Thursday, December 22, 2011

In Pursuit of Leviathan

I have come in my old age to be dissatisfied with the flimsiness of the contemporary fantasy novel. Not all are superficial or insubstantial, I know, but still it is rare that I come across something I can sink really my teeth into. Perhaps I am over-critical; perhaps years of reading mathematics and metaphysics have merely wound my brain too tight, so that anything not taxing is positively boring. However this may be, whenever I stand in need of something that offers what I look for in fantasy but that satisfies my need for the rich and the sublime, I turn to the nineteenth century. And foremost among the works of gothic imagination that attract me as fantasies do is Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Sometimes I amuse myself by tring to pinpoint what it is in Moby-Dick that draws me as Dune or Titus Groan do. The "fantastic" material elements—the improbability of the adventure, the omens and soothsayers, the sentience of the whale—are all somewhat beside the point. The book itself is the doorway to a complete and self-contained world—the world of the primordial ocean—and the reader loses himself in it. The opening scenes in Bedford play the role of an induction, like the finding of the wardrobe or the arrival of the hippogriff. The sailors don’t merely move across the sea as across a backdrop: they become part of it, the lovers and foes coequal of Leviathan. The Pequod, too, that tiny island in the midst of the featureless face of the waters, lorded over by Ahab its sultan, is itself a character and a potent force, like Arrakis or Gormenghast Castle.
You may have seen many a quaint craft in your day, for aught I know;—square-toed luggers; mountainous Japanese junks; butter-box galliots, and what not; but take my word for it, you never saw such a rare old craft as this same rare old Pequod. She was a ship of the old school, rather small if anything; with an old-fashioned claw-footed look about her. Long seasoned and weather-stained in the typhoons and calms of all four oceans, her old hull's complexion was darkened like a French grenadier's, who has alike fought in Egypt and Siberia. Her venerable bows looked bearded. Her masts—cut somewhere on the coast of Japan, where her original ones were lost overboard in a gale—her masts stood stiffly up like the spines of the three old kings of Cologne. Her ancient decks were worn and wrinkled, like the pilgrim-worshipped flag-stone in Canterbury Cathedral where Becket bled. But to all these her old antiquities, were added new and marvellous features, pertaining to the wild business that for more than half a century she had followed… She was apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory. She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies. All round, her unpanelled, open bulwarks were garnished like one continuous jaw, with the long sharp teeth of the sperm whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to. Those thews ran not through base blocks of land wood, but deftly travelled over sheaves of sea-ivory. Scorning a turnstile wheel at her reverend helm, she sported there a tiller; and that tiller was in one mass, curiously carved from the long narrow lower jaw of her hereditary foe. The helmsman who steered by that tiller in a tempest, felt like the Tartar, when he holds back his fiery steed by clutching its jaw. A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.
In Moby-Dick Melville seeks to communicate the fiery vision of a nature pregnant with the utter absence of God. This vision is couched in the very language and imagery of the King James Bible. The affective structure of the work and its stylistic elements transform the gothic vision of nature into a living, breathing reality that can be touched and communed with. The sought-for whale is itself the personification of the brutal unconcern of the cosmos with aught that is human, and its very whiteness is a living force and symbol of impenetrable mystery.
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour; and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues—every stately or lovely emblazoning—the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colourless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge—pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear coloured and colouring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?
And so I delight in Moby-Dick as I do in few fantasies, but for the same reasons that I enjoy the greatest fantasies. I revel in its grotesqueries and "digressions." I wander in it like a lost soul in Faërie, wondering at all that I see, drinking in the sentences and symbols like heady wine.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Cosmos

"The universe, an expanding three-sphere, is almost a projective space, the almost being a euphemism for a certain quantum effect. Each locality consists of two parallel leaves, cosmic antipodes to one another. The leaves are nearly identical, having diverged only through the uncertainty principle, with the exception of the sublunary sphere. There is a weak gravitational pairing between leaves, one body creating a sink in the other, and so gravitating bodies are held together, each in its respective leaf. Paired with the earth (Tellus) is the counter-earth (Antellus) at the opposite end of the universe. At the center of the universe is the sacred flame imperishable, as in the Pythagorean system. The translunary universe is self-paired identically in a large-scale sense. The sublunary divergence occurred in primeval times during the Paleozoic Era, when the demiurgic spirits of the air fought a destructive war amongst themselves and a tithe were banished to Antellus. This is a symbol for the independence of terrestrial life, and particularly rational choice, from physical exigencies."

