Saturday, July 26, 2014

Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes

The other day I mused and complained a bit about the current Apes reboot. Well, I can now say that I've read Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes, originally published in French as La Planète des Singes in 1963, and have some further thoughts.*

To begin with, I'm a bit surprised that the book isn't better known, because it's quite good. I can't recall having seen it for sale or heard it discussed. My copy was picked up in a resale shop in Wichita Falls, and appears to be the first paperback edition in English. It doesn't exactly stand in the line of mainstream sci-fi at the time of its writing. Actually, the style made me think of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, William Henry Hudson, and the like. Perhaps it's overshadowed by the franchise it spawned.

It's a first-person narrative, via a framing story involving a bottle with a note (!) discovered in space, and has many synoptic descriptions and musings but little dialogue. I suppose it reminds me of The Time-Machine more than anything else, especially in the darkness of the tale. It ends with a horrific twist worthy of Rod Serling, though one more appropriate (to my mind) than the one in the movie. Tim Burton's much-maligned adaptation (2001) is closer to the novel in this respect, if in nothing else.

The story was, to me, quite gripping. The surprise ending wasn't hard to guess from the outset, but that didn't decrease my enjoyment. In general the movie follows it fairly closely, except that here the planet is a satellite of the star Betelgeuse. There are three travelers, as in the movie, and their respective fates are fairly similar. The exception is Professor Antelle ("against earth"? "counter-earth"?), who reverts to bestiality in a zoo, whereas his cinematic counterpart is merely lobotomized.

Yes, I say merely. The reversion of a great mind to that of an animal is terrifying to contemplate. In the novel we're given to understand that the humans of the planet weren't wiped out by nuclear war or plague. No, they lost their lofty seat through ennui and laziness, happy to be released from the shackles of thought and responsibility by becoming animals, driven at last into the jungles by the apes they'd raised as servants. This idea plays some part in the original Apes series, but never so starkly. A woman's racial memory holds the terrifying recollection that when the ape army finally descended upon them they carried whips, not guns.

At the same time, the novel contains some very humorous satire. To wit:
"With only two hands, each with short, clumsy fingers," said Zira, "man is probably handicapped at birth, incapable of progressing and acquiring a precise knowledge of the universe. Because of this, he has never been able to use a tool with any success. Oh, it's possible that he once tried, clumsily... Some curious vestiges have been found. There are a number of research projects going on at this moment into that particular subject. If you're interested in these questions, I'll introduce you someday to Cornelius. He is much more qualified than I am to discuss them." 
"Cornelius?" 
"My fiancé," said Zira, blushing. "A very great, a real scientist." 
"A chimpanzee?" 
"Of course... Anyway," she concluded, "that's what I think, too: our being equipped with four hands is one of the most important factors in our spiritual evolution. It helped us in the first place to climb trees, and thereby conceive the three dimensions of space, whereas man, pegged to the ground by a physical malformation, slumbered on the flat. A taste for tools came to us next because we had the potentiality of using them with dexterity. Achievement followed, and it is thus that we have raised ourselves to the level of wisdom."
Which just goes to show how meaningful a posteriori judgments can be.

Ape civilization in the novel is represented as on a level with twentieth-century Earth. I've read that the movie's Ape City was intended to follow suit, but that budget limitations forced a different approach. I wonder what other plot elements owe to this exigency? At any rate, I've always rather liked the set design of Planet of the Apes; it kind of reminds me of the crappy churches that got built during the years following Vatican II. The mixture of different levels of civilization – horse-drawn wagons and bronze-age architecture together with automatic rifles and brain surgery – continues to fascinate, but doubtless originated in this alteration.**

Why the filmmakers decided to set the story on Earth I'll never know, unless it was for financial reasons. Certain things left unexplained – the absence of the moon, for instance – seem to come from the novel, but don't make sense in the movie. Did they start filming before the knew how the movie would end?

In the final analysis the novel is far more powerful than the original movie, which descends too often into cheap vulgarity, while the recent reboot, however compelling an action-drama it may be, hardly merits comparison. The rise of the apes in the latter is represented as stemming from human experimentation, echoing in part the incoherent backstory of the original Apes prequel-sequels. But the novel's ape revolution, which is supposed to have begun in laboratories, is due to human degradation rather than some exterior calamity or biological chance. It could happen anywhere, whenever men are willing to lay aside their humanity as too burdensome. It's a cautionary tale, not about nuclear war or tinkering with nature, but about the potentiality of losing our dignity as human beings.

Made in the image of God. That is a truth placed on the narrator's lips. Terrible things happen when man forgets it.

* Pierre Boulle, I discover, also wrote The Bridge over the River Kwai.

** Apes must ride black horses. It's a requirement.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Going Ape for Apes

Last weekend I went and saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. These are my thoughts.

First let me say that it's quite a decent sci-fi flick. It's convincing and thought-provoking. No small accomplishment for an nth-iteration movie about super-intelligent apes taking over the earth. What's especially well done is the constant tension between the humans and the apes. For these chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans are not just humans in ape suits. They are members of different species. This has to be handled much as one would treat man's first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, except that here we have the complicating factors of prejudice (on man's part) and resentment (on the apes' part).* After decades of movies about alien life forms, it's pretty hard to capture the wonder and fear and insecurity that would attend such a meeting. That Dawn does so is, as I say, a major feat.

The action is very finely done and, like the first installment in this incarnation of the franchise, has a good, slow build-up for a climactic finish. The sets and atmosphere are excellent. Once again the human characters are a bit two-dimensional next to Caesar and his fellow apes, but that's understandable, because this isn't really a movie about humans at all. And that's as it should be.

