I once had a Tai Chi instructor who explained the difference between Chinese and Western medicine thus: “Western medicine is based on corpses, things that you discover by cutting up dead bodies and pulling them apart. Chinese medicine is based on living flesh, things observed from vital, moving humans.”
The explanation, like all good propaganda, is stirring and stilted, and not particularly accurate, and gummy as the hook from a top-40 song, sticky in your mind in the sleep-deprived noontime when the world takes on a hallucinatory hyperreal clarity. Like now as I sit here in my underwear on the roof of a sanatorium in the backwoods off Route 128, far enough from the perpetual construction of Boston that it’s merely a cloud of dust like a herd of distant buffalo charging the plains. Like now as I sit here with a pencil up my nose, thinking about homebrew lobotomies and wouldn’t it be nice if I gave myself one.
The difference between Chinese medicine and Western medicine is the dissection versus the observation of the thing in motion. The difference between reading a story and studying a story is the difference between living the story and killing the story and looking at its guts.
School! We sat in English class and we dissected the stories that I’d escaped into, laid open their abdomens and tagged their organs, covered their genitals with polite, sterile drapes, recorded dutiful notes en masse that told us what the story was about, but never what the story was. Stories are propaganda, virii that slide past your critical immune system and insert themselves directly into your emotions. Kill them and cut them open and they’re as naked as a nightclub in daylight.
The theme. The first step in dissecting a story is euthanizing it: “What is the theme of this story?”
Let me kill my story before I start it, so that I can dissect it and understand it. The theme of this story is: “Would you rather be smart or happy?”
This is a work of propaganda. It’s a story about choosing smarts over happiness. Except if I give the pencil a push: then it’s a story about choosing happiness over smarts. It’s a morality play, and the first character is about to take the stage. He’s a foil for the theme, so he’s drawn in simple lines. Here he is:
Copyright © 2004 by Cory Doctorow