Thursday, October 18, 2012

Mythago Wood

I first encountered the Matter of Britain through bowdlerized versions of the Arthurian cycle, then through Howard Pyle and, at last, Malory. Malory was where I first struck solid earth, for Pyle was separated from the land of Arthur by an ocean, and his stories take place in a generic fairyland. In Malory one breathes the air and smells the earth of the old island. From him I went on to Layamon and Monmouth, the Mabinogion and Gawain and the Green Knight, Jessie Weston and T. S. Eliot, Mary Stewart and C. S. Lewis. My long-abiding literary love of Britain eventually led me to take a five-week walking tour across the south of England and Wales, visiting Canterbury, the White Cliffs of Dover, the South Downs, Winchester, the Salisbury Plain, Dorset, the Dartmoor, the Cornish coast, Glastonbury, St. David's Head, and the Offa's Dyke path through Tintern and Hay-on-Wye, backpacking more than 150 miles in all.

When it comes to modern fantasy, most Arthurian fare leaves me cold. I mentioned Mary Stewart above; her Merlin series has a richly detailed, strongly local flavor lacking in most other fictionalizations. The quasi-mystical humbug one finds in such works is particularly irksome. Here, though, I may be betraying my bias. Nowadays people are always trying to peel away the layers that have encrusted the legends of Britain, trying to find a basis in history or ritual, trying to get to some solid substance underneath. But in most cases we have little knowledge of what the old pagan rites and beliefs were like; trying to reconstruct them or live them out is mere self-deception. When I was in Glastonbury I saw spiritual hippies ommming in fields around the famous tor and talking about force-lines running through Stonehenge and elsewhere. I wondered how the real Druids would have felt about it all.

The only chance a latter-day searcher-into-ancient-mysteries has of coming anywhere close to the heart of Britain—or of any country—is through a serious contemplation of its land, its what-it-is-in-itself. A tradition is a living force, not something one can just make from scratch. But the land is a kind of tradition, a physical memory. I speak of the land itself, not some self-regarding pantheistic conceptual framework or gratifying pseudo-mythology imposed on the land. The contemplation I'm describing requires solitude, silence, patience, and, possibly, extreme discomfort. Perhaps this is what the young Wordsworth experienced before he began writing about it, trying to distill it for pleasure and profit. "Nutting" and several passages from his Prelude come to mind. Certainly it's what Antony Abbot meant when he spoke of the "book of nature."

I've gotten away from what I meant to say. I began this post intending to write a review of Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood, which I read recently and very much enjoyed. Suffice it to say that the land—the earth—is very much a living presence in this book. The idea of a wood larger on the inside than on the outside—a wood in which remote antiquity all the way back to the Ice Age still lives on, if one could only find the paths to the heart—this idea, this conceit, strongly appeals to me. It's a book with real substance. A lot of modern fantasy strikes me as a skin-deep, stage-scenery affair. Mythago Wood is something different, something special.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


I apologize to my various imaginary readers for my long absence from this space. However, my time away has not gone to waste. I'm pleased to report that my second piece of fiction, "Misbegotten," is soon to be published in the excellent online fantasy magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies. This is my first professional credit.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Raymond Carver on Writing

"Ambition and a little luck are good things for a writer to have going for him. Too much ambition and bad luck, or no luck at all, can be killing. There has to be talent. Some writers have a bunch of talent; I don't know any writers who are without it. But a unique and exact way of looking at things, and finding the right context for expressing that way of looking, that's something else… Every great or even every very good writer makes the world over according to his specifications. It's akin to style, what I'm talking about, but it isn't style alone. It is the writer's particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There's plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time."

"I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or a gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. Tricks are ultimately boring, and I get bored easily, which may go along with my not having much of an attention span. But extremely clever chi-chi writing, or just plain tomfoolery writing, puts me to sleep. Writers don't need tricks or gimmicks or even necessarily need to be the smartest fellows on the block. At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing—a sunset or an old shoe—in absolute and simple amazement."

"Evan Connell said once that he knew he was finished with a short story when he found himself going through it and taking out commas and then going through the story again and putting commas back in the same places. I like that way of working on something. I respect that kind of care for what is being done. That's all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say. If the words are heavy with the writer's own unbridled emotions, or if the are imprecise and inaccurate for some other reason—if the words are in any way blurred—the reader's eyes will slide right over them and nothing will be achieved. The reader's own artistic sense will simply not be engaged."

"I like it when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories. I think a little menace is fine to have in a story. For one thing, it's good for the circulation. There has to be tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often, there simply won't be a story. What creates tension in a piece of fiction is partly the way the concrete words are linked together to make up the visible action of the story. But it's also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface of things."

"V. S. Pritchett's definition of a short story is 'something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.' Notice the 'glimpse' part of this. First the glimpse. Then the glimpse given life, turned into something that illuminates the moment and may, if we're lucky—that word again—have even further-ranging consequences and meaning. The short story writer's task is to invest the glimpse with all that is in his power. He'll bring his intelligence and literary skill to bear (his talent), his sense of proportion and sense of the fitness of things: of how things out there really are and how he sees those things—like no one else sees them. And this is done through the use of clear and specific language, language used so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader. For the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given. The words can be so precise they may even sound flat, but they can still carry; if used right, they can hit all the notes."

