Friday, April 15, 2016

A Guide for the Perplexed

So, I've been reading E. F. Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed.

Schumacher (1911 – 1977) was by profession an economist and statistician. He was a leading figure of the ecology movement in the seventies, served as the Chief Economic Advisor to the UK National Coal Board for many years, and coined the term "Buddhist economics." He's chiefly famous for his 1973 collection of essays, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered, which, among other things, sets forth the principles of Buddhist (or village-based) economics. Schumacher's thought is refreshingly ecumenical and global. He avoids polemics (unlike me) and cites a variety of Eastern and Western philosophical-religious insights at every level of his writing.

A Guide for the Perplexed is the perfect book for the thoughtful undergraduate. I wish I had had it back when I was a student! (Not that I was thoughtful, exactly.) Simply stated, it's a brief map of the human experience. Instead of giving answers, it teaches the student to ask the right kinds of questions.

Because he inevitably devours everything I give him, my student-friend is certain to read both books before very long, and may even wish to discuss them with me. So it has seemed wise to delve into Schumacher once again, that I might have the text fairly fresh on my mind. Despite being an aged hermit by profession (though I'm not quite as old as Dennis the Peasant), I'm still an enthusiastic freshman in life, and am getting quite a lot out of the book myself.

All of which is just a long-winded* way of saying that I read the following passage, and it stood out to me:
As regards the bodily senses, all healthy people possess a very similar endowment; but no one could possibly overlook the fact that there are significant differences in the power and reach of people's minds. As regards the intellectual senses, it is therefore quite unrealistic to try to define and delimit the capabilities of "man" as such – as if all human beings were much the same, like animals of the same species. Beethoven's musical abilities, even in deafness, were incomparably greater than mine, and the difference did not lie in the sense of hearing; it lay in the mind. Some people are incapable of grasping and appreciating a given piece of music, not because they are deaf, but because of a lack of adaequatio in the mind. The sense of hearing receives nothing more than a succession of notes; the music is grasped by intellectual powers… For every one of us, only those facts and phenomena "exist" for which we possess adaequatio, and as we are not entitled to assume that we are necessarily adequate to everything, at all times, and in whatever condition we may find ourselves, so we are not entitled to insist that something inaccessible to us has no existence at all and is nothing but a phantom of other people's imagination.
This daring intellectual humility applies to lots of things. My little artistic dust-up a couple years ago comes to mind. There's an aptness in a certain loud subset of the Internet sci-fi community to roundly condemn artistic products they don't like as mere posturing, as assaults on the senses or insults against the intellect, and to promote their own products as the truly true art. I don't have anything profound to say about it all, but the interested reader (I know you're out there somewhere) can follow the link and see the application.

* Man, I really need to work on writing shorter posts. I just don't have the time...!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Hard at Work or...

Let's take a little break from our long-winded castigations of much-loved children's book authors to take a look at what I've been working on lately.

First exhibit, the cover of my upcoming book The King of Nightspore's Crown:

Ha ha ha, just kidding. (I probably had too much fun making that.) Here is the actual painting, in its current state of completion:

For your viewing pleasure, here's a close-up of the lovely mosses:

and here's the two dudes fighting:

As you can see, I've got some Oceanic and Central American influences going on here. Wouldn't this make a cool movie? I'd go see it. Maybe I'll try to interest Guillermo del Toro in optioning the series. If that works out, I'll probably insist that Doug Jones portray at least some of the abhuman characters.

I'm still leaning toward making the left-hand side of this image the front cover, which would maybe look something like this:

As I hope is abundantly clear, I'm still going for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy look. The design's a bit busy, perhaps, but that's kind of my trademark.


I've been listening to Joseph Conrad while painting, which seems fitting. I've also been re-listening to the Imaro books, in anticipation of acquiring the further volumes. Something about the Imaro stories reminds me of the freshness of the old pulps. No doubt this owes partly to the newness of the setting, but there's an earnest seriousness to Saunders' stories that puts me in mind of Robert E. Howard. I like the wilderness stories the best.