Call me a doubly misanthropic quisling if you like, but I am and have always been wholly on the side of the apes. If I have any quibble with this movie, it's that it's too limited in scope. It doesn't go far enough for my taste. I wanted to see an ape-led conquest of the planet (it's called Planet of the Apes for a reason!), with the human survivors driven into tunnels or turned into mindless cattle. Horrible, I know, and not something I should admit in public – there's a reason I write with a pen name! – but there it is. If I'm watching a movie about the downfall of man as a species, there'd better be some major mayhem. Well, perhaps the sequel will hold more.

Admittedly this isn't a movie I could just watch over and over again. That doesn't mean it's not a good movie. There are lots of great films I'd pay money not to see. There are lots of B films and cult classics that I've watched till I memorized them. Dawn is...well, it's good, but it doesn't have the re-watch value of the original Planet of the Apes. More on that in a moment, after I descend into an enumerated rant below the jump break.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Upcoming Fiction ~ Updated


I'm pleased to announce that my story "Day of the Dragonfly" has been accepted by Beneath Ceaseless Skies and will appear there some time in the not-so-distant future. This will be my longest published story to date. It's inspired by various myths, Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, hardboiled fiction, and a well-known tale I liked when I was a boy but always felt ended the wrong way.

Update: I've just been notified that my first pro-published story, "Misbegotten," has been selected for the fifth annual Beneath Ceaseless Skies best-of anthology. As usual, I'm both pleased and honored. Check back here for future updates.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

She

I just finished reading She by H. Rider Haggard (1887). I'd read it once before, when I was about seventeen. I remember ordering it from Dover Publications – before I discovered used Ballantine paperbacks, Dover was my main supplier of classic weird and fantastic fiction – based on the description in the catalog, which said something about ancient civilizations, reincarnation, and the supernatural. The novel was something of a revelation to me, and it now strikes me as strange that I never returned to it until this summer.

The main reason for this is, I suppose, that I found the book profoundly disturbing. It moved me in ways I didn't like. I remembered the details of the story pretty well as I began my second reading: there were no surprises, though I'm twice as old. The denouement remained just as shockingly horrifying as it ever had been, if not more so. I actually found myself reluctant to continue as I neared it. But, as I said, the plot held no surprises. What did surprise me was the sheer number of allusions to She that I'd missed in other books, books I'd read many times even before picking it up for the first time. More on that in a moment.

It's a Lost Race novel – perhaps the Lost Race novel – set in the wilds of equatorial Africa. Haggard, who lived and worked in Africa for a time, spins a convincing tale with marvelous verisimilitude and an eye for local detail. Here is no flimsy tissue of dialogue relying on the movies you've seen to supply the missing scenery. It's worth reading just for that. Call Victorian literature turgid and unreadable if you will. Perhaps the charge is just in many cases. But this book is, in my opinion, one of the great accomplishments of the period.

Its most enduring image is the terrifying veiled figure of She herself – Hiya (in the Arabic) or She-who-must-be-obeyed, the near-immortal queen ruling over the ruins of imperial Kôr – a woman whose very shape, down to the sinuous curve of her neck, is unspeakably evil, yet maddeningly beautiful. She variously plays the role of temptress, lover, dutiful wife, rival, mother, and fiend. Both Freud and Jung, I believe, cite her as an instance of the anima archetype.

As I said, though, what most struck me upon this second reading was a recognition of its pervasive influence. Without it there would have been no Tarzan or John Carter, no Narnia or Middle-Earth, at least as we know them.

