“The Screaming Skull” (1908) by Francis Marion Crawford, the second story in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, takes us into the mind of disturbed retired sailor as the skull of a possibly murdered friend haunts his guilty conscience. Told in the first person in what the editors call “an outstanding early example of modern monologue, verging on steam-of-consciousness at times” (11), Crawford’s story is also an outstanding example of the fantastic literature of uncertainty.
“No, I am not nervous,” the narrator assures us. “I am not imaginative, and I have never believed in ghosts, unless that thing is one” (11). Those familiar with the concept of an unreliable narrator will see through the narrator’s posturing and recognize the equivocation at play. However, the narrator’s commitment towards finding a naturalistic, rational explanation for the screaming skull that haunts him earns enough of the reader’s trust.
Tzetan Todorov defined his idea of the ‘fantastic’ in his study The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. His definition of the term was much narrower than what we consider fantastic literature today, but the concept he describes fits this story perfectly. Todorov’s fantastic is “that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event” (25). Todorov famously breaks down Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Black Cat” to highlight how the narrator switches back and forth between being convinced that the events he witnesses have a naturalistic explanation and being convinced that what he sees must be supernatural. This narrow genre relies completely on the narrator’s feeling of uncertainty as it struggles to decide whether a haunting is genuinely supernatural or not.
Todorov could have called “The Screaming Skull” a paradigm of ‘fantastic’ literature–except that the uncertainty is ultimately resolved at the end. In this supernatural tale, the rational mind of an ex-sailor, one Captain Charles Braddock, the narrator, is pitted against a suggestion of a supernatural cause lying behind the death of his friend Mr. Pratt, a country doctor.
Mr. Pratt tells the narrator that he suspects his wife is planning to poison him. During their conversation, Charles alludes to a legend about a woman who poured molten lead into the ears of her four husbands, murdering them while they slept. After Mrs. Pratt turns up dead, Mr. Pratt suffers profound grief and anxiety. He “grew thinner and thinner, till his head looked like a skull with parchment stretched over it very tight” (12). Finally, he is found dead on the beach with markings on his neck and a human skull lying in the sand, placed in such a way that it appears to be staring at his face.
Did the skull itself kill Mr. Pratt, or did his death and the coincidental placing of the skull have another explanation? This question comes to obsess Charles until the very end of the story, when the supernatural reality of the skull is confirmed. Thus, “The Screaming Skull,” though it features strong elements of Todorov’s ‘fantastic,’ ultimately becomes what Todorov would call the ‘marvelous,’ or a genuine supernatural tale.
Charles’s sense of guilt also has something to do with why he feels such a powerful repulsion at the thought of the screaming skull. He suspects that it might be Mrs. Pratt’s skull, screaming at him to remind him of his terrible guilt. If Mr. Pratt actually murdered Mrs. Pratt, which Charles suspects, then it would also be true that Charles as good as killed Mrs. Pratt himself, since Charles, in a spirit of grim amusement, suggested the M.O.: the pouring of molten lead into the ears of a slumbering spouse.
Charles becomes obsessed over whether he will find a ball of lead rattling inside the skull. Its existence would prove that it was, in fact Mrs. Pratt. His need to avoid the terrible burden of guilt by association motivates his intellectual hesitation.
“[M]y taste never ran in the direction of horrors,” Charles tells the narrator, “and I don’t fancy you care for them either, do you? No. If you did, you might supply what is wanting to the story” (15). Equivocal statements like this suggest that a supernatural explanation for Mr. Pratt’s death does exist, although Charles is suppressing his admission of this reality. Acknowledging the existence of the marvelous would resolve his ambiguities, but he remains meticulously stubborn. As Charles proceeds, like a detective, to locate any evidence of the skull’s commonplaceness, all he uncovers is further proof of its supernatural properties, until it becomes increasingly clear that he is latching at straws and is on the cusp of madness himself.
Next week, I will dig into the next strata of my archaeology of weird fiction and review Algernon Blackwood’s florid descriptions of the natural world in his famous weird tale, “The Willows” (1909).
Last week’s post discussed the Indiana Jones series and the works of pulp fiction author A. Merritt, who may have partly influenced the movies. One modern (or postmodern) narrative continues the tradition of what I call archaeological adventure fiction: the video game series Uncharted.
Hero Nathan Drake is a professional thief, who believes he is a descendent of English explorer/pirate/privateer Sir Francis Drake, who is most famous for sailing around the world. Like Sir Francis, Nate travels to various exotic locales in search of treasure. And he has a crew: ex-Marine Victor Sullivan, who is nearly a father to him, Elena Fischer, a reporter and love interest, Chloe Fraser, an excellent getaway driver and competitive love interest, and Cutter, a Jason Statham look-alike.