—Raymond Carver, "On Writing"

Love in the Isle of the Combinators

I'm pleased to report that my first piece of fiction is set to be published in The Colored Lens this summer. The title is "Love in the Isle of the Combinators." It's set in my secondary world, Antellus, the counter-earth at the cosmic antipodes.

Flannery O'Connor's Advice on Writing

Flannery O'Connor is my favorite short story author. Actually, I sometimes have the uncomfortable feeling that I've escaped from one of her stories. Anyhow, lately I've been reading Flannery's correspondence. I'd been reluctant to for a long time because it makes me feel intrusive. Now that I have read her letters I wish I could have corresponded with her, but also worry that I would have been one of the cranks she seems to have been a magnet for. At any rate, the advice she gave to aspiring writers encourages me . Some excerpts follow. These are all from her letters published in the American Library edition. Bold-facing is mine.
I am glad you see the belief in [my stories] because it is there. The truth is my stories have been watered and fed by Dogma. I am a Catholic (not because it's advantageous to my writing but because I was born and brought up one) and at some point in my life I realized that not only was I a Catholic but that this was all I was, that I was a Catholic not like someone else would be a Baptist or a Methodist but like someone else would be an atheist. If my stories are complete it is because I see everything as beginning with original sin, taking in the Redemption, and reckoning on a final judgment. I have heard people say that all this stifles a writer, but that is foolishness; it only preserves your sense of mystery.
[W]hen you present a pathetic situation, you have to let it speak entirely for itself. I mean you have to present it and leave it alone. You have to let the things in the story do the talking. I mean that, as author, you can't force it and I think you tend to force it in your story, every now and then. The first thing is to see the people at every minute. You get into the old man's mind before you let us know exactly what he looks like. You have got to learn to paint with words. Have the old man there first so that the reader can't escape him. This is something that it has taken me a long time to learn. Ford Madox Ford said you couldn't have somebody sell a newspaper in a story unless you said what he looked like. You have to learn to do this unobtrusively of course.
Your comments on how much of oneself one reveals in the work are a little too sweeping for me. Now I understand that something of oneself gets through and often something that one is not conscious of. Also to have sympathy for any character you have to put a good deal of yourself in him. But to say that any complete denudation of the writer occurs in the successful work is, according to me, a romantic exaggeration. A great part of the art of it is precisely in seeing that this does not happen… Everything has to be subordinated to a whole which is not you. Any story I reveal myself completely in will be a bad story.
About bad taste, I don't know, because taste is a relative matter… Fiction is supposed to represent life, and the fiction writer has to use as many aspects of life as are necessary to make his total picture convincing. The fiction writer doesn't state, he shows, renders. It's the nature of fiction and it can't be helped. If you're writing about the vulgar, you have to prove they're vulgar by showing them at it. The two worst sins of bad taste in fiction are pornography and sentimentality. One is too much sex and the other too much sentiment. You have to have enough of either to prove your point but no more.
Fiction is the concrete expression of mystery—mystery that is lived.
I don't believe that you can ask an artist to be affirmative, any more than you can ask him to be negative… I mortally and strongly defend the right of the artist to select a negative aspect of the world to portray and as the world gets more materialistic there will be more such to select from.
Experiment for but for heaven sakes don't go writing exercises. You will never be interested in anything that is just an exercise and there is no reason you should. Don't do anything that you are not interested in and that don't have a promise of being whole. This doesn't mean you have to have a plot in mind. You would probably do just as well to get that plot business out of your head and start simply with a character or anything that you can make come alive, when you have a character he will create his own situation and his situation will suggest some kind of resolution as you get into it. Wouldn't it be better for you to discover a meaning in what you write than to impose one? Nothing you write will lack meaning because the meaning is in you.
The artist dreams no dreams. This is precisely what he does not do, as you very well know. Every dream is an obstruction to his work.
This new ending is right. Just right. And as I stack the whole thing up in my head it seems to me that the whole thing must be just right now. I suggested sending two out at a time but reconsidering it I don't much see why you don't go on and send this one out by itself. I am not so sure that anyplace will take it because I think the Mass scene might scare them off; however, the purpose of sending it around would be to show various people that you CAN write stories. After reading this, they will remember you and be interested to see the next one. Somebody might even take it… This process of sending things out and getting them back depresses some people but it is necessary for a certain length of time. Don't send any letter with the manuscript, just a stamped self-addressed return envelope, and always when you get it back send it back out again the same day or the next. Practical advice from Practical Annie, the Writer's Friend.
I’m a full-time believer in writing habits, pedestrian as it all may sound. You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away. I see it happen all the time. Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that's all the energy I have, but I don't let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place. This doesn't mean I produce much out of the two hours. Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don't think any of that was time wasted. Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well. And the fact that is if you don't sit there every day, the day it would come well, you won't be sitting there.
I always have an idea of what I want to do when I write a story, but whether I'll be able to remains always to be seen. I am writing a story now and have proceded at a regular rate of two pages a day, following my nose more or less. They have to work out some way or other, and I think you discover a good deal more in the process when you don't have too definite ideas about what you want to do.
You can't have a stable character being converted, you are right, but I think you are wrong that heros have to be stable. If they were stable there wouldn't be any story. It seems to me that all good stories are about conversion, about a character's changing.
[T]he meaning of a piece of fiction only begins where everything psychological and sociological has been explained.
I am much more interested in the nobility of unnaturalness than in the nobility of naturalness… [I]t is the business of the artist to uncover the strangeness of truth. The violent are not natural.
No matter how just the criticism, any criticism at all which depresses you to the extent that you feel you cannot ever write anything worth anything is from the devil and to subject yourself to it is an occasion of sin. In you, the talent is there and you are expected to use it. Whether the work itself is completely successful, or whether you ever get any worldly success out of it, is a matter of no concern to you. It is like the Japanese swordsmen who are indifferent to getting slain in the duel.
I think you ought to go on full speed ahead on this idea that has got you. Out of the head and onto the paper. That is the only way you can cope with its intricasies or discover what you are doing.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Violent Bear it Away