Case in point: the figures of Jadis and Galadriel are, I realized, modeled on She. Consider, for instance, the following passage, from Holly's first interview with She in her sepulchral "boudoir":
"Dost thou wonder how I knew that ye were coming to this land, and so saved your heads from the hot-pot?"
"Ay, oh Queen," I answered feebly.
"Then gaze upon that water," and she pointed to the font-like vessel, and then, bending forward, held her hand over it.
I rose and gazed, and instantly the water darkened. Then it cleared, and I saw as distinctly as I ever saw anything in my life – I saw, I say, our boat upon that horrible canal. There was Leo lying at the bottom asleep in it, with a coat thrown over him to keep off the mosquitoes, in such a fashion as to hide his face, and myself, Job, and Mahomed towing on the bank.
I started back, aghast, and cried out that it was magic, for I recognised the whole scene – it was one which had actually occurred.
"Nay, nay; oh Holly," she answered, "it is no magic, that is a fiction of ignorance. There is no such thing as magic, though there is such a thing as a knowledge of the secrets of Nature. That water is my glass; in it I see what passes if I will to summon up the pictures, which is not often."
Who could not be reminded of "The Mirror of Galadriel" in The Fellowship of the Ring? She, or Ayesha, as she is truly called, goes on to exult in her beauty when asked to unveil by the curious Holly:
She lifted her white and rounded arms – never had I seen such arms before – and slowly, very slowly, withdrew some fastening beneath her hair. Then all of a sudden the long, corpse-like wrappings fell from her to the ground, and my eyes travelled up her form, now only robed in a garb of clinging white that did but serve to show its perfect and imperial shape, instinct with a life that was more than life, and with a certain serpent-like grace that was more than human. [...] I have heard of the beauty of celestial beings, now I saw it; only this beauty, with all its awful loveliness and purity, was evil – at least, at the time, it struck me as evil. How am I to describe it? I cannot – simply I cannot! The man does not live whose pen could convey a sense of what I saw. I might talk of the great changing eyes of deepest, softest black, of the tinted face, of the broad and noble brow, on which the hair grew low, and delicate, straight features. But, beautiful, surpassingly beautiful as they all were, her loveliness did not lie in them. It lay rather, if it can be said to have had any fixed abiding place, in a visible majesty, in an imperial grace, in a godlike stamp of softened power, which shone upon that radiant countenance like a living halo. Never before had I guessed what beauty made sublime could be – and yet, the sublimity was a dark one – the glory was not all of heaven – though none the less was it glorious. Though the face before me was that of a young woman of certainly not more than thirty years, in perfect health, and the first flush of ripened beauty, yet it had stamped upon it a look of unutterable experience, and of deep acquaintance with grief and passion. Not even the lovely smile that crept about the dimples of her mouth could hide this shadow of sin and sorrow. It shone even in the light of the glorious eyes, it was present in the air of majesty, and it seemed to say: "Behold me, lovely as no woman was or is, undying and half-divine; memory haunts me from age to age, and passion leads me by the hand – evil have I done, and from age to age evil I shall do, and sorrow shall I know till my redemption comes."
Drawn by some magnetic force which I could not resist, I let my eyes rest upon her shining orbs, and felt a current pass from them to me that bewildered and half-blinded me. [...]
"Rash man!" she said; "like Actaeon, thou hast had thy will; be careful lest, like Actaeon, thou too dost perish miserably, torn to pieces by the ban-hounds of thine own passions. I too, oh Holly, am a virgin goddess, not to be moved of any man, save one, and it is not thou. Say, hast thou seen enough!"
"I have looked on beauty, and I am blinded," I said hoarsely, lifting my hand to cover up my eyes.
"So! what did I tell thee? Beauty is like the lightning; it is lovely, but it destroys – especially trees, oh Holly!" and again she nodded and laughed.
Here we have the vision of what Galadriel might have become had she succumbed to temptation when Frodo proffered her the Ring at the end of that chapter. "All shall love me, and despair!" are her words. And indeed, the rumor of the Witch of the Golden Wood among the Rohirrim is not unlike the legends of She in the outside world. So it seems to me that the ultimately humble, self-effacing beauty of Galadriel is intended as a counterpoint or rejoinder to the awful splendor of Ayesha.

Other echoes abound. Sam Gamgee bears a close resemblance to Job, the adventurers' manservant, and serves a similar role. The vast sepulchers that honeycomb the sheer cliffs surrounding the caldera in which Kôr lies remind one of Moria. The city itself, ringed as it is by precipices and reached by way of a tunnel that flows with a subterranean stream, is similar to Gondolin.

Then, too, we have the figure of Jadis (later the White Witch) in The Magician's Nephew, the (ahem) sixth book in the Chronicles of Narnia. The inexorable power Ayesha exerts over Holly and Leo is lampooned in the infatuation of Uncle Andrew for the witch-empress brought by his nephew to Victorian England. In fact, the whole humorous episode of Jadis' rampage through London seems inspired by Ayesha's intention of returning to England with Leo and establishing herself as the goddess-empress of the earth.
I instantly informed Ayesha that in England "blasting" was not an amusement that could be indulged in with impunity, and that any such attempt would meet with the consideration of the law and probably end upon a scaffold.
"The law," she laughed with scorn – "the law! Canst thou not understand, oh Holly, that I am above the law, and so shall my Kallikrates be also? All human law will be to us as the north wind to a mountain. Does the wind bend the mountain, or the mountain the wind?"
"And now leave me, I pray thee, and thou too, my own Kallikrates, for I would get me ready against our journey, and so must ye both, and your servant also. But bring no great quantity of things with thee, for I trust that we shall be but three days gone. Then shall we return hither, and I will make a plan whereby we can bid farewell for ever to these sepulchres of Kôr. Yea, surely thou mayst kiss my hand!"
So we went, I, for one, meditating deeply on the awful nature of the problem that now opened out before us. The terrible She had evidently made up her mind to go to England, and it made me absolutely shudder to think what would be the result of her arrival there. What her powers were I knew, and I could not doubt but that she would exercise them to the full. It might be possible to control her for a while, but her proud, ambitious spirit would be certain to break loose and avenge itself for the long centuries of its solitude. She would, if necessary, and if the power of her beauty did not unaided prove equal to the occasion, blast her way to any end she set before her, and, as she could not die, and for aught I knew could not even be killed, what was there to stop her? In the end she would, I had little doubt, assume absolute rule over the British dominions, and probably over the whole earth, and, though I was sure that she would speedily make ours the most glorious and prosperous empire that the world has ever seen, it would be at the cost of a terrible sacrifice of life.
I would wager that The Magician's Nephew originated in part as a recasting of She. The ruined civilization of Kôr was changed to the post-apocalyptic world of Charn. The figure of Ayesha became Jadis, but here it was the woman herself who destroyed the civilization, whereas She came upon its ruins from without. The power of She over the adventurers is mirrored by Digory's (and, more overtly, his uncle's) infatuation with Jadis, while the failure of Polly to be impressed with the witch parallel's Ustane's defiance of her immortal mistress for love of Leo. And Jadis' attempt to make herself queen of the world through terror and her power of "blasting" plainly had its origin in this passage of Haggard, which, fortunately for Queen Victoria, failed of its promise.