A reader objected the other day to attempts to "erase" authors from history. Regular readers of my blog know that, while I may get in a high dudgeon about this or that, I'm quite shameless when it comes to filling my own skull with garbage. I would also defend to the death (or some such rhetorical extremity) the right of the writer to depict the ugly side of life in an ambiguous way. And I don't apologize for reading and liking authors who hold opinions that I or others regard as morally repugnant.

But that doesn't mean that commenting on authors' viewpoints is off-limits, either. It's a free country!

So, suppose you get irritated by something that pervades an author's work – an author you happen to really like on the whole. You want to do something about it. There's a few things you can try. You can grouse about it on your blog, and see where that gets you. That's one approach. You can repudiate and utterly contemn the author's works and urge others to do so. We might call this the bonfire-of-the-vanities approach. Or you can just write your own awesome stories in the same genre, with a certain amount of subversion and subtle commentary.

Which seems like the most fun?

Inspired by such ruminations, I here announce the inception of an alternate-history sword-and-sorcery subgenre set during the time of the Spanish conquests. Of course my protagonist will hail from Puerto Rico. Of course he will be of mixed ancestry. And of course his adventures will take him across an alternate Texas in search of God, gold, and glory. Just like me!

After careful consideration, I propose "sword-and-santería" as a name for the subgenre, having briefly considered but ultimately rejected the "arquebus-and-sorcery" label. I've written one story so far, set in the location of the town where I live. From here I think he will wander out to the painted canyons of the west, to encounter cosmic weirdness and mete out sudden vengeance. No doubt his perambulations will eventually take him to all the really interesting places in the American Southwest, Mexico, and Central America. It's Conrad and Cather meet Howard and Lovecraft, Kane and Conan meet Coronado and Cortés. I wish my antihero luck in his morally dubious adventures.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Sorry, but C. S. Lewis is Kind of a Weirdo

I have lately spoken somewhat irritably about C. S. Lewis. This represents the last stage in a slow revolution in my mind. There was a time when I adulated Lewis. I first read the Chronicles of Narnia when I was in the fourth grade. They shaped my imagination, and even now I often find lines from them in my own stories. I discovered his religious works as a college student, at a time when I was the "disciple" of a delusional "apostle" who took me hunting for Hare Krishnas in Mexico (it's a long story) and desperately in need of some rational input. I'll not go into what made me less enthusiastic about the latter works, because I doubt many people who find their way to my blog are particularly interested in my religious opinions. But I will discuss why I've become increasingly uncomfortable with his fiction.

The long and short of it is that C. S. Lewis has a problem with little girls. To be honest, I doubt if I ever would have realized this unless I'd had a daughter of my own. People do talk about it from time to time. Neil Gaiman is a famous (and, to some, an infamous) example. But there's a tendency among some groups to revere Lewis almost as a sort of saint, and to regard any kind of criticism of him as an attack on the faith. And, beyond this, we all have our blind spots. It's part of being human. I can only say that I hope I'm becoming less blind (and more human!) over time.

In reading the Chronicles of Narnia aloud with my kids – we've read the first, second, third, and sixth (in the traditional ordering) – I've come across several passages that never bothered me before, but now seriously put me off. Here's one example that stuck out to me as we read Prince Caspian last year:
Then she saw the Lion, screamed and fled, and with her fled her class, who were mostly dumpy, prim little girls with fat legs. Gwendolen hesitated.
Gwendolen, we may suppose, was not dumpy or prim, and had slender legs. What a thing to write in a book that little girls might read! Even dumpy, prim little girls with fat legs! Did Lewis have any idea of how hard girls can be on themselves about such things, or how vicious to one another? I've read his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, in which he describes his inordinately nasty boys' school, where a kind of Spartan pederasty was a routine part of the social structure (ah, the good old days), so it's hard to imagine that he was simply naïve. But I don't know. I can only speculate.