from Notes on Antellus

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fantasy and Knowledge

Some people get all tied in knots about the fact that what might have been realism to our progenitors is now fantasy to us, because we no longer believe in supernatural things. But this is nonsense. What is science to one culture may seem magic to another (as Arthur C. Clarke pointed out), but this only goes to show that the presence of "magic" in a fictional work doesn’t suffice to make it a fantasy. On the other hand, a work of non-fantasy doesn’t suddenly become fantasy just because we learn a few extra facts.

It may be that the Odyssey affects us differently than it did the Greeks—I happen to doubt it, but who knows?—but, if so, this is not primarily a difference in belief. Modern readers of "taproot texts" have a tendency to see any ancient text as "the Bible" of whomever. Personally, I think that the way the Greeks heard the story of Polyphemus is probably closer to our reading of a modern fantasy novel than to the Hebrews' belief in the giving of the Law on Horeb. In fact, belief is a major limitation in story-telling (and not necessarily a bad one). The Puritans believed in witches, but they didn’t make up fantasies about them.

Further, I would argue that what matters is not extrinsic impossibility, but presentation. I can read The War of the Worlds or Thuvia, Maid of Mars or The Martian Chronicles or Out of the Silent Planet with the same pleasure with which the first readers did, despite the findings of space exploration, because I accept the possibility of undiscovered Martian life-forms at the outset when I submit to be worked upon by the book. In just the same way, an old fantasy about something assumed at the time to be impossible, which we now know to be possible, could be read with exactly the same pleasure; we accept the impossibility by accepting the tokens given us by the writer. Possibility or impossibility doesn't matter. What matters is the inner structure. This is what sets The Lord of the Rings or Titus Groan apart from (say) One Hundred Years of Solitude. The latter contains no internal impossibilities in its presentation to the reader.

Impossible Worlds

Most definitions of fantasy involve the supernatural or the impossible. A typical example can be found in Manlove’s Modern Fantasy. He there defines fantasy as
…a fiction evoking wonder and containing a substantial and irreducible element of supernatural or impossible worlds, beings or objects with which the mortal characters or the readers of the story become on at least partly familiar terms.
I think that this is a good definition as far as it goes. It dwells on material elements, but then, the definition of any art-form necessarily does. For instance, a painting is an arrangement of pigments on a plane surface. It’s our idea of what sort of beauty painting aims at that allows us to argue whether a particular piece is or isn't good. Still, when I come to consider what sort of beauty fantasy aims at, I wonder if Manlove's definition doesn’t miss the point after all. A painting without ground or pigments can't very well be conceived. But can we conceive of a fantasy without "supernatural or impossible worlds," etc.? Perhaps so, in a way. Certainly some existing fantasies come very close, e.g., Titus Groan, as Manlove concedes. And it is easy to think of books that involve the elements Manlove lists but that are almost universally recognized as being something other than fantasy.

What is crucial, I think, is not the possibility or impossibility of the world, but the way the world is presented. It’s just that "impossible" worlds lend themselves to this sort of holistic presentation. The crumbling castle-world of Gormenghast is a well-considered, closed system, and its denizens are woven into its very fabric. The same is true of Middle-Earth, Perelandra, Narnia, Tormance, Earthsea, and Arrakis. Perhaps this interdependence of inhabitants and environment is what makes fantasy fantasy.

Gary Wolfe, in "The Encounter with Fantasy," argues that it is a mistake to regard fantasy merely as the fictional presentation of the supernatural or the impossible, or even as fiction that "evokes wonder"—the latter being a subjective criterion that allows for no bad fantasies. Wolfe suggests that the overall affective structure is what makes fantasy fantasy. For fantasy has both a cognitive and an affective aspect. The latter may be a little difficult to get our hands on, but it is nevertheless an objective element.