I've just reread A Voyage to Arcturus. I first encountered it in college, I forget how. Perhaps I came across one of C. S. Lewis' remarks on it. I seem to recall Lewis being critical of Lindsay's style, and it certainly has its defects. The dialogue is poorly contrived; the sentences are stiff and awkward and occasionally silly; there are a great many applications of useless adjectives like "mystic" and "grand." But in my opinion the concrete imagery and plunging pace more than make up for this. It's an exhausting, compelling read, intellectually stimulating and possessed of a terrible, glittering beauty. One could scarcely imagine it lengthened. The spirit would be unable to endure it. It torments the reader like the disintegrating glow of Alppain.

When I first read Voyage I hadn't read Plato or Oscar Wilde. The parallels between the tasteless ostentation of the séance and aestheticism of Poolingdred and the deceits of Crystalman escaped me. It worked on me without my being aware of it, aided by my ignorance. Reading books is dangerous when one is ignorant. What seized most upon my imagination was the savage inversion by which the devil of Tormance turned out to be Surtur, the guardian of Muspel, while the god of the aesthetes was revealed as the sordid, bestial enemy of the spirit. It left its mark on me. Never mind what it all meant. Since then I've become conscious of a certain gnostic strain in my thinking and reacted against it. But that savage inversion remains with me.

As I said, I think I was introduced to Lindsay by Lewis. It's well known that Lewis owned a conscious debt to Voyage for its use of interplanetary adventure as a means of spiritual exploration. On the other hand, he disparaged the book's philosophy as a species of diabolism. That's interesting to me, for, if Lindsay was my Krag, then Lewis was my Crystalman. I was much taken with Lewis at the time, and there's no author I've reacted more violently against than he. He was my master, if you will; one can hardly repudiate such a one without coming to hate him. Perhaps that's putting it too strongly. But I speak of him as a writer, not as a man. I revolted against his religious views as being tepid, unreal, glibly self-regarding, and horribly flat, as though ineffable truth had been projected onto a tabletop. It runs through his fiction and nonfiction alike. Perhaps an illustration will suffice to explain what I mean.

As a boy I was morbidly obsessed with the afterlife. I feared annihilation, yes, but I feared eternity more; this caused me to hate my own existence. I could conceive of nothing but a gray and endless serial progression of days. Surely you would get bored eventually, I thought, and then you would have the rest of eternity in which to be bored. At no point could you even be said to have begun. "When we've been there ten thousand years" and all the rest. An unending nightmare. The doom of Tithonus.

I first read the Chronicles of Narnia when I was ten. I remained blissfully unaware of their religious "message," but the final volume of the series, The Last Battle, always made me unaccountably depressed. It ends with the entry of the main characters into the afterlife, which is revealed as a sequence of concentric Narnias, each larger and more real, more "Narnian," than the last. "Higher up and further in." Plato is even named by one of the characters. Well, to me, that seemed only to replace an arithmetic with a geometric progression. The rungs of the ladder get grander and grander, okay, but what if one tires of the way in which they get grander? In the end it's still just a gnostic ladder. It's the kind of heaven a Crystalman would dream up. The imprisonment of a mystery within a concept.

Lindsay, on the other hand…well, Lindsay, a gnostic himself, opposes the spiritual to the material, which I certainly do not. But at any rate, for all his grim insistence, he knew his limits and didn't exceed them; that cannot be said of all writers. I feel that Lindsay would have seen the lie in Lewis's conceptions, the hollowness of his apologetics. Tolkien apparently had a profound distaste for the Narnia books and privately objected to Lewis' religious writings; though of a different philosophical bent, perhaps Lindsay would have concurred for some of the same reasons. The brutal, impetuous Maskull will always be closer to Muspel than the sedentary and peace-loving votary of Shaping.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Orwell's Rules of Writing

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

—George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language"

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Flannery O'Connor on the Grotesque

"Hawthorne knew his own problem and perhaps anticipated ours when he said he did not novels, he wrote romances… The writer who writes within what might be called the modern romance tradition may not be writing novels which in all respects partake of a novelistic orthodoxy; but as long as these works have vitality, as long as they present something that is alive, however eccentric its life may seem to the general reader, then they have to be dealt with; and they have to be dealt with on their own terms."

"When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque… In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe everyday, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life. We find that connections which we would expect in the customary kind of realism have been ignored… Yet the characters in these novels are alive in spite of these things. They have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected."

"…[I]f the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will aways be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where the adequate motivation and the adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we don't understand rather than in what we do. He will be interested in possibility rather than in probability. He will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves—whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not. To the modern mind, this kind of character, and his creator, are typical Don Quixotes, tilting at what is not there.

