Corwin on Solipsism

This is actually the bit from the Amber books that made me decide to put up some quotes here.  How often do you run across the word “solipsism” in a fantasy novel?

For those who don’t know the series (read it, seriously; it’s a quick read), the background here is that Amber is the only “real” place that exists, and all other places are “Shadow.”  Shadows are alternate universes that can be created/discovered by members of the royal family of Amber, by using their minds to alter their surroundings as they travel.  (Let’s just ignore the complications of the second series.)  So our Earth is one Shadow, Avalon (with Arthur and Lancelot and so on) is another, and there are limitless others, all different. The Amberites don’t know whether they actually create the Shadows with their minds, or simply travel between them, which is what Corwin (a prince of Amber) is talking about here.  He’s traveled so far through Shadow that he’s starting to see things that he can’t imagine are coming from his own imagination:

Two lines from a story of Isak Dinesen’s returned to me, lines which had troubled me sufficiently to cause me to memorize them, despite the fact that I had been Carl Corey at the time: “… Few people can say of themselves that they are free of the belief that this world which they see around them is in reality the work of their own imagination. Are we pleased with it, proud of it, then?” A summation of the family’s favorite philosophical pastime. Do we make the Shadow worlds? Or are they there, independent of us, awaiting our footfalls? Or is there an unfairly excluded middle? Is it a matter of more or less, rather than either-or? A dry chuckle arose suddenly as I realized that I might never know the answer for certain. Yet, as I had thought that night, there is a place, a place where there comes an end to Self, a place where solipsism is no longer the plausible answer to the locales we visit, the things that we find. The existence of this place, these things, says that here, at least, there is a difference, and if here, perhaps it runs back through our shadows, too, informing them with the not-self, moving our egos back to a smaller stage. For this, I felt, was such a place, a place where the “Are we pleased with it, proud of it, then?” need not apply, as the rent vale of Garnath and my curse might have nearer home. Whatever I ultimately believed, I felt that I was about to enter the land of the completely not-I. My powers over Shadow might well be canceled beyond this point.

Corwin isn’t a very good solipsist here. For the true solipsist, nothing can ever be proven to be not-self; if the solipsist can perceive it, he can imagine it as part of the universe that makes up his self. There’s nothing that can make him say, “Ok, that couldn’t have come from me.”

I’ve known New Agers who hold this as their official belief: everything they perceive — including their New Age friends who believe the same thing, presumably — is a creation of their minds, and can be altered with the right mode of thinking. It’s a particularly problematic way of thinking, which I’ll have to write about more another time.

What’s interesting, though, is that the first part of what Corwin’s talking about has infested modern thinking: we are free to do pretty much whatever we want with our lives, and many even believe we can improve reality with positive thinking.  But you rarely hear anyone ask the second part: In that case, are you proud of your results? No one points out the disconnect of having a group of people running things who simultaneously claim that A) they have all the answers, and B) everything sucks. Try to claim that anything they’ve been working on for decades — racism, sexism, the environment, take your pick — is getting better, and they’ll shout you down. But if nothing’s gotten better, shouldn’t they have to answer for that?

It’s like the “there are no wrong answers” concept of schooling, where you never tell a kid, “No, that’s wrong,” because that would damage his self-esteem or stifle his creativity, has spread to everything. All that matters is that you have the right intentions; no one ever asks whether you’re proud of what you produced (or didn’t) — or whether you should be. You shouldn’t have to be a solipsist to care about that, but it seems like a solipsist should care the most, yet they seem to care the least.

Oh, and it’s interesting that Isak Dinesen, the writer he quotes who thinks few people are free of that kind of extreme solipsism, was a woman.