I always take something useful when an artist explains the process and motivations for their work in simple terms. I’m not often interested in hearing how groundbreaking it is or how it changed the world but like Bob Ross explaining the effects of a certain brushstroke technique my brain comes alight.
That said, here’s a scene from a novel of mine. Hopefully I won’t just make excuses afterwards. Enjoy.
Refreshed, Hane and Cheris ambled to the festival’s bazar to stock up for the final leg of their trip. They intended on setting out with full stomachs and raised spirits. Tender cuts of meat, fresh vegetables, fruit, better clothes, and a span of waterproof fabric for Hane to craft a retractable awning.
Cheris also took advantage of the circumstance to buy a jar of honey-vanilla pears, a cleaned cow femur, and one merchant’s entire supply of Lishtell powder. Their last stop was a tented clothing shop where she picked up a few sets of boy’s clothes.
Hane thought these choices rather peculiar but then reviewed his inability to conceive of what to do with all their newfound money after his stomach was filled. ‘You’d make the mistake of buying a home here,’ he thought wistfully.
However, as they exited a short man walked in and blindly knocked the clothes from her hands. Before Cheris or Hane troubled a word over the matter the short man dropped a knee and began collecting the clothes. Cheris joined him a moment later on instinct and Hane, seeing their ques, joined after her.
Yet as he reached for a shirt the short man swiped it from under him. Hane searched his face which betrayed no recognition of him. Then he returned to the floor but found everything already taken. After a quick dust off the short man handed over the clothing, apologized for her inconvenience with a big smile, and wished her well as he entered the tent.
After a silent minute walking down the street Cheris turned to Hane and said, “That was nice of him.”
Without thinking he joked, “I don’t know. I’m pretty sure I saw him sneak a peek down your shirt.”
She jabbed, “Like another someone I know.” Hane rolled his eyes and a terse laugh whistled between his teeth. “He was just being nice. You shouldn’t be so pessimistic all the time.”
“‘All the time.’ I argue for our money when you want to take what little we’ve left and throw it on a gamble. Before you say it, yes we all know you won and I thank you. But if you say I’m a pessimist all the time then I guess I’m a pessimist all the time. I’m also sure that guy spends every day bumping into women and helping them grab the stuff they drop.”
She humored him. “Quite. I mean to say you hate everything all the time for no reason and that guy is a nice guy all the time for no reason.”
Her facetious tone irked him into sobering the conversation. “Nice sure, but he’s a person like anyone else. Everyone wants to help themselves. It’s how you make a living. You go find food and shelter. It’s all a matter of course.”
“Or maybe there are good people in the world.”
Off balance by the direction of his argument, Hane tried to pivot the conversation onto familiar ground. “There’s a lot of good people but they do things for themselves too. Just like Kessi. In the Ba’tar she wanted to save her village from the mountain drake and the mountain drake wanted to feed its young. Of course because she wanted to do the right thing for the right reasons she ripped out the mountain drake’s black heart.”
“So cruel. You cut her short.”
Hane felt his belief in his words slipping away. Yet, he couldn’t think of a different approach without a perceptible pause.
“I’m not saying good people are malicious for helping themselves.”
“Did I say you were.”
“You were thinking it.”
Not biting on his goading she maintained her facetious inflection. “Once again you guess wrong.”
“No I’m right. Your rebuttal is that I’m an idiot and can’t understand charity.”
“Well… I was going to ask you what does that make of someone like, I don’t know, Father Haval?”
A wealth of personal experience reignited his confidence. Proclaiming as if atop a high slope: “That’s the power of faith. A truly selfless act can only be accomplished when one is acting with the guidance of their faith. It removes selfishness from their motivations and lets them help others with a clean conscience.”
Cheris nodded. “Makes sense.”
“And you must understand that even in the most charitable actions there’s a warm sense of feeling for the person doing the kindness and that is the selfishness present in all good deeds.”
“Hmm, never thought of it like that. I guess you’re right.”
Happy she had no retort Hane quipped, “You should do that more often.”
“I guess when you assume other peoples’ intentions you can prove anything you want.”
He mocked her facetiousness. “It’s just what I’ve seen from the people I’ve met throughout my life.”
“I mean, I twenty. I may have heard many people explain their intentions and seen them be capable of selflessness, but I’m sure you’re telling me this so I can expand my understanding of the true world.”
