Folklore and Graffiti: A (Potential) Study of Spatial Tactics and Urban Fantasy (Part I)

A graffit-tagged lion guarding the gate to Chinatown, Montreal
A graffiti-tagged lion guarding the gate to Chinatown, Montreal: an example of an urban spatial tactic.

While conducting my research into urban fantasy, the subject of my SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Committee) grant proposal, I was stricken by a sudden inspiration. A few images and lines from scholarly texts united in my mind and I saw something bold in the connections. While the following essay is in no sense an exhaustive scholarly study, or even necessarily a completed lead-up to one, it does hint at what could make a promising introduction to an anthology of short stories. Perhaps there is even something of literary critical value in it as well. However, I suspect that the most this gives me is a model for thinking about urban fantasy as a creative artist, before any usefulness as a description of how urban fantasy texts actually function. I leave it to the judgment of my readers to determine if there might just be something linking street art to the urban folktale.

June 2013: Montreal street artists Fin DACx and Angelina Christina produce a mural on the corner of Notre-Dame and Côte St-Paul. The black and white mural depicts a pair of women whose hair styles are suggestive of raven feathers. Furthermore a bird’s skull—I suspect a raven’s or a crow’s—appears between them looking on at the gazer with hollow eyes. I immediately perceived the resemblance to Charles de Lint’s Crow Girls, a recurring pair of characters from his urban fantasy short stories.

The first time I spotted these Crow Girls, I was on the bus and I zoomed right by. But I had been paying attention to my surroundings and glimpsed them. It was exactly as if I were a character in de Lint’s Newford, catching a glimpse of a folkloric being in the interstices of the urban landscape. Like one of his characters, I doubted that the mural, though I had seen it distinctly, actually represented the Crow Girls. So I sent the author of Dreams Underfoot a Facebook message. He or one of his social media managers returned me an article from StreetArtNews, where the creation of the “Crow Girls” artistic project was reported (see above). Though I still did not have an explicit confirmation that the muralists intended their work to depict the Crow Girls, I was still left with the sense that they must have been familiar with de Lint’s work.

After thinking about it, I came up with the idea that de Lint’s novels are, in some respects, the literary equivalents of street art.

Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint

For those of you unfamiliar with de Lint, let me explain the general concept of his work. Charles de Lint’s works are based on what John Clute calls a crosshatch society—a place where the enchanted and magical mixes with the mundane world—and he does this by fusing urban settings and characters with mythical and folkloric figures. However, these fantastic beings are largely invisible in their urban settings, save to the bohemian, artistic protagonists of de Lint’s world who have knack for spotting them. One might often catch a glimpse of a fairy, or a Celtic god, in the margins of Ottawa, or in de Lint’s invented city of Newford, but the magical beings soon vanish. These encounters with the numinous can be moments of conflict, terror, or healing. This not only involves an encounter between states of being (the real and unreal, or the fantastic and mundane) and worldviews (traditional and scientific), but also different ways of interpreting time and space (the urban chronotope of homogenous space-time versus the folkloric/mythic chronotope of sacred, or heterogenous, space-time).

How do I connect graffiti to these crosshatched worlds? Fran Tonkis in her essay “Urban Cultures: Spatial Tactics” concerns himself with “the everyday escape routes that may be worked through the fabric of the city, ways in which spatial order can be disrupted through different modes of using and making space” (236). These spatial tactics include skateboarding and graffiti (I might also add parkour), which are practices that subvert and transform space. Strikingly, Tonkiss describes this subversion as a moment when the “mundane meets the enchanted,” a moment that enables one to think “about spatial tactics in the city,” a concept explored by Roland Barthes (241). Although I doubt Tonkiss meant enchanted in quite the same way as the magic you read about in fantasy, he is referring to a certain ‘magic’ element in how spatial tactics can change how we perceive urban space. It is easy to imagine a graceful skateboarder as unbound by gravity, for example, and in this ‘magic realist’ sense, reality itself seems to gain enchantment. The subversion and disruption of spatial order can appear as a form of enchantment, since it lets us see the city itself a fresh new way.

Another way in which we can see the city anew is through graffiti—or mural painting. Graffiti are an example of how “the everyday escapes,” though “such escape attempts are only ever partial or temporary—they slip between rather than tear apart the mesh of rational order” (242). A graffiti tag must be sprayed over, for example, a brick wall, but the brick wall is going to stay there. Tonkiss’ invocation of the interstice in his language of ‘slipping between’ made me think of Charles de Lint’s homeless Celtic gods in Forests of the Heart, who live in the ‘in between places’ or interstices of reality just as the homeless do. Since urban fantasies set in an actual North American city cannot enchant the entire city with a magical veneer without causing some cognitive dissonance on the part of the reader, the enchantment must happen within the city—even outside of conventional views of it. This is what may make Ottawa-native readers of de Lint fantasize that Celtic gods might be living in their own city without actually seeing them; maybe such readers have simply not looked carefully enough to see them. This also strikingly calls to mind how no one likes to gaze for too long at the homeless; homeless people are as ‘invisible’ as gods.

But the thing about graffiti is that they do interrupt, however briefly, the urban rational order. A form of political and territorial inscribing upon the the city, it asserts identity, “the simple statement that says ‘I am here.’” (243). Furthermore, “these assertions of presence by an author who has got away transform blank spaces into the scene of a crime” (243). Graffiti are illegal because they ‘deface’ public and private property, a crime. This is not to say, however, that it can be beautiful, or even, on occasion, fully legal and commissioned. The ‘Crow Girls’ urban art on St. Urbain is such an example of a legal enchantment of city space, although it loses its subversiveness since it was a legal act. However, continuing the analogy with urban fantasy, writing a magical being into an urban setting does breach a law—the law of ‘consensus reality,’ which is constituted by Cartesian, scientific principles, not only of ontology but of space itself. This hegemonic “rational order” found in the city is controlled by the hegemonic discourses that define our reality, a model we all give our consent towards by force of habit (242). As Bramley Dapple in “Uncle Dobbin’s Parrot Fair” declares, “we live in a consensual reality where things exist because we want them to exist. […] Yet if you were to listen to the world at large, Goon [Dapple’ gnome companion] is nothing more than a figment of some fevered writer’s imagination—a literary construct, an artistic representation of something that can’t possibly exist in the world as we know it” (Dreams Underfoot 24).

There is a great potential in urban fantasy to subvert this order, to break the rational laws of reality just as graffiti breaks the laws of the city. In fact, I could say so much on this topic that this would be a large blog post indeed. As such, I will continue these thoughts next week and given the reader a chance to gestate what I have said so far.

Next week, I will continue my thoughts on the political implications of this hegemonic rational order which is otherwise commonly called “consensus reality.” In the meanwhile, I must work on my SSHRC application!

Mural on St. Laurent Boulvd., Montreal. What if this strange hybrid creature came alive?
Mural on St. Laurent Blvd., Montreal. What if this strange hybrid creature came alive?

Works Cited:

Charles de Lint. Dreams Underfoot. New York: Tor, 1993.

StreetArtNews (http://www.streetartnews.net/2013/06/fin-dac-x-angelina-christina-new-mural_28.html)

Tonkis, Fran. “Urban Cultures: Spatial Tactics.” Urban Culture: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. Ed. Chris Jenks. Vols. 1-IV. London: Routledge, 2004.

Photo Credits:

Charles de Lint: author website.

Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Mystical Vision of the Franklin Expedition in “Terror and Erebus”

Wanted: the Franklin Expedition
Wanted: the Franklin Expedition

Canada has been celebrating the discovery of Captain Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated ship, the Erebus, since early September. Along with the Terror, captained by Francis Crozier, this ship carried Franklin and his crew on their fatal quest for the Northwest Passage, which lasted three years (1845-1848). For most of that time, Franklin was stranded, a prisoner of the arctic ice. When finally his ships sank, the crew was forced to go overland on foot. They all eventually met their end, through cold and starvation.