The Uncharted series breaks boundaries in the fluidity of its third-person gameplay and in the quality of its storytelling. It is possible to play the game straight through without consulting any level-select menus, for example, and the narrative is supported by many cut scenes that play out almost like a movie. The games offer the pleasure of imagining that there still might be uncharted locales around the globe in this age of satellite imagery and Google Earth. The world has been thoroughly mapped now, but Nate follows in the footsteps of those first explorers like Drake, Marco Polo, and more modern figures such as T.E. Lawrence. Spoilers lie ahead.
The first game, Drake’s Fortune, involves the classic search for Eldorado, which Francis Drake was supposed to have discovered shortly before his supposed death. It is both Nate and Sir Francis’ fortunes that are at stake. Nate discovers Drake’s journal in the explorer’s barnacled, but otherwise empty lead coffin off the coast of Panama, and is soon on the trail after the fabled city, which turns out not to be a golden city at all, but a large statue.
Picking up the trail from where a Nazi U-boat expedition failed horrendously–the crew mauled by some kind of animal–Nate ventures to an island in the Pacific with Elena. An old forgotten Spanish colony, the island is where the conquistadors brought Eldorado. After their plane is shot down, it’s a race to find the statue before some old creditors of Victor Sullivan get their hands on it.
Evidence emerges that Eldorado is cursed somehow. A ledger reveals that the statue was the last shipment the colony received, before Sir Francis set gunpowder to the town and sank the fleet in the harbour. A precautionary measure to keep people out, or keep something in? Deep in the catacombs, they find Francis Drake’s skeleton, his true final resting place, and are soon swarmed by a race of naked zombies who crawl around on all fours like possessed things.
In the end, the bad guys get the statue, which the leader of the expedition opens, only to find a rotten mummy within. Immediately, he turns into one of the zombies, attacking his own second-in-command in pure instinctual rage before he gets shot through the eyes. It turns out the number-two knew about this strange effect all along and was only waiting for a moment to steal the statue and sell its dark properties to the highest bidder. Nate grabs onto the statue as a chopper hauls it away and later fights the villain on the deck of his ship. The final blow is one of poetic justice: Nate knocks the statue overboard so the rope holding it wraps around his enemy’s leg, dragging him into the ocean along with it. You want your treasure? There, take it, pal.
A classic move similar to some I might have seen in movies such as Indiana Jones and National Treasure. Evil punished for its lust for wealth, so that it gets just what it wants, only too much of it, so that it is beaten to death in a shower of gold–like the villain in The Mask of Zorro. Why does this kind of ending prove, on wider inspection, to be such a key part of a good formula across so many narratives?
If you read Drake’s Fortune seriously enough, you discover that it dramatizes the problems associated with imperialism. In fact, I argue that the quasi-supernatural disease that underlies the golden idol of Eldorado is an expression of an anxiety about capitalism. Beneath the luxurious facade of the statue–the treasure par excellence that really did impel so many conquistadors to drive out the Aztecs and Inca and establish their own rule over South America–there lies the reality of exploitation and thievery. This unfairness and its accompanying guilt is expressed not directly, but through the metaphors of disease and zombie.
If capitalism finds a monstrous metaphor in the figure of the vampire–who sucks the blood of its subjects without producing any blood of its own, the same way the higher classes never work in production but exploit workers–then late capitalism, the socio-economic condition of our consumerist, postmodern society, finds an apt metaphor in the zombie, which is reduced to blind instinct and an appetite for brains. Brains are the very thing that make us human subjects and the zombie’s urge to consume becomes a metaphor for ‘the age of consumption.’
That such a potent symbol lies behind the gold facade of the statue that was supposedly Drake’s fortune, should be read as highly suggestive.
The Spanish colony being destroyed by the zombie virus further suggests how colonialism, and capitalism more generally, are not sustainable practices. The acquisitiveness of the Spanish–and Sir Francis Drake’s crew–results in their own undoing, their transformation into zombies. This sixteenth-century disaster finds a link to the modern-day phenomenon of neoimperialism in the arms dealer’s attempt to sell the statue in a black market auction. The zombie disease would have not only become a commodity, but a weapon. In a world where ‘Third World’ countries, frequently in turmoil, are exploited and impoverished by wealthier nations, Eldorado would have gone to the very mercenaries who maintain that instability through constant warfare.
On whether or not Drake’s Fortune is fantasy or at least scientifically plausible, it would all have to depend on whether the curse is scientifically explained. In fact, it is not given such an explanation in the game, although the various zombie films in recent years, such as I am Legend and World War Z, have provided now-famous scenarios of a rabies-like epidemics going rogue. Gamers are left, therefore, in an ambiguous state of mind in which science and the supernatural provide competing explanations. Whatever the case, the disease does make a certain moral point that makes such explanations unneeded.
Of course, to really decide on the extent of Drake’s Fortune‘s use of the fantastic, one would have to factor in awkward questions like whether ancient civilizations really had the technology and manpower to construct elaborate temples underground fitted with counterweights, rising platforms, and wall-climbing footholds simply for the purpose of constructing an enormous puzzle. Nate runs into these Legend of Zelda-style temples frequently in Tibet in Among Thieves and in the castles of Drake’sDeception. But the hidden question of who provided the labour to build these enormous buildings–slaves, perhaps?–is elided by the game’s need to make a complicated level.
