Saturday, June 27, 2015

Strange Islands

In my last post, I discussed Martin Buber's philosophy of I-Thou and my own attempts to people my world with minor gods, concluding with a promise to apply these ideas to fantastic literature.

What brought all of this back to my mind was a reading of The Spiritual Canticle by St. John of the Cross. St. John is, they say, one of the great poets of Spanish literature; his Spiritual Canticle is an exposition of his poem of the same name ("Cántico Espiritual"). To me, Stanzas 14 and 15 stand out in particular:
Mi Amado, las montañas,
los valles solitarios nemorosos,
las ínsulas extrañas,
los ríos sonorosos,
el silbo de los aires amorosos,

la noche sosegada
en par de los levantes de la aurora,
la música callada,
la soledad sonora,
la cena que recrea y enamora.
In my deep and extensive knowledge of sixteenth-century Spanish, and lamentable liability to poetic licence, I render this thus:
My Beloved, towering range,
deep-delved lonesome wood,
islands strange,
zephyr's nocturne of love,

the tranquil dim
of dawn's lifting aperture,
silent hymn,
solitude's laughter,
feast that feeds and enraptures.
Regarding Line 3 of Stanza 14, John says:
Strange islands are girt by the sea; they are also, because of the sea, distant and unknown to the commerce of men. They produce things very different from those with which we are conversant, in strange ways, and with qualities hitherto unknown, so as to surprise those who behold them, and fill them with wonder. Thus, then, by reason of the great and marvelous wonders, and the strange things that come to our knowledge, far beyond the common notions of men, which the soul beholds in God, it calls Him the strange islands. 
We say of a man that he is strange for one of two reasons: either because he withdraws himself from the society of his fellows, or because he is singular or distinguished in his life and conduct. For these two reasons together God is called strange by the soul. He is not only all that is strange in undiscovered islands, but His ways, judgments, and works are also strange, new, and marvelous to men. 
It is nothing wonderful that God should be strange to men who have never seen Him, seeing that He is also strange to the holy angels and the souls who see Him; for they neither can nor shall ever see Him perfectly... [O]nly to Himself is He neither strange nor new.
God is strange; indeed, he is much stranger than even the angels could ever imagine. A point often forgotten by the dogma-bound. There is hope here for me. The strange islands of my own mind, which find their way into my stories, are, I suppose, not the strangeness of which John speaks, but perhaps they touch those outer waters as the net of islands and shifting shadows ring Tolkien's blessed Aman. Then again, perhaps not.

Regarding Line 3 of Stanza 15, John says:
In this silence and tranquility of the night, and in this knowledge of the divine light, the soul discerns a marvelous arrangement and disposition of God's wisdom in the diversities of His creatures and operations. All these, and each one of them, have a certain correspondence with God, whereby each, by a voice peculiar to itself, proclaims what there is in itself of God, so as to form a concert of sublimest melody, transcending all the harmonies of the world. This is the silent music, because it is knowledge tranquil and calm, without audible voice; and thus the sweetness of music and the repose of silence are enjoyed in it. The soul says that the Beloved is silent music, because this harmony of spiritual music is in Him understood and felt.
This calls to mind the mysterious Psalm 19:
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
     and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
     and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
     their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
     and their words to the end of the world.
It seems paradoxical. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. But their voice and words are their very being. By being what they are, they speak. Try to "listen" to them on any other wavelength, and you miss it. Or worse, manufacture their speech for yourself.

For me this is a cogent truth of practical import, for I tried – really tried – to hear the music of the spheres for many years. I'm currently reading A Wrinkle in Time to my kids, and enjoying it very much; but I was almost obsessed with it and Madeleine L'Engle's other books when I was about nine or ten, and, in hindsight, I think they had a tremendous influence on how I saw the world. It wasn't until I finally gave up trying to hear the "voices of the stars" that the cosmos came rushing back like a breaker crashing ashore. St. Augustine speaks of something similar in Book X of his Confessions, in his questioning of the deeps and the heavens, and their answering him in their beauty of order.

This is the kind of thing I think about while composing my sword-and-planet tales.