This latest–and first successful–search for Franklin’s Lost Expedition was the last of six made since 2008, according to Tom Spears from Postmedia (“Shipwreck”). But many other expeditions to recover the ships were undertaken during the twentieth and nineteenth centuries–including that of Knud Rasmussen who visited the region from 1921-1924. He was also the first European to cross the Passage by dogsled.

So, you may ask, What does all this have to do with a mythopoeic Canadian poet who was active during the ’60s and ’70s and is now regrettably out-of-print?

Gwendolyn MacEwen’s volume of poetry Afterworlds contains a narrative long poem based on Rasmussen’s search for the Franklin Expedition, entitled “Terror and Erebus.” It takes the form of a fictional dialogue between Rasmussen and Franklin, the historical past conversing–or failing to converse–with the narrative present. Rasmussen follows the explorer through the same unforgiving landscape, his only advantage being the comforts of more advanced technology. Decades and Franklin’s watery grave separate them from each other, but the present nonetheless strives to connect to the past.

MacEwen also deals with history in King of Egypt, King of Dreams, The T.E. Lawrence Poems, and, to a lesser extent, Julian the Magician. “Terror and Erebus” is a fusion of history and fantasy–that is to say, her own mystical reflections projected onto the past. She balances her historical, documentary subject matter with her impeccable poetic sensibility. The Arctic landscape becomes a wasteland where the self loses itself, faced with the harshness of the cosmos. These are some, at times, terrifying verses. The staggered lines recall the jagged fjords of ice that Captain Franklin would have had to traverse on his miserable voyage, his existential journey. Now, with the discovery of the Terror, it is a timely moment to reflect on Franklin’s terror at finding himself in this frigid, blank landscape.

Erebus and Terror
Erebus and Terror

MacEwen’s long poem opens with the following mood-setting lines:

Rasmussen:

King William Island . . . latitude unmentionable.

But I’m not the first here.

They preceded me, they marked the way

   ………………. .with bones

White as this ice is, whiter maybe,

The white of death,

    ………………. .of purity” (41).

Rasmussen attempts to interpret the signs that mark the trail of the expedition. He has the impression that Franklin “created the Passage / By willing it to be” (42). Furthermore, Franklin’s quest is interpreted as his search for “a passage from imagination to reality” (42). In this respect, “Terror and Erebus” explores the dividing line between reality and fantasy in way that can be compared to Julian’s illusion-spinning in Julian the Magician.

Franklin responds to Rasmussen, or at least it seems that way. His voice never really does reach Rasmussen, although the reader can see how Franklin ‘responds’ to Rasmussen’s speech, in a way. “I brought them here, a hundred and twenty-nine men, / Led them into this bottleneck, / This white asylum,” remarks Franklin. “My ships, the Terror, the Erebus / Are learning the meaning of their / names” (43). Erebus is a personification of darkness, a god born from Chaos in Greek mythology. The irony of the ship’s name is appropriate; the ship is surrounded desperately by endless white, but the history Rasmussen is trying to unravel is full of darkness.

MacEwen’s interests in dualities, psychology, and archetypes appear throughout the poem, adding depth to the existential situation in which Franklin and Rasmussen both find themselves alone. Although Franklin did not necessarily think these thoughts, they are all a part of the poet’s reflection on his subjection to the landscape. Franklin asks the captain of the Terror:

“Crozier, what laws govern

This final tug of war

between life and death,

the human polarities?

………………. . The ice

Is its own argument” (46).

After a harsh winter, Franklin abandons his ships struck in an ice flow that is “drifting south / Itself, like a ship” (47). He does so “in a kind of horrible birth, / a forced expulsion / From those two wombs” (47). Later, punning off Crozier’s name, which refers to a bishop’s staff containing a cross, the overland march becomes a walk towards crucifixion on Good Friday, “April 21, 1848” in the log (48).

The geography of the Arctic is alien, and the metaphysical truths Franklin believes in hold no more reality when he has sailed beyond Ultima Thule:

“Whoever said that Hell was darkness?

What fool said that light was good

………………. .and darkness evil?

In extremes all things reverse themselves” (49).

One of the most memorable images, in my reading, is of the ivory visors Rasmussen remarks upon, the kind with narrow slits that Inuit wear to keep away the snow glare. Existentially overwhelmed in the sheer vastness of the Arctic, the expedition can only protect their naked eyes with “those ridiculous / instruments / That keep the cosmos out” (50).

With no food to eat, the Franklin expedition may have resorted to cannibalism. MacEwen depicts this horrific likelihood with a series of startling images:

“the snow turns red, there are sounds

………………. .of men puking, and sounds

Of knives scraping bone.

They are eating

………………. .one of their dead” (50).

Now that the expedition has fallen so far beyond what is considered human and reasonable, Rasmussen remarks, “Now Crozier, now you’ve come / To the end of science” (52). Wishing for their salvation is futile. Crozier asks, “What magnet do I know of / That will pull us south?” (53)

Franklin’s crew were all doomed. Scarce traces of the expedition survived, though there was one cairn containing a message supposedly left behind by the survivors. Part of what enabled the 2014 expedition to finally discover the Erebus at the bottom of the sea, however, was the testimony of Inuit oral history. Rasmussen uncovers this testimony in the poem from the Inuit Qaqortingneq, who says, “I remember the day / When our fathers found a ship” (54).  The Inuit, like Rasmussen, are faced with a mystery: what to make of the strange, foreign ship they find captured in the ice floe. Unfamiliar with European technologies, “they went aboard the great ship / As though into another world / Understanding nothing” (54).

The poem concludes with a return to Rasmussen’s conviction that Franklin, though he failed to find it, was nonetheless utterly convinced of the Northwest Passage’s existence. In the end, there is a difference between this absolute certainty and the fact that we “cannot know […] where the passage lies /Between conjecture and reality” (57). Frankin had deduced that the Northwest Passage did exist, yet he died trying to find it. Certainty is not the same as discovering the reality behind that certainty. That was the tragedy of the Franklin Expedition, and it is also what makes uncovering the past so difficult–indeed, it is essentially impossible.

In our day, light has been shone onto the Erebus, the god of darkness’s ship. Our knowledge of Franklin’s tragedy will become fuller in due time. Just as Rasmussen attempts to recover the Terror and Erebus , our age can look back upon MacEwen’s “Terror and Erebus,” and her potent reflections on the sacrifices involved in exploration.

Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of "Erebus and Terror"
Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of “Erebus and Terror”

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Works Cited:

MacEwen, Gwendolyn. “Erebus and Terror.” Afterworlds. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987. 41-57.

Spears, Tom. “Shipwreck identified as Franklin’s flagship.” Montreal Gazette. 2 Oct. 2014. A2

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Photo Credits:

Poster: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franklin%27s_lost_expedition

Erebus and Terror: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Franklin

 

Ember Nights in Guy Gavriel Kay and John Crowley

tiganaLove and Sleep

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In Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana and John Crowley’s Love and Sleep,part of his Aegypt sequence, characters born with cauls are summoned in the middle of the night to walk among the dead. Kay calls these individuals Night Walkers. Their story stretches back to real-world superstitions about children born with a membrane around their heads. This rare phenomenon, according to Wikipedia, occurs in 1/80,000 births, and it was supposed to mark children for good luck and greatness.

Crowley explains in his book that in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, children born with cauls participated in nightly battles against witches and evil spirits for the renewal of the land’s fertility. This battle is depicted in Tigana when one of the main characters, Baerd, who was born in a caul, meets other Night Walkers like himself, who then fight evil spirits with swords made of cornstalks in order to restore the land blighted by the tyrant Brandin. Crowley’s Night Walker, on the other hand, is a semi-literate coal miner from the Cumberlands of Kentucky, Floyd Shaftoe. While the heroic Baerd’s fight against the undead and the rough, working-class life of Floyd seem aeons apart, their stories are similar narratives woven by two brilliant historical fantasy novelists.