And then there's this, from The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader":
"—And unhorsed many knights," repeated Drinian with a grin. "We thought the Duke would have been pleased if the King's Majesty would have married  his daughter, but nothing came of that—" 
"Squints, and has freckles," said Caspian. 
"Oh, poor girl," said Lucy.
Delightful, delightful. Imagine reading that to a little girl who has freckles and is already self-conscious about them. (For the record, when I read this book aloud, I censored this passage. As supreme co-dictator of my house, I have that authority.)

And here's the Big One, from The Last Battle, a pleasant little conversation at the threshold of the Narnian heaven:
"Sire," said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. "If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?" 
"My sister Susan," answered Peter shortly and gravely, "is no longer a friend of Narnia." 
"Yes," said Eustace, "and whenever you've tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, 'What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'" 
"Oh, Susan!" said Jill. "She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up." 
"Grown up indeed," said the Lady Polly. "I wish she would grow up. She wanted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she'll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one's life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can."
O the humanity! Nylons and lipstick! No heaven for her!!! Here I must confess myself strongly urged to repeat Edmund's words in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: you pack of stuck-up, self-satisfied prigs! And what is there in Susan's character as presented in the earlier volumes to merit this universal condemnation and head-shaking? She's a bit tiresome, yes, and a bit cowardly, too, but Edmund the traitor and Eustace the epic brat get their rehabilitations, don't they? And yet it's Susan, whose sin is wanting to wear lipstick, who loses her prospect of eternal salvation. It staggers the mind.

I could come up with similar examples in many of Lewis' other works – in The Great Divorce, for instance, where he makes it very plain which are the right sorts of women and which are the wrong sorts, and what exactly it is that's so wrong with the latter. But the examples in his books for children are, to my mind, more egregious, because of the tendency in some girls to take such little jabs to heart.

I happen to know a little girl like that. A very earnest and serious-minded girl who catches lizards and plays at being a warrior queen but who also likes to look pretty on occasion and who is deeply sensitive to remarks on her looks. Do I want her thinking about whether her legs are fat? Do I want her fretting over her freckles? Do I want her to be ashamed for wanting to grow up into a woman who wears lipstick?


What sparked this little tirade was a piece of Lewis' correspondence that I came across in trying to research another post I've been working on for almost a year now.* It's a letter written to one Jane Gaskell, who at the age of fourteen wrote her first fantasy novel (Strange Evil) and actually saw it published and favorably reviewed. (Gaskell is mentioned in Lin Carter's Imaginary Worlds; she is a grandniece of Elizabeth Gaskell, the Victorian novelist, and went on to a career in journalism and astrology.) Lewis took it upon himself to write Gaskell a letter, in which he praises her novel faintly before tearing it to shreds. (She was about sixteen at the time, I believe; she was born in 1941, and the letter is dated September 1957.) Let's take a look.

He begins:
My wife and I have just been reading your book and I want to tell you that I think it is a quite amazing achievement – incomparably beyond anything I could have done at that age. The story runs, on the whole, very well and there is some real imagination in it.
So far, so good, though perhaps a bit condescending. At the second paragraph we get to the criticism:
On the other hand, there is no reason at all why your next book should not be at least twice as good. I hope you will not think it impertinent if I mention (this is only one man's opinion of course) some mistakes you can avoid in the future.
This "mention" of mistakes goes on for the rest of the letter. Lewis enumerates six points. First he takes Gaskell to task for making the "economic politics and religious differences" too much like our own world.
Surely the wars of faerie should be high, reckless, heroical, romantic wars – concerned with the possession of a beautiful queen or an enchanted treasure? Surely the diplomatic phase of them should be represented not by conferences (which, on your own showing, are as dull as ours) but by ringing words of gay taunt, stern defiance, or Quixotic generosity, interchanged by great warriors with sword in hand before the battle joins?
Fair enough, I suppose, though I think it could go either way. I do seem to recall some rather on-the-nose religious dialogues in the Space Trilogy which do at least as much to dispel the spell of faerie, but no matter.