As I said above, I'm often really looking for a certain kind of silence in fantasy. It's not easy to put your finger on it, but lack of silence seems tied to the flippant or frivolous use of fantastic elements, to the failure to reserve these things for their proper places, to the devolution of the invented milieu into a muddled slurry which bores in its very freedom from restraint. The presence of silence brings about the recovery of which Tolkien speaks, a reconciliation with the universe.

Many modern fantasists have understood this. Their work is characterized by a spirit of listening, a sense of wonder, a willingness to go along and let things happen and see what the world has to show us. Various passages come to mind: Koshtra Belorn; the Night Land; Middle-Earth; Perelandra; Earthsea. Mystical silence isn't limited to fantasy, but fantasy is uniquely equipped to make the most of it. It's not something that can be established through the mere manipulation of material elements, and the works of your safe genre writers possess it to a much lesser degree. For there the sense of wonder has been worn away by familiarity, and the startlement that cleanses the eyes of the soul and brings recovery is no longer possible. The reader's heart becomes jaded, and she looks for new sources, of which this world contains all too few.

In these days of isolation and frustration, I admit that I find myself drawn more to hard-boiled writers like Hammett and Chandler, or to amoral S&S and weird horror by the likes of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Lieber, or Michael Moorcock. But perhaps here, too, there is a kind of silence. In Hammett, for instance, there's his unrelenting desire to pare away everything but the naked skeleton of the narrative. The utter absence of any kind of moralizing (which is really just chatter in a story) comes as a great relief. To quote Nietzsche on the point:
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.
To be continued!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Seila in Living Color

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you a colorized version of Seila, lovely odalisque of the Enochite underworld. It's a companion to my Zilla painting; both illustrate characters from my novel Dragonfly.

Painted in watercolor on Arches hot-pressed, mostly with my trusty Winsor & Newton 0000 Cotman round, it measures three and a half by five inches, hence is probably smaller than seen in your browser. I continued to listen to the stories of Clark Ashton Smith as I painted it; as a matter of fact, I was listening to "The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles" as I painted the girdle. I'm starting to regard these audiobooks as much material as pigment, paper, and memory.

(Incidentally, I very highly recommend the CAS audiobooks put out by Night Shade Books; I'm picky about narration, and have enjoyed them thoroughly.)

So, my plan to begin illustrating my stories proceeds apace.

Because I paint on such a small scale, it amuses me to examine my work up close. For me, the final step of scanning and zooming in is an integral part of the process.

When I was in high school, and (as my art teacher and I thought) a future artist, I was often chided for working on too small a scale: I would take a big, 16" x 20" sheet of paper and make a tiny drawing right at the center. At the time I coped with Mr. Jones' demand to embiggen things by dividing the paper up into a square grid and filling in one square at a time. Now that I'm an independent adult, I simply make tiny little paintings. This is convenient for practical reasons, in that I have a tiny little studio and a tiny little bank account.

Mr. Jones would also sometimes circle the lower extremities of my figure studies, with a derisive HUMAN FEET??? scrawled in red ink. Hands, however, I had always excelled at. In fact, on the first day of sixth grade (I took art from Mr. Jones throughout both junior high and high school), our assignment was to draw our own hands, and mine was so realistic that he hung it up at the front to shame his advanced high school students. It was literally the first time I'd ever drawn anything from life; I've read of similar incidents in the lives of other people with autism disorders. Other body parts came less easily, but under his sarcastic tutelage I progressed steadily.

Now, throughout high school, as one advanced in the ways of art, I was suffered to work independently, and generally did pretty much as I pleased. My efforts were directed exclusively toward art, though a variety of extracurricular activities were pursued by my classmates. The art lab was in the vocational building, i.e., the outlands; it had once been a shop class, and possessed various storage rooms, locker rooms, and other dark and secret little corners. Among other things, the loft, up above the drop-ceiling tiles, was known as a good place to take a few tokes.