Continuing on the thought of puzzles, it is worth noting that Uncharted, although filled with similarities to archaeological adventure fiction and the Indian Jones movies, is not so much about archaeology as treasure hunting and antiquities in general. The quests follow an ‘X marks the spot’ pattern rather than one of scientific excavation. All the temples are accessible above ground, even if they later lead to subterranean levels; there is nothing actually buried. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jones does dig up the chamber where the Ark of the Covenant is kept, but even the fabled city of Ubar, the Atlantis of the Sands in Drake’s Deception, is accessible by a front door.
The ‘X marks the spot’ formula for an adventure story has a history. “The Gold-Bug” by Edgar Allan Poe tells how Mr. William Legrand, his black slave Jupiter, and his dog methodologically follow a trail of clues to the location of the buried treasure of Captain Kidd. Poe, while mostly known for his morbid first person narrations, is also credited as the inventor of the modern detective story, for example, in “Murder on the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.” The same obsessive interest in signs and symbols that characterizes his detective stories leads Poe to develop the treasure-hunter story.
Legrand is bitten by a golden scarab beetle and might be going mad. He invites the narrator over so he can see his sketch of this scarab, but the narrator sees a human skull instead of a beetle. When the narrator returns some weeks later, Legrand leads him outside in search of buried treasure, and orders him to climb a tree, find a skull resting on a branch, and pass the scarab on a string through the skull’s eye. He uses the place where the scarab touches the ground as an indication of where to start digging. Legrand then elaborately begins to describe how he knew that treasure was buried there. In an extended retrospective speech, he describes how he heated the parchment with the sketch on it because he suspected the skull the narrator saw was a sign of a pirate’s treasure map. He discovers a code written on the parchment and deciphers it step-by-step in one of the first examples of a cryptogram in literature.
The resulting paragraph is still a cypher: “A good glass in the bishop’s hostel in the devil’s seat forty-one degrees and thirteen minutes northeast and by north main branch seven limb east side shoot from the left eye of the death’s-head a bee-line from the tree through the shot fifty feet out” (95). Upon close analysis, these words are separated into sentences, and then the locations and angles are deciphered.
In this kind of story, maps, cyphers, and old texts hold the signs needed to locate treasure. The quest traces a horizontal line towards a goal, rather than a vertical line into the earth. It is this paradigm of sign interpretation that forms the basis of Indiana Jones and Nathan Drake’s searches after lost cities. Usually a main text, such as a diary of an explorer who has gone before–whether Henry Jones’ Grail diary, or Sir Francis Drake’s lost journal–supplements a map and some kind of key, like the Tibetan ritual dagger in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which can unlock special secret doors.
The interpretation of signs on these artefacts–scrawled symbols for example–add hints and clues to the location of the quester’s goals–but also enables the antagonist to steal the items needed to find the treasure. Such maps, journals, and keys almost become McGuffins–items around which the narrative revolves, with all the characters having their reasons for pursuing them. It is no surprise then that Uncharted and Indiana Jones contain not only a quest but a race.
This sense of competition runs strong in Among Thieves, in which Nate must discover Ximbala (aka Shangri-La), where the fabled and unspeakably powerful Cintimani Stone is kept, a legendary sapphire supposedly discovered by Marco Polo. Nate races against the sinister leader of a mercenary army–Zoren Lazarovic–who uses the instability caused by Tibet’s civil war to search for the powerful stone with brutality and impunity. The medieval past of Polo’s voyage becomes the path which Nate must follow through the chaotic world of modern urban warfare. Lazarovich wrecks a Tibetan city, slaughtering resistance fighters while searching for a certain temple that will lead to his goal. He later attacks a peaceful mountain village with a tank, in his extreme obsession to have what he wants.
“The quest for the Grail is not archaeology,” says Sean Connery, playing Henry Jones in The Last Crusade. “It’s a race against evil.” What begins as a simple quest to retrieve a valuable treasure becomes a race to prevent Lazarovic from becoming unstoppable. The Cintimani Stone lends whoever holds it the power to subdue all their enemies. An elderly German in the village, Carl Schaffer, tells Nate that Genghis Khan held a mere fragment of the stone and conquered all of Asia with it. The Nazis had been searching for it too, but Schaffer, seeing the power of the Stone, shot the SS who were trying to discover it. Lazarovic leaves a path of destruction in his wake, demolishing statues and flattening buildings–everything that stands in his way. Just when Nate feels like turning back from finding Ximbala, Schaffer, echoing Henry Jones, tells him he cannot simply walk away.
