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!

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