One day, when I was a freshman, Mr. Jones told me to go into the locker room, where freshmen were seldom allowed. Obeying, I found the ceiling lights turned off, and a pretty girl wearing a ruffled black-and-white polka dot bikini enthroned at the end of the room, brown hair pulled back in bouncing curls, basking in the glow of spotlights that set out her contours in warm chiaroscuro. She wasn't in our class, but had been commissioned, so to speak, for my personal instruction that day. She was a couple of grades ahead of me, just to add a little extra spice to the experience.

We were alone in the room the entire period. As far as I can recall I said not a word to her, though she tried to engage me in conversation several times. I'd drawn more male figures than I could count, but I'd never drawn a female. I was pleased with the result. The girl came over afterward and examined my work. She was less pleased, and complained bitterly to Mr. Jones.

He laughed heartily and said, "Yes, Raphael draws what he sees." I still don't know whether he was commenting on me or the girl.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

I Encounter No Dryad

This is a post from 2013; I'd intended to continue it at the time, but other things came up, and I forgot about it. I've been thinking about the topics lately, though, so here it is again, in slightly modified form, to be followed by its continuation shortly, unless something comes up and I wait another two years.
Masters of the interior life teach that it's inadvisable to dwell on one's own mystical experiences, and especially to speak about them with others. As John of the Cross has it: The Bride says in her heart, my secret for myself. Part of the danger is that we come to regard them as a species of personal property or, worse, as spiritual cosmetics; still more dangerous is the fact that true contact with the divine takes place, not on the plane of concept or feeling or experience, interior or exterior, but on the plane of relation. To speak of experience is to savor the peel and throw away the meat.
O secrecy without a secret! O accumulation of information!
So I will not attempt to quantify my own experiences (insofar as I've had any). But any writer's mystical and metaphysical outlook inevitably colors his writing; my own has been profoundly affected by I and Thou (1923), the slim but rich volume by the great Jewish religious philosopher Martin Buber.

Buber begins by asserting that man's twofold attitude toward the world accords with the two "primary words" that can be spoken by man.
     Primary words do not signify things, but they intimate relations.
     Primary words do not describe something that might exist independently of them, but being spoken they bring about existence.
     Primary words are spoken from the being.
The two words, he says, are compound words. Each involves the I; when I speak a primary word, I enter it and take my stand in it. Any use of the word I is really a use of one or another of these words.
     The one primary word is the combination I-Thou.
     The other primary word is the combination I-It; wherein, without a change in the primary word, one of the words He and She can replace It.
He goes on to say:
     The primary word I-Thou can only be spoken with the whole being.
     The primary word I-It is never spoken with the whole being.
To speak I-Thou is to be in mutual relation. To speak I-It is to objectify. Think of talking to a person you love, of looking them in the eyes and addressing them as You, and how different this is from talking about someone not present as He or She. The thing is, you can use the word You and still mean It; there are people out there – narcissists and flatterers and manipulators, objectifiers and personifiers and conceptualizers – who are incapable of speaking in any other way. Such people never really live; the present is to them not the realm of eternal being, but the infinitesimal endpoint of the past.
The present is not fugitive and transient, but continually present and enduring. The object is not duration, but cessation, suspension, a breaking off and cutting clear and hardening, absence of relation and of present being.
     True beings are lived in the present, the life of objects is in the past.
Our relation with other men stands in the middle place. Below it is our relation with the world of nature; above it is our relation with the divine. Our address of I-Thou to (say) a tree may be somewhat mysterious, and take place on a dark, subliminal level, but it is real for all that. The I-It analyzes the tree according to utility, or form and color, or chemical composition, or what have you; the I-Thou sees it as it is in itself.
It can…also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is now no longer It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness. […]
     The tree will have a consciousness then, similar to our own? Of that I have no experience. But do you wish, through seeming to succeed in it with yourself, once again to disintegrate that which cannot be disintegrated? I encounter no soul or dryad of the tree, but the tree itself.
When we speak Thou on any plane, says Buber, we address the eternal Thou. But there is an attempt to evade this dichotomy between the past and the present, It and Thou, object and subject, by appealing to a world of ideas, by raising up a conceptual structure and dwelling in it as a bulwark against the onset of nothingness.
But the mankind of mere It that is imagined, postulated, and propagated by such a man has nothing in common with a living mankind where Thou may truly be spoken. The noblest fiction is a fetish, the loftiest fictitious sentiment is depraved. Ideas are no more enthroned above our heads than resident in them; they wander amongst us and accost us. The man who leaves the primary word unspoken is to be pitied; but the man who addresses instead these ideas with an abstraction or a password, as if it were their name, is contemptible.
When we erect such a framework and dwell in it, we barricade ourselves from relation with nature, with man, with god. Yet how frequently do men try to scale the divine heights by such means! There will come a time – in the afterlife, if not sooner – when doctrines and confessional differences will fade in significance. For there are two fundamentally different ways of approaching the divine, and the dividing line cuts right across the world of ideas, confessional boundaries, and the human heart. It isn't the division between polytheism and monotheism, but between what I (for lack of better words and at the risk of being misunderstood) will label the pagan and the mystic. It is possible to be a pagan and yet believe in one god; it is possible to be a mystic and believe in many gods. Every person is at least part pagan. A pagan is someone who speaks only I-It. To him the gods are objects to be acted upon; to him a tree is nothing unless it be fictively personified, or conceptualized, or dissected and analyzed.
[W]ithout It man cannot live. But he who lives with It alone is not a man. 
Think of the old atheists' myth about the ebbing of belief. In the beginning, the legend goes, man believed that spirits inhabited trees and springs and other such things. As his familiarity with the world in which he found himself grew, he moved the divine agencies to the relatively inaccessible mountaintops. Further exploration forced him to relegate the gods to the distant heavens. And now, enlightened by precise astronomical observations, man has to locate god in the realm of abstraction.