The idea of erotic love persisting from incarnation to incarnation is central the plot of She. Lovers are portrayed as finding one another again and again, over tens of thousands of years, while the universe continues to die its slow death of entropy. The narrative takes on a truly cosmic perspective. Quoth Ayesha:
"My life has perchance been evil, I know not – for who can say what is evil and what good? – so I fear to die even if I could die, which I cannot until mine hour comes, to go and seek him where he is; for between us there might rise a wall I could not climb, at least, I dread it. Surely easy would it be also to lose the way in seeking in those great spaces wherein the planets wander on for ever. But the day will come, it may be when five thousand more years have passed, and are lost and melted into the vault of Time, even as the little clouds melt into the gloom of night, or it may be to-morrow, when he, my love, shall be born again, and then, following a law that is stronger than any human plan, he shall find me here, where once he knew me, and of a surety his heart will soften towards me, though I sinned against him; ay, even though he knew me not again, yet will he love me, if only for my beauty's sake."
Of course this reminds me of another great work in the canon of great British fantasy, namely, The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson. She goes on thus:
"Tell me, stranger: life is – why therefore should not life be lengthened for a while? What are ten or twenty or fifty thousand years in the history of life? Why in ten thousand years scarce will the rain and storms lessen a mountain top by a span in thickness? In two thousand years these caves have not changed, nothing has changed but the beasts, and man, who is as the beasts. There is naught that is wonderful about the matter, couldst thou but understand. Life is wonderful, ay, but that it should be a little lengthened is not wonderful. Nature hath her animating spirit as well as man, who is Nature's child, and he who can find that spirit, and let it breathe upon him, shall live with her life. He shall not live eternally, for Nature is not eternal, and she herself must die, even as the nature of the moon hath died. She herself must die, I say, or rather change and sleep till it be time for her to live again."
Any reader of Edgar Rice Burroughs will see many influences on his work as well, from the Lost Sea of Korus to the hidden realm of Lothar. Indeed, the Sword-and-Planet subgenre is an offshoot of the Lost Race subgenre, which owes its origins to the unfortunate annihilation of all blank space on terrene maps.

I've said little about the metaphysical import of She and its place in the upheavals of late Victorian society, but about that each reader will have to make up his own mind. It's definitely worth a read, and any lover of heroic fantasy should give it a try, as well as the best of Haggard's other works, including King Solomon's Mines and Allan Quatermain. These are two others I read in adolescence but haven't returned to. I've promised my wife that we'll read KSM together once we finish our current project, forming as it does an excellent compromise between our tastes in reading (Victorian for her, heroic-fantastic for me), so perhaps I'll be reflecting on it in a couple months.

Apparently Haggard went on interminably writing sequels (and crossovers!), but I've never heard of anyone who read them. Among all the noble traits he bequeathed to his descendants, I suppose that is the one unfortunate one. The sequel to She – Ayesha (1905) – I also read, but definitely did not care for. It attempts to rehabilitate Ayesha, but I prefer her in all her domineering terror, as she is in She.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Passed Over

Here is my most recent painting:


Mountain Laurel Bean
2.5" × 3.5"
Oil on clay ground.
As you can see, it's quite small. In an effort to sell to locals, I've decided to produce a number of paintings of this size, as I don't mind parting with them for less money than I would my larger pieces. Not quite Lady with an Ermine, perhaps, but I'm pleased with it.

It depicts the seed of the Texas mountain laurel (Dermatophyllum secundiflorum), a large shrub that superficially resembles the bay laurel, though I've never heard of Texans using it to crown their athletes and bullriders. It grows in the Texas Hill Country, just north of the badlands where I live, and in parts of northern Mexico. It can attain a height of ten or fifteen feet, and has a woody trunk, and dark, glossy leaves.

In the spring it produces large bunches of fragrant purple flowers which are said to smell like grape soda. It belongs to the legume family, and its bright red beans are found in woody pods, two or three to each pod. They were once used by the local Indians as a hallucinogen, hence the tree's alternate name, mescalbean (though the beans contain no mescaline). The beans are very hard, and burn the skin on contact after being rubbed on concrete; I have never been able to ascertain whether this is a chemical burn or merely due to the heat of friction. They seem to sting the hands slightly upon being broken out of their pods, so I am inclined toward the former. When I was in the Boy Scouts, we entertained ourselves by burning one another with the beans from the two large trees in front of City Hall, where we had our meetings.

The mountain laurel is often used for landscaping around where I live. We have a sizable specimen growing on a corner of our property, next to a telephone pole, together with a spineless prickly pear. Last spring we were contacted by the phone company, which was going up and down all the streets in our town, savagely butchering any trees deemed too close to the lines, and were told that ours was slated for removal. My wife complained that it posed no danger to the lines and never would. The tree was crossed off the list by a worker, but he assured us that his boss would simply put it back on. I then passive-aggressively parked my truck in front of the tree for a week while they came through our neighborhood. I'm happy to report that the tree is still there, and the company has moved on to another town.

So, the alternate title of my painting is Passed Over.

Arts of the Ugly

…in which I think aloud about art. This is more or less a continuation of the cogitation begun here, here, and here. My thoughts are occasioned by two things: the first public exhibition and sale of my artistic work, and an essay on art by John C. Wright.

Mr. Wright considers the (apparent) pursuit of ugliness in modern art, mentioning along the way a number of famous avant-garde pieces typically regarded as intentionally crude, disgusting, or blasphemous, the NEA-sponsored Piss Christ being perhaps the most familiar example. This pursuit he attributes to political motives, regarding it a means of breaking man's resistance to the dehumanization perpetrated by various regimes and forces.

While not necessarily disagreeing with this view, I must confess that I see a different dynamic at work, though this doesn't necessarily exclude Mr. Wright's interpretation, for reality – especially spiritual reality – is many-layered. Writing this post is just a way of putting my thoughts in order, so I hope I will be forgiven if I seem somewhat vague or sketchy on several points.

