Larpers do it ekstatikoi

(published in panclou #5, 2001, and in The Larper #2, 2002)

Some artists -- sculptors, writers, actors -- enter a special condition when they're creating. In that condition you don't have to spend time thinking what would best work in the piece of art you're creating. You know. You know the logical results without having to think. It's as though the art is alive inside your head.

I searched my local university library for any research on the subject of inspiration, creativity, ecstasy, immersion, eläytyminen, anything. But no! Apparently nobody's studied the phenomenon because in the 20th century scholars have been more interested in the text and its audience than the author behind it. And if they do dare mention the author they run the risk of being called biographist. Shocking!

Roll over Aristotle

One scholar, however, has mentioned the artist's experience. In Poetics, chapter 17, writes Aristotle:

"In constructing the plot and working it out with the proper diction, the poet should place the scene, as far as possible, before his eyes. In this way, seeing everything with the utmost vividness, as if he were a spectator of the action, he will discover what is in keeping with it, and be most unlikely to overlook inconsistencies."
"Again, the poet should work out his play, to the best of his power, with appropriate gestures; for those who feel emotion are most convincing through natural sympathy with the characters they represent; and one who is agitated storms, one who is angry rages, with the most lifelike reality. Hence poetry implies either a happy gift of nature or a strain of madness. In the one case a man can take the mould of any character; in the other, he is lifted out of his proper self."
(translated into English by S. H. Butcher)

Poetics was written in Greek, and it's not easy to translate. What is translated here as "a strain of madness" actually means an ability to be taken over by your work, to immerse yourself into it... to eläytyä. "Taking the mould of any character" was originally the Greek word euplastoi, and means thinking logically about the characters and situations, and thus simulating the outcome. "Lifted out of his proper self", on the other hand is ekstatikoi, which is writing spontaneously, in inspiratio. (Here I must bow to the authority of Pentti Saarikoski and his comments on his Finnish translation.)

Inspiratio, of course, is a Latin word, and means spirit or breath coming in to you. The classic Greeks' idea of inspiration was that some outside force, like a spirit, a muse or a god takes over your mind and sort of does the creative side for you. We don't believe in ghosts in the 2000's. We believe in the subconscious and uncharted areas of the mind.

The tenth muse

Perhaps there is something in there, amidst all that unused gray matter. When playing a role in a LARP or improvising on a theatre stage, there are certain archetypes that come easily and are easy to immerse into. To put it metaphysically, those archetypes are the spirits that take over our minds (while still staying under our control). Sometimes, when you play a character long enough, explore the character's feelings and attitudes and memories, that character becomes a "real" individual, a new role inside your head. You can call on that character, mentally put on the mask of that character, and become the character. It is no coincidende that the old Greek word for "actor", hypokrites, means a mask-wearer.

When writing a scene with many characters in drama or prose, or when gamemastering a tabletop roleplaying game, the same phenomenon occurs in an exaggerated form. All the characters, or the NPCs start to live inside your head. The artist doesn't have to consciously wonder what any specific character will do next, or how will somebody reply to somebody else. These things come naturally. Several characters are inspired to come, and then sent back to the nowhere when they're not needed.

Some writers spend all of their life waiting for inspiration, others sit down in front of a computer and it comes to them. Some players can't eläytyä in roleplaying games, to others it comes naturally. The muses don't favor everybody equally. That's a phenomenon right there with nobody studying it. Damn you, modernism!

Voices in the head

When we immerse ourselves in a character, and start to interact as the character, then we are roleplaying. Much of inspired writing therefore, can be seen as roleplaying inside your head, gamemastering to yourself, and writing it on paper. (And obviously this isn't the only way to write, or necessarily even the best way, but it is a way many writers use. ...even though they may not realize they're doing it, and definitely don't call it roleplaying.)

What is that phenomena, then? These invisible people living inside our heads, who we can summon at will, and who will then act through us. Possibly interacting with other invisible people. I can understand how this might look like a "strain of madness." But what it really looks like to me, is a lot like shamanism.

Think about it. In shamanistic rituals you enter a state of ecstasy to be possessed by a spirit -- inspired. Then you are that spirit and interact with other spirits. The interaction might take place in the spirit plane (or what some might call "inside your head") or be acted out by other possessed people.

Never mind how that state of inspiration was achieved (usually hallucinogenic plants and drum beats were involved), focus on what actually happens. Several people being some other people and interacting with each other through this assumed persona. Physical contact is not simulated abstractly. Is that a LARP or is it a LARP?

Into the third millennium

Shamanistic ritual is LARP applied to religion. We have characters inside our heads. New ones join them when we read a good character description and play the character for a while. They are not physical people, nor are they spirits. They are individuals inside our heads. Usually, for those that the modern world considers to be sane, those individuals are not as dominant as what we consider to be our true selves. Sometimes they step up, though, and we get a glimpse of what a character of ours would do in our place.

We have people living inside our head. And, in a way, they're real. In another, more physical way, there's nothing real about them. But that doesn't stop them from affecting our lives. The prehistoric shamanistic people knew that and worshipped them. The spirit people had the ability to go from head to head and grow in power as the physical people told stories about them.

Children have always remembered the spirit people, although most of them are different today. Sometimes the kids invoke them, when they play games. "You be the Luke Skywalker, I'll be Han Solo." That's roleplaying, and that's also shamanistic possession. But then the kids are told that's not the grown-up thing to do, and because the kids want to be grown-ups, they stop doing it. They forget about the spirit people. Mind you, this hasn't really been the case until after the Age of Enlightenment hit upon us, but that's another story.

There are some, though, such as artists and roleplayers and new age people and drug users and such, who have rediscovered the ability to find the people within them, and talk to them. Are we then, the shamans of the Third Millennium? Well, yes. I don't know what this leads into, but I'm pretty sure it's a good idea to keep exploring the spirit plane. Because who knows what else there might be.

The Turku School