MythCon 46: The Arthurian Mythos Part I: On Satyrs, Derrida, and Names of Power

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Every Friday over the next couple of weeks I will be posting notes that I made during this year’s Mythopoeic Conference at the Hotel Elegante in Colorado Springs, CO. I presented a paper there on Charles de Lint and had the occasion to reacquaint myself with the much of the same gang from the last MythCon in Norton, MA. Although these posts are somewhat belated because the conference happened between July 31 and August 3 2015, I think the beginning of the semester–the last hurrah before I really have to hunker down and right my MA thesis–serves as a decent occasion to publish some of the interesting ideas that circulated at the conference.

This was the first trip I made this deep into the US of A without any family contacts to boot. It was also my first time flying alone. I flew in via Atlanta–I was most unexpectedly in the South!–and arrived the day before at the conference in one piece. I got some rest and the next day made my way to the first talk of the weekend. The conference theme was on the Arthurian Mythos–anything related to King Arthur and his knights–from Malory to (Grahame) Chapman.

Joe Christopher presented “A Narnian Study and a Lewisian (and Tolkienian) Note: ‘Two Satyrs’ and ‘Passing References in a Modern Arthurian Novel.'” The gist of the talk was a specific study by one of the conference’s veterans. There are (at least) two depictions of satyrs in C.S. Lewis: Mr. Tumnus, who is called a ‘fawn,’ and another in a poem called “The Satyr” from Spirits in Bondage. Satyrs are remarkable fantastic creatures in how they combine a human face and posture with a bestial goat’s body. The human aspect represents the intellectual faculties, while the goat parts, the more basic drives and instincts–food, sex, bacchanalian revelry.

This man-beast dichotomy is enriched in Lewis since the two satyrs were written at very different times in his life: Mr. Tumnus when he was a converted middle-aged Christian and the Satyr when he was an adolescent atheist. Lewis desexualizes the image of the satyr by the time he writes The Chronicles of Narnia, turning a creature who might be described as a sexual predator into the sedate hospitable, umbrella-toting Christmas shopper, Mr. Tumnus. Naturally this lends a creepy background to Mr. Tumnus inviting little lost Lucy Pevensey into his home upon her first visit to Narnia.

Christopher also went off on a slight tangent to describe an interesting recent book, The Search for Camlann (2013), which integrates Welsh politics into the story of an archaeologist’s search for the battlefield where Arthur made his last stand against Mordred. Entertainingly enough, the protagonist discovers the mythic source text behind Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which is usually understood to be non-existent, part of the gigantic lie Monmouth told in order to present Wales in a flattering way to the Norman conquerors.

After this stimulating discussion, I sat down for Andrew Hallam’s “Messianicity and Weak Force in The Lord of the Rings” in which Jacques Derrida served as a surprisingly apt theorist for the discussion of Tolkien’s masterwork. Both academics, for example, were into languages–inventing them and deconstructing them–and if only, if only they could have spoken to each other over tea … well, Andrew and I pretty well agreed they would hate each other’s guts, one being atheist and the other a devout Catholic.

The way Derrida tied into Tolkien was through the French deconstructionist’s writings on faith. To paraphrase, Derrida said one should never give in to the temptation of thinking that one knows what knowledge is. In other words, it is an error to think that knowledge is always certain. Faith is necessary in order to trust in knowledge, but there is always the potential, in what we know, for uncertainty. Messianicity for Derrida must furthermore be wholly unexpected, unanticipated, arriving to change the world from a wildly different direction than ever foreseen.

Jesus Christ was expected to be a powerful ruler who would deliver the Jews from Rome, but he came to be born in a small manger. In a similar way, the One Ring winds up the hands of a Hobbit–wholly unexpected by the rulers of Gondor, much to Boromir’s sad and tragic disappointment. Because Frodo’s Messianicity was so unexpected, Boromir believes he himself ought to have found the Ring, a misunderstanding that leads to his death and the breaking of the Fellowship.

Following this discussion, Janet Brennan Croft gave a talk on “The Name of the Ring: Or There and Back Again,” which although it sounds like it could frankly have been about anything Ring-related, was essentially an analysis of the Ring’s legend through Northrop Frye. Another pleasant surprise was that Croft referred to my old Chaucer TA who I’ve known since my first year of Undergraduate Studies: Benjamin Baroötes, who was working on the thesis she referred to while he was at McGill teaching me. I distinctly remember hearing him talk about it with me and the class and mentioning that his work with philology and medieval literature had certain tie-ins to Tolkien Studies. It was good to hear a familiar name come up!