Let us consider, first, a painting by a famous painter, say, Leonardo da Vinci. I pick Leonardo not because I am particularly fond of his works, but because he is universally recognized. Take his Lady with an Ermine:


Here we have a skillfully executed painting with a charming subject. Men being as they are, a great deal of its worth in their eyes owes to the fact that Leonardo was the one who painted it. Suppose, however, that it wasn't attributed to any known artist. Perhaps people who know of art only from Dan Brown novels would be unimpressed, but I think most would agree that the painting would still be greatly admired, and that the artist would become known as the Master of the Lady with an Ermine, or some such thing. It commands respect as an artifact of human skill and discipline, quite apart from its beauty; but of course it is beautiful, and, Leonardo aside, men would find it valuable insofar as they found it beautiful.

Now let us turn to the famous urinal of Marcel Duchamp, signed R. Mutt, otherwise known as Fountain.


Let us suppose that some cataclysm were to occur, and the history of art to be forgotten. What interest would the urinal signed R. Mutt command, save as an episode in the history of indoor plumbing? Clearly the answer is – none at all. And yet this is a "work" whose authenticated replicas are now zealously defended (though not altogether successfully) by the guardians of culture from being used for their apparent purpose, and auctioned for millions of dollars.

What interests me here is the intrinsic difference in the valuation of the two objects. One would be valued as an artifact, quite apart from its origin and provenance. The other is valued specifically for its origin and provenance, and would otherwise be discarded as trash, or used, perhaps, as an ivy pot by my mother, who thus employs any antique bedpans that come into her power. Its value is something intangible, a mere societal figment.

I'm reminded at this point of something quite different. Another setting in which the history of an object, and not some observable trait, is what lends the object value; a setting in which this history originates, not in an event, but in the fiat of a human agency, declaring the object now to be different from any of its "fellows" of similar construction, taken wholly up into a new order of being. I speak, of course, of the transubstantiated host in the Catholic mass. The priest, acting in persona Christi, after declaring the wafer's history ("fruit of the earth and work of human hands"), takes it up and announces that its history is now that of the crucified, resurrected, and glorified body of Christ. Thus is the host mystically transformed, though the eye detects no change.

In much the same way, Marcel Duchamp, acting as high priest, takes his urinal up and announces it to be art. The artist is, in fact, the priest of the cult of modern art, which has risen up to take the place of the old faith. For man must ever pursue transcendentals, and if traditional religion fails he will find a substitute. Curiously, though, the artist is not "ordained" by fellow artists, but by agents and gallery owners, the "bishops" of art, the self-anointed brokers of culture. But it is clear that such ordination is quite necessary. Without it, none of the "faithful" (wealthy collectors and museum curators) would know which "hosts" had been validly "consecrated."

Some express surprise that the elements chosen by these priests are things like urinals, canned excrement, maggoty cows' heads, soiled beds, and urine-soaked crucifixes, but perhaps artists have little choice in the matter. It is a point of sacramental theology that the priest must use wheat bread and grape wine, as Christ did, so perhaps these imitators of Duchamp are similarly constrained.

At any rate, the observation about the "faithful" and their need for certitude in matters of "faith" brings us to my other point. However much the modern artist may sniff at the mere mention of money, there has never been a more purely commercial art.

For one thing, the value of R. Mutt's urinal is a little bit like the value of the dollar, backed up by nothing but the mutual agreement of concerned parties that this is what it's worth. Collectors buy such things as investments, receiving as an added bonus the gratifying assurance that they and they alone represent haute couture, but facing the same risks and standing to make the same profits as any investor speculating on the value of currency. The difference, of course, is that one dollar is as good as another, recognized by all, while Fountain and its descendants are more or less unique, however much they toy with the idea of mass production. It's almost as though these pieces were created to serve as placeholders in an exclusive, artificial market.

Perhaps it all began with the advent of the commercial gallery. Once you go from the magnanimous patron of the arts, seeking to enlarge his name and status, to the wealthy collector, you raise the possibility that high-risk investors will begin buying up art and trading it like stock shares. For such a market to operate, it is imperative that the supply be carefully controlled, so what could be more natural than to have a system of valuation based on name-recognition (as managed by the anointed) rather than technical mastery (which is open to all)?

On the other hand, the gradual ascent of the artist from the anonymous workman of the Middle Ages to the modern art-diva lent itself to the creation of just such a system: once the artist stepped out from behind his work and an element of personality was introduced, it was bound to happen that someone, somewhere, would seek to reduce art to that element, until, as now, you have nothing at all to distinguish a piece of art as art except the name and the gatekeepers' word.

Well, who can say which was cause, and which effect? And perhaps I miss the point entirely. Still, there is more here than the mere attempt to slap the viewer (or taxpayer) in the face or accustom him to ugliness, and I think it has a lot to do with changes in our ideals. The great-souled munificence of the Middle Ages is no more. Chesterton says somewhere that St. Thomas Becket wore gold on the outside, where the commons could see it, and a hair-shirt underneath, while the modern businessman wears his ugly clothes on the outside and his gold next to his heart. Perhaps much the same could be said of the patronage of the arts. The Borgias, whatever their failings, facilitated much beauty in their quest for self-aggrandizement, beauty that was shared with the public, whereas the modern collector not only hoards his treasures, but holds aloof from anything that would delight the plebs. A "feast for the people" (Andrei Rublev) he would utterly scorn.

