Reinterpreting Bad Milk (I/I)

“This squishy bit,” says Mei Ming, “represents the human experience, cast adrift in the sour bitterness of modern society.”

“Um,” Martin says.

“It clings together,” Mei Ming says, “because people cling together; but in the end, it comes apart, as we all must do, facing our sorrows alone.”

“Mei Ming—”

Mei Ming takes another sip. “Its long stringiness, ever more intense, is like boating down a white river, under white stars, while the boat’s ripples make my stomach clench, ever so little. It is the little bubbles that tie this back to the broader picture of human experience—that help me realize that the boat is life, and the journey is like the journey of Ra’s boat, ephemeral and eternal in one.”

“Mei Ming,” Martin says, again.

Mei Ming blinks. She refocuses on Martin. “What?”

“There wasn’t an artist,” Martin says. “It’s just bad milk. I wanted you to taste it ’cause I did and thought, ‘wow, this milk is pretty bad.'”

“Oh, man!” says Mei Ming. “So life isn’t really like that?”

Martin sighs.

“Now I have to spit it out,” frets Mei Ming.

20 thoughts on “Reinterpreting Bad Milk (I/I)

  1. I like this story, but I’m not very sympathetic to Martin in it. “There wasn’t an artist” isn’t just dismissive, it may be actually wrong. If Mei Ming wants to view the bad-milk-experience as reflecting an aspect of wider human experience, well, people do that every day. When you share an experience with someone, they may interpret it in ways that you didn’t intend. And milk is a highly symbolic food.

    On the other hand, I suspect that Mei Ming’s reaction may symbolize the comment box reaction to “Essay Without Shame”, in which case I find Martin’s attitude much more understandable. Of course, bringing up that anything may symbolize anything else just after this story inherently risks making myself look foolish. But I’m OK with that!

    There is often an inherent perceived ludicrousness in theology based on food, which appears both here and in “Good Potato and Bad Potato”. I have my own contribution to this genre — here it is:

    Allegory From Life

    On getting hungry by and by
    God decided to make a pie
    And into the crust of Earth he rolled
    Some crunchy, munchy, tasty souls!

    Now some of his pumpkins try instead
    To eat God up with their wine and bread
    But our experience makes that a lie
    Was ever a baker eaten by pie?

    Open your heart to what is true
    You live for God to devour you

    — Rich Puchalsky 2005

  2. Rich, your poetry continues to amaze me. Despite the fact that that poem has a regular meter and rhyme, which I guess would make poetry snobs condemn it as doggerel, it has quite an impact.

    Unrelated question: what would an artist whose medium was food be like? Talk about ephemeral art! (I mean, gourmet chefs could be considered such artists, but they usually aim merely to please the palate, rather than to communicate.)

  3. An artist whose medium is food?
    That’s The Cauldron of the World, I think. Actually there have been a whole lot of Hitherby entries about food, like _Theories About the Box_ (one of them was that the box of pain was a failed recipe for strawberry shortcake) and _Don’t Forget Your Infinite Mercy, Kwan-Yin!_.

    I’m glad that you liked the poem. Sometimes rhyme and meter are appropriate, sometimes they aren’t. To complete the effect on this one, I really should have tightened the meter up further to full, insistent sing-songy iambic tetrameter, but I decided that enough was enough. Slamming the thing into tetrameter couplets is sort of the equivalent of a Hitherby story about the suffering of the world that also has a blinking, rotating wogly in it. (Except that the Hitherby story requires more talent, of course).

  4. Open your heart to what is true
    You live for God to devour you

    Ever read Rautavaara’s Case, by Philip K. Dick?

  5. Hmm. Martin’s making progress, I think. The implications for the rest of the Hitherby cast may be relevant, later, given what Martin said to Sebastian a while back about his reasons for keeping the monster around the Tower.

    Also, Martin’s perhaps kind of a jerk, but in a way that’s still kinda endearing.


  6. I was definitely thinking of _Rautavaara’s Case_, yes. But the intended emotional tone is completely different — PKD really captured the kind of terrified mysticism that starts to wonder about reversal of values and the continuation of the food chain and what Jesus was really getting at with all of those parables about sheep and wheat and good fish packed into containers, and recoils in horror. But of course PKD was a genius and there is that difference too! Actually, the poem would have worked better if I hadn’t read _Rautavaara’s Case_; too much of it crept in.

    Going back to Hitherby, I think I can see what Martin’s getting at in _Reinterpreting Bad Milk_ — it’s one of the meanings of my own poem — that it’s easy to overinterpret and find real-life analogies for whatever view you’re predisposed to, that not everything means something about the world, and that people can construct meanings out of air. And Martin doesn’t actually answer “No, life isn’t like that” at the end — he sighs, and implies that he’s given that answer (that Mei Ming has to spit out the milk, i.e. reject the hasty and pessimistic construction of the world based on it). But it’s a manipulative sigh. Martin is always making things.

  7. We have learned something wrt the plot here: Martin went back and talked to Mei Ming before the current time, since this is a history.

    Martin is always making things at the tower, but didn’t seem to be doing much in his journey through the underworld. Didn’t have the time or the tools, I know. Perhaps he learned this at school.

    Is Martin a merin? He seems to be trying to make sense of the world.

