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.