The archaeological themes fall away when the story becomes about good versus evil. Although Nate and his companions are thieves who work for various clients, they have no pretension of being archaeologists like Indiana Jones in the first place. They are not necessarily highly educated, although Nate does know Latin from his Catholic boarding school education. This sidesteps the problem of representing archaeology as a romantic profession. The quests in Uncharted are therefore “Gold-Bug”-style treasure hunts with pistols, rifles, and RPGs that retain the Jones movies’ themes about evil’s lust for power, wealth, and dominance.
Whether Nazis, as in Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, Communists, as in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls, or the arms dealer in Drake’s Fortune, Lazarovich in Among Thieves, or the occult secret society in Drake’s Deception, evil represents the forces that seek too much power for themselves, who are willing to use objects considered sacred, cursed, powerful, or simply valuable for their own selfish and world-destroying ends.
There is a connection between antiquities and power expressed by these narratives. Something is being expressed about how society imagines history and the deep past–as a place of wonder and yet of danger. Cheering on Indy and Nate as they fight, we are hoping to preserve the past from those who would corrupt or destroy it. Archaeological adventure fictions symbolically resolve tensions about capitalism and imperialism, while imagining the defeat of the bugbears of history such as the Nazis, from ever claiming possession of the past.
In light of the recent advance of ISIS into Palmyra, the site of awe-inspiring Roman ruins, and their explosive demolition of the ancient cities of Babylon and Nimrod, I hope I am not alone in observing who the bugbears (the Nazis, the Commies, the Lazarovics, the Genghis Khans) of today are. Their so-called ‘caliphate’ is a real-life force bent on destroying the past. They wish to obliterate all memory of pre-Islamic antiquity, and have, like Lazarovic, brought ageless statues to dust, although they do it for the additional reason of abolishing idolatry. If only there could be a hero, we might pray, who can come around to stop them.
Is it even possible to canonize all the things I have learned in my three and a half years studying literature at Canada’s best university to 10 items? I believe my critics will be able to deconstruct the bejesus out of this list. They’d probably base their argument on how I privilege my subjectivity over those of the “other,” namely the other people in my classes. But authors must never write for their critics. Besides, to restate everything I learned would be a heresy of paraphrase.
Lit-crit puns aside, I thought that at this point in my academic career, a retrospective analysis of what I have learned is up to order. Alas, in writing down what I learn, there is so much I must omit. Writing is an erasure as much as an act of creation. An erasure of the blank page. An erasure of infinite possibility–a terrifying possibility we can’t help but whittle down to a finite reality.
Here we go.
1. Writing is murder.
When I first came across this pronouncement, I thought my Canadian poetry teacher was using a gruesome metaphor for shock value. But ask yourself, “What gets killed when I write?” Aside from the trees that were chopped down to make the paper you’re wasting, you silence voices when you write, even as you create one. Whose voices? Those of the spirits of the dead who call after you from the whiteness of the page.
Every time you write something down, you exclude so much more. This is true even of the structure of language itself: “warm” only means “warm” because it does not mean “cool.” When you write “warm,” you murder “cool.” Still think it’s a funny metaphor? Then think about this: “male” only means “male” because it doesn’t mean “female.” So what happens when you write “male,” or write from a male voice? You murder the female. Patriarchy explained.
2. Cadence comes before meaning.
Two things here. First, what is cadence? Please read Denis Lee’s essay “Cadence, Country, Silence,” a staple essay on Canadian literature and an existential reflection/confession on what it means to be a Canadian poet–and a writer in general. Cadence means the rhythm, the music, the beat that lives inside of you. It is a different sensation for everyone. You feel it in your gut, in the ticks you feel when writing at your desk. It also suffuses place. The cadence on your home street has a particular rhythm to it. In a similar way, words, if spoken in different places, have certain nuances to them that only cadence can describe. For example, “city” means something in the United States, but something quite different in Canada, and even more different in the U.K. or Turkey. Boston, Ottawa, London, or Istanbul? The trick is to write with your proper cadence–the music that is genuine to you.
Editors searching through the slush pile know within thirty seconds or even less whether an author is good. They know before they even understand the meaning of the words they are reading. This is important: cadence comes before meaning. If an editor feels that the cadence of a writer is genuine, then they already know they are good. The content itself is secondary. Being true to yourself comes before what you have to say.
3. Texts are physical and unstable.
Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus has two texts: an A-text and a B-text. Any critic might refer to either or both of them, but the play itself never exists absolutely as any one text. This makes Doctor Faustus an unstable text. But Lord Byron’s Don Juan, which is seventeen cantos long, went through infinitely more censorship and revisions over the course of its composition history. Wordsworth kept adding to and editing his Prelude over his lifetime, as he slid into the conservatism of his later years, producing multiple texts that chart the poem’s corresponding change. These poems are unstable. You cannot read one text and expect its absolute authority. Rather, you must read them in the knowledge that they have been chosen by textual editors.
One of the reasons for textual instability is textual materiality. Books are books. They are physical. They have hard covers against which you can hit your head in frustration as you cram for your final exam. They are burnable. They suffer water damage and texts get damaged–which is a real problem when dealing with rare medieval manuscripts. Different books make it easier or harder to read in certain ways. For example, a “perfect bind” airport paperback novel is meant to be read once and even thrown away (if you’re callous), whereas a hardcover, stitch-binding copy of Shakespeare’s collected works is meant to be read over and over again.
