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

A graffit-tagged lion guarding the gate to Chinatown, Montreal
A graffiti-tagged lion guarding the gate to Chinatown, Montreal

When we left off last week, I was trying to prove that graffiti interrupts the rational order of the city, as a spatial tactic, and therefore can be compared to urban fantasy, inasmuch as it too subverts conventional “consensus reality.” I quoted Bramley Dapple in Charles de Lint’s short story “Uncle Dobbin’s Parrot Fair,”  who says, “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). Dapple implies in a metafictional moment that collective belief is what defines reality. However, this definition of what constitutes reality can only be explained by an investigation of what forces in society constitute reality itself.

This is why, in North American especially, consensus reality is a political issue.

The rationalist, Cartesian, scientific discourse that divides space into a square grid is inextricably opposed to the perspective of ‘traditional,’ and especially indigenous, worldviews, which contain an entirely different ontology, or definition of what things are. I have explored problems of this conflict in other articles: among the Maori and Icelanders. Our consensual reality is tied up with capitalism. Our mode of production, to use a Marxist term, structures how power works and how ideas are disseminated in our society. It is also connected with the imperialism that was responsible for the expulsion and disenfranchisement of indigenous civilization in North America. Perhaps in introducing Native American mythology in books like Moonheart, Charles de Lint attempts to subvert the ideology that enables imperialism by presenting another ontology as valid. Charles de Lint’s urban fantasy can then be seen as subversive, inscribing, through his texts, the identity and worldview of traditional cultures—both Celtic and Native American—on the rational cityscape. (Although, this has been seen as problematic given certain accusations against de Lint’s cultural appropriation. See his response in his Afterword to Mulengro.)

A whimsical yet mythical mural on St. Laurent Blvd. in Montreal
A whimsical yet mythical mural on St. Laurent Blvd. in Montreal

Let us now take a brief interlude and go explore through an example what I mean to say when comparing spatial tactics to urban fantasy. Remember: urban fantasy combines the space-time associated with urban reality and ‘crosshatches’ it with that of the folktale. You are walking on the street one day near the Redpath Museum on McGill campus, let’s say. Then in a glimpse of sublime might, you see the god Pan, cloven-hoofed and decked with horns on his head, standing against the wall. You blink. Pan is gone, but he has left his mark: you recover a set of panpipes. Maybe he sprayed his name in aerosol over the wall, but it would be partly the same effect. The panpipes are a sign: the god not only exists, but also, it is implied, every narrative, every myth, in which the god participates. He exists, but the meaningful space and time in which he exists also exists.

You come to recognize that if Pan is real, then the universe is operating according to a narrative, that the world is heterogeneous, divided between mundane and numinous realities. You have encountered “Story” and such a universe cannot have the random disorder which scientists assure us is the law of the universe.

This world of “Story” means that the Barthesian text of the city is altered forever and that you can conceive the world as whole—not as fragmented and shattered. “The worldness of the world” is restored, which, for Fredric Jameson, is a key mark of the romance genre, on which so many fantasy novels are based (98). In our capitalist mode of production, Jameson implies, romance lets us to re-imagine our alienated society as one, though this has an effect of painting an illusory picture of social reality. Charles de Lint operates less according to a Marxist agenda—which is my critique of how he deals with the urban—but he does align his ‘subversion’ of the urban squarely with the structure outlined in Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories.” He places more of an emphasis on the transcendent encounter with the fantastic and numinous ‘other.’ If the urban world is threatened again with fragmentation—if there is “Wrongness” that appears, threatening it with “Thinning”—then a hero, “Recognizing” the true “Story,” might attempt to “Heal” the city. This is possible in fantasy unlike in social realism, implying the utopian potential of fantasy, which de Lint sometimes invokes, as in the harmonious blending of Native American and Celtic cultures in Moonheart. What Charles de Lint’s novels ultimately do, is attempt to rescue this sense of “Story” from the fragmented urban world, as it already exists for us.

An example of political graffiti, which like sectarian graffiti, marks out a particular kind of space. In this case, a French Canadian Montrealer has expressed solidarity with the Scottish separatists.
An example of political graffiti, which like sectarian graffiti, marks out a particular kind of space. In this case, a French Canadian Montrealer has expressed solidarity with the Scottish separatists.