Whatever the historical merits of this myth – asserted by some people with the ardent faith of the fundamentalist – I would counter it with a myth of my own construction. I would say that the peopling of hill and dale with rational spirits represents an attempt to deal with a fall. (Perhaps this is the source of the myth of the Fall, as hinted by Buber.) Man, alienated from the life of things, sought to regain his place by superimposing fictive animating agencies on the world of nature. No longer able to address the tree as Thou, at least on a subliminal level, he created the dryad. The impatient atheist is indeed fighting against one front when he denounces dryads and intelligent design. He is fighting paganism. But a pagan is really only a dishonest atheist; and there are atheists who, without realizing it, are mystics.

I've written a number of posts about how my perception of nature became warped when I was a teenager, due in part, perhaps, to my cognitive disability. At the time, I sought desperately to people my increasingly empty and meaningless world with minor gods. With all the data-acquisition-lust of my autistic mind, I pored over books about nature deities, demigods, elementals, fairies, and the like, collating and cataloging. I actually sought such beings in the woods and rivers.

Surely, I thought, the testimony of so many diverse cultures could not be without foundation. And perhaps it isn't! But I never found my fairies. Despairing, I sculpted goddesses from clay; I began the construction of a pagan shrine in the backyard, never to be completed. (My parents finished the garden after I went to college, but without the statue that was to have crowned it.) My point is that my alienation from the world of nature went hand in hand with my retreat into paganism.

When man fell, Our Father Who Art in Heaven became Jupiter; literally, the names mean much the same thing, but I speak in terms of connotations. Again, I'm not opposing monotheism to polytheism. Certainly the objectification of the divine lends itself to a multiplication of gods, which is always a movement of rationalization and conceptualization. But who could argue that the polytheist Socrates lived exclusively in the world of I-It?

I have some thoughts about how these two primary words, these two attitudes, play out in art, especially in the fantasy novel. Perhaps that would best be relegated to a second post. For the time being, you, my reader, who find yourself trapped in the world of objects, consider the following, as I have, and find hope and a path to life:
Believe in the simple magic of life, in service in the universe, and the meaning of that waiting, that alertness, that "craning of the neck" in creatures will dawn upon you. Every word would falsify; but look! round about you beings live their life, and to whatever point you turn you come upon being.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Seila in Pencil

Here's a pencil sketch of my Dragonfly character Seila, the lovely half-Druin odalisque of the Enochite underworld.