Wolfe goes on to note that the most successful fantasies overlie an objective set of beliefs held by the author. One has the Christian Platonism of Lewis, for instance, or the Catholicism of Tolkien, or the Taoism of Le Guin, or the anti-Aestheticism of Lindsay, or the quasi-Nietzschean paganism of Eddison. However, these beliefs are subordinate to the final form of the work as a work of fantasy, and one need not share them to enjoy the work in question.
Fantasy indeed tries to set us free by making us captive to belief, but since the kind of belief that is peculiar to fantasy arises as much from affect as from cognition, it is not necessary for us to share an author's philosophies or beliefs that are external to the work for us to accept and "believe in" their embodiment in the narrative… Fantasy authors who are most successful at creating his kind of belief attempt neither to allegorize their own systems of belief nor to subordinate those systems to sensation. Instead, they achieve a balanced tension—perhaps more properly a dialectic—between cognition and affect, between moralism and passion, between the impossible and the inevitable. They do not merely construct metaphors for a preconceived reality, or if they do, the power of the metaphors is apt to transform the nature of those preconceptions into something new.
The focus on material elements such as elves and imaginary countries is what leads to all the delightful hair-splitting one finds in wikipedia articles on the subject, arguments about which category such-and-such a book really fits into based on the presence of this or that element. It is all quite beside the point apart from the purely commercial point of view. Books like Dune or The Time Machine should be classed with books like The Lord of the Rings or A Voyage to Arcturus or the Earthsea trilogy. If they aren’t, then the lines need to be redrawn.

Friday, December 9, 2011


When I was in junior high, one of my favorite authors was Edgar Allen Poe. My parents’ copy of Poe’s collected works found a semi-permanent home in my already overstuffed backpack. (It wouldn’t have fit in my locker, which was generally filled from bottom to top with rubbish, articles of clothing, overdue library books, rotting food, and old newspapers.) I was at the time slowly becoming the morbid, hypersensitive insect I am today—junior high will do that to aspies—and Poe’s weirder stories were just my kind of thing.

Poe was my first introduction to poetry, and my favorite poem of his was "Dream-Land." It is full of sublime romantic imagery and has a simple, hypnotic rhythm. I read it over and over until I had it memorized.
Bottomless vales and boundless floods,
And chasms, and caves, and Titan woods,
With forms that no man can discover
For the tears that drip all over;
Mountains toppling evermore
Into seas without a shore;
Seas that restlessly aspire,
Surging, unto skies of fire;
Lakes that endlessly outspread
Their lone waters—lone and dead,—
Their still waters—still and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily.
By the lakes that thus outspread
Their lone waters, lone and dead,—
Their sad waters, sad and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily,—
By the mountains—near the river
Murmuring lowly, murmuring ever,—
By the grey woods,—by the swamp
Where the toad and the newt encamp—
By the dismal tarns and pools
           Where dwell the Ghouls,—
Later on, when I was fourteen, I discovered H. P. Lovecraft. I approached Lovecraft through his older weird tales and Dunsanian fantasy, and the first piece I read was "The Nameless City." It was in an anthology of old fantasy short stories together with Dunsany’s "The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth" and Howard’s "The Tower of the Elephant." All three stuck in my head for years like darkly glimmering gems. Lovecraft was the one I went back to first, but it wasn’t until college that I came across his Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which recounts the adventures of a sleeper in the Dreamlands (a real, self-existent world entered through the portal of sleep). In it I found someone else who had been touched by Poe’s "Dream-Land."

Critics and fans have put forth various older works as possible inspirations for Dream-Quest, but I haven’t come across any discussion of "Dream-Land." (Not that I’ve looked too hard.) To me the connection seems obvious, though. Lovecraft admired Poe and emulated him in some of his stories. The poem in question opens in speaking of "an Eidolon, named NIGHT" who "on a black throne reigns upright," while Lovecraft’s atheistic pantheon (the connecting link between his Dunsanian stories and Cthulu stories) is ruled over by gods of Chaos. The settings and general tenor of the novelette reflect those of the poem. And, if that were not enough, they both involve ghouls.