In Anatomy of Criticism, Frye describes four types of poetic language: the metaphoric, the metonymic (allegory), the demotic, and, finally, the recurso. These Frye borrowed from earlier studies by Giambattista Vico. In the first stage, the name of a thing IS the thing, in the second it is an aspect of the thing, while in the third the name merely describes the thing–a decreasing order of correspondence between word and thing. At the recurso, the cycle begins again: a return to myth and metaphor, the recognition that matter is actually an illusion of energy.

In The Lord of the Rings, these stages of poetic language corresponds to the naming of everything from weapons to the names of the evil forces of Middle-Earth. Melkor, the greatest of evil force in Tolkien’s Legendarium, imparts his own power to his creatures. When he is renamed Morgoth, he loses his ability ‘to rise in height,’ which ‘Melkor’ translates to. In short, his power is metaphoric, until his fall. Sauron, his servant, merely imparts a piece of his being into the One Ring–a metonymic exchange of power. Saruman–who joins Sauron’s forces and is thus one level under him in the hierarchy of evil–represents the demotic stage. Given his language of compromise and his knowledge of science and wizardry–discourses defined by their descriptive styles–he is a far cry from the cosmic force of annihilation that is Melkor.

What makes this scheme especially interesting, in my opinion, is how Frye claims that poetry must create the first phase of language during the domination of the later phases. Since the scientific revolution, the demotic phase has dominated language. But poetry can still remind us about the power of pure metaphor. Occasionally, phrases that partake of two simultaneous eras of language may exist in the same phrase or in the same poem. For example, when Bilbo names his sword upon killing a spider in Mirkwood, he invokes the language of the metonymic phase of sword-naming, proper to an older age of heroism, while choosing a name that represents his own simple, demotic language: “I will call you Sting.”

I found Frye’s theories lend themselves easily to The Lord of the Rings and it got me thinking about how Fredric Jameson interprets these phases of poetry from his historical materialist (Marxist) perspective. Perhaps the later phases of poetry are signs of civilization’s increasing alienation from its environment and its mode of economic production, since it might also be said the rise of capitalism combined with scientific development produced the domination of demotic language. This idea of mine is still a half-formed thought, but Jameson does critique Frye in The Political Unconscious–perhaps I should give it a second read-through….

Stay tuned next week for the next installment of my MythCon 46 notes!

 

Pacifism and Kenneth Morris’s The Chalchiuhite Dragon

The Chalchiuhite Dragon by Kenneth Morris

Lately my blog posts have been slowing down because of the attention I’m giving to my research assistantship with Professor Robert Lecker at McGill University–we’re researching the history of literary agents and agencies in Canada. As such I have not had the occasion to post about my experience of MythCon 2015 as I did with MythCon 2014. The conference went well and perhaps in the coming months you will hear the whole story. Suffice it to say that my presentation on Charles de Lint’s multicultural utopia went smoothly and I even had a conversation with Brian Attebery about it.

Today, I’m going to be giving a brief sketch about an idea I might work on for another presentation adjacent to my main thesis. I may present the paper that this post might become, eventually, at the Northeast Modern Language Association conference (NeMLA), where a panel is being organized around the topic of war in science fiction and fantasy literature, especially as it pertains to utopian and dystopian fiction.

I was inspired to think up a topic for this panel because of a Mythopoeic Press publication, Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I. In here is a treasure hoard of essays contextualizing and historicizing the work of the Inklings (including Tolkien, Lewis, and Barfield), along with G.K. Chesterton, Lord Dunsany, Sylvia Townsend Warner, E.R. Eddison, and T.H. White. These guys are fantasy’s T.S. Eliots, W.H. Audens, W.B. Yeatses, and Earnest Hemingways: authors who responded to the horror of World War that ushered in the age of modernity. However, Tolkien and crew approached literature in ways that were fundamentally different from their Modernist compatriots and–at times–associates: they were, generally speaking, more invested in preserving the heroic legacy of romance and adventure that fell out of favour in the literature after WWI. Plus they were less invested in realism, more invested in fantasy and mythopoeia.

I asked myself, in seeing the similarity between the essay collection’s theme and the topic up for discussion at NeMLA, how I might have contributed to Baptism of Fire, if I had been in a position to do so. It did not take me long to think of a topic.

The works of Kenneth Morris (1879-1937) have been neglected by critics for too long. Thankfully, Douglas A. Anderson has published a glorious volume of his collected short stories, republished for the first time in many, many years: a book called The Dragon Path. Part of the reason for this neglect stems from the fact Morris was for most of his life a Theosophist, publishing his poetry and short stories through Theosophical publications. In addition to this, his contemporaries thought his work too obscure to publish much of it in his own time–making him something of a fantasy writer hipster, writing parable-like works of historical fantasy way before Tolkien made the genre mainstream. He had a small but devoted audience.