4. Form matters.
Sonnets are not just 14-line poems in iambic pentameter that rhyme ababcdcdefefgg. They contain the whispers of Petrarchan love poetry within their lines, something that can be difficult to escape. For some poets and critics, sonnets symbolize a conservative tradition in poetry that revolves around the almighty iambic line, which must be rebelled against at all costs! Even a short story has a form. It is no accident that Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories–which are among the first examples of the form in literary history–revolve around an obsessive image: short stories, being short, cannot encompass more than one deeply symbolic image. (Not that this is the law today, but for nineteenth-century experimenters, it was true.) Form influences how you read literature. Form is tough. Form is political. Form is unavoidable.
5. Things happen and are done in texts.
When working on a paper for my Romantic literature class, I struggled to come up with a thesis about Frankenstein and the sublime. The course lecturer suggested, “It always helps to think in terms of what the sublime is doing in the story.” The way she phrased this sounded strange to my ears. Is there agency in texts apart from the author’s? Can the idea of the sublime itself be doing something in a story? The answer was, “Of course!” I ended up writing a fine paper about how Mary Shelley critiques the sublime as a female Romantic writer who has some distance from male Romantic aesthetic. I might have also said that the sublime was working in the story to critique conventional Romanticism. Ideas play in a text even if the author does not will it…
6. Authorial intention can be irrelevant.
A common objection in High School English classrooms is, “What if Shakespeare didn’t really mean that?” Exasperated by the complexity of Billy Shakes’ lingo, they throw their hands up in the air and choose not to believe in complexity at all. But ANYONE who has tried to write a piece of creative work, if they have put any thought into writing at all, knows that Shakespeare intended to write what he wrote (censorship, his actors’ poor memory at recollecting the text, and contemporary editing aside). When you take the time to think enough about writing, crafting your language to an advanced level, you better believe you are intending every word that you write.
However, the High School student does hint at an important point. Sometimes, a professor or teacher will create a complex argument to argue something about Shakespeare and it will seem abstract. Even a seasoned English student will doubt that Shakespeare ever really intended his listeners to understand his plays in that way. But the student would be wise not to stumble into the intentional fallacy. The author may have intended one interpretation of his text, or sometimes none in particular. Does that mean a reader can’t make more out of the author’s work than even the author saw in it? Absolutely not! Critics can explore every range of possible meaning in a text.
7. You can analyze anything.
Don’t just think because courses revolve around the “big names” of literature–the literary canon–that you cannot study the authors you love. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pope, Wordsworth, Byron, Browning, James, Eliot … hopefully a literature class will teach you to appreciate the greats, the saints of the religion of English literature. But why not overturn the canon and speak of an non-canonical author? I wrote my Honours thesis on Guy Gavriel Kay, who I had discovered by accident years ago and began reading for pleasure long before I started at McGill. I have now read his completed works. In literary theory, no novel, short story, poem, or play is off bounds.
Guy Gavriel Kay
8. Topic sentences should be able to read as an independent “phantom” paragraph, or abstract.
I learned this in my first semester.
“I’ll just give you a few statistics,” President Barack Obama said in a speech Wednesday in Washington, D.C. One of the people watching Obama’s speech was Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who is intimately familiar with such studies. “The part about democracy is relevant,” Putnam said. “The data show that not only is there declining trust in government, there is declining trust in other people”; although it wasn’t exclusive to them, this shift was “concentrated among these poor kids, the kids who have been left out,” Putnam said. These young people […] were becoming “extremely alienated from democratic politics.”
The above paragraph is the first part of a New Yorker article–but it is a phantom. It does not exist as a unity. Rather, it is a composite, formed of the topic sentences of the first few paragraphs of the article “Economic Inequality: a Matter of Trust?” by Amy Davidson. If you are able to write a cohesive-sounding paragraph using the topic sentences of the paragraphs in your essay, then you have a well-structured essay.
9. English teaches you a skill more than knowledge.
When I began at McGill, I wanted to know more about literature. I wanted teachers to lecture on. But towards the later portion of my degree, I had fewer and fewer lectures. Students participated more in class; we all had our different ideas and were prepared to defend them. At a given point in my second or third year, teachers became supervisors and weren’t imparting knowledge of literature onto us so directly. We became independent researchers and thinkers. We learned the rules of the game of English literature and then were able to play that game on our own–even break the rules.
If a professor tells you what a poet means in his or her poem, then be aware that theirs is not the final word. They have a theory and it might be sound and true. But English teaches you how to criticize and think for yourself. In the end, the program taught me to be confident in my ability to read and think independently. That is a skill.
Not to mention, with instant web-based communication so available, errors and misspellings emerge with frequency (some intentional, others not). English degrees can give you a skill much sought-after in the shrinking pool of people who actually know how to spell. There may yet be hope for the lot of us.