Ember tides are a Catholic tradition that a young Pierce Moffet in Crowley’s novel observes. They are a series of days that introduce each season, where fasting and prayers to the souls in purgatory are encouraged. In Tigana, ember tides become the Ember Nights. To observe Ember Nights, all lights in the house except a single candle are extinguished, in order to remember the story of the Triad, the triune deity worshiped throughout the Peninsula of the Palm.

However, in the south of the Palm, there exist certain heretics who claim the Triad sprang from older gods. Some of those who kept these older beliefs are the Night Walkers who Baerd runs into, men and women who participate in a literal battle against infertility and death itself. Perhaps here Kay alludes to a more ancient, pagan past to the Catholic celebration of ember tides.

moonlight

Kay explains: “In the highlands of Certando a child born with a caul was not said to be guarded from death at sea, or naively named for fortune. It was marked for war. For this war, fought each year on the first of the Ember Nights that began the spring and so began the year. Fought in the fields and for the fields, for the not yet risen seedlings that were hope and life and the offered promise of earth renewed” (388).

Crowley’s description of Floyd Shaftoe’s relationship to the ember tides is similar. “On certain nights–it might be the night of Little Christmas, or the last night of October, or when the moon was full at midsummer, less often as he grew older and the world grew worse–Floyd Shaftoe would hear his name called, not urgently but surely, at his window as he lay asleep: and he would answer. For he was one of a band, men and women born (he supposed) with the same signs as himself; and there were as many of the others, with whom his kind contended for the health and wealth of the earth: and he could no more refuse a summons to walk out against them than he could refuse a dream or die” (103).

While both Kay and Crowley make reference to ancient traditions to explain the Ember Nights, their approaches to depicting them are different. Baerd is engaged in a heroic struggle against the tyrant sorcerer Brandin, who has cursed his homeland of Tigana. He cannot utter his country’s name to strangers due to the tyrant’s curse, and since Tigana has been laid waste and renamed Lower Corte, that curse will annihilate the nation from memory. Answering the summons to stalk around outside during the Ember nights is one way Baerd finds release.

Whereas Baerd grieves for the dead of his nation who were slain fighting Brandin, Floyd Shaftoe’s grief is simpler. “When he was twelve years old Floyd had seen his mother laid away, dead of her last child and first girl, dead too. There had been no preacher for her, no one to read or sing; his father made the box himself, and his brothers dug the grave” (103). At night, he receives a summons from his mother to walk with a great crowd of other lost souls. The dead have a look of hunger in their eyes–the hunger to live again. After returning from this purgatorial vision, Floyd sees his own body sleeping in his bed, and then returns to it, questioning whether he would be able to return if he had stayed with his mother too long.

Floyd goes on to become a Born Again Christian, realizing that the “Holy Spert” summons him on ember tide. He works in the coal mines from boyhood to middle age, through the prosperous times where he is able to buy a fridge and TV, and through the worst times, when millionaires conspire against the company he works for. As he works under the earth, stripping the mountain of its rocks and metals, he starts to farm instead.

He sees the world as divided between those who follow the “Holy Spert” and the “Devil’s fiddle,” between those who grow things from the earth and those, like miners, who take away from it. He survives off Assistance, or “Well Far,” and blames “the great devil Hoover, who had brought ruin on the country, only to be turned out in disgrace himself” (112). President Herbert Hoover takes the place of Brandin of Ygrath as ruler of the land, although Floyd does not blame Hoover for the blighting of the landscape. He comes rather to think the “old enmity” between those sapping the earth and those who try to grow things on it, “was likely just a part of nature, like the enmity fixed between owls and crows, or between the red squirrel and the grey. […] [U]nless their two kinds did battle over what would grow and what would not, then nothing at all would grow” (112).

Reclaimed mountain that had been hollowed due to coal mining. Poisons still brown the stream.
Reclaimed mountain that had been hollowed due to coal mining. Poisons still brown the stream.

John Crowley uses  magic realism to create Floyd’s world, whereas Kay frames the Ember Nights in terms of the heroic tradition of portal-quest fantasy novels. A careful subjective voice claims only that what Floyd sees as his world world is true, but in Kay’s novel, the supernatural is treated as unquestioningly part of reality itself. Though both authors come from different perspectives, both share an interest in this obscure, but fascinating tradition. Both also deal with the genre and the ideas behind historical fantasy. Crowley and Kay both see Ember Nights as an nexus effective for the blending of the fantastic with the real.

Let me propose that the fantasy novel’s structure of restoration (Clute’s four-part structure: wrongness, thinning, recognition, and healing) lends itself to stories of wars fought for the fertility of the land. The war of the Night Walkers belongs to the monomyth found in many fantasy novels and legends. A child marked for greatness is prophesied to venture on a dark road and fight vast armies to restore the land to its health.

Our real world, blasted out of innocence by two World Wars, the Nuclear Age, the Cold War, 9/11, and economic collapse, is sick. Perhaps the monomyth of restoration appeals so much to Crowley and Kay because it promises the rejuvenation of our own world. One idea behind Tigana, for example, is that Tigana represents all cultures that have been obliterated from memory or maimed by powerful tyrants: it could tell the story of Cold War East Europe, Native North America, or Ireland. The story of Baerd and the Night Walkers promises that attempts at cultural obliteration can be overcome, worlds renewed.

On the other hand, Crowley recognizes that at different historical times, such as Renaissance England or one’s childhood, the world as perceived was different than it is now. We tend to believe in myths and legends more in earlier ages than we do in later ones. Crowley’s magic realist treatment of the Ember Nights is aimed not so much to restore culture and identity, as Tigana does, but the fertility of the imagination itself, the magical dimension that underlies our daily lives. Like other modern readaptations of ancient myths, Crowley’s Love and Sleep attempts to reanimate our demythologized, strictly scientific and utilitarian cosmology. Whereas Tigana can help us see our world through a distorted mirror, Crowley proposes something more radical: that, in the coal mine mountains of Kentucky, men might live today who have, in fact, been summoned by the dead to walk with them on Ember Nights.

John Crowley
John Crowley
Me and Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay and I

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Image Credits/Works Cited:

Crowley, John. Love and Sleep. New York: Bantam, 1994.

Kay, Guy Gavriel. Tigana. Toronto: Penguin, 1992.

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Love and Sleep Cover: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_%26_Sleep

Mountain: https://www.flickr.com/

The Alchemist’s Quest

alchemyTo create the animated stone, take the juice of a Saturnine herb to extract mercury and evaporate it to get the purest earth. Join this with its like in equal weight and dissolve both with a crude metallic humor. Putrify for forty days. You may also calcine the earth with fire alone, join it with sublimatic arsenic, and it will be the greatest arcanum for human bodies.

If visions of a middle aged man in a dark robe fumbling in his laboratory to create the elixir of life appear to you when reading this alchemical recipe, then you already have a sense of the alchemist’s quest.

Immortality and infinite wealth were the boons such alchemists pursued, thinking it possible to turn base metals into gold. Although modern-day atom-smashing, particle-accelerating science has proven this technically possible on a tiny scale, early chemists such as Nicholas Flamel, Gerhard Dorn, Cornelius Agrippa, and Thomas Vaughan dreamed of attaining the impossible.

Yet for all their obvious mistakes, alchemists were pioneers. Their techniques of manipulating matter through sublimation, coagulation, putrefaction, and distillation eventually benefited early scientific chemistry. Furthermore, the philosophy of turning lead into gold–that humanity had the power to increase the quality of the world around them through their knowledge of the natural order–has remained a central motive behind many scientists.

Today I will take you into the world of the alchemists, and you can judge for yourself whether they were hacks, or spiritual idealists devoted to an old magic system.