His novel The Chalchiuhite Dragon: A Tale of Toltec Times went unpublished until long after his death, when Douglas A. Anderson sought to republish it in a new edition in the 1990s. I have already read and reviewed this novel here, but for those who want a recap, here’s the simple version of the plot:

The city of Huitznahuacan is a utopian enclave in the Mexican jungle during the pre-Colombian era. The residents participate in religious festivals and worship their gods as real, but they have never before heard of war as a practice among men. They believe that they alone are the only civilization on earth. But when the Toltecs arrive during a festival and encounter their culture, they appear as even stranger than the gods: the Huitznahuatecs are not alone! Soon, however, a religious hierarch of a foreign city, misled by anger and envy, plans to manipulate jungle savages to commit a series of murders that will deviously draw the peaceful civilization into armed conflict. The novel concludes with an anticipation of the arrival of Quetzalcoatl, the Prince of Peace, who gives the Toltecs a new law.

Given that Morris began writing his rather obscure third novel in the 1920s and finished writing it, at last, in 1935, it was written during a time Europe was recovering from the shock of World War I and the world was dealing with the Great Depression. Furthermore, the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and World War II (1939-1945) were just on the horizon. Had Morris been writing his novel through Britain’s negotiations with the Third Reich, it might have been possible to read a more or less direct correlation between Huitznahuacan’s failure of pacifism and the failure of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. In fact, Morris would die before the beginning of the Second World War.

Although my first thought about how to historicize The Chalchiuhite Dragon was shot by the simple fact of Morris’s death in 1937, it did not deter me from investigating deeper. On a second revision, it appeared to me that the novel was still very much about pacifism anyway. Especially when reading the significance of the utopian enclave in his novel, it occurred to me that Morris was writing, quite possibly, about Point Loma, itself a utopian enclave, and Theosophy in general. A resident of San Diego for a long part of his life, and born in Wales, Morris never served at the front–at least Douglas A. Anderson mentions no such engagement. Morris was too busy writing short stories and poetry for the Theosophists.

Here is where W. Michael Ashcraft’s book Dawn of the New Cycle: Point Loma Theosophists and American Culture comes into play. This study of the community to which Morris devoted his life–quite literally, since it was his busy lecture schedule that may have contributed to his declining health–describes Theosophical positions to war, pacifism, and patriotism. In a nutshell: the Theosophists of Point Loma were more actively pacifist than the German branches of their movement, while in the States they participated with “other Americans in condemning the war and called for peaceful solutions to international problems” (169). Being an international society with a vision for the common brotherhood of humanity, Theosophists served patriotically during WWI, but always under the reverence of a ‘higher patriotism’ towards humanity as a whole. Katherine Tingley, a leader of Point Loma who asked Morris to write a novel on a pre-Columbian subject, which lead to The Chalchiuhite Dragon, was active in organizing and sponsoring meetings that promoted pacifism. Given how Huitznahuacan resembles Point Loma in its devotion to peace and the sacred as well as its being closed off from the outside world, it is difficult not to see where Morris derived his inspiration for the novel.

The thesis that emerges from this evidence is that Morris was expressing a Point Loma style of pacifism in The Chalchiuhite Dragon, as way to respond to the desolation of World War I, which must have affected him in some way, even if he was far from the front lines in San Diego, and that he also did so as a response to the growing climate of unease leading up to World War II. Further evidence of Morris’s reaction to the First World War might be sought out in the short stories and poems he was writing between 1914 and 1918, including the years directly following the war.

Although this post only shows a sketch of my ideas, I think the idea is electrifying. I hope the post, at least, might bring more people to read Kenneth Morris, whose short works, like Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels, explore various historical civilizations that span diverse cultures, such as ancient China, India, medieval Spain, Scandinavia, and the worlds of Welsh myth. In fact, Anderson credits him with being the inventor of modern Welsh fantasy. His style is read-out-loudable and very musical–occasionally, literally inspired in their cadence and theme by composers like Beethoven. His works, which often thematize the universal spiritual brotherhood of mankind and the importance of knowledge through experience, are tales relevant to any era and particularly for today.

Photo Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talbot_Mundy

Point Loma's Raja Yoga Academy and The Temple of Peace, c.1915

Point Loma’s Raja Yoga Academy and The Temple of Peace, c.1915

Endless Things by John Crowley

20141217_202835If you arrived at a crossroads, would you take the right or the left fork? We are faced every day of our lives with choosing a path. Once our decision takes us onward, we cannot return. The past that once was–and the path we might have chosen instead–grows more and more distant with each ‘Y’ junction we pass.

The courses of history and personal lives divide at such moments. The Germans invaded Poland in 1939 on Y-Tag, or Y-Day, the same day that New York City’s World’s Fair expressed a utopian optimism. Barbarism or civilization: which path did history take at that moment, and where did it go after?