“Dream-Land” is still one of my favorite poems, although my enjoyment of it is a little guilty, as I now perceive that it isn’t as good as I once thought it was. Its mood is an inspiration in my writing; I read it when I wish to hit a certain key. On the other hand, Dream-Quest is too insubstantial for my taste. It is all mood and affect, the sort of thing that gave Lin Carter shivers of delight. To me it’s like frosting, which is tasty and good, but tends to make you sick if you eat a lot of it without some solid cake underneath. The short story was definitely Lovecraft’s proper medium. Still, I like Dream-Quest better than much of what Dunsany wrote, and it reminds me a little of Phantastes, another "dream-quest" I happen to be fond of.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Literary Fantasy and Ecological Comedy

I’ve never formally studied literature and I'm not terribly wide-read. My way is to find a vein of metal that appeals to me and mine it for all it's worth. Also, I approach fantasy as a writer, not as a critic; one belongs to the sphere of making, the other to the sphere of knowing. But I do like to read critical theory from time to time, to give myself some perspective if nothing else.

Right now I have a copy of Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader, courtesy of the county library’s ILL program. One excerpt I've particularly enjoyed is Don Elgin’s "Literary Fantasy and Ecological Comedy." Ordinarily, theories of eco- this and ethno- that and Marxist so-and-so turn me off. But any theory of fantasy for which Frank Herbert falls naturally into place beside Tolkien and Lewis is sure of piquing my interest. The piece doesn’t quarry works for evidence of ecological awareness or supposed eco-symbolism or anything like that. Rather, it probes the ways in which fantasy expresses a certain attitude toward man's complex relationship with his environment.

Elgin describes two fundamental views of man's place in nature. The first, the tragic, sees man in opposition to his environment, its user and its ruler. The second, the comic, sees man as one dependent part of a complex whole. The first Elgin associates with the purely "literary" or experimental novel, now in a state of effete exhaustion (reflected in the destruction of nature), and the second with fantasy. He sees these as the two basic types of novel in the world today, and avers that it is through the latter, however "disreputable," that mankind will find his way forward.*
Comedy has been the somewhat embarrassingly omnipresent, somewhat disreputable black sheep of the literary family. And within the comic tradition lie the basic traditions of sound ecological practices. When combined with ideas inherent in the romantic tradition of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the result has been the production of a new kind of novel, the fantasy novel. And, because of this merging of form and theme, the fantasy novel has become one of the two major strains that the novel as a genre will be taking in the coming years. This does not guarantee the continued existence of the novel or of humanity, but it does offer to both the promise and opportunity to take the wandering, unknown road of which Bilbo sings. And it offers to both the opportunity to go beyond the tragic ideal, with all the horrors which its abstractions have brought to western humanity… [L]iterature, especially the fantasy novel, offers humanity a way to reintegrate itself into the natural world and, in so doing, invites a new relationship between itself, its fellow creatures, and the science and literature that mirror that world.
Tolkien’s novels are held up as the prime example. It strikes me that what Elgin writes concerning the end of the Third Age and the farewell to the tragic attitude there symbolized dovetails with Tolkien’s own view (expressed in his letters) of the "sin" of the Elves in wishing to keep the world static, which is what caused them to fall under Sauron’s power through the Three.

One reason I resonate with the essay is that there's always been an acutely painful tension in my relationship to the world around me. I've described this in some of my earlier posts; perhaps it's related to my autism disorder. At any rate, my attempt at novel-writing is tied to my attempt to reconcile myself to my ambient reality, to the brutally innocent world of nature as well as to the rape of that world by the society of which I am part. Books like Dune and The Lord of the Rings and Titus Groan attract me because of the role of the secondary world in each.

On a final note, I don’t know that I agree with Elgin's statements (cited from other sources) about the role of western religion in the tragic view. The attitudes there crudely ascribed to traditional Christianity regarding man's place in nature are actually held to have been consequences of the Fall, not of Creation. Man was to hold dominion over the earth, it is true, but we are told that all that was made was good, and that the mutual antagonism came after the expulsion from Eden. Seeing man as the pinnacle of creation is not the same as seeing him as nature’s tyrant.** No, I don't think it is necessary to look beyond post-medieval Europe for the causes of our present situation, and it strikes me that the holistic views espoused by Elgin are profoundly Thomistic. It is Tolkien’s inherited philosophy that gives his work so many of the qualities that Elgin admires.

