically, from where its immediacy, its temporal “feelings,” arose.) One can read fiction forever and never wholly derive the process from which it was created. I had to find my own process, which I decided was not to have a specifically-realized plot all in mind beforehand but to choose the subject, setting, and characters and a plot direction rather than destination, and try to let them lead me through the narrative.
BFK: Sort of like that “a butterfly flaps its wings and . . .
SG: Yes, in a way.
In the novel things must necessarily have to happen for a reason—something must happen— if the reader is to be lead logically through a plausible narrative. This must hold together even where the author employs literary devices that place events out of logical sequence, or where the reader must be prepared to engage nonlinear sequences of events. But the writer can try to derive those reasons from aspects of the elements (setting, time, characterization, even dialogue) as they might alternately play out in a range of plausible possibilities. “Call me Ishmael,” “It was a dark and stormy night,” and “Arma virumque cano,” could each have opened vastly different stories. Where might an opening line like “Mark awakened in a panicky sweat from that dream again of how Joanne died”? Eventually, the writer will have to come up with a reason for Mark’s dream. But give that line to a class of twenty-five writing students, and you might get as many different reasons. (This does not obviate, I realize, the response that each student chose their reason for an antecedent reason that transcends the assignment.) Nevertheless, the writing exercise proves that the opening line is a different particle sent on a journey through a Heisenbergian cloud chamber of infinite trajectories. Is this a way in which we might describe existence itself? Not as a divinely-scripted “everything happens for (ultimately God’s) reasons,” but as our being authors of much of our own fates and the reasons for them? That we are also “particles” moving through this metaphorical cloud chamber, where there are other particles with which we might intersect that influence our existential trajectory.
When I create a character it soon becomes interactive with me; I begin to impute values and behaviors to that character. I cannot help but have a reason for that creative act. But they are my reasons, not God’s, Allah’s, Vishnu’s, or whatever deity one might claim as the creator of the ultimate resort.
BFK: But you still can’t prove that the reason for your creative act is not part of God’s plan, can you?
SG: No more so than anyone could prove to be the God exists at all. God makes no sense—there cannot be a reasonable reason for a deity to create something that he completely already knows what is going to happen. If I knew everything that was going to happen in my novel, what would be the point? In fact, it is superfluous. I would never create a god that all-knowingly stupid. So, since, as Woody Allen says, “90 percent of life is just showing up,” and God never has shown up, I will take credit or blame for everything that happens in my novel happens for my reasons. Writing a novel is a little bit like playing God.
BFK: I presume then, that if you win a Pulitzer or Man Booker for your novel, you are not going to open your acceptance speech with, “First, I would like to thank my lord and savior, Jesus Christ, for the inspiration and talent . . .”
SG: Not likely. He was rather absent the day I got the reason to write this story.
BFK: So, at last.
SG: The reason owes to a baby Chinese girl. I saw only for a few brief moments as her lifeless little body was whisked by the rail of my Yangtze cruise ship in the rapid sepia current one day many years ago. Then she was gone, forever. She was probably the victim of female infanticide, what is called “washing the baby.” Since God’s “plan” did not have a reason for her to live, I decided to give her a life.
BFK: Thankyou, Sebastian. And I will be leaving now, so when that lightning bolt strikes …*
©2018, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 06.07.2015)
*If you got this far you might be interested to know that The River Dragon’s Daughters will be available later this Summer 2018.