  8. Graeme, Martin has said several times now that he is the smith, the test, the maker. So maybe he is a merin, one of the entities that make sense of the world. The problem that I have with that, though, is that I always thought that merins were isn’ts, just like the other entities on their list, and Martin doesn’t seem to be an isn’t. Or so he claims.

    By the way, Martin did make something in his journey through the underworld; it was a classic destruction-creation cycle in which he uses the dust of the failed answers (the siblings that he touches) to free Tantalus to become Saul.



    EW EW EW!


  10. I think it’s possible to be a merin and not an isn’t.

    There are two reasons why a merin might be an isn’t. Either it’d be inconsistant with itself, or it’d be inconsistant with the world. Neither of those seem to be necessary properties of a being that makes sense of the world. The only reason I can think of why merins would by necessity be isn’ts (aren’ts?) would be if the very act of making the world make sense produced a contradiction.

    Now, I imagine that there was a time that that was the case, between the shattering of the nature of the world and a couple generations before the present. But it appears that the current stage of the “tyranny of the mundane” has been on its way out for some time, and it is possible for there to be reasons and purposes for things again.

    Martin does, indeed, seem to be created at least in part to make sense of the world. But the thing is, so do some of Jane’s other ‘siblings’, some of which are explicitly other kinds of god. It may be possible to be both an angel and a merin, but we’ve at least seen no examples that I can think of of, ah, divine multiclassing.

    Martin’s explanation of why there’s suffering in the world is a decent one, really. And he’s consistant with himself, although that didn’t come without its cost. So I think he could indeed be a merin without being an isn’t.

    I’m not sure that that’s what he is, but it fits decently.


  11. Merins make sense of the world. I have yet to see any assertion in canon that everything that makes sense of the world is a merin.

    I would, rather, interpret that statement to mean that merin-hood is defined by having the dharma to make sense of the world, in which case Martin is most certainly not a merin.

  12. Eric, I think that Jane’s siblings aren’t, in general, created to make sense of the world. They are created as ways to protect Jane from the monster. In some sense, they are general answers to suffering, especially since Jane would like to help everybody, but I think that they are answers to Jane’s problem first. They all have, to a certain extent, the same relationship to Jane that Micah has to Liril.

    We’ve seen a number of Jane’s siblings try and fail: Daniel, Alan, Bob, Lisa, Thess, probably others I’ve forgotten about, ones that we know little about, like Frederick and Tad, plus a host of them that we don’t know much more about than their names — Manuel, Steven, Cedric, Clay, Tilly, Basil, Gerard, Earl, Morgan — and others that are known to exist although we’ve heard nothing about them (“a few dozen”). We know that a good number of them were angels, though not all of them were. I’m not counting Jane’s real brother, Sebastien.

    In a sense, each of Jane’s siblings has a dual role. They are an angel, a hero, a fiend, a demon, or whatever, and also a Jane-protector. So they aren’t two kinds of Hitherby entities at once, the angel part would be what they are, while the Jane-protecting part would be their purpose. One of the things that I was trying to get at with my Audience story, The Bees, is whether Martin has really escaped his dharma as much as he thinks he has. He certainly has grown past Jane’s original conception of him, and escaped his firewood dharma. (That is, if he was actually originally thought of by Jane — he may have been self-created out of the firewood world, which Bob built as much as Jane did.) But he hasn’t given up his basic purpose. He would need to abandon Jane to do so, just as the Buddha abandoned his son as an impediment. Martin, unlike the Buddha, is not that ruthless.

  13. I think that part of their role is to answer a question that Jane has. She wants to know why the world is such that the monster can hurt her in the ways that he can.

    Take Lisa. In many ways, she’s a sort of Martin prototype. Her primary approach to things has very little to do with actually saving Jane, and everything to do with explaining why suffering exists.

    Jane wants to know what sort of thing answers monsters. Now, I think the meaning of that is twofold. First, she wants someone or something that’ll protect her, but I think she also wants to know why there are monsters. Martin may be such an answer. Possibly, in ways that’d likely be unpleasant to him, to both parts of the question.

    I think that some of Jane’s siblings, including at the very least Martin and Lisa, are at least merinish, even if they aren’t merins proper.


  14. We’re told that merins “help make sense of the world.” It occurs to me that there are at least two ways to read this.

    You can read it as passive, of course. In this interpretation, a merin helps people to discover the “sense” — the meaning — that already exists within the world. As such, they’d function as a kind of teacher or guru. The problem with this, of course, is the that the world contains contradictions (like the existance of suffering) that are difficult or impossible to justify. A passive merin can too often end up telling someone, “Don’t worry, everything’s fine. Your suffering must be part of the natural order, or else it wouldn’t exist.” In situations like Jane’s, however, this doesn’t actually help very much.

    However, it’s also possible to read the phrase, “help make sense of the world” as active. In this interpretation, a merin helps you to make the world into sense — in other words, to create meaning out of something nonsensical. (This may explain why Martin can destroy woglies.) If Martin’s a merin, he’s definitely the active type. Rather than just reassure Jane that everythings okay, he’s trying to help her make things okay.

  15. Controlled badness that turns into goodness?

    I think that extension of the metaphor that’s not necessarily art is perhaps a bit odd.

  16. I dont think those two interpretations is really all that diffrent. The meaning exists as much (but not more) in the observer as the observed. To show some body the meaning of a thing is the same as giving that thing a meaning to that some body.

    (assuming im not missing any subtle diffrences between meaning and sense)

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