“Sure, if that helps you.”
Then she snapped shut her trap. “And no other reason than that I’m sure.”
Hane looked at the ground, shaking his head as he bit his bottom lip. Indeed, what made his assumptions any more valid?
Relishing his defeat, Cheris stretched her neck out like she’d been warming up for a real exercise.
“That is the sound of humility. Who knew shutting you up would be so easy to–”
Immediately Hane took her shoulders and pulled her against him for a kiss. After a minute, he parted and smiled at her frustration.
His smile read, “Is that all it takes?”
It’d be silly, she felt, to show anger over a kiss. Instead she attested, “I’m still right about–” but he wasn’t hearing any of what she had to say.
What I enjoy about this scene are the characters. Almost all my interest in stories comes from the characters. With these two, Hane and Cheris, they are a young couple in a new relationship still codifying their interpersonal dynamics. Plenty of room to change.
Here the inexperienced Hane takes an innocuous event as a challenge. The short man (shorter than Hane) outperforms him in being a decent person in front of his girlfriend. Intentionally so as he sees it. Clearly he’s full of hormones and low on self-control. He sees his greatest asset as his faith and being an upstanding moral person because of it. But what happens when he reduces that attribute down to a competition? He acts like a jerk and starts talking nonsense just to win the argument. Cheris on the other hand can hold her emotions in check and not get irrationally drawn into the argument while displaying a greater traditional education.
The argument is a thinly veiled example of ethical egoism opposing altruism. In short, egoism is the theory that people act in their own self-interest whereas altruism argues people can act solely for the benefit of other people. Ethical egoism is a middle ground where any act benefiting others still retains some benefit for the actor even if it’s an intangible warm and fuzzy feeling. I don’t know which of these philosophical theories is correct, wouldn’t know where to start. But what does that look like between two normal people? In my experience everyday philosophical arguments come from talking with a friend on the street and sticking to a single topic. You’ll get there eventually.
Cheris takes one side of the argument and just directs Hane through his with ease bending him from egoism to ethical egoism. She’s likely gone through this same discussion before in an academic setting so the course of the conversation is set in her mind like a game of chess. It’s not malicious, she doesn’t want to unsteady his faith or make him feel stupid but he could do without the brash machismo. She’d just won a gamble and paid for their journey in advance. That he has hope and a full stomach are attributable to her. If his masculinity isn’t tested it is a little shaken.
Another notch in her favor is mentioning Hane’s theologian teacher Father Haval. It gives him the chance to provide a steelman argument, the best possible argument he can make rather than a weak strawman. He believes acting upon the directive of a higher power absolves him the desire to think of his own interest and help others. If he had to run into a burning building to save someone it’d compel him to head in without a second thought. I like that even when he’s being obnoxious there’s still a deep-rooted sense to be good and do good. Even when he’s putting words in Cheris’s mouth and inventing insults at his expense he admits she won the gamble and thanks her for the rewards.
When she turns the tables on him it’s not to show his argument is false but rather a to expose a fallacy in his prosses. You can’t win every argument simply by inventing people’s intentions despite their own protest. It turns out he doesn’t like it when someone else does that to him. Again with his religious background he’s met with the old standard of the golden rule. In the face of that childhood lesson he accepts his loss in silent reflection. No more firing at the hip with a half-thought argument just to maintain an inflated ego.
Cheris, not perfect either, takes the opportunity to rub it in a bit. She can tell herself she’s not being half as bad as Hane was and she’d be correct. But she’s opened herself up to a strong rebuttal. She may have book smarts and the capability to play ten moves ahead but Hane can use the barest resources at hand and quickly whip up something functional. He takes her unintentional posit that he is easy to shut up and directly challenges her by shutting her up with a kiss.
To review, all it takes to shut Hane up is outsmart him in an organic philosophical debate with no time to prepare your argument. All it takes to shut up Cheris is kissing her. What is she going to say that can’t be easily refuted? Either continue to shut up or be proven wrong again and again. I like to imagine them walking along as she stews in silence occasionally murmuring unintelligible, vanilla insults at him.
These are two very different people finding the middle ground between them on a tipping seesaw while slowly peeling back the layers of one another’s personalities. They don’t need to scream at each other and can be adorable as they fight over nonsense. I love it.