10. Reading poetry must affect you.
THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT POINT! Academia can be a vampire. Sucking the joy out of experiencing poetry and literature since the early twentieth century. Just because you exercise your faculty of critical thinking when reading poetry must NEVER prevent you from enjoying it in a visceral, existential, and sensuous way.
Mark Twain said a “classic” is a book we always wanted to have read, but never want to read. Now I actually want to read some of the classics: Byron and Marlowe in particular. Reconnecting to the fundamental experience of reading literature for enjoyment is the task they don’t–and can’t–tell you how to do in school.
Never stop loving it because you studied it. Unfortunately, this happens all too often in High Schools, where students are forced to write essays on books they should, above all, be enjoying. Only through enjoyment and pleasure can you commit a text to real memory, a memory that will follow you the rest of your life, a memory with personal value.
Poetry must affect you and it must continue to affect you. Frustrated with the insufficiency of our learning, we must, as does Goethe’s Faust, turn from the vanity of academia and reconnect to literature through fundamental experience.
“War begets war. Destruction begets destruction. On earth, a century ago, in the year 2020, they outlawed our books.” -Edgar Allen Poe, in Ray Bradbury’s “The Exiles.”
Edgar Allan Poe fights rocket men on a Mars mission to annihilate everything fantastic or non-realistic, in Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Exiles.” Bradbury’s short story stands with Fahrenheit 451 as a grim chronicle of a dystopian world where imagination is prohibited, even to the point of it being considered a mental disorder. In these worlds, fantasy—the ability to imagine realities other than the “consensus”—is outlawed, exiled, and, ultimately, considered heretical.
One fascinating question arises out of how Bradbury saw the role of fantasy literature in this future world. Is fantasy heretical? More specifically, does the literary mode or genre we refer to commonly as “fantasy” hold any innate capacity to oppose the dominant, orthodox “consensus” understanding of truth and reality? If there is such a capacity, what does it mean fantasy-as-heresy can do? And if it is not true that fantasy is heretical, why is it not?
“Fantasy itself is heretical. It denies what everyone knows to be the truth. And, if you’re lucky, the untruth shall make you free.” These words may sound counter-intuitive, even a little Nietzsche-esque, but they are part of Brian Attebery‘s argument for fantasy’s subversive potential in his essay “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy” (11).
Since it accepts the non-real, fantasy can say that “reality is a social contract, easily avoided” (10). Indeed, most fantasy novels contain an element of escape from the humdrum of modern-day, middle-class North American life (or whatever is your current milieu). While fantasy can slip into “escapism,” what escape does for readers is break the jail cell bars which contain us within the accepted reality that we accede to ever day. It demonstrates that out world is “a fluke, a localized and temporary aberration” (10). I like to think of Neil Gaiman in The Ocean at the End of the Lane saying that the world we know as our own is only the icing on a much larger and much deeper cake, lying just under the surface of things.
The slightly more dangerous and “most profound political statement that fantasy can make is to let the Other become a self” (10). Fantasists write from the point of view of aliens, animals, and other fantastic creatures—and analogously, other human cultures right here on earth. In fantasy, “the past threatens to break into the present, colonies become capitals, and the natural world takes revenge on civilization” (10).
The way fantasy novels do this is clearly evident. Epic fantasy, for starters, is almost completely based on the ways in which the past interferes with the present, and novels such as Ysabelby Guy Gavriel Kay do this in a twentieth-century our-world setting. And how subversive would the Ents of Fangorn be, if they waged a crusade against Amazon rainforest deforestation? In our globally-warmed world, the whole Mayan apocalypse craze was partially a result of our fear of nature’s vendetta against our race, and that surely inspired a few fantasy stories. On the subject of decolonization, I need go no further than Kay’s other novel Tigana in order to indicate a subversive book: a tale of rebels who overthrow the yoke of foreign domination in order to restore their nation’s identity. This belongs not only to the mythic history of the USA and France, but also to Ireland, Wales, Quebec, the Basque regions in Spain, and Communist East Europe.
Choose any binary: man/woman, dark/light, subject/object, self/society, victor/victim, man/nature, past/present, self/other: fantasy gains its subversive, heretical edge by showing us the “other,” by presenting both sides of the coin, and thus challenging us, whether we choose heads or tails. Even when an author such as C.S. Lewis attempts to reinforce a worldview—Christian orthodoxy—Attebury argues that the fantastic frame “resists any kind of orthodoxy” (11). Fantasy has infinite possibilities, which makes any limitations upon those possibilities (the “rules” of the secondary world) contrast with what lies beyond those boundaries, letting us question what set those limitations in the first place.