I'm working on a watercolor of the same size as my recent Zilla sketch, but my paintings don't always hold up to the promise of their conceptions, and I happen to like this little drawing considerably, so here it is for your viewing pleasure. Inspired by the Art Nouveau posters of Alphons Mucha.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

History of the Conquest of America

Mural by Diego Rivera of life in Tenochtitlan, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City.
Summer is here, and our town library has kicked off its annual summer reading program for kids. Of course my kids always participate. They do pretty well in the raffle that follows, too.

Well, this year, there's a summer reading program for adults. Am I too proud to participate? No I'm not! Especially when the prizes comprise dinner for two at a local Mexican food restaurant, dinner for two at the country club, and a weekend getaway at a nearby river resort. The getaway and Mexican food sound pretty good; the country club dinner I think I'd scalp on e-Bay or something. At any rate, I've read less over the past few months than I like, so this is a much-needed spur.

So far I've read Prescott's History of the Conquest of Peru (1847) for about two and a half hours. (We keep a time log.) I read the same author's History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843) several years ago in a mammoth Modern Library edition that contains both volumes. They're good old narrative histories after the manner of Gibbon, based for the most part on primary sources.

There are, I'm sure, more up-to-date histories out there, with glossy pages and color photographs, but I'll take Prescott over them any day. It's strange, but we no longer seem as able to produce the sweeping historical narratives that our forebears did, preferring the safety of narrow monographs and the like. My three favorite periods of history to read about are ancient Greece (for which I go to Herodotus, Thucydides, and J. B. Bury's A History of Greece), the later Roman Empire and Age of Migrations (for which I read Gibbon's Decline and Fall and Bury's Later Roman Empire), and the Spanish conquest of America. There's no better source for the last than Prescott.

Now, the author, William H. Prescott (1796 – 1859), an American historian who went blind after being struck in the eye with a crusty piece of bread during a food fight at Harvard College (!), is, unfortunately, rabidly anti-Catholic. What moved him to devote his energies to a culture for which he had so little sympathy I'll never know. Yes, the conquistadors were a damnable mixture of devotion, chivalry, rapacity, and cruelty, which is what makes them such interesting reading. And I'll even admit that perhaps their religion had more than a little to do with that. But it's tiresome to have Romish superstition and bigotry and credulity excoriated on every other page, and compared unfavorably with Anglo-Saxon virtues and the Protestant work-ethic.

One thing he likes to do is draw parallels between the human sacrifice practiced by the Aztec priests and the inquisitions of the Dominicans. Now, the enormities of the Spanish Inquisition are indefensible, but they were in quite a different category from Aztec piety, which (according to his sources) waged war for the sole purpose of securing sacrifices, and slaughtered tens of thousands of captives on an annual basis. I mean, it makes a difference, doesn't it, whether an execution is viewed (however wrongly) as a last resort but a necessary evil to preserve the social order, or as an act of supreme worship, an end in its own right commended by the gods? Plus, Protestant countries were not above the vilest cruelty in matters of religion or the mass delusion of witch-hunts, something Prescott conveniently forgets. I cast no aspersions, mind you; such was the tenor of the times.

But even this I'm willing to forgive, for they really are excellent histories, nitpicked but never to be superseded.

Mural by Diego Rivera of El Tajin, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City.
Why do I love reading about the Conquest? Partly I identify with it more than with the history of Anglo America. My father is Puerto Rican, that is, a mixture of Spanish, West African, and South American Indian. A good bit of that side of the family came from the Canary Islands, a stage in Columbus' explorations. In fact, my great grandmother's maiden name was Colon (Columbus), and family tradition holds that we're descendants of Columbus' younger brother, which would make me a great nephew of the explorer himself.