First let me show you inside the laboratory, the best place as any to learn about the alchemist trade. The main piece of equipment was the athanor, a cylindrical furnace stove where the alchemists lit fires in order to refine lead. Inside the hollow chamber within that athanor are a series of pots placed within each other, linked to the outside via narrow tubes where substances may be poured in for experiments.  The athanor represents the womb where the Philosopher’s Stone was made. It is also the name I selected to brand my editing service.

athanor2Gerhard Dorn described four steps to the process of attaining the Stone. To attain the quintessence of matter, it was necessary to putrefy the body, decomposing all matter to a uniform blackness, purify it, then attempt to coagulate or condense the resulting spirit into a gold body. If you have any idea what that means, then I applaud you: alchemists concealed their secrets behind a web of symbolism and occult language, rather like the notation doctors use when they write subscriptions.

In order to attain the Stone of Harry Potter fame, the alchemist went through four processes using the athanor. These are called nigredo, albedo, citrinitas, and rubedo: blackness, whiteness, yellowness, and then redness, each earthly colour endowed with its own symbolism. Not only did these processes for alchemical transformation correspond to actual techniques used in a laboratory, but Carl Jung found archetypical resonances charting the progress of self-individuation within this symbolism. Whereas nigredo represents “the dark night of the soul,” albedo represents the male and female aspects of the self, citrinitas represents wisdom, and rubedo wholeness.

Once these steps had been accomplished, the alchemist made “gold.” But saying this was the only goal of the alchemist’s quest would be limiting. “Gold” was merely a symbol for attaining “God,” specifically, attaining God’s creative matter, the power of the Word, or logos, itself. In the beginning was the Word, reads John’s Gospel, and many alchemists had as their goal the discovery of this primal creative substance. It was also called prima materia.

Within all matter, this piece of God’s own substance supposedly resided, and the alchemist’s job was to penetrate the form of matter in order to reach this seed. Indeed, some alchemists believed all matter to be alive in a way reminiscent of plants. Iron, gold, copper, and other metals supposedly “grew” underground. And attaining the “sperm” of the prima materia was a way to impregnate the “womb” of matter, giving birth to new substances. A menstruum was a solvent used to reduce a substance to prima materia and was considered the mother from which all metals were derived.

Since attaining the Stone required alchemists to search into the heart of matter itself (not dissimilar to our current search for the God particle), it is no wonder that the alchemists used VITRIOL as their motto. This sulphate of iron or copper makes a powerful sulfuric acid and forms the first letters of a Latin phrase: Visita Interlarem Terrae Rectifando Ivenies Operae Lapidem. “Go down into the bowels of the Earth; by distillation, you will find the stone for the Work.”

Mandala outlining alchemical principles and the VITRIOL motto
Mandala outlining alchemical principles and the VITRIOL motto

Often venturing this deep into the mysteries required the alchemist to go “underground” in more than one sense. The quest for the Work proved too expensive to pursue for many. Many alchemists fell into debt. They were often lonely, ostracized from a society that did not understand their beliefs. Though they thought they had greater insight into the beliefs central to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, the representatives of orthodoxy would beg to disagree, claiming them to be heretics. This required alchemists to be secretive, to pass as much as possible under the noses of those who wished them evil.

Usually alchemists kept their athanor outside for ventilation, ordering clay materials from the local potter to construct their all-important furnace.  They would also require an assistant–or accomplice–to keep the bellows going, like at a smithy. They had to face dangers from the authorities and may have had to pay them to turn a blind eye to their experiments. Furthermore, there was always the risk of lead and mercury poisoning, which may have caused some of the delirium experienced by these early scientists.

alchemy2

Given the risky nature of the work–especially in terms of finances–it is not surprising that many “alchemists” were less interested in unearthing the blessed Word, but in swindling kings and dukes of their money. These charlatans would place a rock in a pan of mercury, which they stirred with a hollow stirring rod stoppered with clay at one end. After stirring the mercury and claiming the everyday rock to be the “Stone,” the mercury would evaporate and the clay melt, letting the gold powder stuffed in the stirring rod pour into the pan. From the observer’s perspective, this would seem magical. Once their sleight of hand trickery was discovered, such alchemists had to ditch town and flee the king’s men.

Treatise by Gerhard Dorn
Treatise by Gerhard Dorn

This is not, however, to imply that all who practiced alchemy were charlatans. There were those like Gerhard Dorn who believed alchemy was best used to cure the sick, rather than for self-enrichment. Whether their cures worked is another issue. While it is doubtful alchemical cures were anything like modern medicine, a well-versed alchemist who was aware of the sympathetic bonds between planets and metals may have also know of the bonds between planets and herbs. Since planets and stars were said to direct the fate of humanity due to the phenomenon of stellar influence, perceived bonds between planets like Venus and Mars to metals like copper and iron supposedly contained great power. Medicinal herbs, whether due to their inherent chemical properties or their magical affinity to the planets, in all likelihood really did heal certain diseases and afflictions.

It may be possible that, even in their blindness, alchemists found certain effects that they observed to work reliably, though they ascribed them to sympathetic magic rather than the physical properties of the plants and metals themselves. However, one thing is certain, and that is that modern science would not have been the same without the efforts of alchemists. At the turn between the Renaissance and Early Modern period, alchemists participated in one of the great transmutations of European history: the transition from a traditional, magical worldview into the stabilized, rationalized, scientific mindset that defines the worldview of our own age.

Agrippa's Famous On the Vanity of Arts and Sciences. Was alchemy itself a vain endeavour?
Agrippa’s Famous On the Vanity of Arts and Sciences. Was alchemy itself a vain endeavour?
Cornelius Agrippa
Cornelius Agrippa

Fantasy, Narrative, and The Origin of Species by Nino Ricci

The Origin of SpeciesAlex Fratarcangeli, the protagonist of Nino Ricci’s The Origin of Species, works on a Ph.D. proposal that could change literary academics: he chooses to analyze literary texts in the light of Darwinism. As its title suggests, the novel is about Alex’s relationship to the life of Darwin and his seminal The Origin of Species. On the road, he lives through various failed romantic relationships and tries to learn what it means to be a father. This journey culminates in the production of a Ph.D. proposal that I believe to be both fascinating and potentially revolutionary, if academia takes these ideas seriously. In Ricci’s fictitious 1980s Montreal setting, academia does not.

Having achieved an MA in Victorian Studies, Alex pursues his Doctorate and is assigned Jiri Novak as his supervisor, a man with a troubled past. He has an idea about what he wants to explore, but he struggles to come up with the revelation that will tie his thesis together: kind of like the way I am currently searching for my Master’s research essay topic. Not even Jiri, however, can deny the simplicity and revolutionary potential in Alex’s work, even if the institution of academia finds Darwinism a tough pill to swallow.

What emerges is the argument that narrative is older than humankind. As Darwin’s discoveries about evolution once put humans in their not-so-special place in the animal kingdom, so does Alex’s thesis put all of literature in perspective with biology. To paraphrase Ricci, narrative is not the hallmark of human self-consciousness, but a path to it, a journey in itself.

The masked booby of the Galapagos presents its mate with a series of gifts that indicate the male’s desire to give the female a life of happiness. This, and interactions like it across the animal kingdom, prove that “happily ever after” is a story that goes beyond the human.

A masked booby chick. The product of a fairy tale? Yes, as it were.
A masked booby chick. The product of a fairy tale? Yes, as it were. We all are products of fairy tales.

Bringing this understanding in light of my own research, I am astounded to think that Tolkien’s transcendent vision of the fairy tale’s happy ending, eucatastrophe, should be part of some biological imperative. No doubt Tolkien, who believed in the Christian resonance of eucatastrophe, would find Alex’s thesis radical.

Darwinism is often described as leading to the rise atheism in the nineteenth-century, a slaying of the ultimate Father–who was also Tolkien’s Father. Without God, what becomes of transcendence? Must narrative itself become arbitrary, without an overriding scheme? Is storytelling a denial of Darwinian competition and randomness in how it attempts to map order onto an orderless world? Is storytelling itself a fantasy of an order that no longer exists?

Of course, we see fantasies that have tragic endings. I need hardly mention Game of Thrones. But there is also the branch of historical fantasy, which blends Tolkien’s eucatastrophe with historical probability, often placing a moment of refuge, instead of an outright happy ending, amid a larger historical catastrophe, such as war and famine. When you consider Clute’s five points of the fantasy novel structure (wrongness, thinning, recognition, healing, eucatastrophe), and all that description of florid, healthy natural habitats in Thomas Convenant, you are left with the sense that this structure is tied to ecosystem. Fantasy magic is related to the “health of the land.” Is this a memory of  how narrative, like the structure of life itself, is “primal beyond reckoning?” (Ricci 400).

Could it be that eucatastrophic literary fantasy is a leftover from a protohuman mating ritual?

Suddenly, why so many of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels–I’m thinking of The Lions of Al-Rassan above all–end with romantic couplings at the end becomes clearer than glass: eucatastrophe is itself a promise of sexual fulfillment. It is a fulfillment that often occurs despite the catastrophes of history. And in its promise of happily ever after, what the characters offer their beloveds is refuge: from the trials of history, the world, all the forces of eat-or-be-eaten.

What Darwinism implies about fantasy as a mode is a whole other ball of wax. Perhaps fantasy itself has a rather obvious sexual origin. “Happily ever after” may itself be the fantasy that spawned all fantasies, making fantasy itself older than mankind.

In fantasy literature, as in other forms of narrative, animal instinct lies at the foundation stone. When reflecting on how physical bodies of ancestral creatures came to influence the bodies of texts, Alex reflects, “Somewhere in literature’s dark beginnings there had to be real blood on the page, there had to be real bodies being sacrificed or being saved” (82). Even in the midst of his Darwinist reverie, the religious connotations in this line is intriguing. I believe it reminds the reader that Christ’s death–a body sacrificed so humanity may be saved–spawned a body of text. Perhaps in the even more distant past of the Bible, there were animal bodies whose narratives human beings inherited. Such creatures may have given us the greatest love story of all, the greatest eucatastrophe–according to Tolkien, the Resurrection.

Yet this “blood on the page” has a more eerie connotation: Doctor Faustus and his deal with the devil for knowledge. Perhaps Alex’s devotion to Darwinist ideas are his signature on a satanic contract. A hubristic scholar, Alex is beset by frustrations on all sides. He has sold his soul to academia and blames his partner Liz’s abortion on getting a paper published in Canadian Studies. Perhaps the Chernobyl disaster, referenced often throughout the book, is as metaphor for mess of his life. But if Darwin killed God, then Satan is dead as well, and Alex only serves to entrap himself in a cycle of guilt  marked by a fateful trip to the Galapagos islands.

Charles Darwin (author of The Origin of Species)
Charles Darwin (author of The Origin of Species)

Alex “had always seen Darwinism as just another of the grand schemes for making sense of the world–like Marxism, say, or Freudianism, or New Criticism–that proved all was right with it” (297), but his opinion soon changes as he begins to see the undirected life of Darwinian evolution for what it is. Soon he is offered a chance, perhaps, at redemption, when he learns he has borne a son to his Swedish girlfriend.

Eventually it is Alex’s research into sociobiology that sets his thesis in presentable order: “It was all total anathema to the literary purists insofar as they even deigned to notice anything reactionary–it was just biological determinism writ large, they said, the worst sort of regression, a heartbeat away from social Darwinism and eugenics–but that didn’t mean it wasn’t true” (398).

This theory goes against “everyone,” claims Jiri, his supervisor. “The Marxists, the feminists, the deconstructionists, everything that’s happened in the past twenty years” (409). Just as Darwin unhorsed the theism of his time, Alex threatens to overturn the other structures of significance literary theorists have built for themselves over the years, proving that literature is at base biological.

“I suppose it’s like Derrida,” Alex explains at an earlier point in the book. “This idea that there’s a whole structure in our minds that controls how we think. Except that instead of language or binary opposite or something like that, it’s genetic” (75).

If the radical theory of literary criticism contained within Nino Ricci’s The Origin of Species ever builds steam within the real world of academia, I have a feeling it could change the landscape. Alex is one fictitious character against a conservative institution, but his theory is simplifying, like all great theories, including Darwin’s, are. Time will tell the extent of the consequences of evolutionism, Darwinism, and sociobiology on the field of literary studies. Personally, I cannot wait to see the effects of the ideas on fantasy literature.

Nino Ricci, author of The Origin of Species
Nino Ricci, author of The Origin of Species

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Image Credits/Works Cited:

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Ricci, Nino. The Origin of Species. Anchor: 2008.

http://ms.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Darwin

http://www.bellasbookshelves.com/?p=1696

http://www.canada.com/story_print.html?id=135c6779-b5d1-4bc7-b933-d19aeed03a61

 

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451It was a pleasure to burn.

The letters, the opening of Ray Bradbury’s seminal dystopian novel, glimmered flatly on my Kobo screen as I realized the irony of what I was doing. I realized swiftly that the battle of digital media versus print is a central point that burns down in Fahranheit 451. I will present to you my reflections on this question: Do Kobo readers create a real dystopia similar to the one in Fahrenheit 451?

Guy Montag, the protagonist, is a fireman. In Bradbury’s future in which all houses and buildings have been fireproofed, that means he sets fires, instead of putting them out. In effect, the firemen are the ideological police of their world, burning books in great bonfires of literature. Only fragments of the past survive–and Montag’s inner journey will lead him to discover more about that past world than his fellow firemen will dare allow.

Written during the turbulent McCarthy era in which supposed communists were hunted like witches and artists censored for their views, Fahrenheit 451 invokes myriad other historical instances of heresy and censorship. Whether it’s the Inquisition burning books placed on the Vatican’s infamous Index or the Nazis’ burning of tomes written by Jews, socialists, and other voices of opposition, burnings have been notorious throughout history. Though those who burn defend themselves by saying they are protecting “culture,” it is plain to others that burning books is antithetical to the fostering of culture.

Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury

I believe it was Neil Gaiman who said, “Libraries are the thin red line between civilization and barbarism.” An apt point when taken in the context of Ray Bradbury. (To read Gaiman’s tribute to Ray Bradbury, which he wrote upon his death in 2012, click here. For the Guardian article, click here.)

But burning is only one example of society’s dystopianism in Bradbury’s novel: there are also Seashells—basically a 1950s conception of what would eventually become earbuds for your iPod/MP3 player—and full-wall television screens. Bradbury never imagined in his novel the numerous computers currently in existence, and certainly not the distracting potential of social media websites, or the Internet in general, but he did get the sense that Western society was being bombarded by visual/auditory stimulation that would only get more intense and distracting. Whether the book burnings or media bombardment are more effective at creating Bradbury’s dystopia is a debatable point. I say the two go hand in hand.

Bradbury saw the transition from print media to the dominance of visual and digital media. In essence, Fahrenheit 451 is about that fundamental change in culture taken to an extreme. So I suppose it must be an ironic book to read on a Kobo, a digital platform. Am I a traitor to Bradbury’s ideals if I read his novel on a Kobo? I certainly hope not. But reading it on a Kobo did influence my experience of this novel in a way that underlines its theme, revealing some subtle effects in my reading experience that may, perhaps, be troubling.

For starters, I read the novel a whole lot faster, I suspect, than if I had had a physical copy on hand. Flipping the pages was easy; I just had to touch the right-hand side of the screen with my thumb. Furthermore, I could change the font and margins to enable faster reading and page turning. Reading it on the bus and metro also made it necessary to read faster in order to finish at a good spot to leave off whenever I would make a transfer. While reading the novel on a bus may appear to be a factor external to the digital experience, it was also the situation in which I feel most natural reading a Kobo.

Secondly, it was harder to browse through Fahrenheit 451 on my Kobo. While with physical book, you can open it randomly in the middle of the book and flip through the pages, you cannot do that on a digital book–at least not until an appropriate “page flipping” interface is designed and put into future models. Though the search function enables a certain amount of ease in finding passages, navigation forces you on a more linear path while flipping through the book beginning-to-end. This makes Kobo great for airport novels that you read through once and don’t bother with again, but less good for nonfiction and novels that you want to examine closely. As a literature student and book reviewer, I have a beef with this limitation.

Lastly, you cannot make comments on a Kobo easily, or write in the margins. Yes, you can make bookmarks. But to label the bookmarks effectively, you must leave the ebook and do a lot of back-and-forthing. If you have installed Calibre on your computer, you can make comments on your computer, but I was not able do this on my Kobo, even though the highlighting function says you can supposedly do this.

While these three points can potentially be fixed by developers, at present my Kobo makes a certain type of reading of Fahrenheit 451 easier rather than other types. And that type of reading says a lot about our society and the society in Fahrenheit 451.

Kobo is good for straight-through reading, for example, while on a bus: a way to quickly read a book that does not take up too much physical space. It is a portable library—a personal “bastion of civilization” that you can bring around with you. However, Kobo makes it difficult to read a book that you dearly love with the attention it deserves. Due to this limitation, “Kobo reading” is a kind of reading that is complicit to an extent with the hasty, media-overwhelmed, lower-attention span world that Bradbury warns us about.

Kobo rushes us along a highway (often when actually travelling on a highway), rather than allowing us to stroll, to stop, and to think.

In a way, this makes Kobo reading analogous the fast cars so prevalent in Bradbury’s utopia. Traditional readers are like pedestrians—people like Clarisse, the strange teenager Montag meets who walks on sidewalks asking “why?” and “how?” about things she sees. But Clarisse is later killed by a fast car, which bear no regard to pedestrians. Whereas Kobos have you rush through a book, traditional reading can be like a stroll through the suburbs—it involves a lot of stopping, smelling of roses, observation, and above all, opinion-forming.

Fahrenheit 451 is all about how media saturation, passive consumption, and a fast-paced society makes it harder to become a dissident of society and its ideology—not just about burning literature, but by ensuring new books are never written. Since we are all kept happy by comsumption and reassured that the world will take care of itself, we find less and less reason to challenge that order. But the “pursuit of happiness” cannot be the be-all-and-end-all of human existence: sometimes it is necessary to become disturbed, in order to make social change.

Outlawing literature and pedestrianism are two ways in which Bradbury’s society silences dissidence; it destroys opinions formed in the past and makes it difficult to develop opinions in the present. It is therefore not always necessary to burn in order to silence a heretic; an Inquisition founded on pleasure instead of torture is far more effective at domination.

And reading about such a dystopia on a Kobo forces you to become aware of the fact that how you read depends on where you read it, and in what format. Our consummerist society has made it harder to read books critically by developing ebook interfaces that do not promote critical and nonlinear reading styles. Physical books represent a freer way of reading. If all books end up going digital, our society will become closer than ever before to Bradbury’s dystopia.

burning book

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Photo Credits:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Bradbury

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fahrenheit_451

Reflections on Reading and Writing in the Digital Era

bob steinLast Friday I attended a talk given by Bob Stein, who develop the first ebooks in 1992. You read that date right. It was 22 years ago, but the craze only began to catch fire with Kindle in 2007. During his presentation Mr. Stein said that he has always been 15 years ahead of tends in the digital book world. I thought I’d share my impressions of his talk because I believe that the future of the book  is a fascinating topic, one of the great technological transitions of this age.

Since Gutenberg’s day (the printin’ 50s, I might coin it–the 1450s that is), the printed codex (or book) has come to be the world’s dominant form of information dissemination. However, since the rise of the silicon chip in the last 30 or so years, ebooks and the Internet have slowly supplanted the codex. They have not conquered print books yet, but given the popularity of ebooks and ereaders, in 5 to15 years the landscape will be different. I do not personally believe that printed books are going extinct–technologies transform more often than they vanish. That transformation may be enough, however, to change how we read forever.

Traditional publishers have a legacy to protect, said Mr. Stein at the Atwater Library in downtown Montreal during the meeting for AELAQ (the Association of English Language Publishers of Quebec). I was under the impression that many of the publishers in attendance were beginning to think about retirement. Those retiring soon have a reluctance to invest too heavily in digital publishing and a desire to defend the printed word. However, for someone like myself at 22 years of age, the world of ebooks, audiobooks, the Internet, and social media is where I will lay down my professional roots. Not that I don’t believe in print–quite the opposite–but I recognize the potentially exciting things that could emerge from digital publishing too. If you are reading this, you are witness to it; this is a blog, after all, and not magazine or private journal (see the irony in my blog title?).

I will have to come to terms with digital publishing if I desire to enter the industry as an editor or publisher–or even as an author. Authors are being asked to have build a platform through their social media presence. We are asked to not only be authors, but bloggers, directors (of YouTube movies), public speakers, and even voice actors (if we give our voice to an audiobook). Moving with this changing current is part of the purpose of The Vinciolo Journal, so I suppose you could say that you are glimpsing the future while reading this.

I myself have an ereader and the first book I’m reading on it is John Crowley’s Aegypt: The Solitudes, which I shall review next week. The ereader is the size of my hand and contains an entire library, including a thousand-page book of the complete short stories of H.P. Lovecraft–which would no doubt make my bag a lot heavier were I carrying it around all day. I find myself more reluctant to buy any physical book, no matter how badly I want it, because the shelf-space in my bedroom is packed and I still need space for school books next semester. Kobos, Kindles, and Nooks may be the only way to keep up a voracious reading habit.

A pile of rejected books. Is this the future of the physical book? Will digital books rise from the ashes?
Is this the future of the physical book? Will digital books rise from the ashes?

There are other, more unexpected changes that the digital world could bring with it. Here is a list of some changes which Bob Stein said, or suggested, might come to the publishing industry:

-Printing will become more of an aesthetic choice. Ebooks will become mainstream, the option of utility.

-A new genre of literature may emerge once ereaders are the dominant form. It took 40 years for the novel to emerge as the main genre of print literature (from Gutenberg to Cervantes’ Don Quixote), so by 2054, perhaps we will see literature structured like a video game, where readers form their own narratives.

-A transition from solitary reading back to communal reading may be in store. Social media book clubs may become popular, the twenty-first century equivalent of the dominant mode of reading in medieval universities. Comment Press and Social Book allow you to write comments in the margins, renewing a habit of marginal notation that was popular in medieval manuscripts, incunabula, and early printed works.

Since public domain books will remain free, it will become popular to buy glosses on a book. For example, if you were reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, you could get the book for free, but pay to have a historian’s notes on the text. If this becomes a thing, I suspect people will also pay to have a celebrity’s opinion on their favourite books, even if they have no academic understanding to bring.

-Digital books can be handed down through generations like family bibles. Your (grand)sons/daughters will read what you thought of A Tale of Two Cities if you write comments online. They will respond to notes you made twenty, even fifty years ago–and your comments will eventually outlive you for generations and generations.

-People will pay extra for supplementary material. Mr. Stein was one of the pioneers of including director’s commentary on DVDs. Would you be willing to pay extra to learn the author’s commentary on his/her own book? Something like that might be in store.

-Celebrity editors, like chefs, will be an effective way of increasing the branding of books. I find this last prediction fascinating, since I have yet to start my career as an editor. If I am interested in pursuing such a career, I would probably do well to pay attention to setting up my own brand right from the get-go.

I was so inspired to be thinking about the future of the book that when I came into Place Alexis Nihon, bound for the food court to grab my supper, I saw the bright lights and colours of a sports shoe department and thought to myself: what if we began selling books like Nike sells shoes? So much of consumerist culture is about branding and “the fetish of the commodity.” If we arranged shelf space in bookstores around either editorial or publishing company brands and set up rows of finely crafted hardcover codices of bestselling works, could a publishing company with money to invest arrange for a bookstore to sell titles in a way that emphasizes the premium quality of physical books, as opposed to digital books? Will such a niche market for codices arise after the ebook becomes dominant?

I know for a fact that I would visit such a store regularly. However, I cannot say the general public would take to it, at least not right away. For one, the price of these books would have to be relatively high, a reflection of the finer material qualities used in production. Why buy expensive $75 codices when paperback airplane thrillers come in at $5-10? But once everyone has an ereader and traditional books become rare, could this brand shop idea become a viable business plan? An opportunity to decorate one’s living room with attractive book spines?

Would you enter such a bookstore of the future, or would you not? While you search for an answer, I will give some thought to branding myself as an editor and await the coming of the day when I can sell comments on my favourite book for money. There may be money in being an author yet!

The future of reading? Or just one other stone in the causeway to an unknown future?
The future of reading? Or just one other stone in the causeway to an unknown future?

 

Photo Credits:

Bob Stein: http://lib.fsu.edu/conference/TheFutureOfTheBook/index.html

Pile of Books: http://walrusmagazine.com/blogs/2007/12/17/new-blog-how-to-read/

Ereader: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kobo_Touch

Was the Renaissance “Swerve” a historical fantasy?

In the novel I am presently reading, Aegypt: The Solitudes by John Crowley, the main character, a historian academic named Pierce Moffet, comes across the realization that “there is more than one history of the world.” Furthermore, the “world is not the same as it once was.” This radical change in human history supposedly occurred some time in the sixteenth century as it transitioned into the seventeenth. Specifically, it revolves around the historical person of Doctor John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s court astrologer, whose scientific accomplishments were rivaled only by his interest in the occult. For Dee, science and magic were one. In his intellectual corpus, the modern, rational, scientific worldview coexisted with the traditional worldview Europe would slowly, gradually leave behind. In John Dee, mathematics was both a tool to explore modern science and a basis for summoning angels.

Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Renaissance is sometimes viewed as the adolescence or young adulthood of European culture, as it left the intellectually barren Middle Ages behind. This shift of the pendulum between worldviews is known was coined by Stephen Greenblatt as “The Swerve.” A shorthand for describing the multifaceted history that the Renaissance actually was, the assumption that such a Swerve occurred is taught in classrooms worldwide.

However, could the Swerve be a mere historical fantasy?

In my post “Wonders in Wood,”  I demonstrate how humans often strive to to see shapes that they can relate to in natural objects. Those forms, however, are only really shaped by a series of causes and effects that are distinct and separate from human desire. Often the shapes we see in wood grain are reflections of ourselves. We often see “faces,” for example.

History, like wood, is formed according to a flow of cause and effect. Imagine the narrative of time growing organically from a set of roots buried in the past. The Renaissance is like a particular knot in that tree where two of the major boughs branch. Historians, only human, see their own faces in that knot, matching the growing intellectual self-consciousness of European philosophy and science with their own coming of age, their own rites of passage.

But can it really be said the Europe “came of age” during the Renaissance? Or is this only a historian’s fantasy?

I do not have an ultimate answer to this question, or the space in a single blog post to even scratch the surface of this enormous problem. I will say this, however: I believe the Swerve is a fascinating concept that can generate a lot of excitement about learning history, even though I believe it to be scientifically inaccurate and a problematic term. I have four reasons for believing this, and there are other reasons out there I may not have heard of:

1. The Swerve devalues the medieval learning that gave birth to the Renaissance. That any significant intellectuals existed during the Dark Ages seems to be a fact some teachers repress, knowingly or unknowingly. I do not believe the Renaissance could have happened without the likes of medieval intellectuals like Averroes, Thomas Aquinas, Peter Abelard, and the like. Later Renaissance thinkers borrow from their ideas. The Middle Ages were not an void, but the fertile soil from which the Renaissance spawned–it was not only ancient Greeks and Romans who formed the inspiration for the Renaissance.

2. The Swerve only accounts for the writings of ‘Great Thinkers’ and bears nothing on socio-economic, everyday realities. Descartes, Francis Bacon, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo may all have been geniuses of their time, but men and women still died horrendously of plague in 1600 as they did in 1300, at least for the most part. Great intellectual progress failed to impress the vast majority of the population, many of whom could not read. Theories about the sun’s closeness to the earth and challenging the church’s doctrinal authority matters a whole lot less when famine strikes.

3. The Swerve is a Grand Narrative which excludes other discourses when it is used to describe the era. Since the story we all tell of the Renaissance is of its glory, the darker side of history is ignored. The Renaissance is a dark period, from a certain perspective. For starters, it is filled to the brim with religious persecutions, massacres, and even genocide. Why Cortez’s ethnic cleansing of the Aztecs should be considered more civilized than the Viking raids simply because it happened 500 years later is beyond me. Must civilized times be defined according to when  advanced weaponry, like gunpowder, becomes available, enabling countries to spread violence across the globe? Or should such times be considered more barbaric? Also, what would have the Native Americans in King James’ court have thought of the Renaissance period when they were dying of a common disease caught from a European?

Giordano Bruno
Giordano Bruno

4. The Swerve can be used to misconstrue discoveries and treatises of the Renaissance as leading to an inevitable Scientific Revolution, which almost no scholars consciously saw happening. It is likely that Copernicus primarily saw himself as part of a tradition of scholars stretching back to the heliocentric Aristarchus, and only secondarily as the bold pioneer of a new model of the solar system. He had to reach into the past as well as reach to the future, but framing Copernicus in terms of the Swerve threatens to shortchange the importance of the intellectual history to which Copernicus returned. Furthermore, scientists often take Giordano Bruno, who espoused Copernicus’ ideas, as a martyr for modern science since he was burned for heresy in Rome. However, Bruno was the farthest thing from a scientist. Rather, he was in many ways an impractical philosopher who developed a magic system based on the concept of artificial memory, considering himself a follower of the sun-centered “Egyptian” religion. In other words, he sacrificed himself for heliocentrism not as a scientist, but as an occultist.

Since the Swerve is inaccurate historically in these and other ways, I propose that it is a historical fantasy. Stephen Greenblatt might have needed the concept to sell a book and express what he was going to write about in simple terms, but the term itself should not be taken without irony. I am not arguing that Greenblatt is unaware of the problems connected to the idea of the Swerve. I only mean to remind people who are used to the Grand Narrative to rethink what they know about the Renaissance.

Poststructuralism claims that all histories are written in history and can never be freed from the context in which they are written. I would add that so long as a historian sees the human experience of his/her adolescence in the Renaissance, history will be written according to a human bias. We cannot escape this bias easily, since it is so natural to write a history that we can relate to. But turning history into story is part of what historical fantasy is all about.

Foucault's Pendulum, Paris: a pendulum serves back and forth as the ages move between ideas.
Foucault’s Pendulum, Paris: a pendulum serves back and forth as the ages move between ideas.

 

Photo Credits:

Foucault’s Pendulum: https://www.flickr.com/

Stephen Greenblatt: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Greenblatt

Giordano Bruno: http://johns-spot112948.blogspot.ca/2013/02/giordano-bruno.html

Unreliable Narrators and Historical Fantasy

Unreliable narrators have a way of turning up in the most recent short stories I have drafted, so, in the interest of attaching this idea to historical fantasy, here is my blog post of this week:

In my Honours thesis, I drew attention to the conflict posed by fusing the historical novel with the fantasy novel. If, as Tolkien argues, fantasy relies on eucatastrophe, then a historical fantasy must incorporate a happy ending to catastrophic historical events. Imposing happy endings on history inevitably draws attention to the fact that our histories of time are actually narratives—and that these narratives are shaped by our own desires, or fantasies.

Building off these ideas, I take a broad view of the term “historical fantasy.” It refers to more than simply a genre, but to a phenomenon—how all narratives of the past  reflect our own desires. History itself is a fantasy, a mode of desire.

No one can retell the past in a complete, objective way. A corollary: whoever writes an account of the past can never be free of bias, no matter how scientifically they approach their tale-telling. After all, science is itself only one way of viewing the world. Culture and religion form other ways.

Since historical narratives can never be trusted to remain objective, it follows that to some extent all historians are unreliable. Not everything about the past can ever be known and even if we were capable of learning all the facts, the way we retell the past will carry a certain bias. It may never be possible to escape being an unreliable narrator. They are no longer the psychologically diseased and murderous viewpoint characters of an Edgar Allan Poe tale or a Robert Browning dramatic monologue. They are each of us.

Perhaps this is the reason why I have been drawn to unreliable narrators as a way to tell a historical fantasy story. If all narratives are unreliable, the possibility for them to be retold in a counter-factual way is a constant danger even for the most thorough historian. But if the character (re)telling the story is a drunken fool, an egomaniac, the unimpeachable emperor of a totalitarian nation, or a witch threatened with torture if she does not confess, then facts are all the more likely to become warped in radical ways. Occasionally—in the case of the witch—these distortions will be outright denials of consensus reality and of physics itself.

Hence you have a “fantasy” (being an imaginative trip of desire and wonder) that is “historical” (having happened, or claimed to have happened, in history).

When an entire nation is being subjected by a foreign will (like in Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay), be it another empire, race, or class, the cultural and economic pressures mounted on the people’s backs drive them to cherish their own identities. They become involved in retelling their nation’s history to keep their identities alive. During these tumultuous times, desires to modify the past emerge in the oppressed people, who glorify legends of the “Golden Age.” Hence the Saxon-dominated Britons and Welsh developed legends about the historical King Arthur, who was of their blood. And Geoffrey of Monmouth told a pro-Welsh tale to the later Norman conquerors in The History of the Kings of Britain. There are thousands of non-Eurocentric examples out there. If only I knew them all, I could try to list them.

Meanwhile, the dominators create their own stories to solidify their claim to the conquered land. The ideologies of conqueror and conquered vie for the status of having the “correct” interpretation of events. And you know what they say about history being written by the victors. The idea of “historical fantasy,” on the other hand, is subversive because it reveals that both sides of the argument are ultimately inaccurate or at least incomplete. Both versions of history are myths: each side may define its own identity, but it also avows the destruction or overturn of the other side.

Faced with these quandaries, no telling of history can be liberated from the conditions of history itself. In a sense, all history is therefore a fantasy. Catastrophe and eucatastrophe are two sides of viewing history, one no less legitimate than the other. A war may not always end happily, but in the end, the result is not outright catastrophe. A great man’s tragic death at the hand of assassins (the great Shakespearean tragedy Julius Caesar) is hardly the end of the world. Life goes on. Time goes on, and on, making the pain and happiness seem microscopic after the immense stretch of years, decades, centuries.

Humanity was not meant to see such long stretches of time. We are mortal and must make as much sense of eternity as we can in the short time we have to live. So we turn to the past in order to draw meaning from it. Faced with the nearly impossible task of finding a direct link to our ultimate origins, we inevitably imagine history. And doing so we necessarily tell a lie about history.

Yet those who tell such lies should not incur blame. We are human and we must live. We must tell stories. Faced with the objectivity of history, we might go insane seeing a meaningless space devoid of all human understanding. Our survival and spiritual well-being depends on having fantasies about history.

I conclude therefore that I may have been drawn to unreliable narrators because I realized that it so happens that all narrators are unreliable, no matter how confidently they may speak. Storytellers recognize that humanity needs narratives in order to survive. Fiction and falsehoods become more wholesome than the truth they are supposed to be detracting from: a disturbing thought. Is it better to lie? Or worse, perhaps all we can ever do is lie, since the truth remains forever indefinite.

Whatever the result of these sceptical musings may be, we may yet have one truth in which to take refuge: though a work of fiction may lie, it can still contain a glimpse of a deeper understanding of human nature. That is something mere history can never find.

In the end, the real story of the unreliable narrator is his own.

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Photo Credits:

Ruins: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantastique

Tell-Tale Heart: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tell-Tale_Heart

Unicorn Horns: A Viking Con Job?

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What if Vikings, whose settlements stretched across the northern medieval world, used legends of unicorns to swindle the kings of Europe out of their coffers, all the while skimping out on giving the proto-Inuits their fair share of the profits?

I would like to informally propose that such a scheme was happening throughout much of the medieval period. While I must admit I have no evidence to directly support this claim, the idea of it is almost as entrancing as the unicorn mythology itself.

For starters, it is commonly perceived that one theory for the existence of unicorn horns is that they were not, in fact, taken from horned quadrupeds, but narwhals. Since narwhals, whose tusks are majestic, tend to live in the northern reaches of the world, particularly around Baffin Island, Greenland, and the islands of Northern Canada, they would not have been out of sight of Norse settlements.

Patricia Sutherland, a Canadian archaeologist featured in this article in National Geographic magazine, believes certain tell-tale signs indicate that Vikings settled Baffin Island. I would be willing to believe her claim–particularly since it confirms the allusion to a Norse settlement on Baffin Island in John Dee’s Limites Imperii Britanici. Although this work is filled with dubious historical allusions to the Norse island of Estotiland (roughly corresponding to Baffin Island or Labrador), it would make a great story if legends of Estotiland were based on some truth. Perhaps Sutherland’s findings have something to do with a forgotten Norse kingdom located in Northern Canada.

At around 1300-1500AD, Vikings would have had contact with the Dorset culture. Although the small bands of proto-Inuit would have been on the decline territorially, they would have been resourceful traders and hunters of narwhal. Furthermore, a Viking settlement in the cold lands of Baffin Island, if one did exist, would have had a hard time trying to survive without some kind of exchange with the locals.

What if the European settlers saw the narwhal horns that the Dorsets collected–presumably from which they carved tools or jewellery–and saw in them instead an opportunity to get rich?

The fascinating possibility is that Vikings, or some other north-sailing tribe, might have either traded these horns with the Dorsets or hunted the whales themselves. In the North, narwhal tusks would have been valuable enough, in a utilitarian or decorative way. But down South, the horns had legendary, even religious significance and could be sold for an amount to make a weary Arctic sailor very wealthy indeed.

Surely if we accept the hypothesis that many unicorn horns are, in fact, narwhal tusks, then there must have been some form of trading and bartering between the north and south by someone. Seeing these tusks as evidence for the existence of unicorns, royal buyers would have inflated their real value according to their perceptions of the mythology, legends, and magical lore surrounding these beasts. This would make the market strategy of the Vikings, or whatever culture did these tradings, an early example of commodity fetishism.

If we suppose that someone, either a merchant or the hunter of the narwhal himself, must have knowingly traded the narwhal tusk, knowing it was a tusk, with a European who thought it was a unicorn horn, then what we have is a case of first class deception. What we have is the fostering of belief in a legend for the sake of mercantile prosperity.

“What is the profit margin of a legend?” writes Brian Attebery in his essay “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.”  Though the fantasy critic uses this rhetorical question to make the point that universal stories can never have a price tag attached to them, that the value of stories runs beyond the economic draw of capitalism, this Viking con game of narwhal tusks and unicorn horns threatens to challenge that idea. The right kind of  legend, it seems, can indeed draw a profit–although it will, of course, remain impossible to calculate the total net profit of something so abstract as a story.

I don’t know if it was the Vikings who did this. I don’t know if the system of deception was that systematic. But I’d like to propose that if the Dorsets were involved, they got a poor share from the deal. Since their culture did not have arrowheads, it may have been that the Vikings traded arrows for tusks, which they sold to the kings of Norway, Scotland, and England for chests filled with gold. I doubt they ever returned to give the “pygmies” or “Skraelings” two pence of what they made.

I hope that the whole narwhal horn trade inspires future archaeologists and historians to pursue solid evidence about this, albeit hypothetical, transaction.

In the meanwhile, I believe this will make a great short story one day.

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Picture Credits:

Narwhal: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Narwhal.jpg

Unicorn: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unicorn

Viking: https://www.flickr.com/