This doesn't mean that no beautiful art is made today. It only means that it will have to be sought in the waste places of the earth.
[T]he modern world, which had promised the artist all things, will soon scarcely leave him even the bare means of subsistence. Founded upon the two unnatural principles of the fecundity of money and the finality of the useful, multiplying its needs and servitudes without any possibility of there ever being a limit, ruining the leisure of the soul, withdrawing the material factabile from the control which proportioned it to the ends of the human being, imposing on man its puffing machinery and its speeding up of matter, the modern world is shaping human activity in a properly inhuman way, in a properly devilish direction, for the ultimate end of all this frenzy is to prevent man from remembering God. […]
Persecuted like the wise man and almost like the Saint, the artist will perhaps recognize his brethren at last and find his vocation once again: for in a way he is not of this world, being, from the moment he begins working for beauty, on the road which leads upright souls to God and makes invisible things clear to them by visible. However few they may then be who will disdain to gratify the Beast and turn with the wind, in them, for the simple reason that they will be exercising a disinterested activity, the human race will live. 
– Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism

Thursday, June 26, 2014

On Reading Fairy Stories

I've read fairy tales to my children off and on for several years. I've always enjoyed such things myself – I have most of the Andrew Lang collections, and some of my short stories are inspired by them – so it pleases me greatly that my kids enjoy them.

And they do, considerably. As I've mentioned before, we don't watch television here at Casa O., so their play generally comes from what we read. Every tale we've gone through works its way into their make-believe. But naturally they each have their own preferences.

My six-year-old boy, who enjoys piano, chess-playing, and math, prefers stories that have some kind of repetitive pattern. His favorite is "The Fisherman and his Wife." We of Casa O. are obstinate papists, and the enormity of the wife's demands bowls my kids over every time and makes them howl with laughter. When we last read it, my boy said that some stories make him wonder whether he's hearing them or actually there as the events are unfolding, and that "Fisherman" is one of these. How glad that made my heart! They were both excited when we saw a flounder at the aquarium last week – I'd forgotten the fish-prince was of that species – and recited the incantation from memory.

It's a funny thing, but "Fisherman," which really is a very simple and repetitive tale, hooked me when I was a kid, too. At one point my junior high language arts class had to write and perform modernized fairy tales in front of the whole school; at my suggestion, my group chose "Fisherman." I played the husband, who discovered a talking fish filet inhabited by the reincarnated soul of Elvis at Luby's Cafeteria. We even had a brown paper fish-puppet that danced to "Don't Be Cruel."

But I digress.

My four-year-old daughter, on the other hand, likes "Rapunzel" most of all. She loves whimsical ideas and often makes up such stories on her own. She's told me about Nobody the friendly giant, who's invisible (nobody knows Nobody but Nobody knows everybody, she says), and about the tree that gives eggs instead of fruit, eggs that hatch into "clear" cats, which can only be seen with special goggles, and fly through the clouds over the city. She likes witches, bad fairies, and ogresses, but doesn't have any use for princesses; once I called her Princess (as I'm wont to do) and she said, "Never call me Princess. I hate princesses. I like dinosaurs, sharks, and every animal that's scary." She also has flaming red hair, and (in a remarkable display of good fashion sense) refuses to wear pink.

In one of his introductions, Lang asserts that "Is it true?" is the great question children ask. My children have certainly done so. Chiefly, though, they ask about the scarier things, and from a strictly practical point of view. For instance, when we read about an ogress-queen who tries to devour her son's wife and children, they like to know – quite sensibly, in my opinion – if there's any danger of that happening to them. I remember Tolkien saying somewhere that his children were more wont to ask "Was he good?" That has been my experience as well. They want to classify each character as good or bad and are bothered when someone's actions are ambiguous, as they often are in fairy tales.

Incidentally, I don't care for the writing in a lot of the stories in Lang's collections. I guess the writers thought it cute to ridicule the story they were telling, but over the children's heads, so that they could share a smug little smile with the adult reader. Such condescension disgusts and angers me. When I read with my kids I want to be right down on their level. They – my daughter, especially – tend to find stories with little jokes and witticisms extremely tiresome. By contrast, the Blue Fairy Book contains Lang's own retelling of the Perseus myth ("The Terrible Head"), which uses simple, unadorned language, but plays it straight. They've never sat so still as they did last night when I read it to them, clinging to their respective arms of the big green chair where they perch for bedtime stories.

My son, who's very sensitive in some ways, has always been afflicted with strange spectral fears. For instance, he used to be terrified of a certain pair of framed child's handprints at my parents' house. Stop signs and lamp-posts with globes also made him hysterical – he said they were "happy," which still gives me the shivers. Certain images make him extremely uncomfortable.

I experienced similar fears when I was young, and am rather careful about the movies I watch. What's interesting is that the same sort of terror doesn't attach to fairy tales, for him or for me. They may involve the most monstrous crimes (as the mother's in "The Juniper Tree") but they play the role of symbols, as it were, in an abstract pattern, and actually produce a kind of pleasure at their appearance in the larger context of the story.

Then again, right now my kids desperately want me to read "Bluebeard," because I mentioned it at some point as being too creepy, but I don't think I shall, not for some time yet. I can't abide the thought of their working through that in their games.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Tim Burton's Batman

Yesterday was the twenty-fifth anniversary of Batman, Tim Burton's 1989 film. This came to my attention because Yahoo! News, which I read every day, being a man who likes to keep abreast of important current events, has positively deluged us with stories about it. (This is neither here nor there, but I sometimes wonder if someone (Warner Brothers, in this case) puts down cash for these stories. For instance, I recall seeing quite a few articles about the cast of Full House earlier this year. Not that I read them or anything.)