But beyond that, it's hard for me to think of a more picturesque period, combining familiar landscapes with fabulous civilizations and legendary heroic exploits. In 1541, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado y Luján marched across the Texas panhandle in search of the Cities of Gold. Think of that! Think of the clash of civilizations: of storm-tossed Spanish galleons landing on golden New World coasts; of armored caballeros hacking their way through steamy jungles and assaulting piled strongholds of ancient splendor; of floating garden-cities surrounded by snow-capped mountains, ruled by cannibal potentates of luxuriant cruelty; of stout Cortez who with eagle eyes stared at the Pacific, silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Well, no doubt I'll have more to say about the conquest of Mexico and Peru once I'm done. Or, more likely, you'll start seeing it pop up in my stories in various ways. I would love to write "sangre and sorcery" tales set during the time of the Conquest, but I fear that I'd have to visit the locales to do it justice. One day, perhaps I'll do just that.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Iron Leaps

There is in the last second of time or hair’s breadth of space, before the iron leaps to the magnet, an abyss full of all the unfathomable forces of the universe. The space between doing and not doing such a thing is so tiny and so vast. [Chesterton]
My first real publishing credit is "Some Remarks on Autism and Catholicism," an essay that appeared in the Catholic literary quarterly Dappled Things in 2009. It's actually what led to my current fiction-writing endeavors, as the same issue contains this excellent advice on writing by Catholic sci-fi author John C. Wright, whose van Vogt sequel Null-A Continuum I reviewed here.

That essay is written under my real name; I'm kind of coming out of the closet here. I don't usually write about such matters on my blog, except as it affects my various crafts. What I mean is, I don't seek to persuade people to see things the way I do. Of course it's true that I'm just a scribbler, and have no reason to presume people would want to read my inane thoughts on religion. But then again, I do apparently presume that there's a big demand for my inane thoughts on fiction, art, logic, and chickens.

(Want to know something weird? I just finished watching Big Trouble in Little China, and the voice in my head as I reread this now sounds like Jack Burton's bad imitation of John Wayne. Here's the movie poster, just because.)

So I ask myself, what's the difference? Here's what I've come up with:
  1. I've noticed that taking unpopular stances on controversial topics and stickin' it to 'em is a really awesome way to drive up your Internet readership and sell lots and lots of books. But somehow that isn't what I set out to do when I started writing.
  2. I don't want to get stuck in a Catholic ghetto. Everyone wants to be the next Flannery O'Connor, but Flannery O'Connor was never the first Flannery O'Connor.
  3. Some of my stories have gotten really negative reactions from Catholics. For instance, a science fiction story about nuns that I submitted to a Catholic literary contest last year garnered a "very bad visceral reaction" from a reader and "terrified" the editor. And most of my other stories involve sex and violence. So why bother?
But on the other hand, there's these recent Pew results about religion. I'm too lazy to look them up and link them, but it seems that American Catholicism is on the decline or something. It's got all the Catholic bloggers worked up. And really, it is getting harder and harder to be Catholic these days.

Elizabeth Scalia, a.k.a. The Anchoress, whose blog I've read since 2005, has called on Catholic writer-types to come out and say why they're not going to leave the faith. And, well, I'm not exactly a Catholic writer (though I'm Catholic and I write), but I feel like I ought to participate.

So, first little background, if you got bored and didn't finish my essay: After a youth of being taught by my elders to despise Catholicism, I was lured – lured, I tell you – into a fervid southern sect as a college freshman by a very pretty sophomore, who happens now to be my wife. Things went bad (and really, really weird), and I ended up a rather depressed and isolated atheist working on a doctorate in mathematics. And also married.

Some years later, in the midst of a prolonged bout of soul-searching, I went camping. This was 2005, shortly after the death of Pope John Paul II. It was Pentecost, though I didn't know it at the time. I had a long dream about the mass and the universal church and the election of Pope Benedict XVI. I won't go into the details, but it ended as I entered a confessional. That morning I knew I had to return.

Yes, I made a major decision that subsequently changed the course of my entire life as a result of a mystical dream.

However, the first thing I did was go to the university library to check out John Henry Newman's Development of Christian Doctrine. I read it in three days. Next I read the Apologia Pro Vita Sua of the same author. Then I knew that I really had to return, which I did that summer. My wife decided to convert as well, and was received into the Catholic Church at the following Easter vigil...

So, what was I trying to explain? Why I'm still Catholic? Well, it's my whole life. My whole life is the answer. Which isn't very satisfying, perhaps. So here's what I'll do. In the near future, I'll post a personal memoir about a crazy guitar duel with the Hare Krishnas of Mexico.