The second point is related to the first: Lewis objects to commonplace objects in Gaskell's romance:
[E]ven a half-fairy ought not climb a fairyhill carrying a suitcase full of new nighties. All magic dies at this touch of the commonplace. (Notice, too, the disenchanting implication that the fairies can't make for themselves lingerie as good as they can get – not even in Paris, which wd. be bad enough – but, of all places, in London.)
So, (a) I'm not sure I agree with him about climbing the fairyhill with the suitcase full of nighties, which sounds just bizarre enough to be quite enchanting in its own way, and (b) um, writing letters to teenage girls about lingerie. Yeah.

The next two points have to do with the mechanics of style. Point third:
Never use adjectives or adverbs which are mere appeals to the reader to feel as you want him to feel. He won't do it just because you ask him: you've got to make him.
Point fourth:
You are too fond of long adverbs like 'dignifiedly', which are not nice to pronounce.
Both excellent points. All writers would do well to adhere to them. But the next point, the fifth, is the one that really set me off:
Far less about clothes please! I mean, ordinary clothes. If you had given your fairies strange and beautiful clothes and described them, there might be something in it. But your heroine's tangerine skirt! For whom do you write? No man wants to hear how she was dressed, and the sort of woman who does seldom reads fantasy: if she reads anything it is more likely to be the Women's Magazines.
The ease with which Lewis identifies a woman who might be interested in the color of a character's skirt with the brainless, frivolous creatures uninterested in fantasy and devoted to (gasp) Women's Magazines that haunt his imagination simply takes my breath away. (Actually, lots of women like that kind of detail, and lots of men, too; Raymond Chandler, for instance, is usually pretty good about telling you, not just the color, but the material and cut of his female characters' attire.) Anyway, Lewis goes on about the Magazines:
By the way, these are a baneful influence on your mind and imagination. If you can't keep off them, at least, after each debauch, give your imagination a good mouth-wash by a reading (or wd. it be a re-reading) of the Odyssey, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, E. R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros, […]
Which, to be honest, might be very good advice in its way, but it's phrased in an excessively moralistic, lurid tone. ("Debauch"?)

Sixth and final point:
Names not too good. They ought to be beautiful and suggestive as well as strange: not merely odd like Enaj (wh. sounds as if it came out of Butler's Erewhon).
Here he seems to be in a hurry to wrap up. Immediately following this admonition, with no further nuggets of sparing praise, he hastily concludes:
I hope all this does not enrage you. You'll get so much bad advice that I felt I must give you some of what I think good.
     Yours sincerely
     C. S. Lewis
Again, bear in mind that this is a letter he sent to a sixteen-year-old girl who had just written her first novel. Am I crazy, or isn't it a little bit weird?


Last exhibit: "The Shoddy Lands" (1956)**, a bizarrely misogynistic story which describes a man's phantasmagoric journey into the psyche of a young woman – a reader of Women's Magazines, no doubt – where almost everything is vague and ill-defined, with the exception of daffodils, men's faces, women's clothing, and shops selling jewelry, dresses, and shoes. Toward the end he's confronted with the monstrous apparition of the girl's own self image:
The gigantic Peggy now removed her beach equipment and stood up naked in front of a full-length mirror. Apparently she enjoyed what she saw there; I can hardly express how much I didn't. Partly the size (it’s only fair to remember that) but, still more, something that came as a terrible shock to me, though I suppose modern lovers and husbands must be hardened to it. Her body was (of course) brown, like the bodies in the sunbathing advertisements. But round her hips, and again round her breasts, where the coverings had been, there were two bands of dead white which looked, by contrast, like leprosy. It made me for the moment almost physically sick. What staggered me was that she could stand and admire it. Had she no idea how it would affect ordinary male eyes?
After his return to the real world he concludes:
My view is that by the operation of some unknown psychological – or pathological – law, I was, for a second or so, let into Peggy's mind; at least to the extent of seeing her world, the world as it exists for her. At the centre of that world is a swollen image of herself, remodelled to be as like the girls in the advertisements as possible. Round this are grouped clear and distinct images of the things she really cares about. Beyond that, the whole earth and sky are a vague blur. The daffodils and roses are especially instructive. Flowers only exist for her if they are the sort that can be cut and put in vases or sent as bouquets; flowers in themselves, flowers as you see them in the woods, are negligible.
Various interpretations have been given to this story. I'll let it speak for itself, merely remarking that it seems consistent with the other things I've mentioned here, and not particularly wholesome from a psychological point of view.

Sure, I have a low opinion of the kinds of trash you find in the supermarket check-out line. I want my daughter to be formed by stuff that's worth reading, not garbage. But I also want her to have a positive view of her own body, and Lewis' weird tendency to attach moral weight to superficialities is just as calculated to make her self-conscious as any Photoshopped Cosmo cover.

The upshot is that we're on an extended (and possibly permanent, so far as my reading aloud is concerned) C. S. Lewis hiatus at our house. I continue to owe him a tremendous debt in many ways, but right now I have other things to think about.

* The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950 1963, Walter Hooper (ed.), HarperCollins, 2007.

** "The Shoddy Lands" first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (1956), and can be found in The Dark Tower and Other Stories.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Eternal Return

Thereupon distilled from the neck of the alembic a white oil incombustible, and the King dipped his rod in that oil and described round the seven-pointed star on the floor the figure of the worm Ouroboros, that eateth his own tail. 
Like a black eagle surveying earth from some high mountain the King passed by in his majesty. His byrny was of black chain mail, its collar, sleeves, and skirt edged with plates of dull gold set with hyacinths and black opals. His hose were black, cross-gartered with bands of sealskin trimmed with diamonds. On his left thumb was his great signet ring fashioned in gold in the semblance of the worm Ouroboros that eateth his own tail: the bezel of the ring the head of the worm, made of a peach-coloured ruby of the bigness of a sparrow's egg. His cloak was woven of the skins of black cobras stitched together with gold wire, its lining of black silk sprinkled with dust of gold. The iron crown of Witchland weighed on his brow, the claws of the crab erect like horns; and the sheen of its jewels was many-coloured like the rays of Sirius on a clear night of frost and wind at Yule-tide.  
The Worm Ouroboros 
A friend recently facebooked about Nietzsche's idea of eternal recurrence. I read Nietzsche from time to time, mostly because I find him entertaining, and good fodder for story-writing. But he had quite a few keen insights, too. At any rate, the discussion brought to my mind the following passage from Beyond Good and Evil:
…the ideal of the most high-spirited, alive, and world-affirming human being who has not only come to terms and learned to get along with whatever was and is, but who wants to have what was and is repeated into all eternity, shouting insatiably da capo [from the beginning] – not only to himself but to the whole play and spectacle… [Beyond Good and Evil, Section 56, trans. Walter Kaufmann]
There are a number of other references to the idea in Nietzsche's works. My friend was thinking about a possible influence on Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury ("literature"? yawn!) but of course what it made me think of was…The Worm Ouroboros.

The worm Ouroboros is, as we all know, the worm that eateth its own tail, and this is the structure of the eponymous romance. (Spoiler alert.) Our heroes, the Homeric supermen Juss, Goldry Bluszco, Spitfire, and Brandoch Daha, having defeated their dastardly enemies at long last, have in fact defeated themselves in ridding the world of strife and conflict, which to them is the very game that makes life worth living. They realize this, and lament it, bringing about the appalling miracle that takes them from the story's tail to its teeth.
Queen Sophonisba covered her eyes, saying, "My lords, I see no more. The crystal curdles within like foam in a whirlpool under a high force in rainy weather. Mine eyes grow sore with watching. Let us row back, for the night is far spent and I am weary." 
But Juss stayed her and said, "Let me dream yet awhile. The double pillar of the world, that member thereof which we, blind instruments of inscrutable Heaven, did shatter, restored again? From this time forth to maintain, I and he, his and mine, ageless and deathless for ever, for ever our high contention whether he or we should be great masters of all the earth? If this he but phantoms, O Queen, thou'st 'ticed us to the very heart of bitterness. This we could have missed, unseen and unimagined: but not now. Yet how were it possible the Gods should relent and the years return?" 
But the Queen spake, and her voice was like the falling shades of evening, pulsing with hidden splendour, as of a sense of wakening starlight alive behind the fading blue. "This King," she said, "in the wickedness of his impious pride did wear on his thumb the likeness of that worm Ouroboros, as much as to say his kingdom should never end. Yet was he, when the appointed hour did come, thundered down into the depths of Hell. And if now he be raised again and his days continued, 'tis not for his virtue but for your sake, my lords, whom the Almighty Gods do love. Therefore I pray you possess your hearts awhile with humility before the most high Gods, and speak no unprofitable words. Let us row back."
And the next morning, wonder of wonders, the episode that began the chronicle recurs, and the reader contemplates the heroes' "happy" fate, doomed, deathless in glory, endlessly to repeat the events of the story with infinite variations. It's the perfect "ending," terrifyingly joyous, both satisfying and appalling in its adherence to the story's inner logic and philosophical outlook. It could very well be the best ending to any fantasy novel ever written – a vision of a strange and alien moral topography that may be fine to visit, but not someplace you'd ever want to live.

The superhuman lords and ladies that populate the book's pages are Nietzschean heroes, joyous, strong, carefree, and utterly unconcerned with the peasantry. We encounter peasants on only one occasion, when Eddison adopts the curious narrative device of relating the upshot of a battle through the words of a soldier returning home to his farm. Actually, for someone bent on celebrating the martial deeds well-armed aristocrats, Eddison is strangely reticent to describe an actual battle. We have this second-hand account of the battle at Krothering Side, for instance; the sea-battle off Melikaphkhaz in the Impland seas and the final battle before the gates of Carcë in waterish Witchland take place off-stage as well, while the extermination of the Ghouls that forms the novel's thin backstory is related only through brief allusions. In a way the device reminds one of Elizabethan drama, which is not unfitting, but no Shakespearean actor ever scaled an icy mountain, rode a hippogriff, or fought a brain-eating mantichore, either. So it seems more likely that Eddison simply didn't feel that his talents were equal to the task. Which, to my mind, is just as well; book battles usually read like accounts of volleyball matches to me.

But back to Nietzsche. I'm not certain how much of a direct influence on The Worm Ouroboros Nietzsche actually was. People always talk of Eddison's characters as following a Nietzschean moral code, which I suppose they do, but both authors were really looking to Homer's heroes as exemplars, and you could just as well call the Worm's moral code Homeric. However, this idea of the great da capo and eternal return makes it seem more likely that Eddison did know something of Nietzsche's philosophy.

Tolkien, as is well known, was an admirer of Eddison's fantasies, despite adhering to the exact antithesis of Eddison's personal philosophy, so we'll let him have the final word.
I read the works of [E. R.] Eddison, long after they appeared; and I once met him… Eddison thought what I admire 'soft' (his word: one of complete condemnation, I gathered); I thought that, corrupted by an evil and indeed silly 'philosophy', he was coming to admire, more and more, arrogance and cruelty. Incidentally, I thought his nomenclature slipshod and often inept. In spite of all of which, I still think of him as the greatest and most convincing writer of 'invented worlds' that I have read.*
* From a letter to Caroline Everett dated 24 June 1957, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981.