Anyway, the fact that Batman is a quarter of a century old has me feeling slightly dated, as it was my favorite movie when I was a teenager. I didn't see it in the theater, of course. We went to the movies only rarely, and never to see something as dark and violent as Batman. I was ten at the time. That Christmas I received the VHS tape as a gift from my Granny, but my parents wouldn't allow me to watch it until I was fourteen. Fourteen!

Why they singled out this particular film I'll never know. It did depict Antoine the Gangster being fried to a crisp by a joy-buzzer, but then again we sat down and watched movies with gun violence and nudity as a family. What makes it more ironic is that we got Big Top Pee-Wee at the same Christmas, and no one blinked an eye. Now, Big Top Pee-Wee is a sick, twisted little film, featuring Pee-Wee Herman, unsavory character that he is, happily two-timing away with some not-so-subtle, er, Hitchcockian imagery, his girlfriend winding up engaged to four acrobatic brothers, the Shim (half man, half woman) married to shimself, the ringmaster married to a little lady he keeps in his pocket, a reluctant pig-hippo romance, and various other things. But it was for kids, so no problem. That's the Eighties for you.

Well, being a parent myself now, I know better than to be critical of these little inconsistencies. The truth is, they (the A.P.s) probably did me a favor, because I was of an age to really appreciate Batman when I finally saw it. Once I did see it I watched it repeatedly, obsessively, almost, until it was displaced at the top of my list by The Road Warrior. (I guess I go for dark stories about loners and outcasts.)

What did I like about it? Not the plot, of course, because it's impossible to like (or dislike) something that doesn't exist. What drew me to it was partly the visual style, and partly the tableau it presents of a dark hero who is himself somehow a part of the chaos and madness he fights.

The portrait of Gotham is dark and apocalyptic, with city streets that look like something out of Piranesi's prison pictures. Its visuals owe a great deal to German Expressionism; the final scenes in the ridiculously tall Gothic cathedral are lifted straight from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The buildings, the news office, the Axis chemical plant – all seem drawn from some nightmare extrapolation of noir cinema, a black cityscape heaped upon itself by a confused, obsessed mind, akin to the urban imaginings of Proyas' The Crow and Dark City, or the sublime middle act of Phantom Lady (1944).

And as for the dark vision of Batman, well, I recall that people objected to it at the time on grounds of nostalgia, but in my opinion the darkness is part of his DNA. It's a far cry from the campy Adam West period, yes, but Batman existed before that. His persona originated at the beginning of the noir era, and his adventures have varied quite a bit in tone. I've mused a bit about Batman's role as the dark knight and its relation to mythology and the hardboiled school of literature; for instance, here, and here, and here.

Batman films have this tendency to subtly ask difficult questions about the role of heroism in an ordered society, generally leaving them unresolved. Burton’s vision of Batman standing before the neon Axis sign encapsulates this. Wayne Enterprises is responsible for creating (and losing) the microwave emitter in Batman Begins and the nuclear reactor in The Dark Knight Rises, while Batman himself is credited with the rise of the Joker in The Dark Knight as well as in the 1989 Batman.

Jack Nicholson’s Joker is, of course, quite entertaining to watch. He's a hoodlum turned mad supervillain but also a pretentious avant-garde artist-vandal. His acts of sadism and terrorism (the shoot-out at City Hall ("It's your uncle Bingo!"), the disfigurement of Alicia, the mass poisoning ("Love that Joker!"), the anniversary parade) are self-conscious pieces of performance art. In the museum desecration scene he and his goons "decorate" pieces by Rembrandt and Degas and other masters while pointedly leaving a Goya (?) intact. ("I kind of like that one, Bob.") It's darkly amusing that his appreciation of Vicki Vale's work parallels Bruce Wayne's; they make a number of the same comments regarding Miss Vale. ("Nice apartment. Lots of space.")

All that said, it's too bad that Batman is such a plotless movie. It's of a piece with Tim Burton's other works, which generally strike me as visually brilliant but spiritually empty. I never have cared for Batman Returns, though other people seem to regard it as the better film. It's just got too many cheesy parts. And the later, non-Burton Batman movies that came before the Nolan rebirth are too stupid to comment on, except to say that the batsuit should not have nipples.


Wingéd bat flies by night.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Witch of Anûn: A Review

A bit of shameless self-promotion: Fletcher Vredenburgh reviews my most recent story, "Witch of Anûn," over at Black Gate:
I’ve enjoyed all of Ordoñez’s Antellus stories independent of one another. They possess a beautiful and dark strangeness, both in characters and setting, that I like very much. [...] 
Taken together, a larger world is coalescing out of these stories. Bits and pieces of history have been revealed, religious sects and heresies have been alluded to, and dangerous races have been shown to dwell just beyond humanity’s settlements. There’s an intoxicating quality to the world he’s created and with each story I’m increasingly, willingly, being drawn into it.
I aim to please!

As I've said, I'm personally quite fond of this story. If you like sword and sorcery and planetary romance, please go give it a try, and give one of the only online venues dedicated to heroic fantasy a bit of traffic!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Day of the Orcs

"All right, all right!" said Sam. "That's quite enough. I don't want to hear no more. No welcome, no beer, no smoke, and a lot of rules and orc-talk instead. I hoped to have a rest, but I can see there's work and trouble ahead."
This is tangentially related to my last post.

I've instituted a new family tradition: every week we have a movie night. My children, who are four and six, don't watch television – we don't even get it at our house – and have practically no media exposure. So, I thought, maybe it's time to begin introducing them to a rich if vulgar vein of our artistic culture.