Endless Things by John Crowley is the final book in his Aegypt Cycle. It is the culmination of thirty years of thinking, research, and writing on the part of the author, and an ending to a series that is thematically preoccupied with endings. Endless Things is a completion without an ending per se. After all, the thousands of possible futures that might come into existence at any moment are as endless and infinite as the universe itself.

Pierce Moffet has left the Blackbury Jambs for Old Europe on what sounds like an epic quest–to find the Holy Grail, or the Philosopher’s Stone, in either case an artefact that can prove once and for all that the world has more than one history, that its laws are mutable. Alchemy, once briefly possible for John Dee and Edward Kelley, is in our modern world no long possible–at least, Fellowes Kraft’s last unpublished novel claims so, which Pierce is supposed to copy and rework into a book. He follows Kraft’s old notebook through cities such as Rome, Florence, and Prague, which was once the centre of European civilization and scientific experimentation, circa 1588.

The setting of Prague, Pierce’s destination, is a central setting of the Aegypt Cycle, given its historical relevance. Once long ago, two diplomatic officials were thrown out of a window in that city, an event that led to the Thirty Years’ War, which tore apart Europe and the metaphysical certainties that bound it. Catholic fought Protestant for control of the Holy Roman Empire. Like Y-Tag, this is another juncture in history, and it forever changes the face of religion, diminishing its epistemological importance while the scientific method becomes, gradually, the new paradigm for truth.

All this is preceded by an ideal royal wedding that for all its purity, becomes the reason for strife. Traveling players perform Shakespeare’s The Tempest to celebrate the union. At the play’s end the sorcerer Prospero vows to drown his books and end his magical career, just as magic has come to an end in the wider world.

Prague, now part of the Czech Republic, is behind the Iron Curtain when Pierce goes on his quest. The author’s bio at the back of the book shows John Crowley’s own passport that he used on a research trip to Prague earlier in his life (photo undated), suggesting a certain level of identification between the author and Pierce. Combined with the author’s metafictional reflections through the character of Kraft himself, this autobiographical suggestion makes Endless Things into a novel about writing novels–and about narratives, especially endings.

The story of Giordano Bruno’s martyrdom is one example of a tale that doesn’t end when history suggests it did. The heretic philosopher, who was the first to suggest that the universe was infinite and the earth not at its centre, was burned at the stake in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori for his crimes of belief–but at the last moment, his soul transferred, by metempsychosis, into the body of an Ass, a sacred donkey. This Ass, living as the metamorphosed Lucius does in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, that is, as a human in a donkey’s body, in turn transforms into the mysterious originator of the Rosicrucians, Philip à Gabala, who claimed to possess the deepest secrets of the universe’s meaning, but who never revealed them.

There are many surprises in Endless Things, the story of which substantially departs, in its first half, from the familiar settings and characters that direct the first three books. My biggest shock was that in one scene, Pierce appears to hold conversation with Dame Frances Yates, whose study, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, is one of the central research texts that Crowley consulted when writing Aegypt. Crowley’s identification with Pierce, which is implicit throughout the cycle, was made here nearly explicit, though never untactful. If there was any doubt the Aegypt Cycles’s earlier books are postmodern metafictions, Endless Things puts those doubts to rest.

The final chapters of Endless Things move towards an ending with graceful meditation–and it is an ending in a changed world, yet a world that we can all recognize. We see the advent of computers and the fall of the Berlin Wall, so the it leaves off some time in the 1990s–connecting events that happened as far back as the sixteenth century to the years of my own childhood. Prague once again becomes the locus of a revolution–the Velvet Revolution–that quietly forges a new world. With the fall of Communism comes the beginning of an increasingly globalized and history-less Western society. And in the midst of this, Pierce, with his rocky romance with Rosie in his past, has, upon his return from Europe, one last chance to find true love.

Endless Things ends my first reading of Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle, but it will not likely end my involvement with it. I plan to include some kind of discussion of Crowley’s work in my MA thesis, if I can, and I could think of no worthier object of study.

Brian Attebery in his 1996 essay “Tolkien, Crowley, and Postmodernism” argues that Crowley’s previous novel Little, Big makes the “fantasy tradition descending from George MacDonald, William Morris, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis … formally indistinguishable from postmodernist uses of the fantastic” (21). I would gladly extend Attebery’s observation to the entire Aegypt Cycle, although I note that Little, Big has much more to do with the tradition of Tolkien and MacDonald than Aegypt does. Gnostic allegory and Renaissance philosophy are closer to the real tradition behind Endless Things.

Bringing New Left theorist Fredric Jameson into the conversation, I would like to quote the introduction to his study Postmodernism: or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, in which he says that the postmodern “looks for breaks, for events rather than new worlds, for the telltale instance after which it is no longer the same” (ix). If fantasy is a genre in which new worlds are built, then the Aegypt Cycle looks, rather, for events, these breaks that alter history.

These are the Y-junctures that result in changes we cannot go back on, the decisive moments in a society that alter even our ontological perceptions. The change from medieval animism and superstition into Enlightened science comes as a result of just such a break. Crowley accomplishes a dramatization of exactly how the former metamorphoses into the latter, how the world became what it is today and why it is no longer what it once was, explicitly addressing that age-old question, “Why is the world the way it is and not some other way?”

 

The Chalchiuhite Dragon by Kenneth Morris

Perusing the books on sale at MythCon 45 at Wheaton College in Norton, MA this summer, I stumbled across a most peculiar historical fantasy novel. It was the long-lost masterpiece of Kenneth Morris, The Chalchiuhite Dragon.

Well-known, if not actually famous, for his modern Celtic fantasies such as The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed and Book of Three Dragons, Morris was a contemporary of J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inklings, though he spent most of his time within the tight-knit community of the Theosophical Society in Wales and California. The Chalchiuhite Dragon, his final novel, was left unpublished at his death, and is the only classic fantasy based in Mesoamerica that I have read. Due partly to the prompting of Ursula K. Le Guin, who valourized Morris’s writing style in “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” a famous 1970s essay on proper diction in fantasy writing, this final novel was edited and published fifty-five years after the author’s death in 1992.

I was left in utter amazement that Morris’s book should be resurrected from the dead in the early 90s in a book cover style that seems to label it as a bestselling, contemporary novel. This astonishing story in the history of fantasy publishing is all the more remarkable since Morris’s writing style is at least partly the reason why editors felt it was valuable to publish this novel posthumously. The style is anything but contemporary; in fact, I might call the style as opaque as jade. When mixed with the obscure, impossible-to-pronounce-without-a-guide Toltec names, following the novel’s storyline was a labour. The dictionary of names at the back of the book is a necessary tool, and the absence of a map makes the storyline still more difficult to follow. Yet there is no doubt that it is written in a high style.

In terms of reading difficulty, Morris is between Tolkien and E.R. Eddison–Tolkien being the easiest to read and Eddison being the most difficult. It is these two authors, with Morris and George MacDonald, whom Le Guin declares to be the true masters of epic diction in modern fantasy. Especially for fantasy authors who are themselves interested in imitating the formal epic style of modern fantasy, The Chalchiuhite Dragon can make an instructive read in addition to an entertaining one.

The prose is a rock wall over which you must climb to access the spectacular Mesoamerican vistas. The novel should reward any devotee of modern fantasy who is willing to work through passages such as the following:

On the night of the Arrival of the Gods, every priest in Huitznahuac watched in his deity’s temple for the Divine Event. Thus the Royal Uncle Acatonatzin, being Tezcatlipocâ-priest, watched from the koo of the Soul of the World.

There are words you will not understand and some characters have more than one name, like Nopal’s alternatives names, Nopalton and Nopaltontli. But despite the density of the prose, it can make a rewarding reading for those interested.

Believe it or not, the story behind the The Chalchiuhite Dragon is one that lies behind a story that will be familiar to some. It is about mythical Huitznahuacan, a capital city of a kingdom that has never known war, and the events leading up to the birth of the Plumed Serpent Quetzalcoatl, whose form in a jade (chalchiuhite in Toltec) statue becomes a key image in the novel. Yes, this is (approximately) the same Quetzalcoatl whom the Aztecs, according to legend, mistook for Hernàn Cortes during the Spanish conquistador’s invasion of Mexico. Quetzalcoatl is like the Jesus Christ of Mesoamerica, a Prince of Peace and lawgiver for the Toltecs. However, the main action of the story is the lead-up to this miraculous birth during the holy month of Teotleco.

At times reading like an anthropological description of an ancient people’s religious practices, The Chalchiuhite Dragon comes across as a subtle mix of classical literature and political intrigue. When the Huitznahuatecs encounter foreign ambassadors during a festival, a whole new and dangerous world becomes introduced to them–Toltec civilization. Toltecs have a mysterious practice called war, with which the Huitznahuatecs are unfamiliar. The utopian, though naive, city must survive the conquest of the Toltecs and the wily machinations of its war leaders. A story about innocence lost and the hope for future peace emerges, a rewarding, oddly Christmas-y conclusion to a particularly well-written and neglected modern fantasy classic.

Imagine if Tolkien had written The Lord of the Rings sixty years ago, but it was only published this year. That is was what the intrigue behind The Chalchiuhite Dragon must have been like in 1992. Now in 2015, it is up for a new generation of Morris fans to determine whether it will be celebrated and for how long it will be remembered.

Fantasies of History: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Synthesis of the Historical Fantasy Novel — PowerPoint Presentation

Use the following  links to download the PowerPoint for my presentation “Fantasies of History: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Synthesis of the Historical Fantasy Novel” at MythCon 2014. I presented at 5:00 pm Sunday, August 1oth at Wheaton College, Norton, MA.

Fantasies of History Presentation PDF

Fantasies of History Presentation PPT

Fantasies of History Presentation PPSX

Fantasies of History Presentation PPTX

Love & Sleep by John Crowley

Love and Sleep by John CrowleyThe sequel to John Crowley’s Aegypt (The Solitudes), Love & Sleep continues the story of Pierce Moffet’s quest to write his history of histories, a book that in which he will propose that there is more than one history of the world.

He must decide what to do with the posthumous, unfinished manuscript of historical novelist Fellowes Kraft. The novel still sits at the famed writer’s office desk, a book that Pierce believes his entire past has prepared him to find.

I feel that my labour over the last several years has prepared me to read Crowley’s Love & Sleep. Researching the philosopher Giordano Bruno and studying the life of John Dee for my historical novel Intelligence has given me the tools I need to appreciate Crowley’s series in a way I would not have otherwise. It is like Pierce and I are mirrors of each other. I can only hope to impart some of my awe-inspired appreciation of this novel’s beauty to my readers.

Alchemical allegory

Alchemical allegory

If you are looking for an Appalachian novel (that’s right, there are hillbillies) that includes not only a parallel story set in England during Elizabethan age, but also an account of small town life during the 1970s New Age movement, and, among other antique delights, an alchemist’s  allegorical romance, then you have no other choice than to read Love & Sleep, because there is no other novel that offers those elements in conjunction, trust me.

In 1952, when he is still a boy, Pierce accidentally sets a forest on fire while burning a trash heap at his uncle’s house. This fire links his life to that of a mountain girl, who he comes to shelter from her abusive mother, their babysitter for the summer. With his cousins, he makes a secret club called  the Invisible College, which swears to protect her. By the end of the summer, Pierce loses his innocence and makes the fall towards adulthood.

Switch around the numbers of this fateful year buried deep in Pierce’s past, and you get 1592, the year the Inquisition arrested the heretic Giordano Bruno in Venice.

appalachia

Suddenly the story switches from the past to the historical past, and we see, as if from an excerpt of Fellowes Kraft’s masterpiece, Giordano Bruno, the philosopher who wishes to announce a new age of the earth, arriving at the Elizabethan court during the 80s–the 1580s, that is.

Thrown out of Oxford as a lecturer for his controversial  Copernican ideas, which not only postulate the sun as center of the solar system, but imply there is no center of the universe itself, Bruno seems destined to meet the other great polymath of the age, John Dee. Sworn to an occult quest with his companion Edward Kelley, Dee comes under the spell of the angel Madimi, who appears as a seven-year-old girl to Kelley, his scrier, in a seeing-stone. Their devotion to finding out the secrets of the universe from the angels will take them to Prague, and the Holy Roman Emperor Emperor Rudolph II’s court, where an ailing Emperor is searching for the Work.

In the 1970s, the adult Pierce is without driver’s license, labouring to compile a book for his agent. It will tell the history of histories, arguing that the world has not always been what it has since become. History can be divided into cycles, where different ideas and philosophies of defining reality come and eventually go, in sudden paradigm shifts that leave those in the present looking back wondering. In the new age, the future is different too and the past is no longer the same past. The late sixteenth century, a time of religious strife and warfare and desperate uncertainty, was one age of transition, an time that saw the abandoning of magical ways of thinking and the rise modern science. Though gemstones and amulets in the old world may have been able to cure sickness or even sink the Spanish Armada, in this world, the world we live in, their powers are lost.

The 1970s is another age of transition. Modernity finds itself struggling with its own liberation from the past. All the presumably dubious developments of the New Age movement–climacterics, astrology, miracle cures, auras–find a fresh popularity. However, this New Age is not new in any sense, for these alternative sciences were standard fare in the Renaissance.

While Pierce labours under the debilitating pall of melancholy, a medieval disease afflicting academics, in the picturesque New York State town of Blackbury Jambs, old Boney Rasmussen is after the secret for immortal life. Kraft’s only real friend, Boney is obsessed with using the resources of the Rasmussen Foundation to locate an object of exceptional value. A Holy Grail, a Philosopher’s Stone of sorts, it is also, perhaps, the one thing Pierce needs in order to tie his project together: an object that has maintained its magical virtue from the passing of one age to the other. It could be a powder, a crystal, a stone, a liquid–anything. But it could be anywhere–or everywhere.

Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno

While the premise of Love & Sleep sounds like it appeals to those interested in yet another Illuminati thriller of the Dan Brown tradition, Crowley’s mastery as a novelist sets him in a higher sphere. I rank him among the great literary novelists. His style is so rich and multi-layered, every scene and image finding layers of allegorical or symbolic meaning whether through coincidence, conjunction, or parallels with the sixteenth century, that you cannot read Love & Sleep fast, but contemplatively, tasting the implications of each sentence.

Life moves in the quiet rhythms of rural life. Any big, celestial revelations which mark the shocking but cheap ends of scenes in The DaVinci Code do not draw cries of exclamation in Love & Sleep, so much as produce smooth ripples on the surface. Crowley’s style is fluid, the dialogue realistic; how he captures the stilted feel of real conversations is a magic in itself. I cannot fathom his process of plotting these books or how he plans them at all, but somehow, every note is there, each scene a verse of poetry.

I find myself nodding in recognition at all the things the characters notice in their world, things as ordinary as the pink bubblegum medicine Rosie Rasmussen gives her daughter Sam to cure her earache and the joy of what it’s like to sit in bed and pull down an encyclopedia on magical phenomena to read an entry on werewolves. Pierce takes such a book down when he was young, called A Dictionary of Deities, Devils and Daemons of Mankind, by Alexis Payne de St.-Phalle. (Whose name, by the way, is hilarious.) For me, this book was The Sorcerer’s Companion: A Guide to the Magical Worlds of Harry Potter. While the latter book led me to an interest in the Philosopher’s Stone, and then eventually to my novel Intelligence, Pierce’s Dictionary leads him to discover the land of Aegypt. And I think that John Crowley’s Aegypt sequence will form the inspiration for my Master’s thesis.

Love & Sleep is impossible to faithfully sum up in so short a space, but I have done the best I can to explain how astonishing it is. It goes far beyond typical historical fantasy, into the realms of magic realism and literary fiction, yet it never drops the ball on historical fantasy. Aegypt shows how ‘Fallen’ modern humanity can nonetheless glimpse another world that once existed, a world entirely separate from our own shopping mall-ridden, consumerist, parking lot-favouring, entertaining-ourselves-to-death, hyperreal, media-saturated society, a world that was just as much of a fluke as ours is today, to gently paraphrase Brian Attebery. John Crowley weaves a story that stands apart from every other novel I know, accomplishing what many writers of the fantastic have only attempted to do: he shows the mythic resonances of our own twenty-first century lives.

John Crowley

John Crowley

Picture Credits:

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Appalachia: http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2010/09/08/appalachian/

Allegory: http://www.eapoe.org/pstudies/ps1970/p1972101.htm

Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje

Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje

Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje

Before jazz became what it is today, before it was mainstream, Buddy Bolden blew his cornet in the streets of New Orleans. No recording of his music survives. A famous musician in his time, his genius and the threat of vanishing into silence tormented him. The quest Michael Ondaatje undertook in 1976 to discover the genius of this unheard-of jazz legend involved meticulous historical research, but also–inevitably–a certain amount of fantasy. The result is a novel that runs like a dream sequence, filled with erotic moments that are violent, frenzied, and at other times, romantic.

By erotic, I mean the entire novel is a slow uncovering. Every sentence has a perceptive, tender, yet improvised quality. You might know Ondaatje as the author of The English Patient, which was turned a movie. Written nearly twenty years before The English Patient, Coming Through Slaughter is the novel of a more rogue Ondaatje, who helped, along with other poets such as Robert Kroetsch, develop the literary movement of postmodernism in Canada.

You might say Coming Through Slaughter is jazz. I have already mentioned its improvised quality. This is not, however, a novel printed off a first draft, but a meticulously crafted set of poetic scenes. You should expect nothing less from Ondaatje, whose reputation as one of Canada’s greatest writers is an acknowledged fact. I tried to catch Ondaatje committing the poetic treason of writing a single cliché, but I failed to locate even one. Every phrase he says is original. Both Ondaatje and Bolden’s art is the result of a genius instinct.

Buddy Bolden’s quarter of New Orleans, Storyville, “had some 2000 prostitutes, seventy professional gamblers, and thirty piano players.” His jazz synthesizes all the sounds around this lively area of town, where he works in a barber shop by day and plays sweet jazz by night. In a similar way, Ondaatje’s prose-poetry seems to be taken directly from life–from its most tender, private moments, and its most public, eccentric displays of passion.

But how can Ondaatje write so much about Buddy Bolden given the lack of historical records about his music? Necessity compels him to create a partly fictitious character out of Bolden–though perhaps not as fictitious as Count Almasy in The English Patient. Ondaatje caused some controversy with his best-known work of historical fiction, for depicting the character of the count, who really existed, in ways that clearly went against historical evidence. Guy Gavriel Kay discusses the topic of historical characters being used in works of fiction at some length in “Home and Away.” Some poetic invention of the past is necessary in order to create the stories we treasure as a society and a nation. England would not have Shakespeare’s Richard III, Kay paraphrases Ondaatje as saying, if not for poetic license with historical characters. I would add that Canada would never have Ondaatje, if a certain amount of historical fantasy were impossible to ‘get away’ with.

Bolden becomes Ondaatje’s vehicle to explore his ideal of poetic genius, which he found in the figure of the outlaw, or the artist ‘on the edge’. Going outside the novel for a minute, I would like to quote a passage from “White Dwarfs,” a poem by Ondaatje that expressed his perfect hero: “Why do I like most / among my heroes those / that sail to that perfect edge / where there is no social fuel?” Ondaatje is fascinated by the outlaw, especially in his early work (see The Collected Works of Billy the Kid), and Bolden, while not a criminal precisely, is still on the edge, a lonely figure. He must come through slaughter–encounter mortality and his own imperfection–to reach that perfect edge, where beyond there is only silence.

Trapped in relationships with two different women, Bolden runs away from his wife, but later returns home, a changed man–more quiet, not his gossipy old self. But the silence is only a buildup to the defining moment of his history as an artist. He blows his cornet in a parade down a New Orleans street and, after a moment of musical ecstasy, loses his mind, vanishing among the stars.

Just as the poem “White Dwarfs” proposes that the meaning of language is found in silence, so is the significance of Bolden’s life found in his silence–the absence of his music. This blankness enables Ondaatje–along with his reader–to search for Bolden’s music, if such an ephemeral thing as music can ever truly be found, or artistic perfection ever attained.

Just as jazz is all about the silences you leave between the notes, so is Coming Through Slaughter all about the absence of Bolden. It is even about the physical white space on the page. Each scene is followed by white space, where, if we linger, we are left to imagine the untold. White space becomes the perfect mirror onto which we project our own fantasies of what Bolden and the other characters do between scenes. On one particular page, only the lyrics to a song, or poem appear: “Passing wet chicory that lies in the field like the sky” (57). And that is all we need.

Ondaatje dares to go places other authors don’t ever go. His tale of Bolden’s life and death confirms his interest in transgression. Bolden’s story is like that of Icarus: he flew too high, too close to the sun where no one could catch him, on the wings of his own genius, and plummeted to his slaughter in the ocean. And like Doctor Faustus, Bolden even made a deal with the devil, according to his Christian critics: he dared to mix sacred hymns with blues, a music very earthly and secular. What came out of that has become to be known as “jazz.”

Ondaatje finds a wholly original way to express this Icaro-Faustian transgression: Bolden was always so short, he writes, that he couldn’t reach the blades of the fan in his barber shop. But later, after his fall, the following passage appears alone with itself on a page: “Bolden’s hand going up into the air / in agony. His brain driving it up into the path of the circling fan. / The last movement happens forever and ever in his memory” (138). Bolden’s artistic pride has caused him to reach out so far that he hurts himself, like he would if his fingers struck the blades of a fan.

I must now mourn Buddy Bolden using the words Christopher Marlowe’s chorus used to mourn Doctor Faustus at the end of his famous play: “cut is the branch that would have grown full straight / and burnèd is Apollo’s laurel bow.” Transgression is the only way to achieve artistic innovation, yet there is always a price to pay for it.

Buddy Bolden in William Cornish's band. Bolden is the cornet player in the top row, second from the left, just above Brock Mumford on guitar.

Buddy Bolden in William Cornish’s band. Bolden is the cornet player in the top row, second from the left, just above Brock Mumford on guitar.

I think Coming Through Slaughter makes excellent reading, especially if you are on a bus heading to a Jazz Festival concert in downtown Montreal. You can also read it before attending a summer festival in your hometown. Even if you don’t like jazz, if you are an artist, or appreciative of good art, then this novel is worth a read. All art deals with blank space, whether poetry, music, painting, sculpture, or even architecture. For the historical fantasy novelist, blanks spaces that show up in the historical record are also the perfect place to stage a work of imaginative, even fantastic, fiction. In a way, this is what Ondaatje does in Coming Through Slaughter.

Which is why I leave you off, with this proposal: in addition to being antithetical, anti-real, and even heretical, historical fantasy, as we may see it through the lens of Michael Ondaatje’s oeuvre, is also jazz. The two syncopated rhythms of realistic history and fantastic mythology–one a linear, regular, pattern, the other free-flying and circular–give historical fantasy an edge. And nowhere is this phenomenon better explored than in Coming Through Slaughter.

Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje

Photo Credits:

Ondaatje: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michael_Ondaatje_Tulane_Lecturn_2010.jpg

Bolden band: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddy_Bolden