Like “sectarian graffiti,” de Lint’s novels “make real, by making visible, certain claims to ownership: to convert space into territory” (243). You have all likely seen pictures, at least, of gang tags in bus shelters, a scribble of “FTP” perhaps or, in my province especially, a scrabble of “Vive le Quebec Libre!” These are examples of (respectively) African-Americans asserting space free from the racial profiling of police officers and of French-Canadians declaring that, in this space, there is a people who wish for Quebec to become an independent, de-colonized nation. Subaltern groups especially—those cultural communities who are ‘invisible’— feel an existential need to assert their existence in urban space.

Space is a hot topic given the many land claims First Nations groups are attempting to have Parliament approve. I believe that these claims to territory challenge how poets like Earle Birney have thought of Canada as a “country without a mythology,” because we are too young a nation. In fact, Canada is an ancient country with an erased mythology. These Native American myths, irrelevant to European settlers, have been forgotten, seen as irrelevant and peripheral to modernity—in a word, backwards. Urban fantasy might be a way of asserting not only the space of subaltern territories, but the sacred space of indigenous populations.

The effect would not be dissimilar to bringing the Native American Crow Girls to the center of Montreal in that mural—from the offshore reserve at Kahnawà:ke to a central neighbourhood not far from the transportation hub of the Decarie Expressway. Urban fantasy has an analogous effect: it brings peripheral mythologies and cultures into a central fictionalized-but-real city, in a similar way to how actual cities centralize and condense the populations of entire countries—and indeed form a multinational concentration of many cultures from across the globe.

Urban fantasy can be used in such a way that it engages in a project of representation of postcolonial narratives, bringing them within the central, urban spaces of Canada. In this way, urban fantasy contributes to the postcolonial genre of “New Fantasy” that Lawrence Steven argues expresses a particularly Canadian expression of hybrid identity—an identity composed of a fusion of opposites: central/peripheral, self/other, indigenous/migrant.

panLastly, there is one more potential similarity between spatial tactics and urban fantasy: the idea of play. W.R. Irwin in The Game of the Impossible defines fantasy as a genre of play: a structured game that does not have direct consequences on reality, but enables us to imagine how to deal with reality in a ‘safe’ way. The emblematic deity of play is Pan himself, “the spirit of the Arcadian,” who is “the deity whose disorder is both freedom and discipline” (157). Is it a coincidence that de Lint based Greenmantle on Lord Dunsany’s Blessing of Pan? Perhaps not. When Pan appears in the urban landscape, perhaps a break from the ‘serious’ world is signaled and with an introduction into the world of ‘play.’

However, I object to Irwin on one account: that fantasy as play cannot influence the real world. In urban fantasy in particular, the connection between the real world and fantasy can be fundamental. Play is still a useful way to conceive of fantasy in urban settings because play is a concept involved in subverting urban space, just as it is a concept in fantasy. A skateboarder ‘plays’ in a skatepark–but he can still use his board to travel place to place in a ‘serious’ but alternative manner. In a similar way, fantasy does not always need an alternate universe setting where it has no direct impact or reference to our world. Urban fantasy that refers to real places like Ottawa or Montreal, rather that to fictional locales like Middle Earth, is the equivalent of a skateboarder grinding a stair railing on the way to work. Urban fantasy can make a direct critique on our lived reality at the same time as it engages in subversive forms of  ‘play’ through fantasy. Putting it in another way, fantasy does not have to be ‘escapist’ when it refers to and criticizes reality.

Whether Charles de Lint is consistent in addressing the issues I have here described is another matter. He may not be, in which case my theory is good purely as a theory, though useful to the degree that it might inspire me to adopt my own style of urban fantasy. At present, my readings of de Lint do not confirm my theory on every point, though they do on some. However, I believe I have achieved a valuable theoretical insight into how urban fantasy can be used. Given a free moment to write a short story or novel of my own, I might choose to address these theoretical issues in my own urban fantasy, set in Montreal. However, at present, I have SSHRC grant to fill out and graduate studies to work at.

Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint

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Works Cited:

Jameson, Fredric. “Magical Narratives.” The Political Unconscious. London: Routledge, 1981.

Irwin, W.R. The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1976.

Steven, Laurence. “Welwyn Wilton Katz and Charles de Lint: New Fantasy as a Canadian Post-Colonial Genre.” Worlds of Wonder: Readings in Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature. Eds. Jean-François Leroux and Camille R. LaBossière. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2004. 52-72.

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

Photo Credits:

Charles de Lint: author page.

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.