"I would not like to suggest that this kind of writer, because his interest is predominantly in mystery, is able in any sense to slight the concrete. Fiction begins where human knowledge begins—with the senses—and every fiction writer is bound by this fundamental aspect of his medium. I do believe, however, that the kind of writer I am describing will use the concrete in a more drastic way. His way will much more obviously be the way of distortion."

"Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological… I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted… Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature."

"The Southern writer is forced from all sides to make his gaze extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches that realm which is the concern of prophets and poets. When Hawthorne said that he wrote romances, he was attempting, in effect, to keep for fiction some of its freedom from social determinisms and to steer it in the direction of poetry. I think this tradition of the dark and divisive romance-novel has combined with the comic grotesque tradition and with the lessons all writers have learned from the naturalists, to preserve our Southern literature at least for a while..."

—Flannery O'Connor, "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction"

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Dark Knight

I left off my previous post by asking the origins and significance of the Man With No Name. Well, to me it seems clear that he's the modern version of the quest-knight, but with an ironic twist.
The subtext of Chandler's The Big Sleep is heralded by its opening description:
Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be really trying.
This anticipates the moment when Marlowe comes home to his apartment to find the vicious, lascivious Carmen Sternwood, his damsel in distress, naked in his bed:
I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights.
The quest-knight of the twentieth century is no knight in shining armor, but a dark knight, an anti-knight. He is conscious of no code of honor but his detachment and self-consistency. His quest is a hopeless one, its object meaningless like the Maltese Falcon or destructive like the Great Whatsit of Alderich's Kiss Me Deadly. And yet he pursues his path to the bitter end. His literary ancestor is the hero of Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," who struggles alone across a tortured landscape to an end without hope, yet rings out his challenge defiantly in the face of certain doom. That Stephen King professes his Gunslinger to have been inspired by both Browning's poem and the protagonist of the "Dollars Trilogy" underscores this connection.
And what of the significance of the Man With No Name? Why are we so obsessed with him? Does it really need to be explicated? The answer is all too clear. The wasteland of the modern quest is our civilization.
     The river's tent is broken; the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Malory's blighted land fell into ruin through its king receiving the Dolorous Stroke, an echo of the Eden myth. But in our time man in his perversity has engineered his own dolorous stroke, has sown the sere fields with the seeds of his own destruction.
And more than that—a furlong on—why, there!
     What bad use was that engine for, that wheel,
     Or brake, not wheel—that harrow fit to reel
Men's bodies out like silk? with all the air
Of Tophet's tool, on earth left unaware,
     Or brought to sharpen its rusty teeth of steel.
Atom bombs and napalm; strip mines, pollution, and mass extinction; abortion and genocide and voluntary sterility; mind-shattering drugs; the fragmentation of culture, the confusion of tongues, the dissolution of the family, the ebbing of faith. Man's imprisoned demons have burst free and now stride across the landscape like giants.
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Across this dark landscape the Man With No Name advances. Like Galahad, he is an outsider, his identity an enigma. Like Galahad, he has a magic touch when it comes to getting things done. He cuts through the red tape of institutions grown impotent or corrupt, throws down the tyrant, and sets the captives free. His activity is a kind of harrowing of hell. Lily-white he's not, but there is an integrity to his blackness. He is self-transfixed like Percival, sullied like Bors, excluded like Lancelot at the waste chapel. There is no Grail at the end of his quest, and yet he still goes on and on. His cynical idealism is a substitute for faith, his detached persistence a substitute for hope, his vigorous action a substitute for love. He's not the knight the world needs, but the knight it deserves.
People are too apt to view the quest for the Holy Grail as a relic from an age of chivalric idealism. The earthy fabric of which Malory's Arthurian tapestry is woven gives the lie to this, but modern readers still tend to forget that the context of Le Mort d'Arthur is not the fifth century, but the fifteenth. It was an era of impending dissolution. The medieval social order was crumbling. There were signs and portents, wars and rumors of wars. Corruption was rife. Princes pursued their ambitions apart from any moral code. Malory himself was something of a social outcast, a man of violence who ravished women, abused clergymen, and single-handedly fought his way out of prison, the living archetype of the Man With No Name.
Predictions of an immanent apocalypse are pretty common these days. They come from all quarters, from religious fundamentalists and climate scientists, from New Agers and politicians, from tabloid journalists and mainstream filmmakers. But ours isn't the first era of such social anxiety. The end was looked for in pre-Reformation Europe, and also during the Danish invasions. They say too that the reign of Justinian was troubled by bearded stars, earthquakes, and pestilences. It was a time of disorientation and transformation. Europe was entering the Dark Ages. What if anything do our own anxieties presage?
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Man With No Name

There is a certain vein of twentieth-century stories and films that I find myself returning to over and over again. I've mentioned how watching Mad Max and The Road Warrior was something of an epiphany to me. I eventually discovered that its protagonist is but one incarnation of a stock figure of twentieth-century mythology: the Man With No Name. Other versions include Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op (most memorably in Red Harvest), Akira Kurasawa's nameless samurai (Yojimbo, Sanjuro), the protagonist of Sergio Leone's "Dollars Trilogy" (e.g., A Fistful of Dollars), Stephen King's Gunslinger, and the latter-day Batman of Christopher Nolan. Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Hammett's Sam Spade also come to mind.