* For this reason and others, I think it unfortunate that some contemporary fantasy authors feel the need to adopt "experimental" poses in their fiction in order to validate it. It is against the very nature of fantasy to be experimental. "Experimentation" in fantasy always amounts to copying some technique from a "literary novel," to the detriment of both technique and fantasy. There is nothing worse than clever, self-conscious fantasy.

** And man knows that he is the pinnacle. If he were wrong in this, then he would at any rate be the only creature in all the universe capable of posing the question or being wrong.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Catharsis and the Post-Apocalyptic

A couple of posts ago, I dwelt on H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine and the fascination it exerted over my young mind. I had at that point already read and re-read the Chronicles of Narnia, and my favorite book in the series was The Magician’s Nephew. What drew me was its presentation of the dreary, dead world of Charn. (I was less interested in the Narnian creation story, and Lewis’ depiction of Aslan-Christ, Eden, and Heaven chilled my heart even when I was in elementary school.) Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men affected me in much the same way. I could multiply such examples, but these are the first works of the sort that I encountered.

I’ve thought a lot about the post-apocalyptic genre. My own writing seems ever to veer that way, whether I will or no, and our culture as a whole certainly has a fascination with the idea. Sometimes I’ve wondered if this merely represents a species of schadenfreude, a vicious enjoyment of the destruction of all man’s works and institutions, of all that is great and beautiful in the human sphere. But perhaps there is more to it than that.

When I was in high school, I happened to find a copy of The Road Warrior (a.k.a., Mad Max 2) in our town library. It is a bleak and depressing (and darkly humorous) film with hardly any dialogue. But it enthralled me at the time, and is still one of my favorite movies. The characters drive the vehicles and use the tools of our vulgar, ugly era, but these things assume new natures, new functions in a surreal, post-apocalyptic wasteland. The suppressed demons of our modern world are released from bondage (!) to confront the last vestiges of civilization, and the forces of order are utterly impotent before them. The ugliness of my surroundings and the slow slide of our society into barbarism had long troubled me—hence my flight into The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion—but seeing the goads of my torment in a post-apocalyptic light affected me in a way that I can hardly describe. It helped me to step back from my ambient reality, to assess what tormented me about it, and even to come to appreciate it for what it is in itself, to view it as something new and strange and (dare I say?) beautiful. What I experienced was like the Chestertonian fantasy described by Tolkien in his essay on fairy stories. It was an aid in Recovery.

Post-apocalyptic literature and film present our ugly surroundings and increasingly barbarous world through an inverted telescope/kaleidescope, helping us to recover, through a cathartic process, a sense of the sacred. The red sun of Charn helps us to regain the white sun of earth, and the crumbling metropolis destroyed by the Deplorable Word casts an aura of mystery over our filthy, sprawling cities. In our age of bio-engineered superviruses and nuclear arsenals, of youth riots and genocide and abortion mills, the average person lives with a certain amount of built-up tension that desperately needs release. The dramatic presentation of the demise of our civilization—be it through violent destruction or gradual extinction—releases these pent-up emotions, purging the soul.

Certainly I was conscious of these ends in writing my own novel, Antellus. Much of the story takes place in the margins and waste-places of a civilization grown senile in heat-death. A number of passages were inspired by my experience as a land-surveyor’s assistant one hot summer in a sprawling Texas city. The experience was, for me—who am, I admit, hypersensitive—harrowing. A surveyor, especially in a big city in this part of the world, spends most of his time contemplating the seamy underbelly of things. I had to begin to see beauty in ugliness if I was to cope with it. And that is what my story attempts to do: to probe the apparent absence of beauty and the sacred in the world of man and of nature, that, in the end, the reader might recover a sense of them, in part if not in whole. Whether this end is attained is another matter, of course.

An Approach to Style

"Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed and not at the expense of the work. Therefore, the first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none—that is, place yourself in the background. A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts—which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward. Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too."

—E. B. White, The Elements of Style