Why is Aslan a lion, we might ask, and not, say, a dragon? Lewis’ choice reveals Aslan’s significance as a symbol for the “Lion of Judah,” Jesus Christ. At the same time as Christian orthodoxy is reinforced, the fantastic elements in Narnia—such as witches, centaurs, and giants—recall a more pagan world, the other side of the coin. Even a fascistic fantasy that reinforces a certain ideology or orthodoxy will be subverted, argues Attebery, because the possibility of asking, “What else?” remains. There will always be another side, an “other” that the fantasy implies exists.
Since fantasy brings down the orthodox, it is intrinsically heterodox, which is a fancy way of saying “heretical.” Attebery is not alone in drawing conclusions like this. Rosemary Jackson in Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion observes a similar phenomenon. For her, fantasy (defined more as a left-wing absurdist type of literature than post-Tolkien generic fantasy, which she viewed as too conservative and conventional) is a literature of desire that can thwart dominant understandings of reality.
Which brings us back to Edgar Allan Poe in his Martian exile. The dominant orthodoxy of the rocket men eventually triumphs over Poe, when the captain burns the pages of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, The Land of Oz, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—the last copies in the universe. Bradbury’s short story gains its power from the binary contrast between the world of the imagination and the world of science and progress that the rocket men represent. Even though the rocket men triumph and they see that “there’s no one here at all” in the now-emptiness of Mars, the fantastic remains in the unconscious. One man who sees the fall of the city of Oz must report for psychoanalysis. Although orthodoxy might presume to establish itself over all the universe, the fantastic remains in the mind, as an “other” understanding of reality, a heterodoxy.
Imagining other worlds and other heterodox realities is not, of course, a phenomenon limited to fantastic fiction. Any heretic who opposes orthodoxy must have an imagination. In fact, we can further explore how imagining other worlds can be subversive by looking at one sixteenth-century heretic: Giordano Bruno.
Bruno is best known for championing a Copernican understanding of the universe. While this was not precisely the reason for his condemnation as a heretic, it nonetheless presented an alternate understanding of the universe’s order. Humans were no longer the center of the universe after Copernicus’ theories gained acceptance. The “self” had become an “other.” Interestingly, Attebery writes that we can understand fantasy as “the meeting ground between empirical and traditional world views” (10) The whole Copernican debate was also fueled by the very tension between empiricism and the traditional church teachings.
One of the actual reasons that Bruno was burned was that he asserted that Jesus could not have been God: since God, as he saw it, was infinite, it was impossible for infinity to become incarnate in a finite, human form. In my personal opinion, this leaves out the following possibility: in the infinite possibilities of the universe, such a thing could perhaps be possible. Nonetheless, Bruno was also one of the first to champion the idea that there might exist other worlds (such as Mars!) beyond our own, that the universe did not end, but stretched on to infinity. Implicitly, (the following is also my own thought) there are infinite possibilities to reality, no matter how fantastic they might seem to us. Whatever exists in our imagination could exist (we do hope!) somewhere out there.
Giordano Bruno’s was the core of all heresies. By asserting that the universe was infinite and that human beings were not at the center, he challenged the dominant “consensus” reality of his day. An infinite universe has no boundary between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Implying there are worlds and things that lie outside of any explanation orthodoxy can provide necessarily undercuts that orthodoxy. Furthermore, implying that there are infinite things outside those boundaries can render those boundaries insignificant. Bruno’s beliefs not only made him a heretic for denying Christ’s divinity, but his teaching of infinity also denied the very legitimacy of the word “heretic.”
Fantasy, like Bruno’s infinite universe, has endless possibilities. It can therefore subvert any distinction made to divide the universe into binaries, whatever they might be. Furthermore, Bruno’s philosophy suggests that everything is in the universe, whether or not you believe it is real. Science, the orthodoxy of today, does not believe in dragons or the Emerald City of Oz. But Bruno’s philosophy can imply that these places do exist, if not on Mars, then somewhere in the infinite.
So the universe contains everything that can fit under one’s distinctions, as well as everything that exists outside of it. White swans and black swans in equal measure. Your best dreams, and your worst nightmares.
Going back to our original question, I can now confirm that fantasy is intrinsically heretical. However, this does not mean that all fantasy novels go “against the system” or challenge our most profoundly held beliefs. What it does mean is that the element of fantasy, when placed even in a conservative fantasy novel, implicitly subverts the worldview put forward in its story, by opening up the possibilities of the novel to infinity.
Some fantasy literature (we can all imagine the names of a few culprits) has become so codified that board games such as Dungeons and Dragons suggest formulas for crafting genre narratives using a nearly automatized technique. Elves, half-elves, barbarians, bards, and paladins run amok fighting goblins, orcs, and trolls. What particularly scandalizes me about formula dictating a work of fantasy is that—however fun playing a game might be—the story runs counter to everything fantasy stands for.
Fantasy is for imagining other things, new things, things not yet imagined, or things that break the mold of the orthodoxies to which we all implicitly hold. The elves and orcs, which began as an imaginative escape from our boring everyday twentieth- or twenty-first-century life, have become the new prison for our imagination.
Fantasy abhors a prison. It is free spirit. Formulaic genre literature undoes itself when we recognize the boundlessness of the fantastic and ask, “Why is this land populated exclusively by elves, dwarves, humans, and orcs? Why not other things we can imagine?”
In fantasy as in infinity, everything is possible. The creed of the Assassins comes to mind: “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Since everything in fantasy is permitted, it implies that what we assume to be true about the genre—and what we assume to be true about the universe—is not always so. Fantasy, a free radical, undoes whatever boundary lines the orthodox assumptions of society can set in its path.
In conclusion, I can confirm that fantasy itself is heretical. If it finds itself in a novel set by boundaries (and every work of fiction must have boundaries to exist), it breaks them. We may not intend this as authors. We may not pick up on it, as readers. But as soon as the windows to infinity are opened, the boundaries of the world we construct—either in the narrative of a story, or in the world in which we live—become exposed, and they are revealed for what they often are: arbitrary limitations. Faced with infinity, it becomes our duty to react. Do we stand by our current structures, definitions, and beliefs, or do we find some way of opening our mind to what we do not understand?
The tricky part of answering this question is that no matter what our answer is, we will always, at least implicitly, be forming a new orthodoxy in our minds—perhaps one more expansive, but still with its limits. A human mind cannot completely encompass infinity. Doctor Faustus tried that and failed miserably. However, if we are careful, fantasy is still a good thing: it’s work is never done, and in this world, the ability to help us press the boundaries of our imagination is a continual need.
Attebery, Brian. “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” Modes of the Fantastic. Ed. Robert A. Latham and Robert A. Collins. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995. 1-13.
Bradbury, Ray. “The Exiles.” Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales With an Introduction by the Author. New York: HaperCollins, 2003.
Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge, 1998.
The date was Sunday 6 August 2012. I had entered the chapel of the monastery in Taizé, France, late at night during the service of evening prayer. I had scarcely slept since arriving in Paris and after two days in the City of Lights, I was exhausted.
I was in the state of waking in which, if you close your eyes long enough, you experience flickers of unconsciousness and you become briefly deafened to sound—like dipping your toe into the unfathomable pool of sleep and drawing it out quickly again. While the brothers of the monastery recited the Gospel in several languages, my mind carried the brother’s words off into another kind of narration that echoed the Gospels but attained a more disturbing, Gothic tone and subject matter.
I do not presume to say that the story below is exactly the one my unconscious narrated to me at that moment, but there are some nodal points that unite the two narrations. The haunting persona was there initially, the association with Romeo and Juliet was there, and the misty forest landscape of rural France presented itself powerfully to me at that moment
In putting the disconnected images and feelings together into a linear narration, I have inevitably butchered and sawed my experience into digestible pieces—a necessity, but unfortunate. Nonetheless, you will gain a sense the general feeling that my ‘vision’ produced within me.
Outside the lapses of silence, there is a Kyrie and a hallelujah; outside the sung prayers, a thunderbolt crackles the air outside. Late days and early mornings have driven me to claim what I desire, rest. But I will stand vigil and not lose myself to sleep. My eyes are shut and my head sinks low, almost against my will. Then, a reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew.
I remember the words flowing through the brother’s mouth. To say I do not remember would be a lie. But the words came to me in a state hovering between light and shadows. I would tell the truth. The words changed ownership and I fell away.
When Sunday was over, Marie went to the tomb. It was early on the first day of the week, the sun having just risen. It is cold around her legs still, as she runs through the mist and forest. She dashes and skips, cracking twigs underfoot in her urgency.
She is running from something predatorial.
She does not know the origin of this fear. She merely senses something behind her, puffing shallow breath. Suppose she is a milkmaid from a French village a few kilometres from Paris. She has lived a green life, in the fields, approaching the forest warily, living in a stone house with roses near the porch and a beehive growing in the weathered stone wall. She had fallen in love, a deadly vulnerability.
As she flees down the unmarked path, Marie says to herself, “Who will roll away the stone from the entrance to the tomb?”
I shall. She has gone to give her respects to one dearly departed, who is not truly dead. She suspects him to be the gardener—there is a garden in the forest glade, near the old tomb—and so ignores him as his back is turned to her. Let the gardener handle himself. Because something is chasing her. The eye in the shadow tracking her is mine.
The gardener casts his gaze in search of her, but the only figure his eye catches, approaching through the mist, is mine.
When Marie reaches the tomb, she sees the stone has already been moved. She sees a young man sitting on it, dressed in a white robe, skin pale as death. “They have taken my Romeo and I do not know where they have laid him.”
“Do not be afraid,” I say from atop the stone. “Romeo has risen from his sleep of death. He was never truly dead. He drank a special poison, and now he awaits you. He is standing over his tombstone, triumphant over the grave.”
Marie enters the tomb. She sees Romeo, his feet dangling over a crossed headstone, swaying in the draft.
Her screams fill the tomb as she jumps back and turns to run. She could say nothing else because of her terror and she was very afraid.