Last weekend's showing was The Wizard of Oz. My wife had been concerned that the witch and the flying monkeys would be too scary (they are for her!), but, no, not our kids. I guess all these years of telling them creepy fairy tales like "Hansel and Gretel" and "Jack the Giant-Killer" and "The Juniper Tree" have finally paid off.

Actually, what really bothered my son (the six-year-old) was the implication that the story was all a dream. He asked about it while I was tucking him in, and I told him I thought the movie left it up to the viewer. We decided together that it wasn't just a dream. But I was a bit put out by it too, though I confess that the movie as a whole – which I hadn't seen in a long time – greatly delighted me.

I told someone else about it, and they mentioned that they'd been taught in college (they were an educator) that this is the good kind of children's fantasy, the kind that makes it very clear what's real and what's not, so that the poor dears don't get their heads turned and start looking for Technicolor dream worlds inside tornados. The bad kind of fantasy treats the events of the tale as real events. The child never wakes up or, if they do, they discover the rainbow scepter in their bed.

The main problem I have with the "good" type of fantasy is that it's stupid. When I was a kid I hated dream-stories with a passion. Why on earth would I want to read about a silly dream of the chief pencil sharpener's assistant at Acme Widget? As an adult I feel just the same way, and I discover that my children do as well. Fiction is fiction, I suppose, but the dream machinery just drapes the story with a layer of condescension: "Ha ha! You thought this was real! But it's not." Or: "No, you idiot, things like this don't really happen. You knew that, right?"

Granted, exposing the idiocy of assertions made by child development "experts" is like shooting fish in a barrel. But this particular attitude is, I think, more than just annoying. It's nothing short of damnable. It was beaten out, hammer and tongs, in the deeps of the earth by a secret cabal of Orcs.

Yes, that's right. I said Orcs. Their numbers being too small now to plot large-scale domination, they seek to influence events from behind the scenes.
 
And what Orcs most dearly want, more than anything else in the world, is for the children of Men to become efficient slaves. They want lesser breeds of imps and goblins to lord it over. They hate anything that makes the children look out the window and dream of a better place, so naturally they heap scorn on Fantasy, calling it a form of Escape (a bad word on their lips).

To which Tolkien replies:
I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which "Escape" is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the Führer's or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery. In the same way these critics, to make confusion worse, and so to bring into contempt their opponents, stick their label of scorn not only on to Desertion, but on to real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt. Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the "quisling" to the resistance of the patriot. To such thinking you have only to say "the land you loved is doomed" to excuse any treachery, indeed to glorify it.
Now, if the Orcs can't keep children from reading fantasy, they at least want them to understand that it's just a silly dream that we put away when there's real work to be done. Hence their compromise on dream-stories.

Their approach to adults – and, I think, their more recent approach to children – requires a bit more subtlety but goes a step further. Rather than settling for making adults despise the medium – which they still do, to be sure – they aim to make its very ideals despicable in the eyes of its readers. After all, we know what Orcs think about heroes:
"There's a great fighter about, one of those bloody-handed Elves, or one of the filthy tarks."
What's a tark, you ask? For the etymology of the term, please see the Appendix to The Return of the King. However, to our excellent diversity-minded modern Orcs, Frodo son of Drogo is just as much a tark as Aragorn son of Arathorn. It's all the same to them, and they're as tired as hell of it. Enough with your Hectors, your Beowulfs, your Rolands, your Arthurs! No more Gilgameshes and Galahads and Godfreys! Grow up! Give us something different! Except, when they say, "give us," they really mean, "give the great unwashed masses," because these Orcs always know what's best for everyone else.

To accomplish their ends of making the ideals of Fantasy despicable, they create (as Saruman his pitifully derivative pits and engines) meta-stories, stories that masquerade as Fantasy but serve rather to browbeat the casual reader and insult the perspicacious or principled reader through "subversion" and "deconstruction." The condescension of the dream machinery mentioned above now comes out in the open and slaps the reader in the face.

In the end, of course, such stories are read only by critics and other writers, and the sub-genre becomes a Worm Ouroboros, devouring its own tail. The one to whom Tolkien and Lewis, or even Howard and Smith, are like fine wine, decried now as a fool who reads knaves, flees with terror before the face of such insipid, self-regarding, effete, irrelevant "literature" as the Fellowship of the Ring fled the Balrog, except in this case there's no fire to ignite his mantle of darkness, because "No Smoking" signs are hung on all the walls.

Here, then, are the three main thrusts of the Orcs' assault on Fantasy:
  1. Keep people from reading Fantasy.
  2. Make Fantasy seem unreal and silly.
  3. Mock the ideals of Fantasy.
To which I reply with the words of the Marsh-Wiggle:
"Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world."
And so I'll keep looking for the land of the sun, though all the Orcs ever spawned oppose me. I'll keep reading (and trying to write) books that aren't afraid to tell tales straightforwardly, without the winks and nods and other cheap tricks the literati use to dress up the watery barf they call "writing." I'll keep painting pictures of flowers and insects and saints and princesses and knights without an iota of irony, commentary, or self-reference. And I'll read my children the stories I like, and guide them (for a brief time) through the beauties and terrors of the world, and protect them, until they are mature enough to fight for themselves, from the clutches of "experts" whose smiling, concerned faces hide the hearts of Orcs.
"The world is all grown strange. [...] How shall a man judge what to do in such times?"
     "As he ever has judged," said Aragorn. "Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house."
It's not the first time the Orcs have tried to take over, and it won't be the last. The proper responses are the same as ever: Escape, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt.