Aegypt: The Solitudes by John Crowley

aegypt

Hermes Trismegistus
Hermes Trismegistus

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Why do we think gypsies can tell fortunes?

This question, and the  ideas that stem from it, form the backbone of what might be called the definitive historical fantasy novel.

Pierce Moffet wants to find a compelling book idea for a nonfiction history book.  He discovers that the reason we think gypsies can tell fortunes is not because they came from Egypt (or even India for that matter), but because our ancestors thought gypsies came from Aegypt, a dream-Egypt sprung from the European imagination. In the Renaissance, before hieroglyphs were interpreted, Egypt was Aegypt to the Greeks, and the inscriptions on the temples of that far-off country were suspected of hiding all manner of ancient magical incantations and occult lore given by the Father of Magic, Hermes Trismegistus.

In one sense, Aegypt: The Solitudes is literary fiction, with the bulk of the action happening among the fictitious Faraway Hills region of rural Kentucky in the 1970s. Yet, it is also a historical novel with elements of fantasy. A couple of scenes happen in Renaissance Italy, Elizabethan England, and it even has a Goethian “Prologue in Heaven.” Except for one scene, in which a minor character named Beau imagines (with the help of drugs?) that he soars through the heavenly spheres, each of these “historical” scenes are chapters written by the fictitious historical novelist Fellowes Kraft, John Crowley’s alter ego. The result is an alchemy that gives “real” modern, American life a glowing significance in light of the “fictitious” historical past.

Winning the Life Achievement Award at the World Fantasy Convention in 2006, Crowley has made quite the contribution to American letters. His style feels casual and genuine, a smooth voice that puts you at ease in the pastoral setting of the Faraways.

The Rolling Hills of Kentucky
The Rolling Hills of Kentucky

After a fateful bus trip away from an anonymous life in the city, Pierce finds himself in the rural region, near the town of Blackbury Jams. We learn he is the sort of man who spends an inordinate amount of time coming up with thorough, even scientific answers to fanciful questions, such as what he would do if a djini granted him three wishes. But one question in particular begins to tantalize him: why do we think gypsies can tell fortunes? Little does he suspect that his scientific historicism and fascination with fairy tales will come together to form an intellectual synthesis.

Meanwhile, Rosie Rasmussen is trying to finalize her divorce with her husband Mike Mucho, and look over her three-year-old daughter Sam. She has trouble understanding her own lack of a desire to love Mike any more, wondering what she will do with her life as she consults with her divorce lawyer. Her escape during these emotionally troubling times is to read Bitten Apples by Kraft, a novel about a young William Shakespeare written in a realistic style. Crowley makes us read scenes from Kraft “over her shoulder,” writing certain scenes from Bitten Apples as scenes in The Solitudes. The historical-fictitious world of Kraft’s novels thus run parallel to the main, twentieth-century narrative. The result is that we inevitably compare the main plot to Kraft’s plots, noticing parallels between the past and present.

John Dee http://wp.me/p32Kr4-aF
John Dee
http://wp.me/p32Kr4-aF

The disaffected, modern characters who search for meaning in rural Kentucky contrasts with the Renaissance setting of Kraft’s novels, subtly suggesting that the characters repeat mythic patterns in their day-to-day thoughts and actions. The way Crowley weaves these parallels seems almost accidental, but given Crowley’s sophistication as a writer, it is clear he intends readers to pick up on these “accidents.” Whether they have deeper significance is up to the reader to decide.

Since the novel is about Rosie and Pierce’s relationship to Fellowes Kraft, an author who they’ve never met, and his oeuvre, it becomes significant for past and present when, in Bitten Apples, a young William Shakespeare enters the house of Doctor John Dee on an errand. (To read more on what I wrote on Dee, click here and here.)

During his visit to the old Doctor, Will gets a primitive photograph taken of himself from the camera obscura in Dee’s garden. He is then invited inside his home where he comes face-to-face with Dee’s famous “crystal ball,” a smoky quartz stone the colour of moleskin. Dee uses it to scry for spirits. Will says he sees something in the smoke, a portent warning of fateful visit from a stranger—but whether he really saw anything, or only wanted Dee to think he saw something, remains ambiguous.

An innocent enough reply, Will’s “prediction” comes true when Dee makes the acquaintance of Talbot, or Edward Kelley, a con man who claims to be able to communicate with angels. While he deceives Doctor Dee on his desperate quest for spiritual meaning, Pierce and Rosie, in the twentieth century, ponder their own searches for significance and love.

Giordano Bruno
Giordano Bruno

But what changes the game for Dee—and Pierce—is the (re)appearance of Giordano Bruno. Bruno was a heretic Dominican monk in Renaissance Italy who develops a theory about an infinite universe while challenging the Ptolemaic world system. The heretic’s story is one that Pierce was familiar with since childhood. But never has Kraft delved into Bruno’s life in quite the way he does in the unfinished, untitled manuscript Pierce finds in the abandoned house of the late author of Bitten Apples

Pierce discovers that his whole life has been preparing him to read this one manuscript, a book that uncannily echoes his own intellectual journey to write a nonfiction book on the history of histories. The manuscript opens as follows:

Once the world was not as it has since become.

It once worked in a different way than it does now; it had a different history and a different future. Its very flesh and bones, the physical laws that governed it, were other than the ones we know.”

As Pierce reacts to this stimulating subject material, Dee sees Bruno sailing for England in an attempt to flee religious persecution. Aegypt: The Solitudes leaves us off with the sense that the meeting between Dee and Bruno will be an epic meeting that could change the fabric of history itself. The first book of the Aegypt Cycle ends, as does Bitten Apples, with “THE BEGINNING.”

My personal reaction to Aegypt was not unlike Pierce reading Kraft’s manuscript: I felt as if all my research into historical fantasy, Guy Gavriel Kay, and even my novel, had finally prepared me to read John Crowley. I first heard of Aegypt researching the historical fantasy genre. The personal research I conducted for my novel Intelligence—research into Giordano Bruno, John Dee, hermeticism, and the Elizabethan era, for example—also found echoes in Aegypt: The Solitudes. It was rather like looking in a strange mirror, seeing myself reflected in Pierce and Kraft’s endeavours. While I cannot say with certainty that Aegypt will form the subject of my MA thesis, I believe I must reckon with it if I wish to continue studying historical fantasy.

The worst praise I could give for Aegypt: The Solitudes is that it is like reading a classier, finer, more intellectual DaVinci Code, if you leave out the thriller elements. Comparing Crowley to Dan Brown is unfair for a number of reasons, but if you like Brown’s thrillers of hidden histories and secret societies, you will have a natural affinity to Crowley, who is undoubtedly the better artist.

For those of you who love literary fiction and are thinking about dipping into historical fantasy, but are afraid you might not enjoy it, reading Aegypt will familiarize you with the ideas behind the best historical fantasy, while not obligating you to leave the confines of literary fiction. For those of you who love fantasy or historical fiction, then Aegypt‘s blend of history and fantasy offers a rewarding literary reading experience.

John Crowley
John Crowley

 

Image Credits:

John Crowley: http://www.momaps1.org/expo1/event/kim-stanley-robinson-in-conversation-with-john-crowley/

Aegypt: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Greaves_Pyramidographia_1646_Front.gif

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

John Dee:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dee

Kentucky: https://www.flickr.com/photos/anneh632/2691048983/

Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

foucault's pendulum

A group of editors gets together to write a parody of a conspiracy theory. What if the parody ends up becoming perceived as the source of ultimate truth for an actual underground group that styles itself after the Templars and Rosicrucians?

The answer lies in the pages of Umberto Eco’s intellectual thriller Foucault’s Pendulum. In a way, the book is Dan Brown on steroids. Conspiracy theories abound in dizzying multitudes. Heretics, Knights Templar, Assassins, cabalists, Diabolicals, Masons, Jesuits, the Bavarian Illuminati, and the School of Night all become implicated in one giant Plan that spans centuries and has formed the very shape of history.

The editors at Garamond Press in Milan, Italy compose the Plan as a parody of a Templar plot that Colonel Ardenti believes he has uncovered from evidence found in Provins (Provence). However, as the editors mock Ardenti’s leaps in logic, their research into secret societies and the occult inspire them to create their own ultimate Plan.

However, the pastime, begun for the editors’ amusement, eventually begins to poison how the editors think. The Plan becomes real; life imitates art. And the central object that ties the created reality together—the thing that may reveal the greatest secret of all—is Foucault’s Pendulum, located in a Paris museum.

Though it was published in 1989, Foucault’s Pendulum continues to excite readers today. With the popularity of such authors as Dan Brown, author of The DaVinci Code and Angels & Demons (and his new thriller Inferno), interest in conspiracy theories and secret societies is running high.

Also, if reading Foucault’s Pendulum, you are reminded of the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise, you were not alone. In the Plan, Ismaili Assassins inspire the secret rites of the Templars, and dispense secret information to them about a powerful artifact with which they could control the world.

A Knight Templar.
A Knight Templar.

Perhaps Foucault’s Pendulum inspired Assassin’s Creed; perhaps Assassin’s Creed inspired Foucault’s Pendulum! After all, the programers were (obviously) Assassins themselves… And the only way to tell if someone really is an Assassin, is if they deny it.

Such is a sample of the kind of warped thinking into which the editors of Eco’s thriller fall. It combines the paranoid thought patterns of conspiracy theorists and witch hunters with the ars combinatoria, which seeks to interconnect all human knowledge. In Cabala, for example, passages of Hebrew scripture may be randomly combined with each other in order for new truths to emerge. In a similar way, the editors of Garamond Press enter statements of knowledge into a computer called Abulafia, which reconnects the entered statements randomly. Thus they emerge with a list, such as the following:

“The Templars have something to do with everything

What follows is not true

Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate

The sage Omus founded the Rosy Cross in Egypt

There are cabalists in Provence

Who was married at the feast of Cana?

Minnie Mouse is Mickey’s fiancée” (364).

The editors connect the random terms into a narrative and come up with the grand and exquisite claim that Jesus was actually married to Mary Magdalene and it was His marriage that was feted at Cana. In a clever way, Eco ridicules the exact same Templar conspiracy discovered in The DaVinci Code, which (coincidentally?) reveals the “truth” about Jesus Christ.

This is one example of Eco’s exploration of signs and symbols and how people connect them all together, even when no such connection exists objectively. It is the way that Garamond Press’ target audience, the Diabolicals, think.

I personally find Eco’s ideas fascinating, especially in the context of historical fantasy. In Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay discusses the philosophical implications of how desire influences how narratives of random historical events are told. These events become signs of a pattern, or signs of a plan to history’s unfolding. Eco shows how such plans may be interpreted from random data. Furthermore, he implies that in hyperreality, a universe where reality has largely been replaced by symbols and simulations of reality, the creation of such a plan in a spirit of fictitious play may have actual, historical consequences.

Umberto Eco, author of Foucault's Pendulum and The Name of the Rose
Umberto Eco, author of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose

Eco explores these ideas because he is a semiotician, a scholar who studies the structure of signs and the processes in which they develop signification. For example, his most famous novel, the medieval mystery The Name of the Rose, explores how signs can be interpreted, or misinterpreted. In Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco explores similar themes. Symbols and signs have such a wide range of meanings that everything (a rose, a triangle in a Leonardo DaVinci painting, historical events) can be interpreted in hundreds or thousands of different ways.

Indeed, it would be a legendary meeting if it were possible for Eco to meet Dan Brown’s protagonist Robert Langdon, who is a symbologist, a professional who interprets the historical meaning of symbols. While Langdon sees a triangle in Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper and interprets it as a symbol for the sacred feminine, Eco would perhaps more closely analyze at the process of how Langdon came to make that interpretation. Perhaps Leonardo had intended to make a symbolic triangle. Then again, the triangle may have been a random shape that Langdon only perceived to signify something.

We see symbols everywhere, but where are the real ones? This is a mystery that Eco leaves ambiguous, to his credit. After all, life is much more interesting with symbols to interpret that do not have fixed meaning.

On the whole, Foucault’s Pendulum makes for an engrossing read. Irony, a concern with symbols, and plenty of lists: these signature features of Eco’s style combine to create a unique reading experience. As the Garamond Press editors formulate the Plan, scenes pass almost exclusively in dialogue-based exposition, but somehow, Eco makes it work. Do not expect Eco’s thriller to read like a Dan Brown novel, but expect it to be richer, to fascinate and challenge you intellectually.

And take care you don’t become a Diabolical while reading it.

Foucault's Pendulum, in Paris
Foucault’s Pendulum, in Paris

Photo Credits:

Foucault Pendulum:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foucault_pendulum

Foucault’s Pendulum cover:  http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17841.Foucault_s_Pendulum

Templar: http://boltzmann.wordpress.com/2006/04/27/a-templar-in-his-habit/

Umberto Eco: http://politics-prose.com/event/book/umberto-eco-prague-cemetery

Quotation taken  from  Harcourt paperback edition, translated by William Weaver.