The same themes seem to crop up in each case. The backdrop is invariably post-apocalyptic, sometimes fully realized and sometimes not. There's the hellish, hopelessly corrupt mining town of Personville ("Poisonville"); chaotic, post-feudal Japan; the practically extinct border hamlet of San Miguel; the post-apocalyptic Australian Outback; the dark streets of Gotham where powerless city officials are overruled by grotesque mass-murderers. Raymond Chandler laid his finger on this common theme when, in a discussion of the pulp detective story, he wrote:
Their characters lived in a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction, and was learning how to use it with all the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine gun.
This found its most striking expression in Robert Alderich's darkly ironic film noir Kiss Me Deadly, in which the protagonist moves through an incoherent ruined culture and achieves the goal of his quest in a mushroom cloud.

The Man With No Name is always an alienated loner. Usually he is a wandering stranger or outcast with no preexisting ties to the community; even when he is not, he has an alter ego to make himself one. His appearance speaks a close kinship to the common enemy and cynicism toward the goods of civilization, leading the "citizens" to distrust him. Thus Max wears the black leather of the vermin of the wasteland, not the white garments of the commune-dwellers he is called upon to protect. He regards the nascent community with scarcely concealed derision. The parallels between Batman and the Joker are touched on in Tim Burton's Batman and brought to the fore in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Or again, Sanjuro ends with the confrontation between the nameless samurai and his dark counterpart; they own their kinship but fight to the death, the protagonist killing his opponent in a shocking fountain of blood.

The Man With No Name is an agent of chaos, not an agent of order, and must depart as soon as his work is done—or even be driven out as unclean, as Batman is in The Dark Knight. His modus operandi is aptly described in Red Harvest:
"Plans are all right sometimes," I said. "And sometimes just stirring things up is all right—if you're tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you see what you want when it comes to the top."
Whence this modern myth-cycle? What is its significance? I'll attempt to describe what I think about it in the next post.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Hawthorne on Inner Truth and Reality

"It is the unspeakable misery of a life so false…, that it steals the pith and substance out of whatever realities there are around us, and which were meant by Heaven to be the spirit's joy and nutriment. To the untrue man, the whole universe is false,—it is impalpable,—it shrinks to nothing within his grasp. And he himself, in so far as he shows himself in a false light, becomes a shadow, or, indeed, ceases to exist."

—Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Sunday, March 11, 2012

John Carter of Mars

I don't go to the movies much. The last time I went was about five years ago, and that was to see a documentary about Carthusian monks.  But the opening of John Carter proved sufficient move me to hitch up the mules and drive all the way to the Big City. I'm glad I went. It was a delight to watch and faithful to Burroughs' vision of life on Barsoom. The imagery was quite evocative, better than I had imagined. And the plot was much closer than I had expected, too.

The trouble with movies made from books, though, is that the writers are apt to deviate from the plot for some reason or other (which can be justifiable given the medium), but usually leave everything else exactly as they found it, no matter how illogical or out-of-character. John Carter suffers from this quite a bit. If you try to sort out what's going on, none of the characters' actions really make a lot of sense. And that's too bad. I'm a fan of the Mars books, but it isn't as though A Princess of Mars couldn't have been improved on. Instead the filmmakers just succeeded in making it incoherent.

Take the changes made to Dejah Thoris' character. This is a Disney movie, and she is in fact a princess, so of course she had to become a clever free-spirit with a doting but buffoonish widowed father who must-just-must be free to follow her heart in matrimonial matters. Now, to me, the Dejah Thoris of the book was always much more than a damsel in distress. She's like something out of the Iliad or the Icelandic sagas. A great woman of the old school. But Disney, which vulgarizes whatever it touches (and, let's face it, the Mars books are already pretty vulgar), simply tacked on a few superficial attributes while discarding nobility. The Dejah of the movie lies to John Carter (more than once) in order to manipulate and use him. She abandons the duties that attend the privileges of her office, willing to let her nation be destroyed rather than marry against her wishes. Yes, they give her a new prowess in fighting (see, girls can disembowel their enemies, too!) and make her discover the ninth ray (see, girls can do pseudo-physics, too!), but these are add-ons that don't concern the plot (or her character) in the least. The writers were obviously a little uncomfortable with the moral implications, and make it out that Dejah just feels that something bad would happen if she marries whats-his-name. Again, typical Disney fare. If I were a woman (and I'm not), I'd be more annoyed by what Disney apparently thinks should please women than I would have been by a faithful representation of a great woman in a pagan patriarchal culture.

The mark of Disney is also felt in the movie's reduction of everything to a fight of good versus evil, with Helium fighting for the cause ("our cause! our cause!") of saving the planet, and evil represented by extremely annoying stock villains. The real enemy in A Princess of Mars isn't this or that nation or jed. It's the slow but inexorable death of the planet. The movie makes it out that the nation of Zodanga is somehow responsible for the state of the planet, but doesn't explain this in the least. It can't, of course. To do so would make nonsense of other things.

Finally, to wrap up this little rant, I'd like to say that I personally can't stand computer-animated special effects. It looks like a big video game and is about as exciting. (I don't play video games.) The graphics don't add anything and tend to look ridiculous. Give me backlot sets and models and painted backgrounds and ingenuity and Frank Oz. Has anyone ever complained about how hokey The Empire Strikes Back* was? Or 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or Alien? Blade RunnerMetropolis, for goodness' sake?

Well, and so that's why I don't go to the movies. I'm a cranky curmudgeon.

*Before being defaced by its maker!

Friday, February 10, 2012

What Fantasy Is

Here are some wing shots on the definition of fantasy literature, typed in no very systematic order and with no attempt at justification.

Fantasy is a literature of secondary worlds. The setting or secondary world of a work of fantasy plays a material but distinctive and necessary role. The sapient characters don't merely move across this world as a backdrop or exist in opposition to it. On the contrary, they are part of its warp and woof. In this sense we can say that fantasy is "ecological" literature, "comedy," literature that affirms man's dependence on his environment. Fantasy, even grotesque fantasy, is Consolation in that it reaffirms the goodness of all that is.

The secondary world represents a simplified, "closed" model of reality in which we can see very clearly the ties between it and its denizens. This closure frequently expresses itself through the secondary world being literally insular or confined (Barsoom, Tormance, Gormenghast, Earthsea, Narnia, Perelandra, Arrakis), or isolated in a remote epoch with a transparent history and cosmology (Atlantis, Middle Earth, Hyperborea, Hyboria, Zothique, the Night Land, the Dying Earth). There is something dissatisfying about a fantasy that tapers into the "messy" real world.

The sapient races are part of the secondary world and serve to simplify society by dividing it into easily identified castes with stark differences and formalized relationships. They also help the reader regard man as one species among many in a rich, diverse world.

The secondary world is part of an affective structure operating on an existential level. Fantasy aims to help the soul take stock of her own ambient reality, helping her to perceive and appreciate things as they are in themselves. It is Escape and Recovery in that it enables her to escape from the prison of familiarity and to recover herself and the simple things of life. It is the opposite of the White Witch's bad magic food, which ruins the taste of good, ordinary food.

Style plays a crucial role in this structure. An unfitting style results in a flat fantasy. The point isn't that trees are flat in fantasy if not properly described, for flat trees figure in many good "literary" novels. The point is that flat trees simply are not allowable in fantasy as such. Fantasy is literature in which we care about the trees.* For this reason and others, fantasy is a fully incarnational art. The tale cannot be divorced from the telling any more than a man's soul can be divorced from his body.

The objection to "messiness" above is not to say that fantasy is somehow "tidy" in the Disney sense. It also differs from fairy tales and myths and epic romances through its meticulous naturalism, which at times devolves into slum naturalism. It is more akin to the Divine Comedy or Don Quixote than Orlando Furioso. It places the reader in a fully realized environment.

Fantasy often arises as a metaphor for an author's system of belief or philosophy, but it is diametrically opposed to allegory, and its elements quickly acquire a life of their own. They serve as an embodiment or living incarnation of transcendant propositions. The system of belief is but a material element, and one needn't share it to enjoy the work. In the end it feeds into the affective structure: the reader "believes" whatever the book presents as true, within the context of the secondary reality. Fantasy in which propositions gain the upper hand (as in Perelandra) ultimately fails. On the other hand, fantasy lacking a substantial purpose or underlying philosophy runs the risk of silliness or frivolity.

* "Very little about trees as trees can be got into a play." From Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories."

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Tolkien on Fantasy and Recovery

"Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say 'seeing things as they are' and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say 'seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them'—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of 'appropriation': the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them…

"And actually fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting… It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine."

—J. R. R. Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories"

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Inner Mountain

"But when [Antony] saw himself beset by many, and not suffered to withdraw himself according to his intent as he wished…he considered and set off to go into the upper Thebaid, among those to whom he was unknown… While he was considering these things, a voice came to him from above, 'Antony, where are you going and why?' But he no way disturbed, but as he had been accustomed to be called often thus, giving ear to it, answered, saying, 'Since the multitude permit me not to be still, I wish to go into the upper Thebaid on account of the many hindrances that come upon me here, and especially because they demand of me things beyond my power.' But the voice said unto him, 'Even though you should go into the Thebaid, or even though, as you have in mind, you should go down to the Bucolia, you will have to endure more, aye, double the amount of toil. But if you wish really to be in quiet, depart now into the inner desert.' And when Antony said, 'Who will show me the way for I know it not?' immediately the voice pointed out to him Saracens about to go that way. So Antony approached, and drew near them, and asked that he might go with them into the desert. And they, as though they had been commanded by Providence, received him willingly. And having journeyed with them three days and three nights, he came to a very lofty mountain, and at the foot of the mountain ran a clear spring, whose waters were sweet and very cold; outside there was a plain and a few uncared-for palm trees.

"Antony then, as it were, moved by God, loved the place, for this was the spot which he who had spoken with him by the banks of the river had pointed out… [H]e went over the land round the mountain, and having found a small plot of suitable ground, tilled it; and having a plentiful supply of water for watering, he sowed. This doing year by year, he got his bread from thence, rejoicing that thus he would be troublesome to no one, and because he kept himself from being a burden to anybody. But after this…he cultivated a few pot-herbs, that he who came to him might have some slight solace after the labour of that hard journey."

—Athanasius, Life of Antony

"The desert…where the strong, independent spirits withdraw and become lonely—oh, how different it looks from the way educated people imagine a desert!—for in some cases they themselves are this desert, these educated people. And it is certain that no actor of the spirit could possibly endure life in it—for them it is not nearly romantic or Syrian enough, not nearly enough of a stage desert! To be sure, there is no lack of camels in it; but that is where the similarity ends. A voluntary obscurity perhaps; an avoidance of oneself; a dislike of noise, honor, newspapers, influence; a modest job, an everyday job, something that conceals rather than exposes one; an occasional association with harmless, cheerful beasts and birds whose sight is refreshing; mountains for company…—that is what ‘desert’ means here: oh, it is lonely enough, believe me!"

—Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

"[Curiositas] reaches the extreme of its destructive and eradicating power when it builds itself a world according to its own image and likeness: when it surrounds itself with the restlessness of a perpetual moving picture of meaningless shows, and with the literally deafening noise of impressions and sensations breathlessly rushing past the windows of the senses. Behind the flimsy pomp of its façade dwells absolute nothingness; it is a world of, at most, ephemeral creations, which often within less than a quarter hour become stale and discarded, like a newspaper or magazine swiftly scanned or merely perused; a world which, to the piercing eye of the healthy mind untouched by its contagion, appears like the amusement quarter of a big city in the hard brightness of a winter morning: desperately bare, disconsolate, and ghostly.

"The destructiveness of this disorder which originates from, and grows upon, obsessive addiction, lies in the fact that it stifles man's primitive power of perceiving reality; that it makes man incapable not only of coming to himself but also of reaching reality and truth.

"If such an illusory world threatens to overgrow and smother the world of real things, then to restrain the natural wish to see takes on the character of a measure of self-protection and self-defense. Studiositas, in this frame of reference, primarily signifies that man should oppose this virtually inescapable seduction with all the force of selfless self-preservation; that he should hermetically close the inner room of his being against the intrusively boisterous pseudo-reality of empty shows and sounds. It is in such an asceticism of cognition alone that he may preserve or regain that which actually constitutes man's vital existence: the perception of the reality of God and His creation, and the possibility of shaping himself and the world according to this truth, which reveals itself only in silence."

—Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Platonic Solids

The counter-earth, Antellus, is intended as a kind of topsy-turvy obverse side of earth. It is, literally, the latent, hidden face of the world we know. On the surface its society is flat and tepid, but the story’s action takes place in the margins and medians peopled by misfits, drolleries, and grotesques. This aspect of Antellus grew in the telling and is likely to continue growing through the sequel. In its original conception, however, the counter-earth was a mathematical conceit with which I entertained myself back when I was a lonely student in a windowless closet of an office at the rear end of a big, chalk-dusty building. Broadly speaking, my dissertation concerned the application of mathematical principles of symmetry to theoretical physics, and my studies included extended forays into general relativity and quantum field theory. But the finite is ever so much more pleasing than the infinite, say I, and I came to be interested in the Platonic solids as a kind of hobby.

A Platonic solid is a convex polyhedron whose faces are congruent regular polygons. Though named after Plato, who made reference to them in his Timaeus, they were not discovered by him. They are five in number. The tetrahedron, the hexahedron (cube), and the dodecahedron were said to have been known to the Pythagoreans, the latter through its resemblance to a certain pyrite crystal that occurs in Italy. The octahedron and icosahedron were discovered by Plato’s contemporary, the Athenian Theatetus; it was Theatetus who also proved that there can be only five such solids. Their construction forms the substance of the last book of Euclid’s Elements. Plato identified the solids with the elements: earth with the cube, air with the octahedron, water with the icosahedron, and fire with the tetrahedron. The fifth solid, the dodecahedron, he described as enveloping the universe.

The Platonic solids have two interesting mathematical properties. The first is duality. Consider the octahedron, which has eight triangular faces. Imagine placing a point in the center of each face. Now connect adjacent points by edges. The cube is thus formed. If we perform the same experiment upon the cube, we obtain the octahedron again. In the same way, the icosahedron (20 faces and 12 vertices) is dual to the dodecahedron (12 faces and 20 vertices), whereas the tetrahedron (4 faces and 4 vertices) is dual to itself.

The second property concerns their symmetry. Take (say) an octahedron. Imagine all the rigid rotations of space about the octahedron’s center of mass that transform the octahedron into itself. It isn’t difficult to see that, because the octahedron has 6 vertices with 4 faces meeting at each vertex, there are 6*4=24 different symmetries, including the one that takes it back to its original position. If we think about the cube in the same way, we see that, because the cube has 8 vertices with 3 faces meeting at each vertex, there are 8*3=24 symmetries. In fact, since the two solids are dual to one another, we know that the set of rotations that preserve one also preserve the other, so we expect this agreement. In just the same way, the number of symmetries of the icosahedron and dodecahedron is 12*5=60=20*3, and the number of symmetries of the tetrahedron is 4*3=12.

It’s interesting to think about what we would get if we took a sphere and a group of transformations (the octahedral group, say), and identified each set of points that get mapped into each other by the group. The resulting space is not very easy to visualize, but it could be described without too much trouble. When I was a student, I got to thinking about what it would be like to inhabit a universe like that, if one were a flatworm, say, or A. Square in Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. The universe we inhabit, they say, is a three-sphere, a three-dimensional analogue of the ordinary sphere. But what if our universe were really a more complicated space resulting from a symmetry of the three-sphere? Or what if it were really a three-sphere, but we could travel from one point to another using a set of symmetries as described above?

Thus Antellus. The counter-earth lies, not beyond the hidden hearth of the solar system, as the Pythagoreans supposed, but at the cosmic antipodes, the dim ultima Thule of the universe.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Carnival Sense of the World

The dearth of posts on this blog in the recent past doesn’t indicate that I haven’t been thinking or writing. Partly I’ve just been spending too much of my spare time writing stories to make intelligent remarks here. But I also keep making false starts on posts and then abandoning them. So, enough of that. Here is a post.

I mentioned a while ago that I had checked out a copy of Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader courtesy of my county library’s participation in the state ILL program. The book in question contains a lengthy excerpt from Mikhail Bakhtin’s Characteristics of Genre and Plot Composition on Dostoevsky’s Works, and it is on this that I wish to comment today, as it has some bearing on my own work. Indeed, strangely enough, it has helped me to understand it better. (Do real authors have to check out critical readers to understand their own work, I wonder??) In this post I’ll mainly paraphrase the points that stood out to me; perhaps in a subsequent one I’ll try to explain how it applies to my writing and to fantastic literature in general.

The piece concerns what Bakhtin labels as Menippaean satire, a generic offshoot of the Socratic dialogue with numerous descendants in European literature, from The Golden Ass of Apuleius to The Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius and The Brothers Karamazov of Dostoevsky. He enumerates some fourteen characteristics of menippea:

1. The comic or carnival element is more prevalent in menippea than in the Socratic dialogue.

2. Menippea is free from the limitations of history and memoir—it possesses freedom of plot and invention and is not bound by the need for verisimilitude.

3. In menippea, bold and unrestrained use of the fantastic and adventure is ordered to an ideational end. The creation of extraordinary situations aims at the provoking and testing of an idea. The fantastic serves not for the positive embodiment of truth but rather as a mode for searching after truth, provoking truth, testing truth.

4. Menippea organically combines the free fantastic, the symbolic, and the mystical-religious with an extreme and crude slum naturalism. It takes place on the high road and in brothels, dens of thieves, taverns, marketplaces, prisons, the orgies of secret cults. Menippea is not afraid of life’s filth.

5. In menippea, invention and fantasy are combined with a philosophical universalism and a capacity to contemplate the world on the broadest possible scale. It is a genre of ultimate, not academic, questions.

6. Many Menippaean satires exhibit a three-planed construction: hell, earth, and heaven. This structure found its way into the medieval mystery play.

7. Menippea employs an experimental fantasticality opposed to the classical tragic or epic viewpoint, e.g., observation from an unusual perspective (as in Gulliver’s Travels).

8. Menippea is characterized by moral-psychological experimentation: a representation of the unusual, abnormal moral and psychic states of man—insanity, split personality, unrestrained daydreaming, unusual dreams, passions bordering on madness, suicides, and so forth.  The protagonist ceases to coincide with himself. Bakhtin cites Ivan Karamazov’s delirium-induced conversation with the devil in this connection.

9. Menippea abounds in scandal scenes, eccentric behavior, inappropriate speeches and performances. These are sharply distinguished from epic events and tragic catastrophes, but also from comic brawls and exposes. This entails a destruction of the epic and tragic wholeness of the world, a breach in the stable, normal course of human affairs and events.

10. Menippea also abounds in sharp contrasts and oxymoronic combinations, e.g., the wise man in a servile position, luxury and poverty, the noble bandit. It loves to play with abrupt transitions and shifts and mésalliances of all sorts.

11. Menippea frequently contains elements of social utopia.

12. Menippea makes wide use of inserted genres (novellas, letters, speeches, poems, &c.) and (13) thus possesses a multi-styled and multi-toned nature.

14. Menippea is concerned with current and topical issues and everyday life.

The hidden link that Bakhtin sees as binding all these disparate elements together is what he calls the carnival sense of life. Carnival, of course, refers to something in real life, not literature. It is a kind of ritualistic pageantry, a pageant without footlights and without division into performers and spectators, drawing life out of its usual rut, making the spectator-participant see and step into the reverse side of the world. Bakhtin enumerates four general categories of carnivalization:

1. Suspension of the hierarchical structure of ordinary life, free and familiar contact among all sorts of people, a working-out of a new mode of interrelationship between individuals. Eccentricity Bakhtin identifies as a special category of the carnival sense of the world, organically connected with this familiar contact, permitting the latent sides of human nature to express themselves in concrete and sensuous form.

2. Carnivalistic mésalliances. Carnival brings together, unites, weds, combines the sacred with the profane, the lofty with the low, the great with the insignificant, the wise with the stupid.

3. Profanation. Carnival abounds in profanations, debasings, bringings down to earth, parodies of the sacred, obscenities linked with reproductive powers.

4. Sensuality. Carnival plays itself out not in abstract thoughts but in pageant rituals.

The primary carnivalistic act is the mock crowning and subsequent decrowning of the carnival king. Carnival makes use of eccentric dualistic images (e.g., the giant and the dwarf) and bizarre “wrong” utilizations of ordinary things (e.g., putting clothes on backwards or fighting with kitchen tools).

Menippaean satire is a carnival branch of literature; carnivalization distinguishes it and reaches to its very core.

Thus Mikhail Bakhtin. More thoughts to come.